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How AIDS undercuts education in Africa

A recent UN report says AIDS is eroding economic and educational development.

Despite drawing children from a mix of middle-class and shanty housing, Olympic Estate Primary School regularly finishes at or near the top among public schools on Kenya's national examinations.

Its 40 teachers are proud of their record and happy to talk about it. But something that they're more reluctant to discuss is the effect of AIDS on their school. Since 1996, four teachers -that's 10 percent of the staff -have died of AIDS.

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In fact, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), there is a disproportionately high incidence of HIV/AIDS among teachers in sub-Saharan Africa - although no one seems to have a good explanation. In Kenya alone, nearly 1,500 teachers died last year, up from just 10 teachers' deaths in 1993.

The loss of large numbers of teachers in a poor nation is a serious blow to the nation's future development. Unless the trend is reversed, a generation of young Africans face the prospect of a lesser-quality education and reduced job prospects. "Imagine," says Meshack Ndolo of Kenya's National AIDS Council, "if [the epidemic] can affect school enrollment and completion of primary school, what that means for a country that calls itself developing."

The recent UNICEF report, entitled "The Progress of Nations 2000" echoes Mr. Ndolo's concerns. "All over sub-Saharan Africa," reads the report, "hard-won gains in school enrollment -and the returns on investments countries have made to improve education -are being eroded."

In 1999, at least 860,000 elementary students in the region lost a teacher to the disease.

Before the AIDS epidemic, it was news when a teacher died, says Mureu Kamau of the Kenya National Union of Teachers. Government figures show that as recently as 1993, fewer than 10 teachers died annually. By 1996, this had skyrocketed to about 1,000 and is rising steadily. The causes of death aren't compiled officially, but experts say such huge changes in death rates among an adult population can only be attributable to AIDS.

"The trend is likely to accelerate in the next few years," said Mr. Kamau. "It will not take one or two years before we have a serious shortage of teachers. This is a crisis. I don't think it's an exaggeration."

Indeed, UNICEF estimates 95,000 Kenyan primary students had a teacher die of AIDS last year. Official government statistics recorded 1,406 deaths last year among a teaching force of 247,000.

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In the capital, Nairobi, an average of four teachers are dying per month, said Kamau. He flipped through a ledger containing the names of teachers who have died and said, "Generally, these are teachers dying of illnesses, not accidents. Most of our members who die are dying of AIDS."

Asked when the last Nairobi teacher had died, Kamau gives a sad response: "Yesterday, just yesterday. It was someone I knew well, someone I went through teacher training with."

Kenya, like other African countries, is only now realizing the full impact of AIDS on education. In addition to teacher deaths, staff absenteeism is rising, partly from teachers being ill with AIDS and partly because some are caring for family members with the disease. Pupils are dropping out of school to look after sick parents or because they can't afford the school fees after a working parent dies.

Consolata Kiara, head of school health and nutrition in the Education Ministry, says her department is "concerned in all areas," because AIDS "may impact on enrollment ... [and] on the teacher supply."

Kenya, which spends 40 percent of its official government budget on education, stopped hiring teachers in 1998 as part of a structural adjustment plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund. When a teacher dies, children are simply grouped into larger classes or worse. "We know there are classes that are not attended to," says Patrick Birgen, spokesman for the Teachers Service Commission, which employs all public school teachers.

Urban Jonsson, the UNICEF regional representative for Eastern and Southern Africa thinks the AIDS crisis makes it immoral for donor nations to tell developing countries to cut their education budgets. "All these countries need more teachers and better teachers and better-supported teachers, not less teachers," he says. "That's very short-sighted."

Mr. Jonsson says the crisis in education caused by AIDS will become an economic crisis and in turn a political crisis. "The education system [across Africa], apart from being underfunded and marginalized in terms of political priorities, is now being devastated by this disease."

Kenya, where about 500 people are dying of AIDS daily, was relatively slow in coming to terms with the epidemic.

It was not until this past December that President Daniel arap Moi declared AIDS - which had infected some 10 percent of his citizens - a national disaster.

A national AIDS education program has yet to make its way into the schools. Peace Corps workers will start implementing it in September by training teachers in AIDS awareness. The irony is bitter -some of the Kenyans who will teach youngsters about AIDS prevention have themselves been diagnosed as having the virus.

Many observers wonder why teachers -at first glance among the most educated and well-employed of Africans -are catching AIDS at such a high rate. No one seems to have a scientifically or epidemiologically based answer. But it's true that teaching is not among the most prestigious professions in Africa and it pays quite poorly. Primary-school teachers are predominantly women, often infected with HIV by philandering or polygamous husbands.

But above all, the infection rate among teachers shows how AIDS cuts across all sectors of African society. That's now quite clear to Monica Omwoyo who lost four colleagues at the Olympic Estate primary school. She struggles to find an answer to the question of why teachers at such a successful school would contract HIV. "The government is trying to make people aware of it, but people are careless," she says. Some people, she says, want to satisfy their bodies no matter the consequences: "Even if they know there is AIDS."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society