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Reflections

REMEMBERING KOLBIYOW: A requiem service for a young Kenyan soldier

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Remembering Kolbiyow

~In memory of Senior Private Antonio Centenio Kaseyani~

[In the previous instalment of Remembering Kolbiyow: When a village loses a son, the funeral service of Senior Private Antonio Centenio Kaseyani begun early and the celebration of his last funeral rites and mass are about to be conducted by Father Makau, the Army Chaplain.]

Unfortunately, the public address system started giving way. The electricity interruptions signalled an imminent power blackout, going by how the speakers were sputtering. However, the choir’s singing, together with the congregation’s clapping, saved the situation.

Father Makau, the army chaplain, had been walking about but I only realised who he was when he donned his uniform. My initial impression was this was some top army brass here to ensure the send-off for this young man went according to script. I assumed he would probably be giving orders for crowd control if the villagers decided to riot.

My reading of him was partially right. Once mass began and the initial rituals were done, he demanded that the selfie types and photographers should stop taking pictures out of respect for the deceased.

Leaders were urged to be responsible and to stop dividing people. Soldiers were presented as peacemakers, wapatanishi, and the young folk were being persuaded to join up.

While it was peculiar in this village to see combat fatigues under those robes, it was that limp in the chaplain’s stride that betrayed a story he soon revealed. He too had served in Somalia for six years and had been shot three times. He said he would go again if he was called to serve.

Father Makau spoke of how we are witnesses of our times; he tackled the fatalism of our ways; he humorously juggled the tribal questions we face. His Kamba accent allowed him to weave through these themes seamlessly with ethnic jokes.

“In Giriama land there is a story of two dogs that were given ugali dipped in soup but they decided to fight over it. Meanwhile a cockerel that passed by ate it all up as they scuffled.” Being a soldier who was obviously politically neutral, I think that was the only way he could criticise the politicians and their provocative fitina, gossip.

Leaders were urged to be responsible and to stop dividing people. Soldiers were presented as peacemakers, wapatanishi, and the young folk were being persuaded to join up. Tony’s sub-unit commander was asked to stand up for all to have a look at him in his khaki officers’ uniform. There was something of a swashbuckler in him because of the way he carried the ceremonial sword appended to his waist.

My thoughts had again drifted; I was thinking of the Daily Nation report of one soldier who had single-handedly shot at an oncoming vehicle filled with explosives driven by a suicide bomber, with an 84mm anti-tank gun…

Throughout the ceremony, the crowds grew; some of the mourners kept trampling on the wires of the electrical system, which interrupted the priest’s sermon. “People ask me, Father have you killed anyone in Somalia. I tell them I trained to use a gun and shoot but it’s the bullets that kill not me.”

We learned that Tony became Gunner class 3 following a course taken in the military and that he had served for three years and one month. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a soldier attending to the coffin, spraying on the wooden box and cautiously stamping his foot around it to make the ground flat. The soil had become a bit uneven following light showers and cows had left behind hoof prints as they plodded around the compound.

A wailing baby whipped emotions as the ceremony was coming to a conclusion. We were then warned by the priest that pregnant women, children or those with ailments like heart disease or high blood pressure should stand at a safe distance because the loud firing sound from the gun salute could affect them.

My thoughts had again drifted; I was thinking of the Daily Nation report of one soldier who had “single-handedly shot at an oncoming vehicle filled with explosives driven by a suicide bomber, with an 84mm anti-tank gun. According to survivors, the soldier risked his life as he shot at the driver of the vehicle with the bomb, which exploded after breaching the perimeter.”

I wondered if this was Tony.

I walked towards two elderly gentlemen to avoid the surging crowds moving towards the grave to watch Tony lowered into his grave and witness the military razzmatazz. The old men were very clearly not from around here. I welcomed them and discovered that one of them was Rispah’s father and the other an uncle.

Trotting along the village road back to the bridge that I needed to cross to get back home, I met a Somali-looking fellow in army uniform walking up towards the family homestead.

We mused over how the school children, who had come to console their teacher, would definitely fall off the rock where they were perched once the guns blasted. A bugle tune, followed by three shots. Suddenly a young man, who I later presumed was either Rispah’s cousin or brother, rushed towards us saying she was unconscious. She had fainted and they needed to rush her to the nearest health centre.

A lady offered to direct them as they bundled Rispah into a bus driven by her father. I prayed they wouldn’t get the normal lethargic service offered at the health centre but the strike was still on so one would really know. I headed off home. Trotting along the village road back to the bridge that I needed to cross to get back home, I met a Somali-looking fellow in army uniform walking up towards the family homestead. I said hello, the normal Karibu greetings. He did the characteristic “Aye” Somali greetings and thanked us for the hospitality. At that moment I noted how far he was from his own home in Kenya’s northeastern region.

