School Fires and Strikes in Kenya: Where it all started!

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School Fires and Strikes in Kenya: Where it all started!


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 instill 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 burning question: why are Kenyan students setting fire to their schools?


In the media, students’ actions are cast as “mindless hooliganism”. But students can rationally explain why they use arson in their schools. Students have learned that setting fire to their schools is an effective tactic for winning acknowledgement of their dissatisfaction.

Their use of arson represents an astute reading of the limited options available to citizens to practice meaningful dialogue and peaceful dissent related to the conditions of public services, such as education. As many analysts have noted, limited options for meaningful citizen engagement in Kenya’s policy arena has given rise to the popularity of a “strike culture”.

In fact, students easily identify other examples from Kenyan political struggles that demonstrate how violence and destruction have proven effective means for citizens to win public and political recognition of their grievances.

As one student explained,

What I see is that in Kenyan society, the bigger the impact, the quicker the reaction. The government sees these people are serious and they can think “if we don’t meet their grievances now, we might see worse”.

Schooling complaints

Students target their schools because their grievances tend to be school-based. The most commonly cited complaints among students include principals’ overly authoritarian, “highhanded” and unaccountable styles of management, poor quality school diets and inadequate learning resources, including teaching. Many of these criticisms reflect suspicions about how school budgets are being allocated.

The overwhelming majority of school arson cases have occurred in boarding schools across the country, including boys’ schools, girls’ schools, and mixed schools. Schools that perform well and those that tend to perform more poorly on national examinations have all been affected.

Why are boarding schools such common targets? Some of this is explained by prevalence: nearly 80% of Kenya’s secondary schools are boarding schools. However, students explain that boarding schools are targeted because life for them in these schools can be “like prison”.

The boarding school, like prison, can be considered a “total institution”. This idea, theorised by sociologist Erving Goffman, refers to a situation where all aspects of life occur in the same place, with the same cohort, and according to a stringent schedule. This regime is enforced by a single authority according to an overarching “rational” plan. In practice, boarding school life is often experienced by students as excessively rigid and authoritarian.

The majority of school fires are set in students’ dormitories, thereby also destroying students’ own personal belongings. The rationale given by students is that the destruction of their dorms means that they will be sent home and given some respite from their intensive boarding school lifestyles.

Understanding adolescents and risk-taking

Interviews with students as well as reviews of court case proceedings indicate that it can be difficult for students to imagine the long-lasting detrimental consequences that might arise from setting fires in their schools.

In part, this is due to students holding cynical views of the ineptitude of the Kenyan enforcement and judicial systems. Students note, for example, that many prosecutions fail due to deficient criminal investigations, including unlawful interrogation practices.

Additionally, some students who played active roles in setting fires later claimed that they had been unable to anticipate the scale and scope of the damage the fires would cause to their schools as well as to their own futures.

These kinds of experiences jibe with emergent understandings from neuroscience concerning the unique developmental stage of adolescents’ brains. We now know that the brain is still developing during adolescence. The prefrontal cortex of the brain – which is implicated in impulse control – may not be fully developed and functional until the early 20s or later. Consequently, neurodevelopmental researchers theorize that

adolescents may have less inhibition, be more prone to take risks, more impulsive, and less likely to consider the distal consequences of their actions than adults.

Recognizing these potential differences does not cancel out the immediate deliberateness of students’ acts to affect change in ways that they understand to be effective. But it does complicate the question of how to respond to students’ palpable frustrations.

Alternative possible futures

All of this indicates that the government’s intention to respond to the trend of school-based arson with more discipline and punishment of students is misguided in two crucial and connected ways.

First, this approach only addresses symptoms exhibited in rebellious acts. At the root of students’ dissatisfaction and desperation is a grueling education coupled with often unaccountable authority, both of which are acutely experienced through the “total institution” of the boarding school.

Second, threats of more punishment misjudge the unique conditions of adolescence in terms of neuromaturation, and specifically how this can affect risk-taking and consideration of long-term consequences. More threats and interventions of punishment are unlikely to affect these predispositions.

Kenyan students have learned that arson works as a tactic to express dissatisfaction and opposition. To change this lesson, the government needs to open peaceful and effective channels for young people’s perspectives to be taken into account, both in education and government. Otherwise, we can likely expect more fires next year.

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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