Oh, to be a student in these times! Rwathia Girls Secondary School, Kangema, has become the location of what may be a sartorial revolution.
The 400-plus students, in their self-described purple monstrosities, declared their school uniform “too long, ugly and not meant for their age.”
Over the last two weeks, the issue has raised national debate on how much say teenagers should have when it comes to their own wardrobe, and if adults should trust the said teens’ judgement?
Like almost every girl in Kenya, I wore a uniform throughout primary and high school.
And how my schoolmates and I wished to be like the Americans in the movies — in all their rebellious, sexy, non-uniform-wearing spunky glory.
Once, in primary school, a pupil was summoned to the staff room by female teachers.
Her mistake? Wearing an extremely short dress. She was dressed down in front of her peers by five female teachers who repeatedly dropped a bunch of keys on the ground and dared her to pick them up without compromising her modesty. She couldn’t.
Rather than explaining that her dress was too short, they cackled as they teased her. She left the staff room hostile, degraded and none the wiser.
She had hit a growth spurt, and within a year, the once petite 13-year-old became a young woman. But her dress size remained the same.
I attended two high schools as a teenager; one, a Catholic school where first formers spent the entire first term waiting for their uniforms to be tailored.
If an event came up during the term, we had to borrow uniforms.
Never has the Swahili saying nguo ya kuomba haisitiri matako manifested so literally and in so vulgar a manner since.
Our uniform was a retina-burning cornflower yellow shirt and sweater with a matching headscarf and a black, polyester midi-length skirt.
Uniforms by design and purpose are created to tell people you belong to a particular tribe, in this case, a school. Without it you are an outsider.
Uniforms are meant to separate and isolate you from others outside of the tribe and desensitise you to the rest of the world, make you, and them, understand that you are now part of a culture with a set of rules distinctly different from those followed by those who do not look like you.
It announces that for the next four years, you are part of the XYZ High School tribe.
In my school, we discussed how to create the impression our uniforms were from schools we considered more prestigious and how to tailor something attractive for the walk home through the CBD should we bump into our peers.
As a result, my Catholic school tribe had two sets of uniforms — a day-to-day school skirt and another pencil skirt kept secret from hawk-eyed parents and teachers.
This second skirt was designed to emphasise our greatest assets. It could be worn underneath the ugly skirt or packed in bags.
With that skirt, we knew we could hold our heads high upon stepping out of the bus.
Teachers tried their best to put a stop to our wearing it by searching us in advance, but we always found a way around their checks.
And despite our parents’ best efforts to buy us uniforms large enough to last us four years, we found ways to make them more attractive, and thus give them a much shorter lifespan to the chagrin of the adults.
We’d either roll up the waistband (which made your stomach seem thick, therefore it was not the preferred option), sew the offending skirt tighter at night or do the Rwathia Girls thing and trim the hemline to make it shorter.
The other quality uniforms have is they desexualise the wearer. Schools offer no avenue for vanity or body enhancement.
But we did not fail to notice and fall in love with the very short Sarafina uniforms.
Private school uniforms also appealed to us with their well-cut blazers, above-the-knee tartan skirts, knee-length socks and non-Bata shoes. Why, we wondered, were our uniforms so darn ugly?
Rwathia Girls’ discontent is nothing new; the problem of unsatisfactory uniforms has persisted for decades.
The only time the length of uniforms was a non-issue was in the 1960s. There is photographic proof that in that era, girls wore skirts an inch or two above the knee.
My second school’s previous students did manage a sartorial revolution. They used to wear brown socks and brown shoes and resembled walking sausages, but by the time I arrived, we were in sweet white socks and black, normal-looking shoes.
The uniform decision ultimately made by adults is for parental peace of mind and in the best interests of the student.
The best present and future students can do is walk in the ill-skirted footsteps of their predecessors.
Youth means finding ways to break the rules and go against the system.
Rwathia Girls did what teenage girls world over have done when it comes to clothes.
But with short skirts comes great responsibility. One does wonder though, how many inches would it take for a skirt to be considered acceptable by rebellious, fashion-forward, modern schoolgirls?