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in boarding high schools exemplifies the changed Kenyan society, manifested in a national student rebellion against outdated systems, failed authority and derelict facilities.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


Traffic crackdowns worsening road chaos

Commuter crackdowns by Kenya’s traffic police are worsening road chaos, further endangering lives instead of reducing one of the world’s highest road fatalities.

A matatu picking passengers on Tom Mboya street, Nairobi

A matatu cruising for passengers on Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi. Picture by the Nairobi Chronicle.

Private minibus, or matatu, operators in Nairobi say they are forced to bribe traffic police for such infringements as wearing faded shirts or fraying seat covers. “It doesn’t matter whether your vehicle is in good shape or not, if a police officer wants to find something wrong, he will,” says a matatu driver.

As a consequence, matatu and bus operators see no reason to maintain and run their vehicles properly because, either way, you still have to bribe your way through numerous police roadblocks. The state of roads in Kenya doesn’t help in enhancing road safety in public transport.

A bus driver on the Western Kenya route says he has to bribe the police for cracks on his front windshield. “The road to Kisumu is very bad, with stones flying all over the place,” says the driver, “it doesn’t make sense for me to buy a new windshield for Shs60,000 (US$940) because the glass will break the same day. Its far cheaper to give a few hundred shillings each trip.”

As a result of extensive police crackdowns, the little order there existed in Kenya’s public transport sector has completely broken down.

In a bid to avoid traffic police, buses and matatus are forced to use the back streets and little-known rural roads where passengers are exposed to the risk of car-jacking. At the same time, the lengthy diversions on rutted roads forces public transport operators to increase fares at a time when Kenyans are experiencing high inflation.

Other times, the buses drop off passengers far from their destinations for fear of getting impounded by police.

When the crackdowns become severe, inter-city transport within Kenya is disrupted completely, with losses of billions of shillings to the national economy.

On the Nairobi – Mombasa highway, bus drivers are pushed into hiding their vehicles in the bush because of traffic crackdowns. Often, the buses hide for hours in the deep wilderness where stranded passengers cannot get restaurants, telephone networks or even sanitary facilities. “We must do this because when the police stop us, they will look for the tiniest excuse to either jail us or demand bribes,” says Salim, a long-time bus driver on the highway.

Transport within Nairobi has also been negatively affected by commuter crackdowns. The decision of the government to force public transport vehicles from the city centre to Muthurwa has introduced new levels of chaos in the sector. The Ambassador terminus in the heart of Nairobi is a case in point.

One year ago at Ambassador, there existed orderly queues of commuters waiting for buses to Dandora, Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Embakasi and Buruburu. Since early this year when the government unilaterally decided to move the buses to Muthurwa, the operations at Ambassador became illegal. With most city commuters unwilling to walk all the way to Muthurwa, the Ambassador stage has become a transport “black market.”

The orderliness that was the hallmark of the place has been replaced by chaos. Bus companies, anxious to fill up their vehicles quickly before they are caught, have employed touts to woo passengers into their vehicles. Ambassador now resembles a rural bazaar with hordes of young men shouting themselves hoarse in order to earn a commission for every bus that gets filled up. Goons have been hired to ward off competition from other bus companies.

Kenya’s police say their objective is to reduce the rate of road accidents in the country and to instill order and comfort in public transport. From the looks of it, the actions of the police seem to be doing the exact opposite. Maybe Kenya’s government should consider empowering the public transport industry to regulate itself like it used to in the past.

Eastlands matatus back in town

A controversial decision to send all Eastlands matatus to the new Muthurwa terminus appears to be hitting a wall, as matatu operators get court orders allowing them back into the central business district.

A matatu picking passengers on Tom Mboya street, Nairobi

An Embakasi matatu picking up passengers from Nairobi’s Tom Mboya Street.

Matatus from Embakasi, Maringo, Buruburu and Outering were the first to obtain court orders temporarily allowing them to operate into the city. Lately, Kayole buses have also won similar orders and are now back to their former terminus at OTC. Indeed, many people from Eastlands no longer have to walk to Muthurwa to catch public transport. If anything, the court orders seem to have given matatu operators the leeway to collect passengers from virtually any street corner.

Double M, Kenya Bus and Citti Hoppa buses continue operating within the city centre because other routes that they ply, such as Kawangware and Ngummo, are legally allowed through the city. However, buses from the three companies operating to Eastlands routes often sneak into town through the industrial area or Majengo estates. Once in town, police don’t bother with them.

The Muthurwa terminus hasn’t been left deserted though. Matatus to Industrial Area, Umoja, LungaLunga, Komarock and Njiru/Ruai still operate from Muthurwa. From recent developments, its just a matter of time before they too go to court and are allowed into town.

Meanwhile, the Nairobi City Council and the Transport Licensing Board (TLB) have said that they will no longer recognize Eastlands routes ending within the city centre. Since the TLB is the legal body authorized to register matatus, the move is seen as an attempt to beat legal challenges launched by matatus against moving to Muthurwa.

Early this year, the Nairobi City Council and the Ministry of Local Government ordered that all Eastlands matatus move their operations to the Muthurwa terminus. Local Government minister at the time, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta (now Deputy Prime Minister) said the decision was meant to ease traffic congestion in the city. However, commuters and matatu operators criticized the move as inconsiderate and ill-planned. Not only were commuters forced to walk longer distances, but the Muthurwa terminus is still under construction with piles of soil everywhere.

Matatu operators claimed that the move was a ploy by Uhuru to convince hawkers to move from the city streets and into the Muthurwa hawkers market. What better way to do it, asked the matatu operators, than to create a captive market. If that really was the government’s intention, then it worked like magic. No sooner than matatus were forced into Muthurwa than all hawkers left city streets for their new market.

Nairobi is increasingly suffering from traffic congestion due to slow expansion of city streets. Many roads in Nairobi were planned and built by British colonialists back in the 1950s and 60s. By opening the Muthurwa terminus, the City Council hopes to move matatus from other parts of Nairobi to parking bays previously occupied by Eastlands matatus. For instance, South B route 11 will begin operating from the Central Bus Station. However, with continued resistance from Eastlands matatus, the City Council may have to wait a little longer to implement its plans to end the chaos currently on the streets of Nairobi.