Log into your member account to listen to this article. Not a member? Join the herd.

I have just published a book about secondary school students’ experiences of education and fire-setting in their schools entitled Burning Ambition: Education, Arson, and Learning Justice in Kenya. The particular elephant that just entered this space then is that I am a Canadian-born researcher. And so, the first question you might ask is: “Why?”, and I don’t mean “Why are Kenyan students setting fires in schools?” I mean “Why did a Canadian researcher write this book? What could my book possibly offer Kenyans?”

For Kenyans already know why students have been setting fires in their secondary schools. There have been hundreds of media stories about school arson involving interviews with students, teachers and others. There have been government-appointed task forces in 2008 and 2016 that travelled the country to interview students, teachers, and others, and reported on their many findings. There have been Kenyan scholars publishing articles with their analysis. The country’s talented cartoonists have captured many of the issues at stake. The popular TV show Tahidi High has broadcast episodes dramatizing some of the ways students and others understand school fires. Indeed, most of the time when I speak to anyone in Kenya about the occurrence of students’ arson in schools, I hear astute analysis that combines a list of students’ school-based stresses and grievances with understanding that young people tend to lack peaceable options for safely expressing any dissenting views, and concern that young Kenyans have been exposed to many uses of violence to claim authority. Of course, I have also sometimes heard politicians and other authority figures denigrating children and youth as naturally wild and even evil. However, most thoughtful people see through such narrowed blame as a diversionary tactic by those who don’t want to seriously tackle a complex issue.

But there is no getting around it: students targeting schools with arson is a complex issue. Despite all the existing knowledge of contributing factors, the challenge of actually extinguishing this arsonist trend continues. In fact, the complexity of contributing factors often seems to make the task of prevention impossible.

When public discussions turn to what should be done, there is a common tendency to try to reduce the agenda to just a few concerns: perhaps reducing the emphasis on exam scores to mitigate students’ stress, or providing more psychosocial support to young people and opportunities for them to have their perspectives considered, or is it about closing boarding schools, or somehow eliminating the widespread use of violence in society?  It’s understandable that it’s perplexing and daunting to know where and how to start tackling the danger of school fires when there are clearly so many contributing factors and an extensively multifaceted collective effort is required.

My book does not prescribe solutions. I couldn’t do this, even if I wanted to try. But that’s not because I don’t also have a good grasp of the situation. I think I do. Since 2013, I have been conducting research related to school fires by spending time in schools and at fire investigations, reading reports and court transcripts, and interviewing hundreds of students, former students, teachers, education administrators, and other community members. I hope these data and my analysis of them will provide fresh and nuanced ways for Kenyans to consider what’s happening among secondary students and where help might need to be extended.

But I can’t provide a plan of action for two reasons. First, I am not part of the Kenyan citizenry and these matters will require broad and deep societal participation—in families, schools, wider communities, and ultimately in political action. I can help support such engagement, but at the end of the day, I’m not embedded in Kenyan society and I’m not a Kenyan citizen to insist on holding Kenyan elected officials and public servants to account. Actions will need to be taken by Kenyans as this is the education system for Kenyan children and Kenyan society. And second, my book is a scholarly enterprise; it synthesizes research so as to inform—perhaps even to diagnose—but not to prescribe. As a researcher, I offer a coherent account of as much relevant data and focused analysis as I could muster. Ideally, this will feed into public policy considerations that Kenyans will pursue. These considerations are, of course, happening now, in relation to the future of educational reforms, and specifically the new competency-based curriculum (CBC).  But a scholarly book is meant to stand the test of time and stimulate thoughtfulness beyond immediate events.

My book’s analysis situates Kenyan secondary students’ school arson in broader contexts, tracing historic legacies, global connections, and the complex psychosocial dynamics of young people’s apprenticing into their political selves. I hope it will be read by Kenyans, and those who care about what’s happening in Kenya, but I also want students and scholars and policymakers in Canada, the US, South Africa, Tanzania, India, the UK, and everywhere else to read it because there are lessons to be taken from the actions of Kenyan secondary students that are significant to all of us.

As I describe in the introduction of Burning Ambition, globalized promises that education will transform lives through lifting people out of poverty and securing more prosperous futures have inspired children, families, and societies around the world to invest massive amounts of effort, money, and hope in schooling. Some hopes have been realized, of course. But the promises of success through education have also produced untold experiences of failure. In most cases, people’s experiences of disappointment with education have been discrete, both quiet and individualized. I cite examples taken from India, Uganda, Niger, Ethiopia, the United States, Singapore, and China, where researchers have documented young people’s feelings of having personally failed because they could not achieve the promised idea(l)s of success that they once believed were possible through schooling. Such a sense of individual responsibility for failure has made people blame themselves, leading to deep demoralization, anxiety, and in some cases self-harm. As I note, much of this global phenomenon of widespread disappointment with education’s failed promises is practiced in submissive ways, suggesting little immediate threat to the status quo.

