Joshua Otieno slept in a ladies hostel the day he joined Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.
It was getting late and the first year student who had travelled to the university alone in a town he had never been to before was still stuck in a long queue, waiting to be cleared to get a room in a hostel.
When staff at the university called it a day, announcing that registration would resume the following day, Otieno was one of the students that were left stranded at the expansive university, not knowing where to spend the night.
There was confusion everywhere as disgruntled students explored different options. Some checked themselves into nearby lodgings while those who couldn’t afford expensive accommodation slept on the benches outside and braced themselves for the long cold night.
But Otieno was not going to spend the night out in the cold. He had sat next to a woman in a matatu who had assured him that his first day in university would be stress-free.
“I remembered sitting next to a woman who gave me her sister’s phone number. She said her sister, who was a senior student at the university, would help me find my way around the university,” says Otieno.
He was relieved when the lady, a Fourth Year pharmacy student, showed up and took him to a room she had rented outside the university where she stayed alone.
“It was a great relief for me. I was tired and hungry from the long hours I spend on registration queues. All I wanted was a warm bath, food and a place to sleep at one of the lady’s male friends,” he says.
But there was no male friend around. He ended up sharing a bed with the lady. It is an incident the Second Year international diplomacy student wishes to forget.
“I had heard a lot about the carefree lifestyle in university but I never thought it would get to a point where a male student shared a bed with a female student. I am lucky I met a well-behaved lady, who was only eager to help me around without asking for anything in return,” he says.
And with that, Otieno was usher into a new world totally different from what he had known in high school. It was a world where students did as they pleased.
Unlike high school where the bell woke him up and cheered him into a busy day that started in crowded bathrooms, he learnt that university life gave one the option of sleeping the whole day and night (although consequences would come later).
No one seemed to care whether or not he attended classes or submitted his assignments. Parties, alcohol and outings would be the order of the day at the institution where students freely roamed residences of the opposite sex even in ungodly hours.
Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKuat) Dean of Students, Dr James Wakaba, says First Year university students grapple with their newfound freedom in their first days in school. Male students, he says, are lured into using drugs.
“Many illicit businesses around universities thrive when First Year students come in. All universities have these small dungeons where illicit brew and drugs are sold to First Year students who come in with a lot of money from Helb (Higher Education Loans Board) and from their guardians,” says Dr Wakaba. Female students, on the other hand, are enticed into relationships with senior students, he says.
“First Year female students don’t accept relationships from their classmates. They instead go for senior students who appear more stable in life. These students fall for things like carpets and music systems...,” he says.
But the excitement is usually short-lived, says Dr Wakaba, who doubles up as the university’s chaplain.
“Older male students talk about Ponyoka na Fresha (Get Away with Fresher) whenever First Year students report to campus. Their intent is only to trick the naïve girls into relationships, use them and to later dump them. But the girls always imagine they are getting into serious relationships,” says Dr Wakaba.
Once dropped, First Year female students suffer from varying degrees of depression. Male students, on the other hand, get depressed when they waste their money on drugs and illicit brew and become broke in their first month of university.
A recent study on depression among university students revealed that First Year students are more likely to be depressed than senior students in university.
The study by researchers at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Nairobi (UoN), Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and other collaborating researchers found that First Year students were leading in depression levels at at 33 per cent.
Dr Wakaba says it takes about a month for the lost freshmen to come back to their senses. This is usually after they are subjected to their first continuous assessment test, which they fail after snubbing classes in favour of parties, alcohol and unhealthy relationships.
“About 95 per cent of First Year students usually mend their ways after learning a lesson the hard way. And it only takes a month for them to remember what we tell them during orientation,” says Dr Wakaba.
At Maseno University, Vincent Ngetich was attentive as the rules concerning conduct at the university were read to all First Year students on their orientation day.
The university was especially definite on the 10-to-10 rule that forbade students from going to hostels of the opposite gender between 10pm and 10am. Students who went against the rule would be heavily punished by the university’s disciplinary committee, the students were warned.
But the university would never make good its threat. “Janitors who are charged with the responsibility of enforcing the 10-to-10 rule never forward any names. Others are bribed into silence by students they catch disobeying the rule. I don’t remember anyone being punished because they were caught in someone’s room,” says Ngetich.
Mary Nduati, a First Year student pursuing mathematics and economics at Tom Mboya University College, Homa Bay, has been forced to walk alone after her friends changed for the worst. “I am sad that the innocent girls I knew when we joined university have chosen to behave like couples when their parents know that they are studying to have a good future,” she says.
National Parents Association Chairman Nicholas Maiyo says parents sacrifice their comfort to give a decent education to their children. He calls on university students to ‘feel’ for their parents and concentrate on their studies.
Maiyo says the biggest worry for any parent is seeing their children off to university where they have no one to watch over them.
“The thought of sending children to university where they are expected to behave like adults scares most parents. We know the university could be a rotten place and full of peer pressure where innocent children are forced to join bad company in order to fit in,” he says.
He is concerned that universities are increasingly admitting underage students into crowded institutions where they are supposed to look for their own accommodation. He says things were different a while back.
“When I went to Jomo Kenyatta College of Agriculture and Technology (now JKuat) in the 1980s, there were very few of us and we were all accommodated at the university, provided meals and allowed supervised movement outside university. But today, universities are so crowded with underage students who are forced to look for accommodation outside where no one cares to know what they are up to,” says Maiyo.
Ronald Juma, Pwani University Dean of Students, says First Year students are easy prey for criminals who operate along the coast.
Past media reports have hinted to child prostitution, drug trafficking, money laundering in Kisauni, Bombolulu, Bamburi, Kilifi, Watamu, Mnarani, Malindi and Kilifi, where Pwani University is located.
“Beach boys and drug peddlers along the coast easily recruit university students into crime along the coast. We are always on the lookout for this,” says Juma.
Other students, says Juma, yield to pressure from their senior peers and become addicted to mnazi, a local brew sold at joints around the university. Still, others out of excitement of seeing the ocean for the first time in their lives, waste time on the beaches instead of attending classes.
Favourite spots along the beachline for First Year students near the university are Kidazini, Mazingira and areas around Kilifi Members Club, which are free to the public, he says. Fun activities in these places are announced on social media to attract First Year students.
Juma has handled cases of First Year students, who, for lack of knowledge about the ocean, hurt themselves or even lost their lives.
“Some four First Year students drowned in the four years I have been dean at this university. Many others have been injured when they went to swim without knowing that the undercurrents at sea were very strong or that the places where they went to swim were too deep or rocky,” he says.
To help First Years adjust to their new-found freedom, Juma says the students are enrolled into clubs and societies where they spend a lot of their free time.
“All clubs and associations try to register as many First Year students as possible during the whole week of arrival of freshmen at the university,” he says.
But Maiyo proposes radical measures to cushion First Year students.
“It is high time the Government looked into providing uniform to university students. This way, those who join university would feel they are still students and behave like students. The move would also scare away older men who prey on young university students,” says Maiyo.