Oasis of hope: How Marsabit school protects girls from harmful traditions

Tiigo School in Marsabit County. The institution was started in 2016 to keep children from nomadic pastoralist families in school and has in addition become a safe haven for girls.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • As one approaches Tiigo in North Horr, a palpable shift in aura unfolds, one offering a glimpse of a community that is reshaping its narrative.
  • Nestled in an arid landscape adorned with hardy, drought-resistant plants is Tiigo School, the only public primary school offering boarding facilities in this area.

In the expansive pastoral fields of Marsabit County, children perform a delicate balance of navigating education and family livelihoods.

Their lifestyle only allows them to attend school on alternate days given they have to intertwine their lessons with the responsibility of herding livestock.

In this setting, girls are more disadvantaged. First because of the chauvinistic nature of the community. But also because the value of education is a rarity in this part of the world.

However, as one approaches Tiigo in North Horr, a palpable shift in aura unfolds, one offering a glimpse of a community that is reshaping its narrative.

Boarding school

Nestled in an arid landscape adorned with hardy, drought-resistant plants is Tiigo School, the only public primary school offering boarding facilities in this area.

Tiigo, from which the school derives its name, is sparsely populated. The closest school from here is over 50km away. In another world. In another setting. Many of the schools in Marsabit are located in urban and small residential areas.

Tiigo is, however, defying the norm. Founded eight years ago to satiate the desire of the nomadic children to learn, it has a keen interest in girls, who continue to stumble on myriad challenges, according to headteacher David Denge.

"We realised that pastoral children faced challenges, due to their domestic duties, in committing to education. Moreover, being raised by illiterate parents left them without support for their evening schoolwork," Mr Denge explains.

The mobile schools that pastoralist communities heavily depend on often grapple with fluctuating enrolments due to residents’ constant relocation, especially during the dry season.

Tiigo School was established with the help of a non-governmental organisation. Its first enrolment was 21 pupils in grades one and two.

The headteacher says the low enrolment was partly due to the deep-rooted traditions. Now the school has gone against the norm – advocating education in a boarding setting, something the community never knew before and was reluctantly accepting.

The founders introduced boarding facilities to attract high enrolment and sustain the school. They heeded many calls to solve all the challenges faced by local children in their quest for education.

“It took a lot of public participation meetings with the communities’ governing councils and benchmarking against schools in Meru and Nairobi before we were fully accepted here,” Mr Denge says.

Exemplary results

It has since become one of the top-performing public primary schools in the county.

Mr Denge says that in the last two years that it has sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations, it has posted exemplary performance. It garnered a mean score of 333 in 2022 from its 44 candidates and a mean of 354.96 from its 54 candidates in 2023.

“Because of our exemplary performance, we have since got a lot of admission requests from parents seeking to transfer their children from other schools, although our focus remains educating pastoral children and that is why we give them the priority,” he says, adding that the decision has also been informed by their limited accommodation facilities.

Running a boarding school tailored to the needs of the nomadic community is challenging, Mr Denge admits, as a significant number of children suffer malnutrition.

In response to the situation, which if left unchecked would be disastrous, the school introduced a nutrition programme to address such health concerns before transitioning new pupils to their dietary routine.

“A pupil can take weeks or several months in the programme, only ingesting soft foods depending on the severity of their health,” he says.

But that’s not the only challenge. The parents are always on the move with their animals when looking for water and pasture, hence organising meetings with parents is a considerable challenge.

Mr Denge says many parents trek or depend on animal transport, and often cover long distances to participate.

During school holidays, it is common for the children to find that their families have relocated to different areas in search of water and pasture.

In such situations, Mr Denge says, the school locates their relatives who live in towns or residential areas to host them until they reopen. Or accommodate them altogether as they establish contact with their families.

The biggest challenge – especially during droughts, which is a common occurrence – is that it is difficult for parents to raise the Sh10,000 termly fee because of the loss of livestock.

In nomadic communities and cultures, women shoulder increasingly heavy burdens to provide for their families, and this undermines girls’ education and constrains their participation in public life.

Pastoralist women work longer and harder than men. They are required to fulfil ‘female’ roles in the household, and while at it, juggle between income-generating endeavours and tasks traditionally deemed to be ‘women’s’, including collecting firewood and making and selling handicrafts.

This labour demand is so intensive that girls are literally often “removed” from school to help with the work. As such, they end up giving up on their academic journeys.

Besides the need for household labour, Mr Denge explains, parents were initially hesitant to send their girls away from familiar surroundings where they could protect them. However, he observes, this has been changing over the years and the soaring admission numbers are a testament.

The current enrolment of 455 in the school extends from distant areas such as Moyale, Isiolo, Samburu, and Wajir.


Emphasising the game-changing role of the school, Mr Denge says the current admission data shows more girls than boys have joined. He further notes that all the top 10 candidates in the 2023 KCPE exam were girls. The top student, Midina Galgalo, scored 397 and has since joined Kaaga Girls’ High School, Meru.

Midina, 15, hails from a huge polygamous family. She notes that only five girls out of 10 in her house are pursuing education, underscoring the disadvantages girls still face.

“Most of my peers are already married. Some were married off when they were younger than I am,” she explains, adding that joining boarding school in Grade Two significantly contributed to her success. Otherwise, she says, her case might not have been different.

Environmental protection

The school has implemented sustainable environmental practices to tackle the scarcity of natural resources. They harness solar power to address its energy needs, contributing to a more environmentally friendly and self-sufficient approach.

Further, they have installed a water desalination system, which is designed to remove salt and impurities from saline water, making it a viable source of freshwater.

They have also adopted dryland crop farming.

Tiigo School head David Denge during an interview on the school farm on January 30, 2024.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

Mr Patrick Katelo – the chief operating officer of the Pastoralist Community Initiative Development and Assistance (Pacida), the NGO that founded and manages the institution – explains that about 1,000 acres of the school land have been placed under irrigation, creating a stark contrast to the arid surroundings.

Mr Katelo says they engaged experts to study characteristics of the soil before the school started farming. “The study revealed that only 15 varieties of crops can thrive here, because of this we nowadays grow drought-tolerant crops like maize and green grams.”

Despite government initiatives to protect nomadic children, the community still contends with harmful practices like early marriages, female genital mutilation, and drug abuse. Mr Katelo says Pacida complements these efforts.

“Fortunately, such pastoral boarding schools serve as rescue centres for pastoral children, especially girls.”

According to North Horr MP Wario Guyo, the constituency is one of the largest in the country and is predominantly inhabited by nomadic pastoralists, making it challenging for their children to access education.

"It is for this reason that we are working on replicating such initiatives in other parts of the constituency," Mr Wario says.

He, however, observes that the country has yet to fully adopt an education system that is favourable and considerate of the mobile populations.

"Our education system is still influenced by our colonial history, making many pastoral children who receive education migrate to towns and compete for jobs nationwide. Yet we can adopt an education system that also preserves culture, such as teaching them how to grade their livestock and start businesses.”