I figured he had found a spot to say his Friday prayers. If someone had exercised some quick thinking, he would have been directed to our local mosque.

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The author is a development practitioner and a part-time lecturer of International Relations.

Reflections

One Zambia, Many Nations

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One Zambia, Many Nations

Within 30 minutes of meeting two different groups of people, Zambian rapper Pilato’s satire of Donald Glover’s This is America, becomes a topic. Pilato, to those who don’t know him, is to Zambia what Bobi Wine is to Uganda. A musician and an activist. Except that Pilato, real name Fumba Chama, failed to get a seat in Zambia’s August house in the last elections. But he, like Bobi Wine, has been arrested for protesting against and criticizing the current administration. To one of my well-heeled friends, Pilato’s This is Zambia is a poorly executed, poor reflection of the nation because ‘there is so much more to Zambia than the Chinese doing business here.’ He should decide, my friend says, on whether he wants to be a musician or a politician because, at the moment, he is not doing either of the two well. To our cab driver Mich and his friend, it’s an honest reflection of the country. ‘Pilato talks the truth in that song,’ Mich says. ‘We shall soon be asking the Chinese for permission to live in our country because they own so much of us. And, we are also so desperate that we want quick solutions through these alleged prophets.’ Mich knows what he is talking about regarding the latter. When he hears that our next stop is Zimbabwe, he laughs and tells us how he did a spiritual journey to Prophet Magaya in the neighbouring country. ‘It was a waste of money. I sowed a seed from my savings and years later, nothing has come of it.’

The evening Mich picks us up from the Inter-City Bus Stop on Dedan Kimathi Rd is our first night in Zambia since 2016. Back then, the current President Edgar Lungu was preparing to be elected for the first time after having taken over the reins of power on the late President Michael Sata’s unexpected demise. This time, the only election that was on the cards was for the Mayor of Lusaka. Mich, a University of Zambia graduate who has been relegated to driving his mother’s car as a cab to earn an income and a strong supporter of the opposition, had already pronounced that whatever he wished, the candidate for the governing PF would win. ‘He is getting an endorsement from the President but even if he wasn’t winning, they would find a way for him to win.’ On this occasion, we are in Zambia for one night only. I shall return two weeks later for a writing workshop. The next time around, I will be in Zambia’s second largest city, Kitwe, in the Copperbelt Province. For now though as we depart for Harare, everyone in our party notices that the roads from Lusaka towards the border with Zimbabwe seem to be much better than those we have had to deal with from the Nakonde border with Tanzania. The reason is simple. Zambia and Zimbabwe do a lot of trade with each other and their capitals are a mere eight hours away from each other.

We take a little longer than we should at the border because Zimbabwe Customs want us to take all our luggage out and pay for any goods beyond a speculated number. The luggage goes through the X-Ray scanner after which we still have to stand by our luggage while a specially trained sniffer dog passes by each of our luggage. This is how my 13-year-old son ends up with four pieces of hair braids in his baggage. A woman who was seated next to us asked us whether we could please carry her braid pieces as she had eight and the maximum one can carry are four. It seemed a tad ridiculous, to say the least. The only other border where there is such curious attention to detail on what one brings in is at Beit Bridge border post as one enters or exits South Africa. When I return, I will notice that our bus just drives right through into Zambia after passports are stamped. It’s a great feeling.

I spend the night of my return in Lusaka with a Zambian writer friend before flying out. There seem to be many literary groupings in Zambia but so few books coming out which are competitive worldwide or even continentally. When I ask her why that is, she speculates that it’s because writing doesn’t pay but having the writer title is considered prestigious. So when people can have a little money on the side, they will write manuscripts and self-publish then have an author among their title while they continue with the daily grind of selling tomatoes or going to the office. I become apprehensive. What will I encounter at the writing workshop I am about to have over the weekend in Kitwe?

There are no flights from Lusaka to Kitwe so I fly to Ndola, hometown to Edgar Lungu and an hour away from Kitwe. I am on a small plane where we are not more than ten passengers. Flight time is a mere 45 minutes and this new airline manages to offer a snack and a drink on this short flight. On arrival, our flight attendant announces, ‘Welcome to Ndola Airport. We kindly ask passengers that they remain seated until Honourable blah blah has disembarked.’ Yet again I can’t help thinking how I absolutely abhor what I call a Mheshimiwa Complex that seems to be all over this continent. As I am leaving I ask the flight attendant, ‘Tell me. Why did you want us to wait for the Minister to disembark? Is he not a public servant and therefore should be waiting for the public first?’ The flight attendant is taken aback. He laughs. ‘You are not from here, are you?’ I answer that as a matter of fact I am. Baggage claim, in these sort of encounters, is the great equalizer. And so I take small delight in taking my bag before he does. However, as I am getting into a cab, I notice that the driver who came to pick up Mhesh from the airport is carrying his briefcase and his bag. Sigh. I arrive at my lodging in Kitwe an hour later.

