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Moi Girls tragedy could have been avoided had teen not been ignored

By Kamau Muthoni | Dec 18th 2021 | 7 min read
St John's Ambulance members carry photos of the nine Moi Girls School students who perished in the 2017 dormitory fire. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The deadly fire incident in Moi Girls School, Nairobi, could have been averted if students, teachers and the parents of a teenager who started it did not ignore telltale signs she was a timebomb waiting to explode.

In 2017, 10 Moi Girls students died. On Thursday this week, the girl implicated in the arson case was found guilty of manslaughter.

However, the testimonies and data before court indicate that those who interacted with her prior to the deadly furnace saw a disaster coming but they chose to brush it off.

Her friends thought it was just another prank because she did not do what she had said earlier.

The girl, referred to court as TWG, wanted to drive a point home that she was not made for the school. From her first day, she loathed spending another minute in it. And when she was not helped, she opted to start a fire to make a statement, and death came calling.

From court records, if the students had reported that TWG was troubled and had a matchbox, if the teachers and parents did not insist on keeping her in the school, then, maybe, she would have not burnt her bed.

A teacher was told of TWG’s intentions and did nothing.

Late admission

TWG joined Moi Girls late. She was admitted following interventions from senior officials at Jogoo House.

From the evidence in court, she was unhappy about her new school and complained that it was unhygienic.  

Form Ones were made to clean toilets. At the same time, she was aggrieved that her parents did not listen to her and had barred her from participating in a writing competition.

“I have read all the evidence presented to this court. That the subject was a troubled girl is no secret. From her first day in school, it was clear she did not like the school,” said Justice Stella Mutuku.

From the onset, Justice Mutuku observed that the school was crowded, including in the dormitories. She was of the view that with a population of 1,183 students, it was obvious that the school’s management had a gargantuan task to ensure all students were well taken care of.

On her first day in school, TWG was found by one of the senior students crying. The student, identified in court as BM, was state witness number seven. She narrated that when she inquired why the new girl in school was crying, TWG informed her that she had been left by her parents and the matron did not take her bags.

BM helped TWG get a bed in the upper section of Kabarnet dormitory, near the front door.

TWG ought to have had a ‘big sister’ to help orientate her to the school’s norms and show her around, but she did not get one. 

It was BM who volunteered to be her big sister, and they became friends.

“I decided to help her. I took her to class but she had no chair. I gave her a stool,” BM testified.

Girl implicated in the arson case was found guilty of manslaughter. [George Njunge, Standard]

Fast forward to the second term. The court heard that one day, TWG went missing and when BM inquired from her friends, they told her that she had left a note on her locker saying goodbye to her friends.

Private security

According to BM, the note read that TWG was to take acid and die. Upon mounting a search, they found her next to the chemistry laboratory with a Form Three student. She was crying, but looked okay.

The students did not inform anyone about the incident.

Moi Girls is surrounded by a razor wire and at the front, on Joseph Kang’ethe Road, there is a kei apple fence.

The school has two gates. Gate A opens to the administration block while Gate B leads to the chapel and classrooms.

The gates are manned by a private security firm.

However, at the time the disaster happened, there were two police officers from Kilimani Police Station who were stationed at the gates following a special request from the school’s administration.

What is not clear from the evidence adduced in court is whether the management had information of looming trouble when they called the police to assist.

The extra-county school opened for the new term on August 28, 2017. All the students who went through Gate B were inspected and their bags searched to ensure they did not bring any prohibited items to school.

The story of Moi Girls was to change barely four days later. A disaster struck in the wee hours of September 1 that took the lives of 10 students.

A fire that we now know started from TWG’s bed gutted Kabarnet dormitory, leaving a trail of loss and grief for the families that lost their daughters.

At first, it was assumed the fire might have been sparked by an electric fault. But soon there was talk it might have been an external arson attack. 

Nevertheless, a rumour that the Form One student had started the fire led the police to her and she was subsequently arrested.

Photos of some of the students who perished in the Moi Girls tragedy. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

TWG was charged with the murders of Alakiir Awan, Natalie Asiko, Esther Neema, Eunice Otieno, Nancy Wamuthere, Azz Hawa, Whitney Kerubo, Hannah Jesiyo, Mary Chengo and Leah Wambui.

She had initially been charged with nine counts of murder but the State substituted the charges on October 3 after an additional student died. TWG denied the charges. The State called 42 witnesses to support its case.

TWG’s story cannot be complete without events preceding the fateful day being retold. According to court records, the now 19-year-old wanted to leave the school by any means.

Another witness narrated that she initially mooted running away and when this did not happen, she tried to suffocate herself with the help of her friends. She also drank hand sanitiser and when nothing worked, the last option was to light her bed on fire.

A day before the school opened, on August 27, TWG sent her friend–code-named KJM–a WhatsApp message that she would burn the school.

It emerged that before the incident, four of her classmates, including the 10th victim, saw the teenager with a matchbox. She even demonstrated to them how she could ‘cast spells’ using it. Her friends had to blow out that small flame out of fear that a teacher would find out.

One of her friends, LNN, narrated to the court that TWG had planned to burn the hostel on August 31 but did not do so because they were too many people.

According to this witness, TWG showed her a Dettol hand sanitizer labeled ‘highly flammable’. She had circled ‘highly flammable’.

Before the incident, the girl had planned to run away and this time, the school called her mother to pick her. She was taken for counseling after this.

Her deskmate testified that she used to prick herself using a biro pen and complained that she wanted a transfer.

Meanwhile, WhatsAppp messages retrieved from her phone showed that she was interested in the Illuminati and had told another classmate that she would not be in school by August 28.

The classmate–codenamed CA–thought that she was getting a transfer. When she saw TWG with a matchbox, she brushed it off.

“The subject did not like the school. She hated it. Her parents seemed unconcerned about her circumstances.  She had made an attempt to remain in one class with an aim of escaping from school leading to counseling,” said Justice Mutuku.

Before she succumbed to her burns, the 10th victim narrated to her mother what happened.

According to the victim’s mother, the girl explained that TWG had a WhatsApp group with other classmates but she (her daughter) was kept out of the group because she could not keep secrets.

“She told me they thought it was a joke because TWG would say she would do something but failed to do it,” the parent codenamed VW testified.

The daughter told her mother that they reported to a teacher but nothing happened.

Justice Mutuku continued, “She wanted a transfer, something which the parents did not seem to give a listening ear to. She also seemed to be crying for attention. She seemed unprepared for a public school like the one she landed in.”

On the night of the incident, her friends and the 10th victim held a prayer before resting.

VW’s daughter told her that TWG asked God to forgive her for what she was about to do.

Fear and anger

There was also the question of her writing the lyrics of a song ‘I See Fire’ by Ed Sheeran and marking her calendar ‘world end’.

The judge said the two actions were not related to the incident.

In her defence, TWG denied the claims. She, however, admitted being in a WhatsApp group but denied sending the messages. About the note she left on her locker, TWG said she was expressing fear and anger and at that time, “her stomach felt like burning”.

She said she would drink hand sanitizer because she was scared and did not know what to do.

TWG also denied being in a cult, and lighting the fire.

Instead, she testified that she remained in class on the night she was alleged to have planned to escape to stay away from senior girls who had made sexual advances towards her.

On the fateful night, she said, she was in the washroom as she felt nauseated and had a running stomach.

At 2am, she testified that she met a girl whose face she could not see because it was dark. According to TWG, she went back to the purple section of the hostel after 10 minutes only to find her bed on fire.

Her defence was that someone might have come from Kibra slums because the school’s wall was not high.

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