On the second week of January 2019, Form 1 students reported to their various secondary schools. From news reports, a number arrived in high spirits, jovial and excited to be living their dream. But the faces of many more betrayed them – the students seemed tense and glum, their parents deflated and even angry.
Many of these anxiety-ridden parents and children were struggling with the ‘disappointment’ of being ‘called’ to a school that they thought was not up to their standard or expectation.
Most of us grew up with the idea of joining a national school or at least the big name (formerly) provincial schools. Ask any student getting to the end of primary school where they would like to go to high school, and the answers are usually the same; Alliance, Starehe, Kenya High…it’s embedded so deep into our psyche that it seems nowhere else is good enough.
Our children live, breathe and eat ‘Shule Bora’ – a good school – and the disappointment when they don’t make it either due to bogus placements or low scores is heartbreaking. Even a child whose average score is a respectable 340 – 350 out of 500 (a 70% average across all subjects) is pressured by parents, teachers, and society to work harder or they won’t get into a ‘good school.’ We hope against reality that they will make it to a good school, even when their grades throughout primary school suggest that barring a miracle, they won’t make the cut. So we pressure our children with tutoring, promises and threats to get those grades to a 90% average, waking children up at 4am to get cramming, do more test papers, because high marks are the most important thing. Critical thinking is never in the picture. And for those in private school, aren’t we working so hard to pay private school fees to give them the best chance at a big name school?
I have been a tutor, and am not surprised when I see a student confidently give the answer to a certain question not because they understand it, but because they have seen it before in another exam paper. We know, and they know, that questions are always repeated, and this is what will give them that extra mark to get to Mang’u or Maseno. We all want to brag that our child is somewhere renowned.
Aged just 14 years on average, our children get into an exam room and take a test that will determine the course of their lives. If they get into a good school, we assume that the children will have a secured future. The reality of their future as frustrated and unemployed graduates is a hurdle to tackle when they get there, not right now. But what does a ‘good school’ mean? It seems our definition is a national school, with a long history, or that one which consistently performs well during KCSE, which produces many A grades, and facilities are good. Everything else like bullying, mental health, or the politics in the school doesn’t matter as long as ‘ni Shule Bora’.
The rest are ‘Bora Shule’, the type of schools that we have made our children believe are not worth it. Hearing of a student from a ‘school we have never heard of’ top the exams in Form Four is not enough motivation to appease parents to accept schools they have ‘not heard of’. To place their faith in their children’s abilities alone is never a good thing, children need the backing of the big name school, the Shule Bora type, to ensure proper success. We flippantly tend to say “Kama mtoto ni bright, atapita tu wherever they go” or “I know a girl who went to a *small name school* and she came out with an A” to soothe other parents, knowing quite well we ourselves would never take the ‘Bora Shule’ advice, because we know that where one goes in Form One matters. It matters because all the way back to the colonial period, this country has always excluded the majority and privileged a tiny elite. That is why we fight tooth and nail, paying bribes and trampling over each other to secure places for our children in the schools we want. Can you imagine how fat the pockets of many secondary school principals were this past festive season?
Sometimes, Nairobi middle-class parents have a prejudice about a school on account of its distance away from the city. I remember getting my form one acceptance letter and even though it was from an old colonial period national school, I was terrified because the school was not a national school located around Nairobi or at least Central Province. Those around me discouraged me from going there with remarks like “utawezana huko?” and “haki ni mbali.”
Coupled with the fact that I didn’t get my top choice, these remarks fueled my dislike for my chosen school. I arrived in Form One bitter and distraught, and spent my first year hoping for a transfer simply because the school was far from the city, which made it a ‘Bora Shule’ or bad school in my eyes. What a shame, but I didn’t know any better.
