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Trust founder Julia Francombe has written this Chapter to tell us her story of how the Trust started its nomad education program and some background on how it works.

The drought in northern Kenya lasted longer than 2 years – the men and warriors left the main homesteads to take their dying herds further afield looking for pasture. It was a terrible time – starving people and mountains of dying cattle.

The women were left at home with no food and hungry children. This is when we began the children’s painting project. Hundreds of children would come to Ol Malo each day (the ranch owned by the Francombe family in Samburuland). They would paint pictures and have lunch – we gave them 5kg of beans a week – a little food to help feed their families.


In 2001 after the drought the people had started calling the painting project Julia’s school – although the painting was a necessity during the drought, it was not a school and not enough on its own.

We started by sponsoring a group of the painting children to go to the local Government school on Kirimon, we selected children who would be able to walk the 1.5 hrs each way.

After a month we were shocked when we saw them as they had become skin and bone again due to the long distances they walked to school every day. We provided them with extra food but knew that the real solution was to build a school close to their homes.

We were also worried about them being trampled on by elephant on the 3hr walk each day.

2. Micam painting

The obvious thing to do was build a school. The first school was built on community land – mud walls and a tin roof – the same as all the other schools in northern Kenya.

We employed a teacher from a town in the Rift valley, who had years of experience. The money we collected through sales of painting was paid to the community to buy school lunches, pay the teacher and provide the children with the materials they needed for the school.

3. the first disaster – Muridjo school

Within weeks the numbers of children in the school dwindled. The teacher wasn’t being paid and there was rarely lunch. The teaching materials were never renewed and the school was in trouble.

We tried time and time again, employing new teachers and buying materials. After a few months we had a dusty, dirty school, less than 10 children and teachers who often didn’t even turn up!

Something was wrong.

4. children in the Manyatta – a rich and earthy place to grow up

It was at this time I decided to look at the culture. The school was wrong – it obviously wasn’t working for the pastoralist Samburu people and it was time to find out why.

I spent the next few years living with the Samburu – understanding their lifestyle and the role of children in the community. The children are key to the survival of the livestock, herding the baby sheep, goats and lambs from an early age.

It is during this time that they learn about the land, the water and how to survive. This knowledge is key to their survival (for more on this check out our Chapter on Growing up in Samburuland).

Understanding the culture was key. The nomad education project was born. In 2004 we built our first eco-friendly nomad school.

5. building the first nomad school

The school moves when the people migrate; the teachers are from the community, the older boys teaching their brothers and sisters to read and write.

The children are taught on a modular 3 moon system (3 months). In this way they not only have the opportunity to learn to read and write, but they also herd the livestock and learn about their culture and the land.


I can finally say we are seeing some incredibly positive results. The teachers and children and engaged, there is rhythm and we seem to have got through the teething problems – finally.

What sets us apart from other schools in northern Kenya is that we are very clear with our aims; basic literacy and numeracy in ALL pastoralist children. We focus on the teachers – good teachers are KEY to the success of this project.

7. morning circle

Our schools are two-fold to;

1. Train teachers. At present we have seven teachers enrolled in a 3 year teacher training course.

2. Teach ALL Children – we rotate the lchekuti (herding) children so that all children have the opportunity to read, write and count. Basic literacy and numeracy.

“The kindergarten and surrounds are quiet and well kept. There is a feeling of order and security. The day runs with a seemingly effortless rhythm. The children have trust in the teachers who show the right balance of caring and interest, without being cloying or interfering. The children are happy. Their eyes shine. They participate in everything with enthusiasm – life is an exciting adventure!”

Ann Sharfman, Nairobi Teacher Training.

8. jump rope with songs

The Ol Malo school is our model and training school. Each year all the teachers from the north gather her for an intense month of training.

We now have two eco-schools and one thorn-tree school. Each school has a minimum of two teachers – one for kindergarten, ages 4-7 and one for the primary age starting at 7.

9. the Samburu water song, washing hands and faces using the leaky tin, a Trust trachoma prevention.

We are at present working with the Training teachers to develop a modular course, in conjunction with the Kenyan school curriculum.

Each school has two classes – 25 children in each. The children rotate every 3 moons, (3 months) – completing two 3 month modules per year. 50 children per class per year – 100 children per school per year. 300 children in the 3 nomad schools.

10. into the class, more singing before the first lesson.

The Future

The training teachers have just spent a week with us and are giving us direction for the future.

Our children at Ol Malo are ready for class 2 – however we do not as yet have a classroom for them. The training teachers have suggested that main teacher from class 1 moves onto class 2 with them as his training matures.

Therefore each school will need a larger kindergarten – class 1 and a class 2 for primary level.

11. round tables for the children to learn together. wooden spin tops followed by painting.


Saidimu has been with us since he was 6 years old. He is now 18 and has rejoined the nomad education as a kindergarten teacher. He started his teacher training Diploma this August. We are very excited to see this project go full circle!

If you would like more information on the Trust nomad education system or you would like to support a nomad school please contact us at info@samburutrust.org or click here to donate.

12. Lectire; already completed the first year of his teacher training Diploma.


This article is a Samburu Trust collaboration. Please click here for more information.

This Chapter by Julia Francombe, Sacha Kenyon and Moses Lerusion.

All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.

Image Credits

1, 2, 5: J. Francombe
3, 4, 6-12: S. Kenyon

  1. Jamie Kenyon

    05/10/2012 - 06:53

    Beautiful children and what a wonderful opportunity for them, through understanding the need to still heard and learn through the land.
    Fantastic to hear about Saidimu.

    Jules you are incredible. The energy you have given in your life to understand and help others is inspiring.


  2. Jo

    05/10/2012 - 16:44

    Ah Jules… Handmade on Earth! So glad you are moving forward with such focus….the teacher training looks like its really on a roll now. Miss you and it all madly! Xxxx

  3. Kes Smith

    08/10/2012 - 06:22

    Brilliant Juls I am so impressed by what you do and the way you do it …. absolutely in tune with the Samburu xx kes

    • Jacqui Starkey

      08/10/2012 - 19:35

      great to see so much life-long learning and lifel-ong learners growing with a sense of wonder..hope to visit in dec/jan

  4. Heidi Bergemann

    12/10/2012 - 13:35

    Such wonderful work Julia. An incredible journey over the years learning by experience what works and doesn’t work and refining into a truly integrated program that fits with the Samburu needs and lifestyle. I have always admired your commitment, persistence and loving understanding of these wonderful tribal communities, their culture and needs. Words can’t convey how wonderful this is and hard won as I know some of the difficulties you have faced over these years!! Truly unique with built-in longevity given that you are devoted to training local teachers and working in partnership with the leadership of the communities themselves. Just cannot praise your work enough!

  5. Malena Barstad

    10/11/2012 - 16:47

    This is a fantastic article. You get my vote and I will bookmark this website now.

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