Kenya: Acts of Violence or a Cry for Help? What Fuels Kenya’s School Fires?
Students torching schools has been a common event in Kenya during the last two decades. The most notable of them was a dormitory fire at a secondary school outside Nairobi that killed 67 pupils 20 years ago.
This year, the government was obliged to shut all primary and secondary schools for a few days due to another outbreak of dormitory and school building fires.
In 2017, the government-run National Crime Research Centre undertook a “quick evaluation of arson in secondary schools” in the midst of a string of fatal school fires.
The center identified potential reasons and solutions to the situation. Exam-related anxiety, coursework load, social pressure, school leadership, and a lack of advice and counseling were among the issues mentioned.
Other critical aspects were missed in these theories. These include horrible conditions in many public schools, student oppression, and violations of their humane treatment rights. The psychological effects of institutionalization and authoritarian rule are overlooked while external causes are prioritized.
Few academic research has been conducted on the Kenyan school protest phenomena. According to 2013 research, violence was a technique of self-realization that only helped to prolong cycles of violence. Another study published in 2014 concluded that students have learned over time that protesting is the language that triggers a reaction from authority. Finally, third research discovered that classroom violence is the result of disputes caused by political and socioeconomic inequalities, which may be mitigated by peace education.
My own study discovered that student violence at boarding schools was a reaction to the devalued and repressive environment. We contend that school officials might reduce violent demonstrations by establishing formal political representation and democratic decision-making. They should develop new areas for discussion and nonviolent protest, as well as listen to student views.
Kenya’s boarding schools
In Kenya, boarding schools are closed-off institutions where students reside and study for nine months out of the year. They were historically established by colonial governments and Christian missionaries with the goal of integrating or civilizing indigenous people. These schools were modeled after colonial educational methods in order to develop essential skills and labor to support the colonialists.
Kenya now has three levels of secondary boarding schools: national, county, and district. National schools are well-equipped and attract high-achieving pupils as well as rich parents. The district schools have the fewest resources.
In general, parents favor secondary boarding institutions over day schools because they offer greater amenities. Students have more time to concentrate on their studies, while parents delegate punishment to instructors. Other advantages of boarding schools include the development of social skills, independence, and participation in extracurricular activities. They are also part of the government’s strategy to bring children from various parts of Kenya together to study and to achieve economies of scale.
However, the colonial hierarchical legacies of control, authoritarianism, brutality, alienation, bureaucracy and severe discipline have persisted in these institutions. There is little regard for student demands, power dynamics, technological advancements, changes in the economic system, and new progressive legislation. They are what the American sociologist Erving Goffman referred to as “whole institutions.” Students are structured according to rigorous regulations and a single authority. Daily tasks are carried out collectively in accordance with a strict timetable of clear order.
My co-researcher and I embarked on a three-year initiative to collect data on Kenyan boarding schools in order to better understand the causes of frequent student protests and violence. The research focused on three boarding schools that had previously suffered demonstrations and violence. One institution solely serviced females, another only boy, and the third was a co-ed school.
Following initial interviews with persons who had seen school demonstrations or violence, others were asked to participate in the research. Respondents included teachers, school administrators, county authorities, students, and community people. According to the findings, pupils at boarding schools were subjected to prison-like circumstances. Students’ discontent was channeled via disruptive activity, including violent demonstrations, as a consequence of their demeaning experiences at the hands of school administrators.
Boarding school attendance in Kenya is resilient due to economies of scale, bureaucratic control, and efficiency. As a consequence, the direct supervision of millions of children has shifted from parents to educators, who often know nothing about the pupils. Because there is little preparation for transfer, the children know nothing about boarding schools until they are at school.
In any case, nothing could have prepared any kid for the worst excesses of Kenyan boarding school life. A 2017 investigation detailed alarming allegations of bullying at the country’s most prestigious high school. Kids were frog-marched out of a dormitory at night while being beaten; students were forced to get up at night to clean bathrooms and classrooms while being thrashed with belts and hockey clubs, and younger boys were denied meals owing to insufficient cutlery and short mealtimes.
These are kinds of violence with varying degrees of intensity in their impacts. However, society is more concerned with student violence than with the authoritarian character of institutions and the coercive systems that foster it. The burning is likely to continue unless authorities change their emphasis to the profound bad memories and suffering in boarding school.
Students are political agents and conscious creatures who have expectations and the ability to act. When pupils are dehumanized, they will act, react, or engage, sometimes with protest and violence. Kenyan students have discovered that arson is an effective protest technique. Some of the students we interviewed saw demonstrations and violence as tools for negotiating survival necessities.
Although there have been calls to dismantle Kenyan boarding schools, the issues that plague the institutions are complicated and systemic. Closing boarding schools is the route of least resistance for bureaucrats who want to avoid reforms that will shift the balance of power. Boarding schools are not a problem in and of itself; the issue is what occurs at the schools, which can be addressed.