Take a moment and consider why we should be cautious over what we deem are good and bad schools. Imagine Child A goes to a ‘good school’ and the parents are happy, excited and proud. She is pleased to be in her dream school, but although they produce many doctors, lawyers, CEOs and engineers, the school has a reputation of hidden bullying. And I’m not talking about that hazing where Form Ones are told to sweet-talk a hockey stick or collect darkness in a cup. The kind of hazing here is so bad that many students develop anxiety, depression and all kinds of psychological disorders that go unaddressed. You hear news that a child has committed suicide, and when you go to the school, it is your own daughter who spent two terms in school dreading each opening day. You as a parent don’t understand how this happened. You all worked so hard to get there. School fees was always paid, shopping was done, your child lacked nothing. The school is renowned, discipline is high, your child was doing fine academically and you were foreseeing another success at the end of high school. Suddenly this tragedy brings your lives to a halt.
Or consider Child B who goes to a ‘bad school’ where their parents spend their time complaining about everything (perhaps justifiably so), from the facilities to the performance. They are constantly looking to transfer their child, and Child B feels worthless and develops low self-esteem because he didn’t get into a better school. They hate themselves, the school, and everyone. Tragedy strikes when Child B starts a fire in his dorm room and innocent students accompany him to his death. As the parents, you are told is how undisciplined your child was but it doesn’t matter now because they are dead and gone. He seemed fine to you. You don’t understand how it happened.
The point is, our reverence for national schools and the few non-national schools that perform well academically is so high that with our children absorbing everything we say about them, they develop the idea that they must go there or else their lives are over. The number of parents I have seen asking strangers online about schools their children have been called to is worrying. The questions are usually about the performance of the school and the location, accompanied by an anxious comment like “Now how is my daughter supposed to go to such a school.” Judgment has already been passed about the school even before they get an answer to the question.
A few years ago, in an effort to increase the number of children going to national schools, the government increased the number of national schools from the original 17 to over 100. When this move was announced, it came with the promise of millions of shillings to upgrade infrastructure. This was supposed to take care of the problem of the cut-throat competition in getting into a national school.
However, the bid to provide each child with a place in secondary school seems to be promoting the ‘Bora Shule’ idea. As long as your child has a place, what more could you want, the government seems to be asking. We have provided more national schools in the counties, what more do you want? We are turning all the Bora Shule into Shule Bora with these new classrooms and new perimeter walls, what more do you want? What is the difference between the old and new national schools, aren’t they both national schools now? In response, parents are saying it’s all right for each child to have a place but you can’t fool us, we still want the Shule Bora. Sticking the name National to a school doesn’t automatically turn it into one. Throwing money at them to improve facilities will not either.
Dear parents, if you are content with the school your son or daughter is in, you need to reflect on how your words influenced where your child is heading. Were you pestering them to make sure they get into that ‘good’ school? Are you certain that they will have a wholesome experience in secondary school or are you satisfied only because of the potential academic success? As you are out there hunting for a Shule Bora for your child for whatever reasons, you need to reflect too. You are searching high and low because you think your child deserves a better school, better than the Bora Shule they have been called to. What do you really know about the school you are fighting so hard to get for them? Or is there no time for that, you will let the kids figure it out later? And dear GoK officials, as you are re-branding schools as national schools, do it as if it was your own child who would be going there. We know you are doing it in a superficial manner because your own children will never set foot there. How shameful!
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Stealth Game: The Proverbial Has Hit the Fan
The report of the Oakland Institute is simply saying what I have been saying since 2016. That “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land and Lives in Northern Kenya.
Many of my friends, particularly those from outside the conservation sector have been puzzled by the silence that has followed the release of the Stealth Game report by the Oakland institute.
This, my friends, is because you people mistakenly imagine that conservationists in Kenya are normal, functional human beings. They are NOT, and the rational ones are fewer than five per cent, the scientific threshold for statistical significance. For those of us who know them well, we can read and interpret this silence to a high level of accuracy.
