Spare a thought for our children, what they need is understanding

Emmanuel Manyasa [Courtesy]

Today, we celebrate the World Children’s Day in uniquely difficult circumstances.

We are firmly reminded why we need this day, which is observed to create awareness on children’s education, rights and access to proper care. Across the world, millions of children remain out of school due to Covi-19 ravages. In neighbouring Uganda, children have been out of school for almost two years and still counting. Many of them, especially girls, might never return to school because they have become teenage mothers, brides or child labourers. Those who are back have carried with them psycho-social and emotional burdens wrought on them by the pandemic’s socio-economic impacts that continue to hinder their learning.

Across Kenya, boarding schools have experienced incidents of arson, drawing justifiable fury from the adult population generally, and education stakeholders in particular. In this context of palpable public anger, I urge the adults to spare a thought for our children. I encourage them to desist from making utterances that stereotype a whole generation to whom the future of this country belongs. I’m as angry as anyone can be. In three months, five dormitories in my alma mater, Sigalame High School, have been torched, putting the next generation of my fellow alumni and their parents through untold suffering. But I’m not angry with all the boys in the school. I’m angrier with the authorities.

My anger aside, I want to indulge you on some of the utterances that in my view, are both senseless and inimical to the wellbeing of children. First is the portrayal of this generation as an evil one bereft of basic values. Second is the notion that corporal punishment, or indeed any other form of denigrating punishment, would improve discipline in schools. Third is the chorus about abolishing boarding schools.

Why do we think this generation is the worst ever? School fires are not new. Past ones may not have been as rampant, but schools were not as many either. Condemning the children, while easy, reeks of escapism by adults who don’t want to answer for their omissions and commissions. First, the fires persist as a result of a national culture of impunity where nobody answers for anything. Otherwise, how can one school be burned five times in three months and no adult is held responsible for dereliction of duty? Secondly, the recent fires have not been occasioned by riots. This means that they are works of small cliques of conspirators. Bearing in mind that no credible probe has precluded non-students’ involvement, how can we roundly condemn millions of children for actions of tens of them without exhibiting irresponsibility?

There are many broken arguments for corporal punishment all over the place. If a woman believes that it is okay to mete out violence on children to cure indiscipline in schools, does she also believe that men should revert to wife battering of old to maintain discipline in families? If a man believes that violence on children will cure indiscipline in schools, does he also believe that flogging of public order offenders would return society to the orderly ways of the past? If not, are children lesser humans? In any case, is there any scientific proof that caning improves discipline levels? If my memory serves me right, the most abhorrent and regrettable incidents of school unrest happened in the era of official caning. So, let us be imaginative and come up with 21st century tools to solve 21st century problems. The 20th century cane by which some of us were raised will not raise 21st century children.

Finally, before joining the chorus on closure of boarding schools, I would like us to analyse KCSE results for the last 10 years – compare the performance by day schools against boarding schools and boarding students against the day schoolers in schools with both groups of learners. Let the evidence guide us. Otherwise, I’m irked by the thought that many of those calling for abolition of boarding schools benefited from the same to escape, albeit seasonally, from unfriendly home environments that would have hurt their education. Have they forgotten where they came from, or is it the case of dismantling the bridge once across to keep the others on the wrong side of the river?

All in all, school fires are bad. Indiscipline is bad. But let us spare a thought for our children. They deserve to be understood, and to be heard just in case some of the fires are being lit in their name, but not by them. Let us interrogate the children and the adults around the fire scenes and teach our children that criminality carries personal and not group responsibility.

- Dr Manyasa is the executive director, Usawa Agenda

The Standard
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