In the morning, I shall meet the participants for the two day writing workshop. There are six writers in the workshop. I am particularly impressed by one young writer whose imagination, if he continues to write, would be perfect for the Arthur C. Clarke international science fiction award. The other writers are pretty impressive too and I understand why they may have been selected for the workshop. Only one writer worries me, although I say nothing about how I feel loudly. As I am giving them some different writing prompts, his pieces almost always conclude with a rebirth in Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It’s fascinating to watch the interaction between he and the sci-fi writer, a young man who could be his son and who is taking a gap year before starting university next year. I do not know whether the young man is too much for him, but he does not return on the final day.

In conversation with the writers who all seem to be from families that are not rich but fairly comfortable, there is a sense of uncertainty about their futures. As I listen to them during our breaks, I can’t help but notice that I have seen these youngsters in many countries on the continent. I have seen them in Kenya, in Zimbabwe, in Botswana, in Ghana and in Nigeria. Those who are employed, are doing some contractual work for some NGOs and they hope they can be there for a long time, donor funding permitting. A couple do not work but are university graduates still staying at home praying for something, anything, to come up. The gap year young man is the only one who seems to still have some hope that through sheer hard work, he can make it. For his sake, I hope Zambia sorts itself out before he graduates. Unfortunately, the manager of our establishment makes me lose a bit of that hope. On a drive into town, she tells me of the debt that the country now owes our friends in the East. In Kitwe, as in Ndola, I spot a large Bank of China. ‘Is this a big thing here, I have seen it in Ndola too.’ She tells me that Bank of China is not for the locals but for the Chinese investors. ‘If any of us are using it, it’s because we are in partnership with Chinese companies.’

When I return to Lusaka, I shall be with my well-heeled friends. It’s a day before a public holiday so people are ordering beers in pitchers at Keg and Lion, a pub in Eastpark, one of Lusaka’s malls. Perhaps there is uncertainty here but it’s not as visible as it was among the writers in Kitwe or in conversation with Mich and his friends. The patrons are well-dressed and talk casually of whether the best parties are in Lagos, New York or Joburg. They talk of international airlines they will no longer fly because of profiling and have a relative or two in London who they have bought groceries for while visiting. When they get ill, my well-heeled friends in Keg & Lion will be stabilized then fly out of the country to mend, just like the two Presidents of Zambia who died in office. It’s a different face of Zambia, a face with so few of the country’s population but unfortunately for Pilato and his fans, this too is Zambia. The connected Zambia that matters and is worth paying attention to -according to those who govern the land – except just before elections. In this way, Zambia duplicates many other African nations.

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Reflections

ZIMBABWE: The more things change, the more they stay the same?

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ZIMBABWE: The more things change, the more they stay the same?
Photo: Flickr/Commonwealth Secretariat

On the morning of Sunday the 26th of August as I walk along Addis Ababa Rd in the Lusaka suburb of Rhodespark, I hear sirens and see about eight motorcycles and the blue lights that shout Political Leadership Traveling. There are police all along the street. I greet one and she replies in a friendly voice. ‘So, is there a state guest this early in the morning or is the President going to church?’ I ask the last bit cheekily. She smiles. ‘No. The President is going to Zimbabwe for the inauguration.’ I, Zambian-born to a Zimbabwean mother and a South African father, have found myself following these particular Zimbabwean elections on the ground in the two countries. My fellow travelers and I leave Zambia for Zimbabwe on the 27th of July. We want to be on time for the final pre-election rallies in Zimbabwe.

Like the Kenyan elections in 2017, there are more than 20 candidates running in the Zimbabwean elections. Only two candidates seem to matter though according to most voters I talk to. Seventy five year old Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, the incumbent, for ZANU (PF) and 40 year old Nelson Chamisa of the MDC Alliance. ZANU supporters popularly chant, tweet or finish their facebook or Whatsapp posts with #EDPfee, meaning ED is in. Chamisa supporters, more vitriolic on social media push the Chamisa Chete Chete narrative (#CCC ) which translates to Chamisa Only. The incumbent shows financial muscle with ZANU branded four wheel drives all over the place, ZANU branded clothes for free give away and billboards all over the city stating what he promises to bring with his ‘new’ government. Chamisa supporters have to purchase caps, t-shirts and hoodies to fundraise for their candidate and on the evening before the final rally the candidate himself tweets asking for $5 donations to pay poll agents on election day.