First of all, rest assured that everyone who needs to see the report has seen it, including government officials at both county and national level. I personally forwarded it to an official at the highest levels of government, and the response I received was “thank you”—at least an admission of having seen the report. Interestingly, two senior county government officers also forwarded the report to me, leaving me wondering what exactly they see as their role in the whole scandal, as opposed to mine as an individual. The silence is only in the public sphere. I have direct contacts in a lot of private spaces where the Oakland report is causing a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and breaking of wind.
The key point we all need to understand here is that people are in trouble—bringing to mind that uniquely American expression about faecal matter hitting the fan and splattering everyone in its vicinity. Here’s why: A couple of years ago, a few colleagues and I visited the US House of Representatives in Washington DC to present a memorandum on human rights abuses in central Africa committed by the WWF under the guise of conservation, an issue we also brought to the attention of various European legislatures. It has taken time, but the cosh has come down on the WWF, culminating in a Senate hearing earlier this year, which has severely tightened the screws on them. Therefore, the consternation that has greeted the report is disingenuous, because none of this information is new—it is simply saying the same things that a few colleagues and I have been saying since 2016.
The conservation sector in Kenya routinely dismisses any questions from black Africans and the consternation is because the report is coming from an American institution, and cannot be dismissed on racial grounds. An amusing anecdote I’ve heard from one of the conservation groups is, “This is just the usual noise from Mordecai Ogada. . .” But when another member says, “No, it’s from the Oakland institute in the US,” all hell breaks loose with people crying “Oh my God! What are we going to do?” In another forum, a senior participant (who obviously hadn’t read the report) dismissed it as lacking credibility, “Since the only source of such information is Mordecai Ogada (again!!??). When another participant pointed out the report was the result of over two years’ research she changed tack, attacking the author Anuradha Mittal based on her racial and family background. The strange thing is that this woman is also of the same racial background as Mittal! Many people will find this bizarre, but I don’t. Our conservation sector is so steeped in racial and ethnic prejudice that it is shameful. Apart from dealing with people who don’t want to hear me because I am black, I’ve had to deal with indigenous Kenyans who routinely tell me to keep off wildlife issues in northern Kenya because I am a Luo from western Kenya!
The key issue of rights violations is studiously avoided by conservationists to a ridiculous degree. I’ve seen conversations where The Nature Conservancy’s communications director is asking a whole group of conservation professionals how they can “counter Mordecai Ogada’s narrative”. A couple of years ago, the Northern Rangelands Trust hired Dr Elizabeth Leitoro as “Director of Programmes” and one of the key expectations was that she would somehow “control” Mordecai Ogada (yes, again) since over 20 years earlier I had been her intern when she was the warden at the Nairobi National Park. Dr Leitoro asked to meet me, and my son was patient enough to sit with us as we talked. She later launched a racial attack against me and my family on social media in defence of the NRT (she deleted the tweet and blocked me, but I still have a screenshot; the NRT got rid of her). This shows the neurosis bedevilling conservation in Kenya.
These conservationists will scream, shout and make personal attacks and noise about everything EXCEPT the problem at hand. Secondly, they are obsessed with appearances, so you will never hear a word said by any of the foreigners who run the show. It is always the ill-advised, ill-prepared but well paid locals who come out in robust (if somewhat foolish) defence of their captors. Right now the national government, the county governments, and conservation organizations are all tongue-tied because they don’t know how to dismiss criticism from the US, where their lifeblood funding comes from. USAID is the biggest conservation funder in Kenya, and the biggest grantee is the NRT, which confers on them God-like status here. All the other conservation voices like the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) or the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK) that receive small-change grants cannot say a word against their “leader”, the NRT. That is why five days later, the CAK claims to be “still reading the report”. They are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before they make any noise or break any wind in defence of their fellow Kenyans.
Mark my words, these people have colossal reach; that’s why even the government has said nothing. There was a major press conference in Nairobi on 17th November 2021 about the Oakland report, and all the major media houses in Kenya were present, but the story has been “killed”. They have a huge PR machine, and if anything in the report were untrue, they would have torn it to shreds. Their bogeyman, Mordecai Ogada (frankly I’m a bit flattered!), is not in the picture, so they cannot point fingers at me anymore, and must now address the ISSUES. I am informed that some heads have already rolled. They are big, but not big enough to kill the story in the US public policy space. The WWF learned that the hard way. There shall be wailing, there will be hypertension, some hyperacidity, diarrhoea and other stress-related illnesses, but it looks (and smells) like change is coming.
