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Studying under trees robs children's dignity

By John Ouma | January 7th 2021

Class Two Pupils at Kanaani Inclusive Primary School start classes under a tree due to inadequate classrooms after school gates reopening on Monday, Jan 4, 2021. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Kenyans have briskly cut down Education CS George Magoha’s statement concerning reopening of schools. Prof Magoha advised teachers to conduct classes under trees as one way of achieving social distancing.

However, Kenyans are directing their anger at the wrong person. Yes, Magoha is responsible for management of the education sector, but the buck stops with President Uhuru Kenyatta. It’s Uhuru who sought and won the consent of Kenyans. At the end of the day, it’s at his door that Kenyans must seek answers.

In a document better known as the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserted that to secure the preservation of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, governments are instituted among men; deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. 

Borrowing from Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason, Jefferson went ahead to announce that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and institute a new government.

That the Kenyan government has failed to improve basic infrastructure in learning institutions to facilitate safe reopening is a strong reminder that it has violated what Jefferson and his comrades termed ‘sacred and undeniable truths’.

Magoha is probably right to argue that learning under trees where oxygen supply is in abundance helps the body to fight coronavirus. But that’s beside the point. Learning should conventionally be taking place inside a classroom, not in the field.

A teacher takes pupils through a lesson under a makeshift classroom under a tree in Turkana county. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Changed life

But, hold on; isn’t this the same government that rode to power seven years ago under the gospel of digital transition where pupils were supposed to be issued with laptops?

Seen through the genius of Jefferson, every citizen has a right to have his or her life preserved by the government of the day. And when would that be more urgent than during a pandemic that has fundamentally changed life the way we know it?

Schools were closed for nearly ten months, but somehow the Jubilee government couldn’t see the sense of building extra classrooms or establishing reliable water supply in schools, or even coming up with a sustainable budget for face masks. But it had time to facilitate a process designed to culminate in a referendum worth more than Sh10 billion, according to the electoral agency.

Such government has failed to fulfill the primary mandate for which it was instituted and, one would expect – of course in a functioning society – that the people would collectively withdraw their consent. Remember the governed, as Margaret Thatcher observed, can withdraw their consent if – especially if – and when they want.

To ensure safety in schools, much as elsewhere, everyone must do their part. That’s how we’re going to defeat this virus. Parents pay school fees, the government ought to provide sanitisers, and masks. But it might not, as it has indicated. Ours has become an almost dysfunctional government with overly misplaced priorities.

Jubilee government

When students are forced to learn under trees because of lack of inadequate classrooms, they are deprived of their dignity. Most schools lack basic infrastructure like desks. Most students sit on stones, sometimes in a pool of water, in deplorable structures.

Exposed to such systemic inequalities, students are robbed of their dignity, day by day. A people who have lost their dignity have also lost their liberty. But governments, according to Jefferson, are instituted among men to protect the liberty of its people. While the Jubilee government has failed to live up to its mandate, we the people, have failed to withdraw our collective consent.

Speaking of liberty, the argument that Kenya achieved freedom when colonialism ended is contestable. The independence government opened another chapter in the Kenyan book of genesis in which liberty and tyranny became Kenyan Abel and Cain.

The inequality in our education system, for example, is one way through which neo-colonialism entrenches itself. Attaching the concept of freedom to the Kenyan story is therefore an abusive and dishonest exercise.

Can a people that have lost their liberty pursue and achieve happiness? I have my reservations. The safety of students has become a concern simply because the government failed to make schools safe for a return to school. Where it was supposed to put up new classrooms, it launched a ‘national healing process’, known as BBI. Where it was supposed to dig boreholes, it budgeted for a referendum.


Mr Ouma is a journalism student at Multimedia University of [email protected]

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