On the day of the final rally, we kick off our day by attending Zimbabwean writer Panashe Chigumadzi’s launch of her book These Bones Will Rise. It’s a fitting book launch to attend during this time as it traces the history of Zimbabwe from precolonial days with a particular focus on the popular spirit medium, Nehanda Nyakasikana and how she has been co-opted since the colonial era into the narrative of the sole governing party since independence, ZANU (PF). I spot many literary types at this event at Theatre in the Park. Surprisingly full for an event on a Saturday morning.

My cousin B who is a strong supporter of the governing party promises to come and meet up with me to attend the ZANU (PF) rally at the National Sports Stadium. Hours later she has not turned up. I end up attending only the opposition rally at Freedom Square near Harare Sheraton and ironically ZANU (PF) headquarters. We arrive at Freedom Square around 2 in the afternoon. Initially the rally was supposed to be at the National Sports Stadium but somehow they were denied the space and the governing party held their rally there instead. The energy was electric and the field was all red. Images coming from the National Sports Stadium, on the other hand, showed a stadium that was near empty with the gates closed when people tried to depart. A popular tweet going around read I want a wife who celebrates whenever I come home like Chamisa’s supporters. This was replied by another, doubtless also a Chamisa supporter, Not one who’s like an ED supporter who walks out when I start speaking. I couldn’t help thinking though that perhaps Harare was not the best place for the final opposition rally. The major cities of Zimbabwe are without a doubt, largely opposition strongholds. It may therefore have made more of an impact if the final rally was in Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe (Zimbabwe’s electoral equivalent of Tharaka Nithi for unaccounted numbers of ZANU voters in contested elections). On that final rally, Chamisa disturbingly states that he has no issues with Mugabe and will work with his break away party who are now part of his alliance.

The day before election, former President Mugabe calls a media conference where he whines about having been given a pension of $467 thousand dollars only in a country where people spend hours in queues to access $30 of their money a day. He famously also complains that the roof at his house needs repairs and the current leadership of ZANU is ignoring him. He, he tells all those who are watching, needs to bring in artisans from China to fix. Because, clearly, there are no people in Zimbabwe who can fix a roof. Finally when asked who he will vote for, he states that he cannot vote for the people who overthrew him. He too joins the Harare urban chant, ‘Chamisa chete chete.’ That same Sunday ED responds to the press conference via social media telling all and sundry how Chamisa equals Mugabe. Chamisa too calls a press conference and cockily declares that he has already won and any Presidential loss will be yet again rigging by ZANU (PF). Both leading candidates are reported for violating Zimbabwean electoral laws for campaigning after the last date permitted. The Chair of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Judge Priscilla Chigumba announces to the country that two candidates are being investigated for electoral breaches. Up until today, inauguration day, we never hear what happened to the charges. Certainly no-one got disqualified.

Election Day dawns with much excitement for me. I shadow my cousin, a journalist, through some polling stations in Harare and the surrounds. In most places I visit, the lines for men seem longer than those for women. I am unsure whether the women voted earlier in the morning or whether they have just decided none of the candidates work for them. The 40 year old candidate of ‘change’ has said some seriously misogynistic statements including ‘jokingly’ offering his sister to the incumbent should he win the elections. The incumbent, on the other hand, has failed to deliver any of the promises post the coup-that-wasn’t such as prosecuting corrupt politicians. Later, I go to a friend’s bar with some friends. Election Day for 2018 in Zimbabwe coincides with my birthday. Banter between the Chamisa and ED supporters is lighthearted with each group believing their candidate will win. The ED supporters generally seem to be more financially well-off than the Chamisa supporters though.

Two days later, I am in Harare CBD buying bus tickets to return to Zambia for a writing workshop. I walk down First Street from Samora Machel Avenue. I look left on Nelson Mandela Avenue and see a sea of red-clad MDC supporters near MDC headquarters now dubbed Morgan Tsvangirayi House. With them, I see a truck with riot police. Both the police and the MDC supporters appear in high spirits but nothing appears untoward. On my return from Road Port from buying ticket, I get into Greenwood Pharmacy on First Street where my great aunt is filling out a prescription. Things soon change. We have to be closed inside the pharmacy. Chamisa supporters are now marching asking for shops to be closed until election results are released. My 70-something old great aunt decides they are not threatening and asks that we be let out of the pharmacy. We walk down with the demonstrators and the march seems good-natured. When someone attempts to take a video, a young man points at her, ‘madam, you are not an election observer. This is your country too. Join us.’ Everyone laughs. I part with my great aunt when she gets on a kombi to her home. I am going the opposite direction for a kombi to where I am staying. As I cross the road to get to the rank, a man driving warns a policewoman beside me, ‘Amai. Go and buy some civilian clothing quickly. These guys will attack you.’ An MDC supporter who is part of a group walking in the same direction replies, ‘Don’t worry amai. Nothing will happen to you. You are a member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police not the ZANU Republic Police.’ More good-natured laughter. I get to the rank. The protestors have told the drivers that they can’t load. ‘We are shutting down the city until they give us the results. The longer they keep them, the greater the chances of rigging.’ ZEC has five days to announce the results. But Chamisa’s supporters are restless. The kombi drivers leave the rank. I have to walk up to get the kombi elsewhere far away from the protestors.

