Part of the national examinations for Agriculture students in secondary school is to grow a certain crop to maturity. It was maize in 2001 when I sat the national secondary school examinations but there was a shocker for some of my classmates when they found that someone had slashed their way through their plots and there was nothing to harvest.
The teachers worked out a way to grade the affected students and there was naturally some tension in the school as the administration tried to find the culprits.
They were never found and 20 years later, none of my classmates has owned up, at least publicly, to the slashing of the plots. Everyone however knows why the maize had been cut down: the students who had farmed them were prefects and they were being punished for having handed out nasty punishments to their classmates.
That incident was brought up in my high school WhatsApp group recently in a debate over the proposed reintroduction of caning, otherwise known as corporal punishment, in schools to stem indiscipline.
Some government officials have cited the lack of corporal punishment as a factor in the widespread burning of schools by students. From my own experience, it is hard to get to a clear and logical answer to the question of whether to reintroduce corporal punishment as suggested by the tough-talking Cabinet Secretaries for Interior and Education.
People who were in school in the period up to 2001 know only too well how punishment was before the Children’s Act of 2001, which banned corporal punishment. Two teachers stand out for me: one Miss Gichure in primary school and one in high school that we had nicknamed Spange.
Miss Gichure was on Teaching Practice from a college, and she had anger management issues. She would sweep into the noisy class on an afternoon and demand the list of noisemakers. Once she had it, she would then proceed to ask us to present ourselves one by one for whipping.
Allowed to cane
We could tell she was angry about the noise and passionate about her use of the cane because of the enthusiasm with which she went about it and the energy she expended doing it.
In high school, Spange was the Deputy Principal and was one of two teachers allowed to cane students – the other was the principal. When I clashed with the rugby coach and he reported me to him, Spange made me lie on the floor in his office and whipped me so much that I was peeling dead skin of my behind for weeks.
Some of us celebrated when upon transfer to another school, some students to set his car on fire.
The discipline system was set up hierarchically, where each prefect would identify lawbreakers, write down their names in a book and inform them of their booking and if necessary call out their names in the dining hall.
The lawbreakers would then line up at the parade ground during the lunchbreak and on Saturday morning and punishment would be issued. The penance ranged from washing corridors and other common areas to slashing a patch of grass or digging in a flower bed.
One malicious prefect had me comb the grass in one quadrangle for the victimless crime of allegedly failing to comb my hair.
Gross offenders or those who had failed to attend the lunchtime punishment parade would attend the Saturday morning parade for the handing out of heavier tasks, such as washing three classes. That would be followed by an appointment with the Deputy Principal on Monday morning for six of the best. You were also liable for caning if a teacher directly reported you to the Deputy Principal.
When the ban on corporal punishment came into effect, the administration’s hands were effectively tied as the only method of punishment was menial labour.
Menial labour means the offender is left tired from working in the cold or in hot weather, with calloused hands from digging up stumps, with time away from the reason you went to school in the first place.
When the students went slashing the maize belonging to the bad prefects, it was the last act of rebellion and an expression of anger at the unnecessary tasks they had been made to perform by their colleagues.
If corporal punishment was to be re-introduced, it would require laws or regulations that dictate how and by whom it is to be administered – like the Deputy Principal, Discipline Master or the Principal – but it would be difficult to expect every one of them in the country to be reasonable people who can apply the cane with wisdom.
At an intellectual level, we probably wouldn’t want ours to be the country that found a way for barbarism towards minors to be legislated. The option would probably also not be menial labour as it’s another form of barbarism that would be difficult to legislate and enforce.
Members of the Kenya Pediatricians Association have helpfully pointed out that the apparent increase in indiscipline is a cry of help from children burdened by stressors that have broken down their coping mechanisms. Perhaps, rather than having administrators, we should have more professionals advising us on how to inculcate discipline rather than how to punish the undisciplined.
The writer is the Head of Content at Oxygéne MCL, an Integrated Marketing and Communication firm based in Nairobi.