NAIROBI, Kenya -- School was the last thing on Pascal Mwanchoka's mind when he and his younger brother boarded a bus that would take them hundreds of miles away from their mother and her alcohol-fueled rages.
Just 13 years old, Pascal figured the boys' school days were over for good.
"My mother wasn't feeding us, she wasn't taking us to school," said Pascal, who came here from the coastal city of Mombasa looking for work but ended up living in the gutters of Nairobi. "She was a drunk."
Less than a year later, Pascal and 10-year-old Lenjo are off the streets and back in class, attending a free program in Nairobi for children too poor even to afford a meal of maize and beans. They are among millions of children who struggle against vast obstacles for the luxury of going to school on the poorest continent in the world.
Some 46 million African children -- nearly half the school-age population -- have never set foot in a classroom, according to the United Nations. There are signs of hope as more African countries eliminate public school tuition fees, but burdens ranging from extreme poverty to the cost of uniforms are keeping children out of class.
The consequences of a poorly educated population are dire, particularly for a continent desperately in need of foreign investment but with a literacy rate of less than 60 percent.
To pay for food, Pascal started scavenging for scrap metal. Lenjo, he said, "was so hungry he couldn't do anything but sit. Unless I collected the scrap metal, we would go to sleep without eating."
Their fortunes changed when a social worker from the Undugu Society of Kenya, an advocacy group for street children, told the brothers about the organization's school where there were no uniforms, shoes were optional and there were no tuition fees.
Intrigued, Pascal asked the deciding question: "Will they feed us?"
The answer was yes, and now the boys study every day at Undugu's tumbledown school on the edge of a Nairobi slum. The walls are crumbling stone, there's only one light bulb, and three children share a textbook. But it's far better than the street, and lunch is served at noon.
Francis Kaara, the head of education at Undugu, said such alternative schools are vital for educating Africa's children, especially those who are abandoned, have been addicted to drugs, or lost parents to AIDS or other diseases.
Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana are among countries that have abolished fees to keep children in school -- though for some governments, that has meant new strains on systems already short of capable teachers, classrooms and supplies. And even the smallest expenses for uniforms and books can hamper enrollment numbers, Kaara said.
"The governments declared that education is free, but actually it is not free," Kaara said.
In Kenya, primary school is free and President Mwai Kibaki has announced he will also waive the thrice-yearly $50 fee for secondary school starting in January. But David Siele of the Ministry of Education said a seemingly endless list of expenses -- not just tuition -- keeps children from advancing.
Siele said 60,000 students who had been admitted to public secondary schools this year failed to report because they would still be charged for transport, field trips, teacher conferences and building swimming pools for schools.
Uganda also offers free primary education, but fewer than half its children complete secondary school because they would have to pay fees of up to $100 per term, according to the Ministry of Education. Uganda's average annual income is $300.
The country started a limited program this year offering free secondary school in rural areas. Limited in funds, the government required children to pass an exam level to qualify, and about 234,000 have been accepted.
But teachers charging improper fees have also plagued that program, officials say. The Bugiri District commissioner, Zubairi Bakari, said students were being asked for $1 each to "boost the teachers" -- a prohibitive expense for the poorest.
"We are disappointed by the behavior of some school administrators," Bakari said in a recent speech. "Sending students away from schools will make them more vulnerable to child-trafficking and other forms of abuse."
Despite the problems, tuition waivers remain a huge source of relief for cash-strapped families.
Annet Namususwa, 16, who lives in Bugiri, about 85 miles east of the capital, Kampala, said she had no chance of going on to secondary school until it became free.
"My aunt suggested that I get married because she had no money to pay for my fees in secondary school," she said.
In Kenya, Pascal says he also feels the hope of a better life now that he goes to school. He still lives in a homeless shelter and still trades in scrap metal, but now, "I can really look after my brother."
Because Undugu's schools are informal, with a wide range of ages and education levels, students do not automatically pass from its programs to further state education. But they learn basic reading and arithmetic, and read stories about "AIDS the Destroyer."
Undugu finances most of its operations through donations and the sale of curios, jewelry, furniture, stationery and other items made by the children in its vocational programs.
Kaara, the education director of Undugu -- a name that means solidarity in Swahili -- said children like Pascal "need a lot of love" to encourage them to stay in school.
"If they report late, you say, 'Please come early next time,"' Kaara said. "Because if you chase the child away, you deny him or her their last good chance to get an education."