MARGARET WARNER: Now, new opportunities and new challenges for children in Kenya. Special correspondent Jonathan Silvers reports.
TEACHER: You think very quickly and then give me the answer, okay?
JONATHAN SILVERS: On this morning in late November at the Ayany Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, over 70 children have crammed into a first grade classroom to learn basic math. The students range in age from 7 to 11 and come from the surrounding neighborhood of Kibera, one of Africa's largest and most notorious slums.
Many are orphans. Several lost both parents to AIDS. Instead of desks, the students make do with floor mats. There are few workbooks and fewer pencils. But teachers like Mary Macharia hope to compensate for the lack of supplies with something of greater value: A free education.
MARY MACHARIA: Primary education was declared free in January when the new government took over. So we are about to finish one year. One change that has come around because of free primary education is that the number has become big. Like now, I have 74 people, and previously I used to have around 50, 52. It has not been easy, especially the first time. But at least they have caught up now.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Since January 2003, when the new government of President Mwai Kibaki eliminated mandatory enrollment fees, attendance has surged at schools throughout the nation. It's thought that an additional 1.5 million Kenyan children and teenagers have entered classrooms this year, many for the first time. Under the previous government, parents were charged annual fees that ranged from $20 to $350 per student. In one of the world's poorest countries, the enrollment fees were well beyond the means of most families.
LEAH ASEGO: Free primary education has changed Kenya in that now we have the influx of children in schools. Mostly the children who were outside, who were on streets, mostly because they could not afford school fees, now they are in schools.
JONATHAN SILVERS: According to Leah Asego, a national trainer on free primary education, the elimination of fees has involved the school and community in a challenging and productive collaboration: Nurturing the growing number of AIDS orphans in the country.
LEAH ASEGO: Right now in the school, we are having more than 400 orphans in school, though the number of children in school is 1,800. Free education has changed their lives in that when they come to school, they have a place which is child-friendly. But these orphans, we have to give them hope, we have to give them support. We have to tell them that life must continue.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Twelve-year-old Esther Wamboi calls free primary education a lifeline, a link to a future that she hopes will lead her out of the slums. She is an AIDS orphan, one of an estimated 11 million in sub-Saharan Africa. Six years ago, her father abandoned her when her mother died. After shuttling from neighbor to neighbor, she's lived for the past four years with her older sister and brother-in-law.
ESTHER WAMBOI, Student (Translated ): I was in my village last year when I heard the news on radio about free education. Then a neighbor who sometimes looks after me brought me to the school to fill out the application. I started school this year and have been very happy.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Even now, primary education in Kenya is not entirely free, nor is it compulsory. Families are required to cover the cost of school uniforms, transportation and school maintenance. For Esther's caregiver, her 22-year-old sister, Lois Muthoni, these incidental costs are a burden. Both she and her husband are unemployed; their days are spent searching for odd jobs. Lois says that paying the incidental fees for Esther's education is a family priority. It's also one of the family's biggest expenses.
LOIS MUTHONI (Translated): School is important, but we still have money problems because of school levies and uniform costs. But ultimately it's a good thing, because it will improve her prospects in life. Someday perhaps it'll help her get a better job, and then she'll be able to help us and have a family of her own.
JONATHAN SILVERS: The international community has strongly endorsed Kenya's primary education initiative. Non-governmental organizations have responded to the influx of students by training staff and donating much-needed supplies. UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, has provided $2.5 million in so-called basic education kits for several hundred thousand students. UNICEF has also conducted intensive training programs for 5,000 educators in key communities. But the donations pale in comparison with the dramatic growth in ranks of students. According to Ayany headmistress Elisheba Khayeri, the school's ability to educate may be jeopardized by the influx.
ELISHEBA KHAYERI: I'm proud because the staff is able to handle the children. We have had the UNICEF coming in with the idea of child-friendly, child-participatory and child-centered methods. And these have helped the teachers to improve their teaching. Now we have the instructional materials, but what about the physical facilities, like maybe sanitation? You see, too many children, they need more sanitation and more clean water and more clean classrooms.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Other sub-Saharan African countries have struggled with free primary education. The UNICEF representative in Kenya, Dr. Nicholas Alipui, is determined to help the education initiative here succeed.
NICHOLAS ALIPUI: Our challenge now is to keep these children in school. We have to make sure that they don't drop out. There is a need to ensure that communities and parents themselves continue to feel some level of responsibility for educating their children. And I'm made to understand and I'm convinced that where the means exist, communities and parents provide what is necessary for their children to go to school.
JONATHAN SILVERS: After one year at the Ayany School, Esther Wamboi's skills have improved greatly, and so has her confidence.
ESTHER WAMBOI (Translated): I look forward to finishing primary school because I want to work with computers. But I worry what I'll do for secondary school. I will go on with education as much as I can, so long as it's free. But it's given me hope to continue with further secondary education.
MARGARET WARNER: While Kenya's education program offers some hope for children affected by the AIDS crisis there, a new report shows the dire plight of children throughout Africa continues to worsen. According to the United Nations children's fund, UNICEF, AIDS has now orphaned more than 11 million African children, and that number is expected to nearly double to 20 million by 2010.