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Rioting students? Not a problem for Mr Carey Francis

By Amos Kareithi | November 9th 2021
The first three headmasters of the Alliance High School (1926-70) from left: Carrey Francis-the father of mathematics, Rev G.W Grieve and Mr Francis. [File, Standard]

At a time when the country was literally burning and student riots were the order of the day, a former university don set out to quash this rebellion.

Edward Carey Francis was so strict that even teachers’ wives had to be mindful of the perfumes they wore, the colour of dress they chose for the school parade and, more importantly, the hemline–exposing the thigh could send Francis on the rampage. Then, it was mandatory for teachers’ spouses to attend school assemblies at Alliance High School. 

To latter-day scholars, Francis was famous for authoring mathematics textbooks, but to students at Alliance in the 1940s and 1950s, the legend was a package of mystical powers, and a disciplinarian who had mastered all their names.

When Francis took over Alliance in 1940, he introduced new measures by changing the school uniform, scrapping the maroon fez and introducing plain khaki shorts and shirts. 

The boys felt had gone too far when he expelled teachers who opposed his new rules and allocated some land to each boy who was expected to grow vegetables to be given to British soldiers fighting in the Second World War.   

This sent the students on a riot but Francis met them with hellfire. His reaction to the strikes is well documented by one of Kenya’s most renowned novelist, Ngugi wa Thiongo.

In his memoirs, In the House of the Interpreter, Thiongo writes:

“Carey Francis responded with a mixture of expulsions and caning, the boys readmitted on one on one basis, only after each of them accepted in writing that they were wrong, promised to obey the new rules and said ‘thank you, sir’ for the punishment.”

These were difficult times for teachers who lived in daily terror of being attacked by Mau Mau and had loaded guns in their houses while students were at one point armed with bows and arrows.

It is not clear why Francis, born in London on September 13, 1897, educated in the best schools in London and offered a job as a Mathematics lecturer at the prestigious Cambridge University, had opted to throw away all that in 1928 so as to become a headmaster in Africa.

The cane, which was used to administer punishment then, has been criminalised and repealed from the statutes.  

But 81 years later, students are still setting their schools on fire, reigniting the debate of bringing back the cane, even though psychologists and child development experts have warned that this will not solve the current madness.  

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