Schools unrest sign of changed society

The ongoing unrest in boarding high schools exemplifies the changed Kenyan society, manifested in a national student rebellion against outdated systems, failed authority and derelict facilities.

Those who have visited Kenyan boarding schools in recent years will not be surprised at ongoing events. If anything, what should surprise observers is why it took so long for the situation to boil over. Counsellors say the post-election violence that left hundreds dead and close to half a million homeless may have taught teenagers that violence is a legitimate means of expressing long-held grievances.

As usual, the Kenyan government was caught unprepared, only holding a crisis meeting after a student was killed last weekend at Nairobi’s Upperhill high school. This was the first fatality since unrest began in high schools a couple of months ago. Again as usual, the government vowed a crackdown on ringleaders of strikes while threatening to punish fuel station attendants who sold petrol to teenagers in school uniform.

There is really no indication that the state will deal with the root causes of student unrest which include antiquated disciplinary systems, a changed society, overstretched schools and a poor example of leadership set by politicians.

Kenyan boarding schools are extremely miserable places, especially for the teenager of the 21st century. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse of students is rife. Going to boarding school is almost akin to serving a prison sentence due perverse restrictions on clothing, telephones, radio, newspapers and television. Teachers routinely intercept and read student letters so as not to, “distract learning.”. Students are subjected to humiliating searches on their property and selves, with little indication of what actually is being sought.

Girls in Kenyan schools submit to crude “pregnancy tests,” which may involve teachers conducting a “physical” examination. The humiliation is unjustified when pregnancy kits are readily available in the market. Years after high school, many women shed tears at memories of these tests.

Dormitories are congested, usually holding double the intended capacity. In some schools, double decker beds have been replaced with triple deckers. There is no privacy and this has an impact on the emotional development of budding young people.

Toilets are clogged due to over-use. In some of the so-called national schools, sewage flows into sleeping quarters. Sewer rats thrive in these environments and its suprising that an outbreak of bubonic plague has not been reported. Most of our schools lack adequate water supply and this worsens the already bad sanitation problem. Clearly, you have blocked toilets that cannot be cleaned for lack of water.

Kenyan students are expected to do their own laundry as part of acquiring life skills but the lack of water makes this activity extremely challenging. In some rural schools, wearing dirty clothes for a month is becoming the norm, as congested boarding schools compete with neighboring communities for scarce water resources. In other areas, students must do their laundry on river banks. For those students coming from urban areas, these changes make them susceptible to violent reaction.

But by far the greatest contributor to student unrest is the tyrannical authority system in schools and which has existed since colonial times. The typical boarding school in Kenya is headed by a Principal, who is basically the Chief Executive of the school. The Principle appoints a Head boy/girl to command a prefect body that oversees students. Below the Head student will be the House captains, in charge of each dormitory followed by cube prefects typically responsible for about 10 students each. On the classroom side, each block of classes is headed by a Block captain while each classroom has a class monitor.

The prefects body is a hierarchical structure, where authority is greatly abused by the Principal and the prefects. There have been numerous cases of prefects assaulting other students with hardly any sanction from the school principle. Prefects get better accommodation, better food and greater academic opportunities than the rest of students. The word of the Principal and the prefects is as good as law. There is no opportunity for dialogue between students and the authority structure, and this contributes to bitterness within the student body.

Boarding schools were not always like this. The older generation of Kenyans who went to boarding school between the 1940s and 1970s have fond memories of the experience. Many of them came from traditional rural environments, making boarding school their first exposure to electricity, flushing toilets and clean uniforms. Indeed, many of the older generation wore shoes for the first time when they went to boarding school. The schools of the time were staffed mostly by European missionaries whose mode of discipline was both soft and firm. The missionaries were determined to impart Christianity and European values on their charges. Students were taught how to use a knife and fork, how to wear a tie, how to make a home and so on. Discipline levels were high but not authoritarian. Students were free to speak their minds as long as they did not blaspheme God or insult teachers.

The boarding schools of today may as well exist in a warped universe. Europeans have been replaced by indigenous Kenyan personnel. Nobody bothers to teach such important things as decorum, dressing and housekeeping. The emphasis is purely on academics, explaining why A Grade students are emotionally stunted. Physical facilities constructed by the colonialists are falling apart. Schools designed for 300 students now hold 700. The student-teacher ratio is appalling.

Dissent is not tolerated among teachers and students. Mediocrity has taken hold, as poorly qualified teachers get jobs due to influence from political godfathers. In some parts of Kenya, local communities insist only on teachers from their own tribes. Meddling by politicians eager to win votes has ruined many schools.

Teachers have turned students into sexual prey. The phenomenon of sex-for-grades cannot be ignored any longer. Male teachers are guilty of misleading girls into love affairs, though there have been a few cases of women teachers doing the same. In Migori and Kuria areas of Kenya, cases of male teachers marrying their own female students are rife.

In other words, unlike the case 50 years ago, the teachers of today are the enemies of the student. Should Kenyans, then, be surprised that students are rebelling against a repugnant authority?

The ongoing school unrest is an indicator that serious reforms are required, especially in the boarding school system. The concept of taking children to a secluded rural environment with no access to modern facilities is as outdated as it gets. The world is moving very fast and its time Kenya borrowed a leaf from the education systems of more developed countries. Maintaining the current system on the basis of, “this is how its always been done,” is a sure recipe for failure.

2 Responses

  1. Boarding schools should be made optional and not compulsory by the government.Instead of locking students in the school compound for the entire term, they should be allowed to go home for weekends and report back on monday’s.
    Overcrowding should be discouraged by the government so that the ratio between teacher to student is acceptable.

  2. You have hit the nail on the head! Children also have rights and we need to hear them out. Something is seriously amiss and all these rioting kids cannot be wrong. We need to listen to them and the teachers to get to the root of the problem. Also, are these rioting kids not just a mirror of Kenyan society – crude, mannerless, selfish, greedy and lacking in role models? Do we adults behave any different? We need to soul search and come up with an honest, workable and sustainable solution to the rot in our society. No half-measures will do.

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