Schools, like prisons, are places where “inmates” do their time in uniform.
But students of Rwathia Girls Secondary School in the frosty Kangema area of Murang’a County boycotted classes last week due to, among others, the alleged high-handedness of their deputy head teacher, thinning food rations and the more knotty issue of their new school uniform.
The purple affair, the students complained, was “too long, ugly and not meant for their age”.
To make the uniform more appealing, some are said to have cut the standard-issue skirts to the “desired length”, but the school administration was not amused, leading to a confrontation.
The pursing of lips over these purple skirts got embroidered last Monday when 400 girls bolted home before sun up. But police herded them to a cop station until daybreak. No school property was damaged during the sartorial rebellion.
Schooling sometimes could easily seem to be one long stretch of learning things you don’t give a hoot about, surrounded by classmates you wish you never met, while working toward a future you don’t know will ever come — and in uniform that you can’t give your enemy as a gift.
Here to stay
Whether a school uniform resembles smudged newsprint, is box-printed like a draughts board or its material can be mistaken for that of an umbrella, uniforms, like education, are here to stay.
And the word “uniform” is self-explanatory. It is something worn to train conformity, to indoctrinate the wearer into regimented practice.
That is besides promoting identity, discipline and neatness. It is also a source of pride and visual equality that trims the edges of economic disparities among students who hail from all walks of life.
Students in uniform also profit from reduced bus fare and faster treatment in health facilities.
Uniforms are not mandatory in, mostly, international schools. Like Nairobi’s 65-year old Rosslyn Academy, where students are inspired and equipped to be of “service in the world community”, but first have to plough through the “24 Carnegie units required for graduation”.
Okay, they wear uniforms — for those in the school band — during concerts.
And there are rules: Gentlemen have to dress in black trousers (no denim) and white shirts buttoned down the front.
Polo, golf, team jerseys and T-shirts are a no-no. So are sneakers or shoes with markings. But black dress, socks and shoes will do.
Neckties are of a student’s liking but they’re warned “try not to be so outlandish that everybody is looking at you and not listening” … probably to the adagios and allegros of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Or the oboes and bassoons in Handel’s Music to the Royal Fireworks.
And while Rwathia Girls might be crying over “spilt skirts”, ladies at Rosslyn are only allowed to wear “black mid-length skirts (well below the knees about halfway down the calf when standing), absolutely no patterns or extra colours added. Miniskirts are never accepted.”
According to the school, the reason for the dress code is “establishing uniformity in the appearance of the ensemble… fashion statements are for parties and formal events, not the concert stage.”
The other school where students dispense with uniform is Lycee Denis Diderot (The French School, Nairobi) that is 15 years Rosslyn’s junior.
According to the Ministry of Education, Kenya has over 15,000 public primary schools and over 3,500 secondary schools, and uniforms are compulsory.
Only in the roughly 1,500 informal schools in slums, rural and other marginalised areas do students hardly wear uniform due to that not so small matter of money.
To take care of such tatters, the Ghanaian government, in the ‘90s, prescribed one similar yellow-and-brown uniform to all basic school students, besides funding those who couldn’t afford them.
In Kenya, though, every school has its own uniform, with rules. Take St Mary’s School, Nairobi, where students are expected to keep a tidy appearance in the right uniform at all times.
There are two main official St Mary’s uniforms. The first is the regular uniform worn from Monday to Thursday.
The second is the First Class (Special Ceremonial) uniform worn on Fridays and other special school functions.
Among notable alumni who wore the blue uniform of “Saints” include Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, anti-corruption expert John Githongo, TV host Jeff Koinange, rally driver Ian Duncan and musicians Eric Wainaina and Aaron Rimbui, currently the band leader at the ongoing Tusker Project Fame 5 TV music show.
Uniform, be it of a nurse, guard, police officer, soldier, pilot, naval officer, banker or baker has ways of harmonising one’s inner psyche with the desired image being projected to the world.
Nairobi’s Starehe Boys’ Centre celebrates its uniform in its school song, Forty Years On, which was borrowed from that of Harrow School in Northwest England: “Boldly we follow in the footsteps of our brothers, proudly we wear our dress of red and blue.”
That is in reference to Starehe’s incandescent blue shorts and inimitable red shirts, black tie over black blazers that presidential aspirants Raphael Tuju and Peter Kenneth wore back in their days at “Starch”.
Of choosing those conspicuous hues, Starehe’s founding director, the late Geoffrey Griffin, once explained that they were to ensure “no one mistook a Starehe student anywhere”.
Limuru Girls’ has its brown shoes. But you can’t tell that from looking at the feet of Njoki Ndung’u, now a Supreme Court judge.
In boys’ schools, shorts and long trousers are worn to help teachers separate junior from senior students.
But two decades to independence, some settler teachers preferred to sport short trousers. Like the revered Carey Francis of Alliance High School and his khakis. The lanky, eccentric bachelor ensured students committed the school prayer to memory:
“Have in thy keeping oh lord our God this school, That it’s work maybe thorough and its life joyful; that from it may go out strong in body and mind and character, men who in thy name and thy power, will serve their fellows faithfully.”
And Edward Carey Francis, Alliance’s headmaster and maths teacher, taught a whole generation of students who were instrumental in Kenya’s future at independence: Kenneth Matiba, Ngala Mwendwa, Julius Gikonyo Kiano, Duncan Ndegwa, Charles Njonjo, Jeremiah Kiereini, Jean Marie-Seroney and Dr Taaitta Toweett all sported the jungle green sweaters and blue ties.
Protesting over school uniform, however, didn’t start, and will not end, with Rwathia Girls.
Taaitta Toweett had grouse with Carey Francis over wearing the grey trousers on Sundays when he was a student there from 1940.
Trousers were expensive, he argued. Toweett, later the MP for Buret and Education Minister in the Kenyatta administration, took to wearing shorts… and akala (tire sandals).
At least Taaitta Toweett, who, like Francis, had his own predilections like studying moles, was protesting on the platform of cost, which even today, is prohibitive to most parents.
Uniforms come in dull, earthy colours and robust material so that Apam in Kanyam-Kago village can wear them repeatedly, with minimal laundry, for three terms and still hand them down to his younger sibling, Othim.
Girls’ uniforms are tailored long to accommodate bulging weight and height. In some schools skirts are pleated to ensure they’re not modified to knee length, body-hugging sizes. Or indented with suggestive slits.
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