A WhatsApp text from a Kenyan friend comes in as soon as the kombi starts leaving.

Hello Zooks. Are you guys safe?

Of course I’m safe. Why would you ask that? I reply.

Twitter says there is shooting happening in Harare CBD. He replies.

Rubbish. Some alarmists obviously. I was just there. There are protests but everything I have seen is peaceful.

Ok.

When I get home I put on ENCA to see how the vote-counting is going. It is then I realize my Kenyan friend was right.

ENCA journalist Thulasizwe Simelane is interviewing some injured people. There are claims of three dead. The shooters? The Zimbabwean army.

Later, we will learn that six people died. Among them, a friend’s aunt shot in the back while walking to her car after shutting up shop.

Later too, ZANU supporters will talk of how rowdy MDC supporters were. They will talk of how sad it is that there have been loss of lives but Chamisa is responsible for the loss of lives of these people. He shouldn’t have told his supporters to protest. I shed a tear for the deceased. Almost a year ago, I heard similar statements in another country. In different guises, ZANU and KANU seem destined to govern forever whatever lives are lost. An old Chimurenga 2 song states Zimbabwe ndeyeropa. The song still rings true in 2018. Blood has been shed. The incumbent who, until he became an electoral candidate, was Commander-in-Chief says he doesn’t know who deployed the military. There shall be investigations.

I get on the bus to return to Zambia the next day.

Members of Zimbabwe National Army ask for a ride from the driver. They are let in. Uniformed services generally are permitted free rides on public transport as a rule in Zimbabwe. On the bus, the air is hostile. When they disembark, voices are raised. ‘These killers,’ someone says. A conversation ensues. There is a ZANU supporter behind me. Voices are raised. How can any reasonable person suffering like everyone support ZANU, someone asks. When the ZANU supporter states that he is from Uzumba, everyone laughs and the tension is reduced.

That night, results are announced.

ED is a winner with over 10 percent more voters for Presidential elections than there were for council and Parliament.

MDC says they were rigged. They are on their way to court. The court accepts the papers.

The inauguration is cancelled.

Reports are that there is a raid at MDC Harare East Parliamentarian Tendai Biti’s home. He decides that he is in danger and attempts to escape into Zambia. Zambia deports him. A friend suggests that he is getting payback for his support for Zambian opposition leader Hakainde. No-one knows. What everyone knows though is the tweet that Zimbabwean incumbent tweets. He has given an order for Biti to be released. So the judiciary is captured? Is the question many throw around on social media.

MDC goes to court.

For the first time in Zimbabwean history, it’s televised.

I am back in Zimbabwe at the time of the court presentations.

My pro-ZANU lawyer cousin is convinced that MDC’s case was weak. They won’t win.

My pro-MDC lawyer cousin is convinced the MDC case was strong. The election will be annulled or at the least, there will be a rerun.

I am no lawyer but I am impressed by the ZEC and MDC lawyers.

I have just got into Lusaka, Zambia on Friday afternoon when the court ruling comes in.

MDC’s case has been dismissed with costs.

Chamisa dismisses the dismissal.

The inauguration is not delayed.

Today, Sunday morning, Edgar Lungu of Zambia wakes up the residents of Rhodespark in Lusaka with sirens as he makes his way to the inauguration.

No-one has still been held responsible for the death of the six people on August 1. There is no feedback on the investigation on who deployed the soldiers.

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Reflections

The Schools of Fire and Blood

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The Schools of Fire and Blood

I was once suspended for inciting a strike. Or at least that is what the letter said. It was the March of my second year in high school; in my first, we had gone on strike twice. The first was a peaceful act of protest that begun at the assembly ground on a cold Monday morning, moved to a kamukunji in the sports field, and ended with us walking seven kilometers to the highway.

