While looking over some of his neighbors' fields early one morning, my host and friend, Cleophas arap Moro, and I stopped to admire a large herd of fat, contented dairy cows returning from the insecticide cattle dip. We noticed that the herdsman had his young son with him.
Cleophas, who as subchief here is in charge of the Sigilai district, stopped the herder to ask whom he worked for and why his son was not attending primary school.
"This school business is a matter for rich people, not the likes of poor people like me," the herder answered. Cleophas patiently explained that primary school fees had ended in 1978 and all the man had to pay was the equivalent of $10 for his son's school uniform, a sum the man said he did not have.
Cleophas told him he would talk to his employer about paying for the boy's uniform and also would be checking to be certain the boy was enrolled in school. "No children in Sigilai will stay out of school," Cleophas told me as we walked away. "We have seen that education is the future for Kenya."
A dry statistical report estimates that a quarter of Kenya's population was literate four years ago, but such reports do not reflect the drive for and rapid expansion of education in a small place like Sigilai, all over Nandi district, all over Kenya and all over Africa, for that matter, in the past two decades.
Education is a particularly poignant subject to Cleophas, who is 40. His was ended abruptly after the eighth grade -- even though he was one of the top students -- because his parents did not have the required school fees.
One of his former primary school classmates, Minister of Transportation and Communications Henry arap Kosgey, went on to graduate from the University of Nairobi. Kosgey and I taught together briefly at nearby Kilibwoni High School when I first arrived there in 1969 at the beginning of a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer teacher.
In a conversation in Nairobi, Kosgey said that "at independence in 1963 , there were 1 million primary school students in Kenya and today there are 4 1/2 million." High school students numbered 30,000 in 1963 and "are 500,000 today," he added.
"When you were teaching at Kilibwoni, there were 200 primary schools in Nandi district and there are 312 today," said John arap Sum, a former student of mine and a teacher at Ndubeneti primary school.
In 1969, Kilibwoni High was a two-room harambee school. Harambee is Swahili for "let's pull together," and the school building was literally put up by holding local rallies to collect voluntary contributions, a process that continues throughout Kenya up to the present.
Once the walls and roof were up, there was no money left for glass for the windows or, more importantly, to buy enough books for the 40 students in each class. Teachers had to write each lesson in full on the blackboard for the students to copy and squeeze in as much discussion of the course work as the tight curriculum allowed.
A government school today, it is hardly recognizable to me. There are 320 boys and girls, two long classroom blocks, each with four classrooms, a separate headmaster's office building (it was then a hallway between two classrooms), a science laboratory building, two student dormitories and seven teachers' houses.
Not far from Kilibwoni High a new harambee school is under construction, Kapnyeberai Girls' High School. The deputy headmaster, Julius Chelulei, 29, was one of my students and a classmate of Sum's. The first 74 girl students are using a nearby church building for classes until the school is completed. "For education, there is not time to waste," said Chelulei.
Transport Minister Kosgey, who is board chairman of the new school, held a harambee rally on the school's grounds on Sept. 18 and raised $171,000, a phenomenal amount compared to the much smaller sums raised 13 years ago.
"Part of it is there is more money in Kilibwoni today, part of it is that people have come to understand that this harambee business means progress for us all," said a friend, Augustine Rono, as we looked over the nearly completed classroom building.
"This school will have windows and enough books when the girls move in," Rono said, smiling.