Formal education in Tana-River District started way back with the coming of the White Missionaries. Immediately after the Missionaries settled down, it was their desire to make the local people know how to read the Bible. In the process, they would help spread the Word of God.
The first Missionaries to be associated with educational development in the district were from the German Lutheran Missionary Society, the Neukirchen Mission. After settling at Ngao in 1887, the German Missionaries started an educational programme for the Pokomo. They introduced reading, writing and elements of Christian education. This was the first formal school. The early years were marked with poor school attendance since Pokomo children were a great source of labour, especially in guarding the cultivated lands from ravages of birds, baboons and pigs.
By 1920, Ngao had become an established elementary school. The German Missionaries later opened another mission at Hola, complete with a formal school. Other several “bush schools” were opened along the River Tana. The “bush schools” were not permanent schools. They were erratic and in most cases, they did not have an established teaching force.
One of the first Pokomos in the district to be formally taught how to read and write was Benjamin Zakaria of Ngao. In 1924, the local District Commissioner, Major A. W. Sutcliffe, took young Benjamin to train him for junior clerical duties. At the same time, Benjamin was assigned duties of Hut Counter which entailed tax collection. He rose through the ranks to become a Tax Clerk in 1933 for the next 22 years. He loyally discharged his duties with great devotion. He covered most of the expanse of the district, sometimes on foot or in canoes. He was honoured by the Colonial Government for his tireless efforts and was presented with a Badge of Honour in 1958.
The early Pokomo literates inevitably became an inspiration to the others. More and more Pokomo children were enrolled in schools. As years went by, it was not lack of children but lack of writing materials and books that became a problem. By 1933, education in the whole district was still entirely in the hands of the Neukirchen Missionaries from Germany. Apart from the permanent school at Ngao and the semi-permanent school at Hola, there were nine other regular village schools. Ngao was the only elementary school at the time i.e. it offered education up to Standard Four. The others were sub-elementary schools which offered classes up to Standard Three. There was need to have a boarding section at Ngao so that the school could accommodate pupils from other village schools who wished to continue with education. A boys’ boarding wing was opened at Ngao in 1933. Ngao became the cradle land of education in the district. Virtually all the early Pokomo children who received education beyond Standard Three passed through Ngao intermediate School.
In 1935, the Director of Education appointed Herman Muller, who was a German, to be the Headmaster of Ngao Full Primary School. He was also assigned special duties of:
1. Supervising education in all schools in Tana River district.
2. Supervising a rudimentary teacher training college at Ngao.
3. Re-engineering the curriculam in all the schools which were under the German Nuekirchen Missionaries.
Herman Muller is credited for having introduced “Hand Work’ as a supplementary subject in schools. During Hand Work classes, pupils were taught painting, roofing of houses, white washing of walls, bench repairs, making jembe handles, making spear shafts, making sisal ropes, making makuti from the coconut palm leaves and marara from the doum palm leaves for roofing of houses, making mats, ladles, baskets, etc. All these rudimentary tools were geared at improving the lives of the local people.
The trend in education improved tremendously. Yedija Lulutya, a Pokomo from Ngao, became the first person in the district to be trained as a teacher. He qualified as a P4 teacher in March, 1936. Another Pokomo, Amos Ipu Chadhoro, qualified as a P3 at the Jeanes School, Kabete, later in August, 1936. They were followed in quick succession by two other Pokomos. Israel Gudina qualified as a P4 teacher in 1937 while Kaleb Madyawa qualified as a P4 teacher in 1938. Parmena Mungatana followed by qualifying as a P4 teacher in 1942 while Yona Nkanu qualified as P4 teacher in 1947. This was the bedrock of Pokomo trained teachers who selflessly shaped the destiny of the pupils in the district.
During the First World War (1914-1918), German was defeated and subsequently relieved of her colonies. In 1916, the Germans were ordered out of Tana-River District. As such, all the churches, schools, hospitals and houses built by the Germans were taken over by the British Methodist Free Mission which had its headquarter at Lamu. However, the attitude of the Pokomo towards the Methodists was lukewarm. After a lot of pressure, the Germans were allowed back in 1926 to return and manage their property in Tana-River District. The first group to arrive included Rev. August Kraft, Mrs Becker and Henrich May.
During the Second World War (1940-1945), Germany was again defeated. As it happened after the First World War, the Germans were yet again interned. All her property, including the schools, hospitals and churches, were taken over by the British Methodist Free Mission. The Pokomos led by Simeon Ubo and Benjamin Zakaria of Ngao protested bitterly to the Colonial Government. In order to pacify the Pokomo, a conference was called at Wema in 1944. The conference was presided over by Rev. Leonard Beecher, who was a member of the Legislative Council representing African interests. Rev. Beecher explained at length that the Colonial Government had no reason to change the position taken over the issue of the German Missionaries.
The decision to bar the Germans was final. Beecher’s advice was received with mixed feelings among the Pokomo who viewed the decision as outrageous. They continued to resist the move. They pointed out that between 1916 and 1926 when the Germans were first ordered out, the Methodists did nothing for the Pokomo apart from introducing their version of Christianity. None of their missionaries had bothered to learn the local language. On the other hand, the German era witnessed great educational development ranging from the opening of schools to the translation of the Bible into Pokomo.
The Germans had recorded the history and culture of the people, built a hospital at Ngao and opened many dispensaries. The Germans had given scholarships to some Pokomo students to study in Germany. The government, however, refused to listen to their plea.
All schools in the district were placed under the supervision of a Methodist Superintendent who was based at Ribe in Kilifi District, which was a distance of 240 kilometres away. It did not take long before the Pokomo voiced their concern over the Methodist Superintendent. They forwarded a joint petition to the District Commissioner complaining of:
a) Lack of frequent visits and close supervision by the Methodists occasioned by the long distance from Ribe to Tana-River District.
b) Delay in processing teachers’ salaries which was done at Ribe. There were unnecessary delays before teachers got their salaries.
c) Lack of basic equipment and teaching materials in the schools due to shortage of funds.
d) Lack of proper syllabus for the schools. Different schools taught different subject contents since no approved syllabus was in place.
The petition was copied to the Director of Education, the Provincial Education Officer at Mombasa and the Methodist Superintendent at Ribe. The Methodists took it as an affront to their administration. In retaliation, the Methodist Superintendent took drastic action.
i) He suspended all the Pokomo teachers and supervisors from Ngao area who had masterminded the appeal.
ii) He stopped all grants to the schools in Ngao area which was associated with the agitation.
iii) He stopped all Pokomo children from Ngao area from getting places in Methodist Intermediate Schools in other areas of the district.
iv) He brought Methodist trained teachers and pastors from outside the district to take over from the suspended Pokomo teachers at Ngao.
The Pokomo responded by forming the Young Buu Association in 1944. It was one of the most radical steps ever taken by the Pokomo who all along had been portrayed by the Colonial Administration as law abiding citizens. Most of the founding members of the Young Buu Association were from the Buu Clan of the Pokomo from Ngao who were directly affected by the negative response of the Methodists.