Is Uhuru’s Government forcing back harambee school system on parents?

A teacher struggles to divide a classroom into two at Hyrax primary school. Pupils learn on dusty floors and the available desk are not enough. [File, Standard]

Since John Owalo, the separatist African church clergyman, established the first genuine community self-help schools in Kenya over 100 years ago to provide western education, different shades of self-help movement have emerged.

While Mr Owalo and his colleagues in the African independent church leadership concentrated their educational efforts on religious self-determination, other groups pushed for independent western education that would guarantee preservation of ethnic cultural identity.

But above all, radical African elites wished for an education system that would bring academic parity among different racial groups.

According to Dr David Barrett, an expert on colonial education in East Africa, as early as 1930s, some Africans in Kenya wanted to build schools on similar lines as those attended by Europeans. “Not until our children get degrees are we going to stop agitating for education, one Amos Waweru had said in 1934,” says Barrett. 

It is under this background that community financing of education, and more so secondary education, took a new turn after independence when President Jomo Kenyatta used harambee as his signature for nation building.

“If you want a secondary school for your children, who are stopping you to build one?” Kenyatta is reported to have chided a delegation from Murang’a that had complained to him in 1963 of shortage of secondary schools.   

Shortly after, harambee secondary schools sprang up all over the country and by 1978 when Kenyatta died, the number had increased from 151 in 1963 to 1,773. Most of those schools had been built through harambee effort. By 1990, while the number of government maintained secondary schools had risen to about 600, the number of secondary schools initially started by local communities on self-help basis had been over 2,000. 

This meant that in terms of enrollment, secondary schools principally started by the government were piggybacking on harambee school system.

But despite their superiority in numbers and subsequent enrollment capacity, harambee schools were characterised by scarce learning resources such as qualified teachers, libraries and laboratories.

In this regard, most harambee schools had no concrete base for academic excellence, says Prof Sorobea Bogonko, a leading historian on Kenya’s education profile.

But amid efforts to whitewash a system that had become a blot on secondary education, the government in the early 1990s, took over all self-help secondary schools. The tag ‘harambee school’ was discarded as it portrayed a school that offered low quality education.

Abandoned projects 

According to a World Bank briefing on harambee secondary education movement in Kenya, quantitative expansion was not matched by quality improvements in harambee schools.

“Besides, half of harambee school projects had been abandoned before completion because of funding constraints and lack of motivation, leading to wastage,” says the briefing. 

By then, a large number of harambee schools had stagnated as a result of lack of political sponsorship. According to Dr Kilemi Mwiria, a former assistant minister of Education, since the late 1960s the harambee school movement had assumed a political character as local politicians, keen to ingratiate themselves with their constituents, began to play a principal role in establishment of new schools and supporting existing ones.

“Additionally, harambee secondary school accounts were not subjected to regular auditing, a situation that had given way to misappropriation of school funds by corrupt headteachers and their schoolcommittees,” says Mwiria in a study, ‘Kenya’s Harambee Secondary School Movement: The Contradictions of Public Policy’.

Nevertheless, the taking over of responsibility of harambee schools by the government did not put to an end raising funds for secondary school projects. While the government provided teachers, nothing was done to improve the schools’ infrastructure.

To address the problem of limited learning facilities, especially in harambee schools that were taken over, the government allowed school committees to collect funds for specific projects.

Although this seemed a noble idea, school harambee movement shifted from being a voluntary initiative to a mandatory responsibility anchored in a school’s fees structure. But the worst part is that headteachers and their school committees came up with projects that had nothing to do with increasing critical learning resources. 

Instead of building libraries, laboratories, sanitation facilities, or any other project that would improve learning, clamour for a school bus, swimming pool, school magazine, multi-purpose hall, headteacher’s house, often outside the school, and ‘proper’ furniture for  headteacher’s house and office and other projects made secondary education too expensive. 

Addressing headteachers on cost and financing of secondary education some years ago, David Siele, a former director of higher education, faulted school heads and committees for increasing cost of education through mandatory harambees.

Critical learning resource

It is for this reason that parents with children in Murang’a High School are against the plan to compel them to contribute Sh40,000 each for a harambee expected to raise Sh45 million towards construction of a swimming pool and a computer lab. 

There is no question that a swimming pool might raise the status of the school but one wonders whether it is a critical learning resource the students cannot do without.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt the principal of Murang’a High School is keen to raise the status and prestige of the school. 

The underlying truth is that Murang’a High was recently upgraded into a national school but what this means to parents and their children admitted there is still in doubt.

Does it mean the government’s duty is just to upgrade schools to higher levels and then expect parents to put in physical facilities commensurate with such status? Secondly, what will happen to students whose parents will not afford the amount needed for the harambee? 

It is only a few years ago the government waived over Sh14 billion in outstanding fees payment most of which was a result of hefty fees increases to fund unnecessary projects in schools. But as we look at the situation, old habits die hard. Just as Kenyatta urged Murang’a delegation to go and build schools for their children, this time round the government seems to be telling Murang’a people: “We gave you a national school, equip it.”