The second was a brutal affair. To this day, I am not sure exactly why we went on strike. Days before the national exam begun, we woke up in a war zone. People breaking window panes, banging on doors, and fighting. What we woke up to, in the rooms nearest the toilets, which were nicknamed Soweto, was a hooded boy whipping one of my roommates with a hockey stick. The combined chaos was traumatic, and explains why I still hyperventilate whenever I hear a metal door banging.

The reasons for both were varied; the first involved a long list of asks, including a new TV. The reasons for the second were less defined, and did not matter much as we ran through the trees and climbed over the gate at midnight. What did was saving our lives, and helping the injured away from the mess.

After the chaos of my first year, we got a new deputy principal, a disciplinarian tyrant who came with the energy of a man on a mission. With no rules beyond those he decreed. Those rules were madness, and his favored way of implementing them was slaps, punches, suspensions and expulsions.

While I sat on the floor in his office that Wednesday morning in March, he said “I didn’t even know you, so huwezi sema ninakukuonea.” He said other things, but that is the sentence that lingers to this day. On that cold floor with my friend and classmate Jackson, who had returned from a previous suspension just two days before, our attempt at explaining what the grievance was dug us deeper into the hole. It was a simple demand, to restore the labor system we had found, which made first years the “wheelbarrows” of the school, with duties reducing as one moved through the four years. We had paid our dues, we felt, but the man sitting across from us did not want to hear. “You were planning a strike”, he repeatedly said, and our attempt at protest was indiscipline. We returned two weeks later, to sit outside the principal’s office as the adults in the room discussed how we should be punished. I was called in, for a short five minutes. I stood at the end of a long table, in a room full of men (including my father), and answered three questions. None was about what the issue had been, or what I had hoped to achieve. At the end of it, my tormentor pushed a ‘contract’ that stated that if I was caught in any act of indiscipline again, I would be expelled. Then I went back outside and sat. An hour or so later, my father, a retired high school teacher at that point, walked out right past me.

I spent the next three nights digging a pit, my act of penance. In my file, the contract sat at the very top, a reminder that this one misunderstanding would be part of my school record forever. Jackson did not survive. He survived our suspension, but he was on a third one within a week for a frivolous charge. Then he was expelled.

The result of this tyranny, which included a spy network (which is how they had learnt of our plan to approach the man), was not a better learning environment where discipline thrived to everyone’s benefit. It was the reverse. We became a police state in many ways, engaging in guerrilla acts of protest and subterfuge that extended beyond the school fence. Once, someone poked holes into the deputy principal’s tyres while his car was parked outside a hotel in a nearby town. Then, someone punched his young son in the face in the middle of a sports day. The culprit was never caught, even though the incident took place in the middle of the day on a field with hundreds of people.

Burned spies were hunted down and, in the middle of night, beaten to a pulp by groups of people with anything they could get their hands on. They lost their mattresses and blankets, and had to sit watching their laundry dry because it would disappear if they blinked too slowly. They became social pariahs, often only saved by being appointed to the prefect body, if they were not already members of it. Still, the resistance was broken by the brutality of the consequences.

The only time we came close to striking again was once when the deputy principal horsewhipped someone so badly he tore his back in multiple places. But there were many foiled attempts, sometimes only known to us when people were expelled. The relationship between the administration and the student body was irreparably broken, and it felt as if we were hostages as opposed to teenagers seeking an education. There was no recourse for injustice because even the parent body felt such measures were necessary to keep the peace. But it was not peace, it was just the absence of war.

Once, in my third year I think, we came back from the holidays to new rules. Only school uniform would be allowed within the school walls., Anything else we had with us was left in a pile, stashed in sacks, and hidden in the stores. Our t-shirts, jumpers, and pyjamas stayed there for more than six months. In the meantime, in the freezing days of Kijabe, we suffered recurrent bouts of flu and chest infections. Any attempts at getting our clothes back, so we could keep warm, resulted in the same consequences as organizing a strike or burning a dorm. So we stayed submissive, until we eventually could not. Three friends and I cornered the deputy principal one Saturday afternoon as he was walking up to his office. We told him, as politely and as vaguely as we could, that we were barely surviving the cold nights. He had this odd smile on his face, perhaps because of the distance we kept from him while we relayed the plea. Not be within arm’s reach of the man was a survival tactic, because he was ambidextrous with his slaps. He listened, and said repeatedly that whatever was not part of the school uniform was contraband. We told him about the chest infections, and the flu, but he was adamant. So we thanked him for his time and bid him a good day. It was only three months later that we got our clothes back, mouldy and damp. We could now wear them as long as they were under the school uniform. It was a small win, but a win nonetheless.