This silence isn’t of the golden kind, it’s the silence of sick, trembling cowards caught in a big lie. I have nothing to add to the Stealth Game report, but wherever and whenever I will be asked to say something about it, I will not let anyone get away with trying to look shocked. I will always state just how I told them about this injustice five years ago, but it never mattered then. Because I am black, if truth be told.
I Know Why God Created Makeup
I am an economic migrant without the luxury of choice. I am not ready for Kenya yet so I must wake up, put my makeup on and take up my station by the dialysis machines.
It is half past five in the morning and your eyes are heavy with sleep. It is fascinating that they should be this lethargic, yet they would not close for a wink or two in the past eleven or so hours of the night. Lately your body seems to be operating on a paradoxical circadian rhythm– sleep when you shouldn’t and stay awake when you ought to be sleeping. You are a nurse and constantly tired. Translated, it means that you are one patient away from a mortal accident. You slap the alarm clock into silence, eyes half open set another alarm for half past six on your mobile phone, which has permanent residency under your three pillows.
You have been using three pillows for a while now. There does not seem to be one single shop in the world that sells decent pillows. The pillows in this city are as thin as a tongue. The lowlife of pillows. They smell of dying hope and unhappy thoughts. They are the sopranos in the pillow choir. Irritating but necessary. We therefore use three of them to allow them to accord each other some moral support. You miss fluffy pillows. Pillows like the ones you lay on at that posh hotel in Naivasha during your disastrous honeymoon a few years ago. Nostalgically, you go back to Naivasha in your sleepy mind.
There is a hazy recollection of that honeymoon. It was not meant to be because the wedding was not to be either. But they both happened. You know they did because you can hear yourself screaming in agony as another harsh word lands on your soul. But despite the honeymoon’s calamitous ending, you miss the pillows. They took to your torrential tears like a babe to its mother’s breast. They soaked the tears up perfectly and left no traces. He never once stirred. He was so drunk he could have been half dead. You had wished for the latter before you met Jesus. We do not think such thoughts nowadays and if we ever do, we will blame it on these scandalously uncomfortable pillows.
The summer morning’s sun tears precisely through your curtains like a surgeon’s blade. You love summer but you don’t like the glare of the morning sun. It is too bright. Accusatorily bright. Like it came to remind you what a slob you are for snoozing your alarm. It stands there, hovering over you like your mum when you wouldn’t complete your homework but wanted to read a Harry Potter novel instead. Mum would not go away, nor will the sun. Begrudgingly you wake up. Legs dangling onto the side of the bed, you will the rest of the body to join them on the peach-coloured bedroom rug on the floor. You miss the days when peach was just some fruit.
Eyes still closed, you head to the bathroom. You are startled into alertness by the girl staring at you in the mirror. She is as hopelessly worn out as a politician’s promise after campaigns. She looks like a thousand trucks ran over her and a group of snow-white owls perched on her hair. The wild hair tendrils falling on your face are a pasta disaster. My God, the lint from those pillows! You whisper. It is however more than just lint. Your eyes are red and puffed up. Like you hid two baby donuts under the eyelids and now the world can see your secret eating habits.
You are expected to be at work by half past seven, nursing patients. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on and you are not sure how much longer you can keep it together. Take that lovely patient yesterday, for example. She stood out from the first time you met her. She allowed you to needle her dialysis fistula as a new nurse. She was welcoming. Showed you pictures of May, her cat. Always had a joke for everyone. She entertained the unit with great panache. She had perfectly manicured nails which put your grooming routine to shame.
