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Playing under the fig trees in Kenya

©UNESCO/Sam Dhillon
Samburu children near Maralal, (175 miles north of Nairobi), thrive thanks to “Loipi” community learning centres . The Loipi Project is part of Kenya’s nationwide Early Childhood Care and Education programme and is funded by the Christian Childrens’ Fund.

Early childhood care and education is the theme of the 2006 ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report’ to be launched by UNESCO and UNICEF on 26 October.

By Bogonko Bosire in Nairobi

October 2006 - Young children in a rural Kenyan community thrive thanks to “Loipi” community learning centres that are culturally adapted to their needs.

"We cannot assure a school education in the city (Nairobi), but at the centres they are given a good foundation about life and everything they may do when they grow up," says Mariam Lapukuyum, mother of six children.

“Loipi” means shade in the language of the Samburu, traditional pastoralists who live in northern Kenya. In this hot, arid land, the precious area under the shade of trees plays an important role in people’s lives. Samburu men make community decisions in the shade of a tree specifically designated as the site of the council. And grandmothers, the time-honoured caregivers of Samburu children, traditionally feed the community’s cherished youngest members, teach them songs and tell them folk tales in a shady space under a large tree.

Appropriately, the word associated with shade and gathering in Samburu now also refers to a culturally-friendly educational initiative that ensures children are prepared for formal schooling. As participants in the Loipi Project, part of Kenya’s nationwide Early Childhood Care and Education programme (see box), Samburu children spend their days in communal enclosures called Loipi, playing and learning under fig trees with other children their age.

"They grow up socializing instead of in isolation," says Mariam Lapukuyum, mother of six children. "We cannot assure a school education in the city (Nairobi), but at the centres they are given a good foundation about life and everything they may do when they grow up." Adds another mother, Wilkister Murairu, "They are being taught things we never had the opportunity to learn."

There at least 85 Loipi in the sprawling Samburu district, and children from different communities gather at the closest one. In keeping with the project’s non-intrusive approach and emphasis on tapping community resources, most materials used in the Loipi are locally made and produced and caregivers include mothers, grandmothers and other community members. The programme is designed for children up to the age of four, after which they are encouraged to enroll in pre-school, if there is one. If not, activities for older children are incorporated into the Loipi.

© UNESCO/Sam Dhillon
There are 85 Loipi community learning centres in the Samburu district, and children from different communities gather at the closest one.

At one Loipi near the district headquarters of Maralal, about 280 kilometres (175 miles) north of the capital, children listen to stories about humanity’s origins. They learn to wash their hands before eating. They sing, guess riddles and play football with cheap plastic balls. Lessons are given using familiar objects - balls, pebbles, bottle tops and sticks. As one trainer explains, “At this stage, it’s rather complicated to use books. We teach using what the children like playing with. Unlike children raised in urban areas, they have no access to modern toys or Disney cartoons.”

Games and other activities blend modern techniques to stimulate learning with traditional child-rearing practices. "We let the children play, rest or sleep,” says Maria Kibasia, a centre volunteer. Adds instructor Martin Olanga with a smile, "We let them cry. We give them the freedom to understand life from a very young age." Olanga was trained in government-sponsored early-childhood education seminars, during which, he says, teachers learn how to motivate a child’s "delicate mind": “You let it do what it wants, but in a guided and safe way.”

The Loipi children also receive other benefits, such as basic medical treatment and immunizations. On those days, parents are encouraged to come in with their children to learn about health, hygiene and development. "For example, if a child needs to take medicine outside centre-hours, you must work with the parents," says Kibasia. "Parents are becoming increasingly cooperative, especially about the children’s health. This is encouraging."

Improving chances for a brighter future

The results of the Loipi project are encouraging in many respects. First and foremost, “It helps children develop communication skills, improve their social skills and develop physically," said Gilbert Momanyi, a sociology lecturer at the University of Nairobi. In addition, the kids also learn about clean water, food security, hygiene and communal values. These integrated interventions benefit an estimated 27,000 children and their families in Samburu district, according to a recent study entitled "Influencing and Developing Good Policy in Early Childhood Development (ECD) among Pastoralist Communities in East Africa." As a result, though they belong to one of the poorest communities in Kenya, 54 percent of Samburu children are enrolled in pre-school compared to a national average of 45 percent.

Rooted in the community, the Loipi project also empowers it, as centres become focal points for nutrition, health and wider community education. Joseph Mwaura, a local administrator, describes how the centres create links to helpful NGOs, maintain children’s medical records and have gained government approval and support. The education ministry helps with educational materials and teachers; the health ministry supplies vaccines and medicines. And no wonder, says a Kenyan education ministry official: “Talk about killing several birds with one stone. Who wouldn’t want to support that project, which makes life so much easier?"

The goal now is to extend the project to other countries facing similar challenges, where traditional nomadic pastoralist communities are in transition to sedentary settlement. According to Oxfam’s 2005 statistics, between 25 and 40 million school-age children in the world live in nomadic pastoralist societies, and only 10 to 50% attend school. The Loipi model is now being implemented in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Namibia.

This article is from the October 2006 edition of the UNESCO Courier, “Learning is child’s play”. Reproduced from the UNESCO Courier and available at at:


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Early Childhood links

eDiscussion 1: Early Childhood Care and Education and Early Gender Socialization

UNESCO: Early Childhood

UNICEF: Early Childhood

The State of the World's Children 2001: Early Childhood