The man himself became my unwilling mentor (the lack of will was on my part) as I became the school pen. He pushed me to write more, and would publicly embarrass me if I had nothing for my five-minute news bulletin time slot during the school assembly. My reports were a mix of journalism, satire and sometimes pure gossip, a break in an otherwise boring school tradition. My personal relationship with him evolved from that Wednesday morning in March to somewhat of a distant friendship. He was still a brutal, angry man, but for some odd reason he thawed around me.  To the point of once reminding him of a time he slapped me so hard I farted as I fell on my back in his office. He laughed about it, we both did. But his idea of our inclination towards mischief remained, as did his spy network and his own creepy appearance in the school at odd hours, hunting for new culprits.

Our school grades remained unchanged, but for the next three years, there were no successful strikes. Any problems we had that we couldn’t solve ourselves, we swept under the rug and moved on. Any knowledge we had of who was sneaking out to meet girls or buy food or go drinking we kept to ourselves. Unless it somehow found itself in the wrong circles, then all we saw was people carrying their metal boxes and threadbare mattresses out of the gate. Or coming back with a roll of wire mesh as punishment, before being expelled.

***

Since the first school strike in Kenya, at Maseno School in 1908, students have gone on strike for almost any reason you can think of. At Maseno, the problem was that no learning was happening. The students were instead manual laborers, until they got tired of it.

Once, Alliance High School went on strike because there had been a fight, about foreskin politics, during a football match. Then some strikes, and I would say quite a sizeable number, have been spontaneous, because as Margaret Gatimu found out in this study, of “established cultural norms which dictated fights for power and status.”

Then of course there have been more legitimate causes for protest. Trying to get the attention of the administrators and sometimes even parents to a real or perceived injustice. Or even, as we’ve seen lately, real criminal activity by and against students. In other places it has been teachers driving strikes, to make the institutions ungovernable and get rid of administrators they don’t like.

There were schools like Njoro Boys in Nakuru County and Githiga High School in Kiambu county which were legends in the strike business. I think I once heard they were gazetted at some point as problem schools, got two deputy principals, and gave one an open ticket to instil discipline.

In other schools, there were cases of rapes and deaths and fires. There was Bombolulu, St. Kizito and Kyanguli. There were claims of devil worship and homosexuality. The system doubled down on punishment to find some order, built on the colonial thinking that power is always right. And that children are always wrong, and any stubbornness on their part was an act of defiance. It was a system built to subdue; a boot camp designed to break young men and women and teach them their distance from power. To silence their ability to express themselves, their needs, and their problems. To teach them that to survive, they had to keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and their sexuality suppressed. Granted, the same thing was happening in the larger, adult world outside as well. So they expected their kids to submit too.

For the first seven years after independence, acts of protest in high schools were often peaceful. Then something snapped in the 1970s and they became more violent, more coordinated, and more destructive. A new authoritarian trend was trickling down the Kenyan social structure again, and the subjects in that system were reacting. It made high school and university students experts in guerrilla warfare not just against their teachers, but also against the state and its security forces. It brought fire, for example, the fore as a tool of choice because it is fast, vicious, and requires less cooperation on the arsonist’s part. It made administrators and teachers enemies of the majority, and anyone working with them equally so. It made betrayal punishable by beatings and recently, even poisoning. This is the stuff of war, not education.

Between 1986 and 1991, according to BA Ogot in his memoirs My Footprints on the Sands of Time, there were 567 school strikes (305 mixed schools, 206 boy schools and 56 girl schools). That was a rate of a school strike every two days of the school calendar. Despite this, President Moi only appointed a commission of inquiry after The Rape of St. Kizito where 71 girls were raped by the male students and 19 died trying to escape from their attackers.

That dark night was the worst yet, and it had begun as a protest against fees. The girls refused to participate in a planned strike, and on the night of July 13th 1991, all hell broke loose. The 271 teenage schoolgirls fled and hid in their biggest dormitory, locking all points of entry. At 1:00 a.m, after an initial attempt to break the doors had failed, the boys came back with bigger stones and smashed the doors down. The result was a massacre that shocked a nation, and the immediate consequence was the arrests of more than ten suspected rapists and three watchmen.

But the reaction, or rather the response of the school’s administration was the most telling of the problems emblematic of our school system. The principal said the school was haunted, and then added that rape was, in fact, a common occurrence there. He seemed to be saying that the only difference of the night of July 13th was that 19 girls had died, four of them from suffocation. The boys, as his deputy infamously and tellingly told the president “…just wanted to rape.”

It was appalling, but the response was not to try and make schools safer by listening and responding to student grievances, it was to double down on disciplinary measures. The Rape of St. Kizito was not the only time that year that boys in a mixed school broke down doors and dragged girls outside where they repeatedly gang-raped them. In another major incident of the year in another school, students protesting the bad state of their food drowned the school cook in a vat of porridge. The only reason St. Kizito made news, as someone noted at the time, was because 19 girls died. This remained the case when, 7 years later, 25 girls died in Bombolulu in a school fire.

