More than 200,000 Kenyan teachers went on strike Tuesday to protest the diversion of government funds meant to hire more teachers and ease classroom overcrowding, a union official said.
The money has instead gone to the ministry of defense, whose spending is not publicly scrutinized.
The protest will affect more than 10 million children in primary and secondary schools and will continue until the government agrees to hire more teachers, said Wilson Sossion, who heads the Kenya National Union of Teachers. The children were due to return to class this week after holidays in August.
In the capital of Nairobi, classrooms were empty Tuesday morning at St. Mary's Karen Primary School in the wealthy suburb of Karen. At the Toi Primary School in Kibera, Kenya's largest slum, a teacher said gifted students were conducting classes without teachers. Students could seen studying in groups.
The union wants the government to give full-time jobs to 18,000 teachers hired on temporary contracts and hire an additional 9,040 teachers, Sossion said. Some 79,000 teachers are needed to reach the internationally recommended teacher to student ratio of one teacher to 35 students. Kenya's public schools see an average of 50 students for every teacher, though some classes have only one teacher for 100 pupils.
The union projects a shortfall of 115,000 teachers in the next couple of years as the population increases.
Sossion said the overcrowding deepens social divisions. Poor children in overcrowded public-school classes receive little time with teachers, while children in private schools are lavished with attention, he said.
"Children of this country are not enjoying equal opportunities," Sossion said. "This is the struggle. We are not doing it this time around for a salary increment. We are doing it for the poor child of this country and for the poor parent of this country."
Nearly 10 percent of 13-year-old Kenyan students cannot complete a math problem meant for 7-year-olds, according to research done earlier this year by Uwezo, a pressure group that aims to improve literacy among children in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Kenya received international praise when it made public primary school free in 2003. The program enrolled more than 1 million children who had never entered a classroom. The country adopted a free secondary school policy for day students in 2008. But the influx of students led to severe overcrowding.
Parliament had allocated around $53 million for hiring more teachers last week, Sossion said, but the ministry of finance diverted the money to the ministry of defense, even though the ministry had not requested it.
Now taxes will have to be increased if the teachers are to be hired, said Joseph Kinyua, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Finance. Spiraling food and fuel prices are already causing great hardship for many Kenyans.
Kinyua did not say in his televised address Monday why the government decided to reallocate the money to the defense ministry. Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said he was in a meeting and could not discuss the issue.
The ministry of defense budget cannot be scrutinized for national security reasons, said John Mbadi, a member of parliament who is on the budget committee.
"The security docket is getting increased allocation because there is no proper scrutiny and I repeat there is no proper scrutiny... I dare challenge them to explain to the public how this additional (money) is going to be spent," Mbadi said last week.
Britain suspended payments to the Kenyan government intended to help poor schoolchildren after $45 million in international donor money went missing. The U.K., a major donor to Kenya, said the cash would be given to aid agencies instead and the portion of stolen funds that it donated must be repaid.
Some poor families have even been asked to pay their children's public school teachers, Sossion said.
Associated Press Television News journalist Jospat Kasire contributed to this report.