For fifteen years, kidney failure never took her life. But she died yesterday. She contracted COVID-19 and passed away. This is not an isolated case. The story keeps repeating itself. Like a repetitive bad dream, the carrousel of mortality keeps coursing through the hospital. Too many dialysis patients have been lost to the coronavirus.
Nobody acknowledges it but your colleagues are gutted by her death. Their demeanour is typically British though, they are long suffering. They wear resilience on their faces and spot plastic smiles to hide the pain. British nurses are averse to complaining. They take it all in their stride. Either that or quit. What would you not give to be able to quit nursing right now!
On the other hand, you are an economic migrant in the United Kingdom. Your life in the UK is governed by the terms and conditions of your visa. The terms say you are to be a nurse for the remaining period on your visa. You cannot leave. You risk being deported to Kenya if you exit nursing at the moment. You are not ready for Kenya yet. You envy Amy and Moraine. Two highly skilled kidney nurses from Scotland. They recently quit nursing altogether. Amy went back to university to study accounting while Moraine has started a coffee shop. The luxury of choice.
You take a quick shower, scrub your hair so hard as if you were shaking your brain from a lingering nightmare that it half hurts. Six and a half minutes later, you are staring at yourself in the dressing mirror. You have been in this flat for a year now and have never once used the dressing mirror like you want to use it today. To glam up the top half of your face.
Following a YouTube tutorial, you start applying acres of ridiculously expensive products on your exhausted face. Your patients are expecting a buoyed-up nurse; that is what they must get. This is why God created makeup. You pay close attention to your eyes. The windows to the soul. These windows needs some maintenance. The eyebrows are up first.
Your eyebrows are a strange phenomenon. The hairs are few and far between. You can never shape them perfectly to save your life. You scribble and doodle with some eye pencil YouTube influencers swore by and finally manage to draw two diagrams of West African evil spirits chasing after one another. Your signature mismatched eyebrow look. Feeling accomplished, you open your eyes wide and, stroke after stroke, you apply mascara on your eyelashes. The damage is then covered in some dark eye shadow. Only the top half of the face matters. The face masks and visors worn at work have rendered the lower half of the face irrelevant. Who wants lipstick smears on their face mask? Not you, you conclude.
At twenty minutes past seven, you are at work already. You are helping prepare the dialysis machines. Jean, your nurse colleague streams in. She has had her eyes done too. She is wearing some glittering eyeshadow. Her eyebrows look like what yours would be like when they grow up. You can see a hint of foundation on her forehead. You let out a sigh of relief. God created makeup for tired nurses, you surmise.
The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew
Much will be said and written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word without hesitation.
A lot has been written and a lot more will be written about the late Charles Mugane Njonjo who has passed away. I would like to tell my own personal story. I never knew him as a bureaucrat or politician. Indeed, our paths crossed immediately I left high school in 1983. Together with colleagues, we had written a play and planned to perform it for the public. We searched our minds for a public figure who would agree to come as guest of honour on opening night. We sought someone who would attract public attention to what we were doing, but more importantly for us 17-year-olds, someone who would agree to show up. Charles Njonjo’s name was all over the news at the time. His political career had just been truncated amid the prolonged political drama of the “traitor affair”. He was a figure of great public fascination for a variety of colourful reasons. We also had the names of other public figures on our list and I was tasked with reaching out to them.
Frankly, I wrote to Charles Njonjo not expecting to hear from him. He replied immediately, though, and accepted the invitation to be guest of honour at the opening night of our play, The Human Encounter, at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi. Once he accepted the invitation, we excitedly proceeded with preparations for the opening night. A few days later, however, we were informed that, unfortunately, the authorities had deemed Mr Njonjo’s presence at our event unacceptable and the decision was not negotiable. I informed my colleagues and we decided that since we had worked hard on the production we would obey the orders from above and proceed with our play without Mr Njonjo. There was no need for a fuss. I then had the embarrassing duty of disinviting Mr Njonjo when he had already accepted to be our guest of honour.
