Kenya is Burning

Brenda Wambui
16 August ,2016

The fight against oppression – in all its manifestations – is especially tricky because the rules of challenging the status quo are set by your oppressor. When fighting racism, sexism, classism and most importantly government, the people who stand to benefit from the maintenance of the prevailing system will state how they want you to engage them on your oppression. They will have a boot to your neck, leaving you pinned to the ground unable to move or breathe, and still ask you to “speak clearly in a non-agitated, non-threatening way.”

Using narrow definitions, “acceptable forms of protest” are emphasized – march peacefully up and down the street. Do not show anger. If your protest is looking successful (what does this even mean?) don’t seem to enjoy it. Otherwise the police will rain on your parade. Protests are also portrayed in the media as an inconvenience to the rest of the population not taking part in the protest. It is seen as an impediment to law and order, hence why the public rarely sympathizes when the police beat up protestors. Somehow, protests are viewed as very problematic political behaviour, yet they are central to democracy.

Protesting is a form of civil disobedience – and becomes a viable option when the rule of law clashes with one’s moral or political principles. Henry David Thoreau exhorts that in such a case, one must follow their conscience. It is responsible for many leaps in our advancement – Kenya’s freedom from British colonialism, the protection of our forests/environment, the right of women to wear what they want to name but a few. Globally, protest movements led to the abolition of slavery, women getting the right to vote, the end of (institutionalized) apartheid and racial segregation in South Africa and the United States respectively, and many other victories for human dignity. Protestors are demonized until, somehow, the general perspective shifts and their views/values are co-opted into general society. Only then do they become heroes.

Protesting has been a key feature in the Kenyan education system, though we like to act like it’s “brand new” any time it happens in schools. This paper by Elizabeth Cooper cites cases of student protest in Kenya as far back as 1900, stating:

“In 1900, young men training at the divinity school run by the Church Missionary Society in the freed slave settlement of Freretown,near Mombasa, boycotted their classes and publicly demonstrated to protest the refusal of the principal to offer them instruction in English. In 1908, students at Maseno Boys (then primary) School walked out of their classes and staged a demonstration to protest their assignments of manual labour and demand more reading and writing in their curriculum.”

Even arson in secondary schools is not new – in 1998 Bombolulu Girls was set ablaze and 26 girls lost their lives in a dorm fire. In 2001, 67 boys died at Kyanguli Boys because they were locked in the dorm as it burned. There are many other similar cases, happening primarily in boarding schools. This is not to say that arson is good, it is to suggest that this is a deeply rooted systemic problem that has plagued us for years, and it has no easy answers.

The arsons of the 1990s and early 2000s differ from the recent wave in that they were fatal, and targeted other students as opposed to the previous, and current trend of protests against school conditions. The new wave of arson protests has not claimed any casualties, and has resulted in few injuries, suggesting that all students are clued in and that there is a high level of coordination/planning.

The reasons cited for this wave include poor preparation of students for the mock examinations by teachers (there is a pattern of school unrest being related to poor preparation for exams according to Cooper’s paper), examination cartels pulling strings in the background to protest strict measures against cheating that are bound to affect their bottom line, poor training of teachers and school administrations on how to relate with students, and the generational gap (it has always been fashionable for older generations to castigate younger generations globally).

Arson cases (presently, and those in previous years) have cut across the ethnic and class divide, happening in public and private schools, boys’ and girls’ schools, and at national, provincial and district schools. The common factor has been that mostly boarding schools are burned. We must then ask – what is it about boarding schools that make them susceptible to arson?

Perhaps as a result of our short lifespans, and our short memories, we do not remember that at the heart of these protests are the same issues students have been protesting since the early 1900s – perceived injustice in the educations system. The system is basically rigged against them.

The students do not have sufficient materials to support their education, they have (in many cases) a poor diet, and are treated very harshly by school administrations. Teachers are constantly on strike/at war with the government, and even when they are at schools, they do not prepare students well enough for examinations that have the potential to ruin (or make) their lives. School principals are small gods, waging all manner of petty wars against the students and their teachers, engaging in corrupt practices at the cost of the welfare of students. When they sit national examinations (be it KCPE/KCSE) they are not guaranteed a spot in high school or university respectively because of the resource constraints in our education system. And we wonder why students are angry?

Arson as a tool of protest is thought of as cowardly, but as stated earlier in this essay, this is using the frame of thought of the students’ oppressors. Yet we use it so frequently as a society. We used it against the British colonialist. We also set many things on fire in the 2007/08 post-election violence. Perhaps the students are just taking our example. We have taught them that we only listen to them and make a fuss when they set things on fire. Perhaps the have asked “nicely” and received nothing, and now need to make a point.

The only way to know, and to solve this, is to put them at the centre and ask them what is wrong, and how we can begin to fix this. This is alien to a society like ours that does its best to treat lives as disposable, and where human rights are thought of as a privilege. I feel like many of us know the answer deep down because we were in boarding schools, but it helps to ask the students since they are the ones in the throes of this terrible system at the moment. Otherwise, we will continue to ask the same questions about student unrest year-in, year-out with no recourse.

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