Why would a student set a school on fire?

Thursday September 14 2017

Members of the Red Cross society consoling a

Members of the Red Cross society consoling a distraught family member of the deceased Moi Girls students at the Chiromo Mortuary on September 12, 2017. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO 

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In the last two weeks, the country has been struggling to come to terms with the loss of nine young and gifted souls. The real shocker came when we learned that the fire was allegedly started by a student who was also sleeping in the same dormitory that was burned down. It was further revealed that she had tried to end her life, unsuccessfully, on two different occasions in the past.

Students have expressed various reasons for starting school fires. Bringing attention to their pleas regarding discontent with management of their schools, unchecked powers of school prefects and other senior students as well as shortening of holidays among others.

Nation.co.ke sought the views of an expert on the matter.


Dr Philomena Ndambuki is a lecturer at Kenyatta University in the Department of Education (Educational Psychology), involved in giving core courses that train teachers in aspects of psychology from undergraduate to doctorate levels. Her major focus is teaching human growth and development, for which she is also a registered counsellor and supervisor. Besides being a family and couples counsellor, she also counsels children and adolescents. Dr Ndambuki tries to explain what goes on in the psychology of teenagers who might be seen to be rebellious or out of hand.

She offers her professional opinion on what could be the reasons behind teens acting out around the country in such a destructive manner over the years:

Dr Philomena Ndambuki is a lecturer at Kenyatta

Dr Philomena Ndambuki is a lecturer at Kenyatta University in the Department of Education (Educational Psychology). PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

“The adults around such teenagers have not met their need to feel included or that they matter. Such that when we do things which they don’t like, they do something extreme that will make us know that they exist.

This explains why some students are violent in school, because they want to get even with the adults in their lives. They usually do it in groups so that it can send a more powerful message. Serious low self-esteem or feeling rejected from a group one wants or feels they belong in, can also cause a teenager to lash out and punish someone they feel is responsible for their situation. All children should be assisted have positive self-esteem which gives them inner strength to solve any problem they come across. People with low self-esteem have no identity and either don’t know they have a strength or use it the wrong way.

They may also be rejecting the school or persons in it. The problem is that adolescents don’t fully realise the consequences of what they do until after the fact. However, a person may be sadistic, deriving pleasure in doing that which is harmful to others. This person is not socialised to want to see other people move on happily in life. If I discover a person is suffering from a mental disorder, then I will recommend them to a group of psychiatrists I work with.


Growth and development counselling works to ensure one is doing the right thing physically, intellectually, socially, morally and emotionally. Parents and teachers need to have a forum where they and the teenagers talk about life and positively maximise on those five aspects. When teenagers are feeling frustrated their emotions run high, affecting their social interactions with others negatively; they will constantly quarrel and fight.

Physically, the adolescents should be in a good place. Eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep well, be dressed and observe good hygienic practices.

Intellectually, they are at a stage of development where they start to process information like adults, but don’t have the experience to know or talk about consequences amongst themselves. Adolescents should be allowed to ask questions, contribute and discuss with their teachers and parents in order to make them feel empowered intellectually.

Social development is where I think we go wrong, it has to do with how one relates with other people. When children want their friends to visit them at home, you find parents saying they don’t want a certain person coming over. The adolescents are at a stage where they want peer affiliation. If they are not given what they need by their friends, then they succumb to peer pressure and do what they otherwise wouldn’t. We want to encourage friendliness, cooperation and communication which will take them forward. Morally, we should assist them to endeavour to do what is right for them, the school and society. Social morality ensures the protection of everybody by also respecting one another and other people’s things.

If this material can be factored in to the school program, maybe an hour every weekend from the first year of high school, it would accentuate and lift the development tenet very high. This will promote the ‘being a brother’s keeper narrative’ – where one would not want to do something to someone which they wouldn’t want to be done to them.


We should, however, be conscious of possible risk or disasters that can happen in a school and continuously talk about it with students to keep their minds aware of all these negative things. If someone has a deep personality disorder (schizophrenic, bipolar or depression) they would need a psychiatrist who could give them something to calm them down and then talk to them. I am not for bringing back corporal punishment. The Bible says “Spare the rod, spoil the child” but the rod is any method we use for correction that is impactful. The only thing our school system has done effectively is to teach the curriculum, not to teach students about life, communication, cooperation or being their brother’s keeper.

Parents should be authoritative not authoritarian. Their authority should benefit the child and not themselves. When a child is convinced that all the suggestions around them are for their good then they’ll want to do as their parents advise.

They should, however, also be allowed to say why they want or don’t want, to follow a particular path. This doesn’t mean that they let the child do whatever they please."