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41 years after lightning killed 11 pupils, schools still unsafe

COUNTIES
By Stanley Ongwae | May 8th 2021
Philip Nyasani survived the lightning strike in 1980. [Stanley Ongwae, Standard]

On June 30, 1980, an unforgettable calamity struck a primary school in the present-day Nyamira County, leading to the death of 11 pupils.

Villages around Biego Primary School in Borabu sub-county still remember how lightning struck the school, sending shock waves across the entire country.

About 50 other pupils were injured in the tragedy while others were left traumatised.

Philip Nyasani, now aged 52, is among the people who lived to tell the story of that fateful black Monday afternoon. To date, it hurts him that he lost four cousins, one of them was his best friend.

“Four of my cousins were among the victims. It was such an unforgettable awful day for me and this village,” he said.

Nyasani, a father of four, said the tragedy happened a few minutes to games time. The entire school had concluded lessons and pupils were readying for games. A debate was going on in one of the classrooms.

“I was with my cousin and we had just entered one of the Standard Seven streams where a debate was ongoing when I saw a blinding flash. I went into a trance and I didn’t know what happened until I opened my eyes a few minutes later and saw so many children lying outside the classrooms,” Nyasani said.

A lightning arrester at Biego Primary School in Borabu, Nyamira County. [Stanley Ongwae, Standard]

Ronald Mose, 70, a parent whose three children survived the tragedy, said the thunderstorm was so devastating that he thought it struck his home, which is about three kilometres away from the school.

For Mzee Nyababu Nyabuku, it was a day that left a permanent scar in his heart after his son died in the tragedy.

“I don’t wish to remember that day. It haunts me to date. I remember running to the school with iron sheets which we clattered in the ears of the pupils to awaken them. But unfortunately, those who we could not help died and those who survived were taken to Nyamira Hospital where they were treated,” said Nyabuku, 72.

Today, a 41-year-old wrought iron lightning arrester at the school is the only reminder of the catastrophe.

Were it not for the Catholic Church that stood firm against burying the 11 pupils in the school compound, according to Gusii customs on burial of people struck by lightning, a mass grave yard would also be another memorial of the tragedy within the school compound.

According to Gusii traditional customs, a person or persons killed by lightning should be buried at the spot they were killed.

In the Nyamira school’s case, the Catholic Diocese of Kisii, then under the late Bishop Tiberious Mogendi, dictated that parents do away with the customs and bury the children, each at their homes.

The rusty wrought iron mast standing behind a classroom block in the school garden is a stack reminder of what many residents of Biego village say remains the worst tragedy to strike the area.

11 pupils died and about 50 others were seriously injured. [Stanley Ongwae, Standard]

Even though the mast that is about four metres high above the ground doesn’t serve its sole purpose anymore, it has remained intact, save for about 10 copper wires loosely hanging from its top.

To date, lightning still remains a dreaded killer in Gusii highlands, owing to the high altitude of the area and a highly-rated affinity of active metallic ions which attract it.

“Gusii is marked as one of the areas with high affinity for thunderstorms and lightning strikes. This calls for serious mitigation measures against such catastrophes,” Jasper Onkangi, an environmentalist based in Kisii County, said.

In 2004, lightning killed four pupils at Mosobeti Primary School, sparking more fears over safety in public institutions in terms of lightning. Onkangi said there is a need for all schools in the region to be protected by installing lightning arresters. A spot check in Nyamira South revealed that Biego is the only school with three arresters installed out of the 50 institutions The Saturday Standard visited in Borabu.

Nyamira County Commissioner Amos Mariba concurred with the environmentalist that all schools should be protected against lightning: “The issue of protecting institutions is on top of the agenda and something is being done about it.”

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