The church is built just on top of Kaibichbich Hill, in West Pokot, in western Kenya. this area used to be thickly forested. the Pokot decided to climb the mountains and reclaim the land in the 1960s, when the colonial power limited their movements in their ancestral land. the Pokot, a nilotic group, are pastoralists. However, the move toward the towering Cherengani Hills also transformed them into agriculturalists. ‘Hills’ is actually a misnomer. the Cherengani are high mountains, with some peaks well over 3 000 meters. the Cherengani form a formidable barrier between the arid turkana region in the north, and the greener pastures of the Kalenjin region in the south-east. the Pokot climbed these mountains, opened many areas to agriculture and fodder, and established a thriving community. However, the State did not follow them and, for many years, there were no schools, dispensaries or other communal services available. Catholic missionaries reached these areas in the 1970s. At first, they followed the local community from Kapenguria, a regional capital. later, they built a parish church in Kaibichbich. it is there that i met some representatives of the local community. they are clearly proud of the large church built on the highest peak of the area. everyone travelling through this region can see it from afar. yet, when i asked them what was the most important achievement of their young community, they pointed to a small hall partly hidden on the side of the hill. it is the seat of a pre-unit school, nothing to write home about. However, they are proud of it. “before we built this pre-unit”, explains a young mother, “our children went to the local primary school and were derided by other children. they did not know how a school works, and so they became the easy target of local bullies.” mary, another parishioner, likes to expand on that: “We Pokot have always been considered as being backward, especially by the members of other ethnic groups who had the chance of a better education before us. When our children went to school in Kapenguria, they had no idea how to behave in a classroom together with many children for many hours, how to address the teachers and how to learn. At the end of the year, they were always the poorest performers and did not have a chance to move on to better schools. today, thanks to this pre-unit, they learn how to interact with other children in a classroom. When they go to the primary school, no one can bully them. they have now the opportunity to show their mettle and already we have some in national schools.”

Kenya February 2008 Child in the Kibera Slums having a cup of porridge provided by WFP at the Stara School. Photo: WFP/Marcus Prior
It is at school that the little ones learn to socialize and interact, acquire a sense of belonging and the happiness that it implies.

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The experience of this community is similar to that of other ethnic groups, considered marginal by many and thus unsupported in their claim for fair education opportunities for their children. this reality is called educational inequality, that is, the difference in learning results in students coming from different groups even though they followed the same school curriculum. educational inequality is a complex phenomenon: it can be measured in a variety of ways and has a lasting effect on the lives of people. it can be the result of racial prejudices. We have seen how the Pokot are despised or considered inferior by the members of other ethnic groups. this bias is shared by students and teachers, and it may heavily influence the evaluation of a pupil, even when he performs well.
At the same time, members of a marginal community in a society may be at a disadvantage because of the lack of learning skills, language barriers or other limitations that practically impair the learning experience. the main factor in educational inequality worldwide is gender. the girl-child is often the target of such inequality. Disparity between male and female students is present everywhere. However, the chasm is wider in Africa and Asia. it is estimated that about 7 million more girls than boys stay out of school. this “girl gap” is concentrated in several countries including Somalia, Afghanistan, togo, the Central African republic and the Democratic republic of the Congo. in the Democratic republic of the Congo, girls are outnumbered two to one. this gap is due to the importance and role parents give to their children based on gender. in many cultures, girls are seen only as potential mothers and housewives. they are groomed towards these roles since early childhood, and this adversely affects their education.
Only a cultural change would transform the way the girl-child is perceived, socialized and afforded education opportunities. in those countries where a Western style of education has contributed to the growth of a local middle class, we can observe a radical change in how the girl-child is socialized and in the career opportunities opened to her. early marriage is also one cause of educational inequality between male and female students. because of cultural or religious beliefs, parents may choose to give their daughter in marriage at an early age, de facto curbing her ability to finish even the basic course of study. this is a major issue in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it is also seen among some ethnic groups in Africa.

A second factor of educational inequality is the family background. Children of parents who had access to formal education are more likely to attend school and reach a higher degree than their parents. Children coming from a poorer background, both in financial and cultural terms, are more likely to not attend school or to remain in school for a shorter time. Geographical location is also a factor to reckon with. in rural Africa, many children have to walk long distances to reach a primary school, and go even further afield to join a secondary school. this means spending time and energy simply to reach the learning facilities. in turn, this may hinder their ability to attend school or to study with proficiency. there are also other issues tied with geographical origin.
In South Sudan, schools have been closed for over two decades because of the civil war. With independence, many schools opened their classrooms to avid students. this effort is commendable, but certainly South Sudanese pupils did not receive the same quality of education as their tanzanian or Cameroonian counterparts. Simply because their schools were starting afresh, in a country mostly destroyed by a long war, with teachers who did not have the opportunity of a professional formation, South Sudanese students had access to a lower quality of education. today, with the rekindling of civic strife, South Sudanese children have once again lost the opportunity to study with continuity. their future is, once again, jeopardized by their geographical location.
Geographical location is important also in other continents. Children coming from poorer neighbourhoods will tend to attend local schools, schools with less resources than those present in richer areas. Good teachers will also aspire to work in better places, while less competent teachers will easily be demoted to less appealing schools. this is a vicious circle of cause and effect that condemn children from poorer backgrounds to a lower quality of education. in turn, this means less opportunity to proceed to higher studies, and for those who wish to continue their studies, lower grades result in gaining possible access to a smaller number of colleges.

In the university where i lecture, we have an evening programme for adult education. there are many working adults who wish to improve their academic achievements. After years of experience in a certain field, they realize they could do better with more competence. Some left the studies after high school because of financial constraints, others because of lower grades, distance from higher learning institutions and similar difficulties. most of the evening programme students are thus suffering from some form of educational inequality. the factors that hindered their basic education are still visible after many years. notwithstanding their experience in the working force, the lower quality of basic education they were afforded is still at play.
It is clearly important to find a solution to the issue of educational inequality. if children today are not offered good standards of education, then the educational inequality they suffer will keep playing a role for many years to come. much has been done in promoting the girl-child. more is needed. the same can be said for ethnic biases. more difficult to tackle are geographical constraints and the competence of teachers in remote areas. modern technology may have the answer. in some countries, children at the same academic level may follow dedicated channels broadcast by local networks, or in streaming. in this way, quality material is made available equally to all the pupils in a large area. this kind of solution is still a dream in many African countries, where even simple infrastructures may not be present. yet, not all is lost. in Kenya there is an ongoing programme to give each elementary student a tablet. this would be rechargeable with solar power and could be linked to the internet while in school. if projects like this could be implemented on a large scale, students may benefit and see a change in their status of educational inequality.