I spent a whole night drafting the letter and in the end, my late father told me not to agonise excessively, “Njonjo likes to be told the truth directly.” So I wrote the disinvitation letter as clearly and as respectfully as I could. I asked a friend of his to pass it on to him and did not expect to ever hear from him again. The message I received promptly back surprised me. Njonjo expressed his deepest appreciation for the invitation and explained that he fully understood why it had been withdrawn. He asked that we remain in touch. I was deeply relieved. Over the years, he would reach out to me through family and friends and we would interact jovially, remembering the letter I had written retracting his invitation as guest of honour. “No one has ever done that to me,” he would joke over tea.
In the early 1990s, as political pluralism was returning to Kenya, violence broke out in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley provinces. At one point, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were displaced as our elites arm-wrestled for power. I travelled to Laikipia and then to Burnt Forest and was aghast at the state of the internally displaced that had been forced from their homes by the violence. Together with Dr David Ndii and Mutahi Ngunyi we launched the “Kenyans in Need” appeal. The then chief editor of the Daily Nation, Wangethi Mwangi, gave us free advertising space to mobilise resources for the displaced – especially those in Ol Kalou who had been evicted from Ng’arua in Laikipia. The late Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Archdiocese of Nyeri agreed to use the relief infrastructure of Catholic Church to distribute any donations that came our way. Laikipia fell under Kirima’s remit.
The response to the appeal was surprising in its scale. People donated second-hand clothes, books, shoes and cash to the appeal. We received around KSh1 million worth of donations over the following months. We delivered the first batch directly to the philosophical Archbishop Kirima at his official residence in Nyeri, unique because of its specially built library full of the books he clearly loved. Our biggest and most consistent donor throughout the entire enterprise was Charles Njonjo. He was not keen to have his name mentioned but we would sit at his home drinking tea and reflecting on the political situation in the country.
When I joined government in 2003, Njonjo remained one of my steadfast providers of moral support. When news broke that I had been moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice, the first call I received was from Charles Njonjo. “You’re going to resign immediately, aren’t you?” he asked in his typically direct way. In the end, I didn’t. I sometimes wistfully recall his advice at the time. We kept in close touch.
When my situation in the Kibaki government went belly up in 2005 – as he had predicted to me many times – and I found myself in exile, Charles Njonjo became an even more steadfast friend. He stayed in touch and whenever he called, he would always enquire about my personal circumstances. He was a most interesting person in that way, loyal to his friends to a fault. Once you were his friend, he stood by you no matter how atrocious the circumstances. He would call to tell me he was coming to London and we would spend the day together simply walking the city, chatting and drinking tea. Back home I found out he was in constant touch with my family, offering moral and any other kind of support that might be needed.
When I returned from exile, one of the very first people to invite me for tea and a catch-up was Charles Njonjo and we took up from where we had left off in 2005. His observations on politics and about certain politicians were often wryly hilarious. His capacity to read people accurately was something I learnt. We would sit in his Westlands office and I would seek his opinion on this or that political interlocutor and in typical fashion he was always direct – “solid fellow”; “believe only half so-and-so says”; “take that one seriously”, etc. He was particularly dismissive of ethnic chauvinists and insisted that they held Kenya back in fundamental ways.
Charles Njonjo and I kept our friendship quiet. In part, this was because some of his diehard enemies were also my very good friends – the late legal giant Achhroo Ram Kapila SC among others. So, we didn’t discuss his enemies; he advised me on mine. Much will be written about Charles Njonjo and even though there was much we totally disagreed on politically, the Njonjo I knew since I was a teenager was a man of his word. He was a dear friend in ways I have never been able to share. There is not a personal problem that I raised with Charles Njonjo that he didn’t immediately seek to solve in his no-nonsense style. Njonjo could be a very funny man, full of jokes and insightful observations without a taint of bitterness. To me he was funniest when he joked in Gikuyu, which some people thought he couldn’t speak.
As I have said, much will be said and a lot will be written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.
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