Students’ setting fire to their schools can be understood as a departure from such individualized and submissive modes of despondency, I contend:

Secondary students in Kenya are challenging the existing complacency with the globalized agenda of “education for all” and its failures. As I argue throughout this book, Kenyan students’ collective acts of arson in their schools are in part a demand for fairer chances at success. They are not aiming to annihilate their chances for educated futures by taking destructive actions in their schools. Rather, they are trying to correct a system that they see as intolerably punitive and unfair. They mean for their actions to speak beyond their schools and reverberate through political society. Students’ collective contentious actions in schools serve as important critiques, if we accept with Tania Li (2017: 1248) that “Critique means prising open the capitalist world as we find it, and exposing its imminent tendencies—the waste, inequality and violence, as well as the growth—to critical challenge.” Kenyan high school students are demonstrating that submissive despondency is not the only possible response to failed, or suspect, developmental promise. (Cooper 2022: 5-6)

None of that analysis is meant to romanticize students’ arson. Some cases of school arson have been tragically deadly. As painful as those incidents were, they were the exceptions, however. In recent years, Kenyan secondary students have demonstrated time and time again that their actions are somewhat disciplined: the vast majority of cases have not targeted people, but instead infrastructure, and very specific pieces of school infrastructure. We need to pay attention to such patterns, and their exceptions, to better understand this phenomenon. That’s some of the work I do in Burning Ambition.

Such a sense of individual responsibility for failure has made people blame themselves, leading to deep demoralization, anxiety, and in some cases self-harm.

Between 2008 and 2018, more than 750 secondary schools were targeted with arson, and the chief suspects were the students of those schools. I came to this tally though a systematic counting of incidents in government and media reports, and it is likely an undercounting, due to the lack of systematic incident reports between 2009 and 2014. Students’ arson in secondary schools has occurred every year since 2008 (and many cases before 2008 which I also review in the book), with some noticeable spikes in 2008 and 2016, which I examine. Students have set fires in schools in all regions of the country, at boys’ schools, girls’ schools, and mixed schools, at government and private schools, at national, extra-county, county, and some sub-county schools, and schools that have high, average, and low median exam scores. Therefore, the underlying causes cannot easily be attributed to regional, ethnic, gender, or class distinctions.

The most glaring pattern is that students’ arson has almost exclusively occurred in boarding schools. The majority of fires have targeted dormitories, but other infrastructure has been purposefully set alight too. Paying attention to these patterns and exceptions provides important insights. For instance, quite obviously, we must look at how young people experience their boarding schools, and yet we can also note that many students attend boarding schools in other countries without such frequent collective arson. And so, we must also attend to how young Kenyan students think about arson and other acts of destruction as significant and useful for their aims.

The underlying causes cannot easily be attributed to regional, ethnic, gender, or class distinctions.

When students try to explain why they turn to arson in their schools they say it’s because it’s the only means they have to make their voices heard. And they have learned that to try to prevent or punish perceived injustices in their schools, arson can be effective. What kinds of ‘injustices,’ you might ask? All kinds. Sometimes these are neatly articulated by students: they might point to their perceptions of corruption or intolerably harsh treatment on the part of a principal, for example. Many times, their actions fill in some of the explanations: the majority (but certainly not all) of school fires are set around the time of so-called mock exams, and so it seems students act to avoid these. But not for the immediate reasons we might guess; students are fearful of doing badly on mock exams, yes; but what often undergirds that fear is not wanting to face the humiliation and punishments that go along with poor mock exam performances. We should not downplay students’ fears of feeling humiliated; students at boarding schools are engrossed in striving for success, and experiences of failure can be acutely demoralizing, especially so when these are made the focus of public humiliations, like at school assemblies.

Such concerns are sometimes labelled as “petty grievances” in Kenyan public discourse, and castigated as not justifying the destruction of school property. This might be true, but that’s a moralizing argument and not a pragmatic one: the fact of the matter is students do turn to arson and destruction to make their dissent known. Students act with arson because they see it as their only way to achieve their aims of protest. How might they come to a different conclusion? Providing more space for young people’s views to be considered and even incorporated into educational planning seems a pragmatic place to start.

The most difficult part in all of this, I think, is that students are not always able to neatly articulate what they are protesting. Yes, sometimes they burn to avoid exams, but this is not an isolated fear; more broadly, students experience profound worry for their futures and doubt that their education will help them get very far. Yes, students sometimes act out destructively to punish what they perceive as moral transgressions in their own schools’ management, but their deeper frustration is with perceiving that the entire system—not just the schooling system—is rigged and unjust. Yes, boarding students sometimes burn their dorms to get a break from what some call their “prisons”, but is it any wonder that young people want to sometimes escape feeling isolated and always in competition with others, and instead want to enjoy feeling connected in affection and comfort with others? Isn’t it understandable that they want more from life, especially when they see that their intensive striving in school likely won’t be their ticket to a good life? Each young person is carrying around a bundle of worries and fears and frustrations. And those are legitimate; students do seem pretty wise to the world as it is now. Opening up more empathy and consideration to their feelings might actually help create a wiser world.