And three years after that when 68 young boys were turned into smouldering piles of ash at Kyanguli. It was one of those days when everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. Arsonists begun a fire in a dormitory, then it got out of hand because someone had lost the key to one door and no one bothered to change the lock. Half the boys in bed that night couldn’t make it to the other side of the fire, and in the mix of panic, stampede and survival instinct, died. The same sequence of events happened at Bombolulu, except for the part where the girls were actually locked in their dorms at night. Sources differ on whether it was arson or the result of an electrical fault.

Then, in 1999, a group of arsonists locked four of their prefects in their cubicle at Nyeri High School, and doused it with petrol before setting it on fire.

In all these cases of extreme violence, there was always an underlying reason. At Kyanguli it was the cancellation of the results of the previous years national exams for 100 students, and the discussion, or lack of, on whether they should pay school fees to resit the exam. The pattern was the same. The administration had refused to listen to the students, and had responded only when it was too late. In their own macabre way, these extreme cases forced not just the administration, but the entire educational system to listen. But it was only as an immediate reaction to the tragedies, after which the system slid back into its old ways. And each generation of teenagers found that the only way to get the system to respond was to protest, burn a dorm, beat teachers and refuse to stay in school. Because of the overwhelmingly male nature of such violence, many of the strikes were in boy schools. Girls had to, and still have to, contend with the added gendered risks if they wanted to burn their school and escape in the middle of the night.

Each wave of school strikes is explained away with rampant indiscipline and the lack of corporal punishment in the school system. Despite the fact that research shows that violence among teenagers can spread like a contagion, as it often does in Kenya schools every few years, the glaring risk factor of one-way communication remains unchallenged. Children are meant to be seen and not heard and even teenagers, who are just years or months away from adulthood, are still considered treated as kids. Because often their priorities are different and immediate, like better food or less bullying, they are postponed until they cannot- be. Now, kids caught up in the only recourse they feel they have, are to be condemned with a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

The same approach to strikes in universities that has cowed student bodies and made those education institutions prison-like entities will be escalated at the high school level on minors. If you think about it, the school system and the prison system have many things in common… The authoritarian structures, the set dress code, the emphasis on silence and order, the negative reinforcement, the loss of individual autonomy and the collective punishment. Like a prison, students walk in lines and have set times, enforced with severe punishment, for eating, recreation, and sleep…and recently, just like in the prison system, we are trying to set the same uniform for all schools in the country.

The state is doubling down on punishment despite the fact that our laws, despite their many flaws, are insistent on the protection and privacy of minors, even when they exhibit criminal behavior. But none of this will help, at least not in the way they think it will. If the issues that trigger strikes remain, and the adults in the room insist on speaking above the kids they have been tasked to educate, then nothing will change.

Every generation is expected to have a sense of history, but high school students are still adults in the making. Which is why we place them in the care of fully-formed adults who, we expect in theory at least, have a sense of history embedded in their moral and professional code. But if the havoc of school strikes hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years, and students only stay in schools for four years, then who isn’t learning from experience?

***

A few years after I left, I was in my alma mater for an event when I bumped into my former tormentor and mentor, and we took a short walk together. There were many things to talk about, including how someone had burnt a dorm the previous term. The forlorn look on the man’s face, of failure on his part, was matched with his pursing lips, like a quiet determination not to let it happen again. I did not pry and got the details from someone else. After years of foiled strikes over different issues, both flimsy and salient, someone had finally succeeded. His choice of weapon, fire, was combined with another trait that tends to emerge in war zones; he was a lone ranger. He torched one of the biggest dorms in school, not at night, but in the morning while everyone was gathered for the school assembly. All the teachers saw was the smoke billowing towards the sky. There was no way to know who the lone arsonist was because the student body went on a stampede, expectedly.

A few years ago, the man who represented law and order at my alma mater tragically lost his son. The boy who had been punched in the school field, now a young man, drowned in a swimming pool. From the reactions in the many alumni Whatsapp and Facebook groups, what stood out was the lack of sympathy for his father. More than a decade after some of us left the school, which he had also left by then, he was still considered a vile human being who deserved any misfortune that came his way. This being said by people who were young parents, and who in a few years, would be driving their kids to begin their new high school life.

High school students might still be minors, but they are not the mindless creatures the school system is designed to treat them as. And they keep reminding the adults in power about this, generation after generation, often fruitlessly. The adults imagine schools to be utopias. They are not.

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