This year Raymond returned to the island as a member of EaSEP, leading his classmates in meetings with community members to assess and discuss access to information, governance, and social issues, and to mentor local students. The students prepared reports for two Non-Governmental Organizations that sponsor development programs on the island.
After a day of meeting with islanders to discuss the needs of different segments of the island population, the EaSEP class gave presentations to raise awareness of political rights, the roles of leaders, the dangers of Feminine Genital Mutilation and early marriage, and the benefits of family planning and investment in education.
Raymond and classmate Lorna Jepkirui organized the five-day student trip, working closely with Samuel Muhunyu of Network for Ecofarming in Africa, a Kenyan NGO active on the island. Here are some of the group’s findings:
GOVERNANCE & ACCESS TO INFORMATION
• Few of the islanders are familiar with the responsibilities of their three leaders—two chiefs and a Member of the County Assembly— as those representatives live on the mainland and rarely visit their constituency on Kokwa. “Most Kokwa people don’t know their rights as citizens of Kenya” and are not conversant with the new constitution of Kenya, noted Raymond.
With up to four months elapsing between visits, “The locals arrange their own meetings as a community without necessarily involving the chief, to solve some of the arising issues,” Maria Odongo observed.
• All adult age groups are included in the formation of local committees to address public issues and a disparity in gender representation continues to improve. But the process is slow, as project proposals must go to the headmen of Kokwa Island, then the area chief on the mainland, then finally to “those in higher authority,” Agnes Mang’erere explained.
There also is no transparency of how public funds are used by either the committees themselves or for the public, nor are agreements between the communities and public bodies availed to the public. Requests for projects, such as the island’s new medical dispensary, have faced a series of delays. The dispensary remains unfinished and there are no doctors on the island.
• In some cases, islanders know that money is allocated by the government for such things as elder care or for the disabled, but criteria for the use of funds is not known widely within the community. Drought rations are similar—people know they exist but are not receiving them. On the other hand, they are appreciative of projects initiated by the government and NGOs, such as a water filter sponsored by the Rotary Foundation which makes the sulphuric water safe for consumption, reported Eugene Were.
Abednego Kipkuri concluded that the residents “need to know the reality of the expenditures meant for (them).” He also suggested that Kokwa be recognized as an “independent ward” with a government office on the island, and a chief on the island to hear grievances.
• Solar-charged radios are the primary source of news (in English and Swahili) for the islanders but those who speak only the local language rely on others to translate. Newspapers are not available, leaving the Kokwa residents in the dark—sometimes for months— about critical announcements from the county and national governments. Some islanders also use solar power to charge phones and provide light in the home, at a cost of 40 shillings a day through a telecommunications firm.
Social Issues & Education
• Most people were reluctant to speak about FGM, which is still practiced on the island although outlawed nationally. Early marriages are mostly preceded by early pregnancy.
Lorna wote of one woman "who sincerely feels the government has done a lot, citing school boats, a newly constructed bridge, and the (still unfinished) dispensary…She described how in the past women who did the (FGM) cutting flattened a rusted metal can in preparation for the cut…She explained that (FGM) is part of the culture and that girls who have not undergone the cut are ostracized, cannot attend certain community functions and that no young man with a family name to protect would marry one. However, there have been intervention measures.” The woman’s perspective was not uncommon.
• The islanders who spoke with one EasEP group revealed a sharp gender difference in attitudes toward family planning. “The women seemed to understand its importance while the men detested it,” explained Allan Kipkorir. Some women risked divorce when they secretly secured pills for family planning.
• EaSEP students spoke with both secondary and standard six primary students to emphasize the importance of education. The class spoke separately with the older girls and boys after a joint session where students expressed their fear of classmates dropping out because of early pregnancies and marriage. The girls were encouraged to focus on their education and “seek help from teachers when in doubt of any matters concerning their well-being,” Maria reported, and the Kokwa Primary School allows girls to board in an effort to keep them in school.
Islanders appeared to value education as the only way out of their many problems, and offered support to both boys and girls. There is one primary school on the island, another primary school and a secondary school are on the mainland. All face a lack of books, intense heat and a lack of electricity; the high school’s solar power is good for only three hours a day.
“The students, however, have a hunger for knowledge, and with the right conditions, they would shine,” concluded Allan.
Photos by Maria Odongo and Allan Kipkorir.