While political stability may have returned to Kenya after last year’s turmoil that left more than 1,000 dead, the effect upon the lives of children is continuing and staggering.  I recently analyzed data from of a primary school in Chepilat, one of the centers of violence. On a test designed to measure post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), every one of the 76 children surveyed, from the third to eighth grade, scored above the cut-off point for PTSD and the average score the school was about a third higher than that. A few scored at the highest end of the scale.

Twelve months after the violence the most widely self-reported symptoms are severe irritation and anger. These children have great difficulty falling sleep and breathing, experience nausea, have trouble concentrating and have vivid and disturbing dreams. Pictures of the turmoil frequently pop into their minds, their hearts pound and they are easily startled. In other words, they are reacting like soldiers who have been traumatized by battle.

The school, Sema Academy, sits on the border that separates the Kisii and the Kipsigis people. When chaos erupted after the December 2008 disputed presidential election, this locale became a focal point of extreme tension. Dozens of people were killed in the area and hundreds of families were displaced. Chepilat, the trading post in which Sema is located, was burned to the ground. Only the school remained standing amongst the charred ruins, a result of hiring armed guards to keep the arsons at bay.

When the school reopened two months later, a quarter of the students didn’t come back. The missing 100 children were all Kipsigis. What had been one of the strengths of the school—the bringing together of two ethnic groups— turned out to be one of it weaknesses. Amicable inter-ethnic relationships are fragile here and the school suffered because these two groups supported opposing presidential candidates. Exacerbating the dispute in Chepilat was the simmering issue of which group had rightful title to the land.

Even before the violence, this was a region with serious problems. The area in which Sema is located has in recent years experienced one of the highest death rates from malaria in the world and a recent study found that about 15% of young adults suffer from HIV. Food shortages have hit these highlands, just as the price of tea, their cash crop in the area, is at a low in the world market.

As if this weren’t enough for anyone to deal with, the school’s founder was murdered soon after the test for PTSD was administered. The only thing that can be said for sure about the crime is that it wasn’t a robbery. That it was an assassination related to last year’s violence is one of several plausible motives.

You would think that these children could hardly function given all that they have gone through. But that isn’t the case. Although their national test scores declined over previous years, they still attend school, eagerly do their work, smile, and groom themselves and play, carefully avoiding the military bivouacked on the field that had once been their playground.

Despite the resiliency shown by these children, they are severely traumatized. Somehow, someone has to pay attention to their psychological state, not a likely prospect when teachers need to be paid and there’s barely enough money to buy chalk or books.

The school may be moved to a less volatile area and perhaps that is a good thing. The children will feel safer there. But the scars are deep and unless they are addressed the wounds that Kenya experienced last year will carry on well into the future.

 While political stability may have returned to Kenya after last year’s turmoil that left more than 1,000 dead, the effect upon the lives of children is continuing and staggering.  I recently analyzed data from of a primary school in Chepilat, one of the centers of violence. On a test designed to measure post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), every one of the 76 children surveyed, from the third to eighth grade, scored above the cut-off point for PTSD and the average score the school was about a third higher than that. A few scored at the highest end of the scale.

Twelve months after the violence the most widely self-reported symptoms are severe irritation and anger. These children have great difficulty falling sleep and breathing, experience nausea, have trouble concentrating and have vivid and disturbing dreams. Pictures of the turmoil frequently pop into their minds, their hearts pound and they are easily startled. In other words, they are reacting like soldiers who have been traumatized by battle.

The school, Sema Academy, sits on the border that separates the Kisii and the Kipsigis people. When chaos erupted after the December 2008 disputed presidential election, this locale became a focal point of extreme tension. Dozens of people were killed in the area and hundreds of families were displaced. Chepilat, the trading post in which Sema is located, was burned to the ground. Only the school remained standing amongst the charred ruins, a result of hiring armed guards to keep the arsons at bay.

When the school reopened two months later, a quarter of the students didn’t come back. The missing 100 children were all Kipsigis. What had been one of the strengths of the school—the bringing together of two ethnic groups— turned out to be one of it weaknesses. Amicable inter-ethnic relationships are fragile here and the school suffered because these two groups supported opposing presidential candidates. Exacerbating the dispute in Chepilat was the simmering issue of which group had rightful title to the land.

Even before the violence, this was a region with serious problems. The area in which Sema is located has in recent years experienced one of the highest death rates from malaria in the world and a recent study found that about 15% of young adults suffer from HIV. Food shortages have hit these highlands, just as the price of tea, their cash crop in the area, is at a low in the world market.

As if this weren’t enough for anyone to deal with, the school’s founder was murdered soon after the test for PTSD was administered. The only thing that can be said for sure about the crime is that it wasn’t a robbery. That it was an assassination related to last year’s violence is one of several plausible motives.

You would think that these children could hardly function given all that they have gone through. But that isn’t the case. Although their national test scores declined over previous years, they still attend school, eagerly do their work, smile, and groom themselves and play, carefully avoiding the military bivouacked on the field that had once been their playground.

Despite the resiliency shown by these children, they are severely traumatized. Somehow, someone has to pay attention to their psychological state, not a likely prospect when teachers need to be paid and there’s barely enough money to buy chalk or books.

The school may be moved to a less volatile area and perhaps that is a good thing. The children will feel safer there. But the scars are deep and unless they are addressed the wounds that Kenya experienced last year will carry on well into the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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