Burning of schools reflective of the many ‘unseen fires’ in our country

Students look for their boxes that were burnt at Kisii School after a dormitory caught fire on July 11. At least 198 students lost their belongings to the fire. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]
I was taken aback by the sight of a razed dormitory in Kisii School, my alma mater. At several points in its history, Kisii School bore the alter ego, the Government African School, Kisii.

It was to cater for the schooling of brilliant Africans who had no chance of joining white-only schools in Nairobi and the former White Highlands.

As Form Ones, ‘Wire House’, which was burned down, was the natural refuge for ‘Sameta house exiles’ who sought to escape the unnecessarily heavy manual labour, or the ‘Gestapo’ like prefects.

Sameta and Wire houses sat on the foothills of the steeply Kuja Hill, in a disused, refurbished dining hall. Form Ones shared beds that were barely a meter wide.

Despite the obviously tough conditions there, we would never burn the school. We took pride in its history and tradition.

However, I noticed something from the pictures of the burnt out ‘Wire House’. Nothing had changed much. This applies to other boarding schools as well. 

Kenyan schools often experienced disturbances, especially in the second term but what we now have is forming into a disturbing pattern. Schools across the country have been affected; scores of students are facing arson charges, with a number of teachers accused of complicity.

The matter has attracted the usual finger pointing. Suggestions that exam cheating cartels are fighting back are simply too fantastic.

Burning of a school dormitory means that the affected school will close, but sordid living conditions in school dorms make burning them a little easier. It is now common to have three-decker beds in boarding schools.

I never imagined things would get that ‘high’. It is equally strange to see girls schools joining in the fray. However, the factors fuelling school fires run deeper than what we see from the dormitories.

Kenyans are paying dearly for a near zero-sum exam-oriented education system that places premium on competitiveness than character.

This competitive streak is not only confined to education, but is an accepted attribute of Kenya’s social, economic and political culture. The fires in our secondary schoolsmight be predictable, but the embers that stoke them run deep. They begin from primary school where it is now common to have overworked, sleep deprived pupils, burdened with sagging school-bags hurtling from class to the endless ‘tuition’ sessions, seven days a week.

I have seen class three pupils do homework for hours, having left for school before dawn and arriving from school long after sunset.

Today, the sessions we used to call PE (Physical Education) and games exist only in name, having been replaced with more and more tuition. These ‘burned out’ kids, robbed of childhood play, enter high schoolwith accumulated pressures.

Overtime, most students are simply a time-bomb waiting for the simplest of triggers, especially when the dreaded second term mock exams approach.

Role of boarding schools

Secondly, we need to have some honest debate of the role of boarding schools, a pattern drawn from British education traditions and Kenya’s colonial past.

The ideal of boarding schools is that they act in loco parentis, or in the place of a parent, where boarding schools undertake the responsibilities of a parent.

The reality is that most boarding schools are overcrowded, dens of deviant horrifying behaviour, and are in no way close to playing the loco-parentis role they ought to play. We require a conversation of how best we can create first rate, excellent day schools, and at the same time revise ourmodels of boarding schools.

The ongoing fires are equally a factor of a vastly changed media landscape. Schooldisturbances often ignite processes of affinities in other schools. This draws from a common human condition. The Arab spring began in Tunisia when a hawker dowsed himself in petrol and the aftermath has changed the political and social make up of three continents.

The school fires in Kenya are happening at a time of a pervasive media, where social media has turned everyone into a potential media house, able to create and share content.

Students are sharing their exploits, especially on social media and this is igniting ‘contagion effects,’ where fireincidences reported and covered in both mainstream and social media become a source of inspiration for subsequent attacks elsewhere.

While the media must change how they report these fires, teachers must not allow students to have mobile phones in schools. 

But there is something else we are missing. The attacks are a form of communication and we must respond appropriately. The current students in our high schools are among the pioneers of the NARC-led free primary education where crowded, non-individualised, dysfunctional learning education replaced orderly individualised learning.

Education massification

Are we paying a price for the haphazard massification of education? I shudder to think what would happen when this lot finally enters university.

I am also troubled by the caliber of schoolsaffected by these fires where over 90 per cent are the former district and second tier provincial schools. Kisii School is an exception in this regard.

There is a disturbing class and economic element in these incidents that require a deeper reflection. The sons and daughters of the working and lower middle classes are agitating in an indictment of the class divide in this country.  

More crucially, the ongoing fires are reflective of other ‘unseen fires’ in ourcountry. We have normalised the discourse of violence in our country. Our children watch while we butcher each other every other election year.

Last year’s elections were no different. These schools, being part of our society, are simply expressing what happens in the wider society where violence is idolised and rewarded, and where the language of violence is slowly becoming an alternate national language. T

here is need for more research to establish the relationship between family background and the potential instability in Kenyan boarding schools. Countrymen, we must act fast before the chickens come home to roost.

- Dr Omanga is a lecturer of Media Studies, Moi University

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