The Cost of “Free”

Kenya 2012

By Charlott Schönwetter

June 26, 2012

Also published at Mädchenmannschaft

I have often heard over the past seven days that a particular service would be “free.” Elementary school is, of course, “free.” Even contraceptives. But whenever I’ve spoken to people who are dependent on a service, particularly because it is free of charge, a different picture is painted.

“I can’t send my children to school. We don’t have the money,” says Rose Kagwa. She lives in Kibera, one of the Africa’s largest slums (although the number of residents varies greatly, depending on who you ask). Although there are no tuition fees for primary education at public schools, a range of other costs arise. For example, a school uniform, which is a requirement for attendance, is simply not affordable for many people.

The children who cannot attend school for these reasons are often overlooked because, on paper, they don’t have to pay to go school. This problem is pervasive in many aspects of Kenyan life. Ol Pejeta Conservatory, a wildlife sanctuary, has several projects in cooperation with the surrounding communities and currently offers 60 full scholarships to secondary schools. Apart from the fact that 60 scholarships is not particularly much given the number of children in the region, here again only the tuition fees are covered. The families have to pay for everything else.

Beyond all of this, there is a system. That’s what I hear from Nancy Ingutia, an employee at Ol Pejeta, who often makes neoliberal statements like these: “It is critical that parents remain involved in their children's schooling, otherwise there is the risk that children become lazy.” Most of the children who apply for the scholarship are those whose families can cover the incidental costs for elementary school, who can fill out the application, and whose families have enough money for at least a part of further education.

Contraceptives, too, are not free of charge, even if they are officially “free.” The medical professionals we have met report that they collect fees in order to keep the clinics up and running. One of the problems with state-run clinics is that the government only covers the payment of employees and a portion of the medications, but not the additional costs that are necessary for operation. This means that women who give birth in the hospital must themselves pay for the rubber gloves that are used. 

Charlott Schönwetter, a feminist blogger for Afrika Wissen Schaft and Mädchenmannschaft, is writing from the International Reporting Project's reproductive health-themed trip to Kenya. This article was translated from German by Erica Cameron.