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School fires: let us cane ourselves first

For all my optimism about the future of this fair land, I am now deeply disturbed. What is a society to make of itself when its children start burning down their schools? That society should be very, very worried.

We now have a spate of copycat arson attacks leaving a trail of burnt dormitories across the country. It is not just that students are reacting against their institutions: they are also turning on each other. In at least one case, reports indicated that some pupils appear to have locked their sleeping colleagues in a dormitory and then set it alight. What savagery is this? And even more worrying: girls are involved in the mayhem. When the better half of the population starts to get its kicks from destruction, we need to feel the chill running down our national spine.

Are we really surprised, though? As ever, Kenyans are shaking their heads in dismay and expressing shocked outrage at these awful events. But think about it for a moment: so students, when they cannot have their way, are rioting and destroying property. Is that not what adults taught them to do during the January post-election conflagration? Isn’t violent protest proven to be the way to get what you want in Kenya?

Children are trying to lock others in to watch them burn. What did the adults teach them recently? Or has that church in Eldoret, and that house in Naivasha, been erased from our collective memory? We are certainly trying very hard to pretend that we did not descend into barbarity in early 2008, as we go around the world preaching that Kenya is “open for business” again, and as we construct grandiose visions of a tiger economy and a booming metropolis. Our children, it appears, have not forgotten the brutality we exposed them to not so long ago.

The reactions of our leaders are predictably simplistic and puerile. Top solution: bring back the cane! Outlawing caning was apparently a “foreign ideology”. The African thing, presumably, is to make children see sense by beating them senseless. It makes me wonder: our current (and previous) crop of leaders must all have been caned prolifically in school; why did that not prevent them from becoming fraudsters, bigots and hate-mongers? Or do they not see the irony?

I was caned several times in my primary school, sometimes for things I had not done (you often had to take a whack or two for the misdemeanours of your fellows). I can’t remember any teacher or headmaster doing it out of “love” or “wisdom”, as some MPs have been suggesting. If anything, allowing people to inflict corporal punishment invariably brought out the worst in them, turning them into sadistic little despots.

Once, a teacher went into a frenzy on the slightest of excuses and whipped the entire class with a piece of wire, drawing blood on little legs. He had forgotten that many of the children in our school had parents in the army. A few burly officers, seeing the state of their kids, soon cornered the fiendish teacher and rained blows on him, as we all cheered. He left the school immediately, having been thoroughly humiliated. Violence begets violence, lest we forget.

In any case, reaching for the cane just gives the teacher the easiest of cop-outs. How much simpler it is just to thrash someone rather than sit down to understand, to give context, to reason, to explain. The presumption seems to be that children are by default vicious little monsters until the devil is knocked out them. Therefore they must be beaten, and prevented from communicating with each other on mobile phones, and not allowed to travel in “luxury buses”. Why not just call them prisoners and herd them into pens and trucks? Surely we overcame that kind of inane thinking a long time ago.

Can we not learn from the success stories? Starehe school gives respect to the pupil and demands it back. It holds a weekly ‘baraza’ where grievances are aired and addressed. At Strathmore school, I had a tutor and chaplain appointed to me, and had weekly chats with both. I was encouraged to treat them as friends and speak my mind on any issue. That is the enlightened way.

I am not suggesting that we should not crack down on the ringleaders of these riots and attacks. Not for a moment. Burning school property should be treated as an appalling offense, and the severest of (civilised) penalties should be imposed. But let us look ourselves squarely in the eye and ask why our children feel hopeless enough to burn the very institutions that should guide them to a better life. Let us ask ourselves why they want to attack the very teachers who should be their guides and mentors. And why they think they can get away with it.

Therein lies the reason why our schools are ablaze.

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