Sitting recently in a committee set up to formulate mentorship strategies for the students of one public university, who were seemingly getting distracted from their studies by myriad emotional, financial and social challenges, I was seized by mixed emotions.
It was somewhat like that moment in a great drama when the hero is unfairly humiliated, such as when Ezeulu, that revered traditional priest in Chinua Achebe’s classic Arrow of God, descends into insanity, following months-long incarceration by the irreverent Captain Winterbottom. The English colonisers cared nothing about Ezeulu’s demigod-like status among his Igbo tribesmen.
A recent widely-circulated social media SOS ostensibly authored by ‘comrades’ earnestly begged President William Ruto for free government food aid. It dramatically captured the plummeting plight of the once-vaunted Kenyan university student. I felt quite sad witnessing the traditional ‘Comrade Power!’ rallying clarion - once barked in a high, military-style pitch - being silenced by penury, hopelessness and despair.
The need for intervention was motivated by strong indicators such as shrinking pass-rates, deferments, and increased applications for supplementary examinations. There was also a sharp spike of in-hostel violence- some fatal-, substance abuse, obvious physical emaciation, and pregnancies.
Some of the cases revealed could break a heart of stone. One student subsisted on uji (gruel) for days on end because cooking ugali would quickly deplete her little reserve of flour. Others moonlighted as farm hands and house-helps in the neighbourhood of their hostels in between lectures. Famished students regularly fainted in the lecture halls, while sometimes, female students had to choose between morality and starvation.
Frantic pursuit of financial redemption has herded university students into a trap of online gambling at an industrial scale, some going as far as betting away their school fees and pocket money. In most cases, the parents back home, already overwhelmed by their own immediate hardships, were completely oblivious of their children’s pernicious plight.
This grim situation is a microcosm of contemporary college life countrywide. It is a culmination of many factors, among them, impossibly high cost of living, loss of guardians’ livelihoods due to the Covid-19 crisis, the ravages of the prevailing drought, and a lack of basic financial management skills among students.
The toxic veneration of Kenyan politics as a sure avenue to instant, fabulous wealth has subtly communicated to young people the futility of ‘wasting’ time in scholarship. What would one expect, anyway, with videos circulating of former village bumpkins who can hardly conjure a single sentence in coherent English, now occupying lofty policy-making perches as MCAs and CSs in the devolved units, and even nationally.
The university ‘comrade’, just like Ezeulu the priest, has not always been cold and hungry. My own freshman cohort of the mid '90s definitely sampled the last ‘years of plenty’ in the Kenyan university system, though midway through our studies, the curtain fell irreversibly on our highly cosseted lifestyles.
What a sumptuous gastronomical jubilee greeted us – some straight from bucolic pastoralism and subsistence farming - upon our arrival in those fabled citadels of knowledge. Lifelong connoisseurs of githeri, ngwaci, sageti and other countryside staples now suddenly faced tables groaning under the weight of an exotic menu, 90 per cent of whose items they were seeing for the first time.
Some of us lost control, regularly making mischievous early evening visits (called ‘OC’, opening ceremony) to the students' mess to treat themselves to stuffed chicken and other delicacies, before returning in time for a finale of mutton and mushroom soup just before the dining hall closed.
The government’s generous semestrial allowance provided to all public university students, then colloquially called ‘boom’, fueled considerable conspicuous consumption, which manifested in trendy prettification, expensive music ‘systems’, carefree binging and carousing for those so inclined.
Yet, this same material comfort also provided the perfect, unencumbered ambience wherein some of the best minds in the country today were incubated. For me, the arena of those unbelievably princely experiences was Egerton University, lately steeped in an unfortunate and monumental pecuniary morass.
Space would fail for an exhaustive list of possible solutions. For a start, institutions with enough land should build more hostels to accommodate students on-campus. This could lessen social exposure, ease monitoring, and possibly enable the provision of a one-meal-per-day feeding programme for the most vulnerable. If external hostels must be used, they should be closely regulated by the universities’ deans of students.
Student mentoring programmes should be proactively strengthened by linking up students with serious role models who can advise them on the key financial, social, physical, spiritual and mental spheres of life in the university. University students’ unions have a central part to play in identifying the most vulnerable among their ranks.
Although undergraduates consider themselves independent adults, universities must regularly update their parents and guardians on their social and academic state using modern cheap technologies such as bulk SMSs.
Finally, the government must shelf the much-faulted threat to withdraw public universities funding. Its ripple effect would make the students’ situation much more untenable.