Moi’s centres of excellence and Kasigwa’s ‘rebellion’

Friday February 28 2020

Barnabas Kasigwa with some of the award trophies he won. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Austin Bukenya

Much has been said about the late President Daniel arap Moi’s passion for, and maybe obsession with, quality education, leading him to invest lavishly in the sector.

His input included setting up his own personal centres of excellence, such as Sacho High School and the Kabarak Institutions. Still, I thought I should share with you these few personal anecdotes about the matter, for two reasons.


First, they are from a relatively non-Kenyan angle, to which I was privy. Secondly, and more importantly, one of my friends and most faithful readers asked me to give my opinion on one of Mzee Moi’s tactic of concentrating the best teachers at his centres of excellence, even at the expense of the schools where those teachers might have been working.

It is true that in building up his centres, Mzee Moi and his scouts identified well-performing teachers from all over the country and induced them to serve at his schools, such as Kabarak and Sacho, both of which I visited, to conduct seminars and motivation sessions, at the invitation of such teachers.

Some of these were my former Makerere students (and even my own undergraduate contemporaries) who had distinguished themselves at English teaching and drama at various schools.


I know of two who were taken to Sacho High, one from Ngandu (Bishop Gatimu) Girls, and one (a close schooldays friend with whom I had made my national theatre debut appearance in Kampala in 1965) from Mulango Girls in Kitui.


The best-known of these handpicked postings was, of course, my dear departed friend, Barnabas Kasigwa, transferred to Kabarak following his Drama Festival triumphs at Kaaga Girls in Meru.

Kasigwa was also almost an age-mate, but I had taught him at Makerere in my early career. He had been a late entry, having had to work his way laboriously through the school system, as many poor students had to in those days.

The “inducements” at Moi’s excellence centres were certainly hard to resist, especially for us Ugandan refugees. They included not only better pay and even a small shamba or house for exceptional performance, but also the prospect of citizenship, or at least a secure residence.

But you also had to step very cautiously once you were co-opted into the "family". The centres of excellence were built on not only very high expectations of not only academic performance but also strict moral and social discipline, for both staff and students.

Indeed, from my observations, one of the central departments at both Sacho and Kabarak was the Chaplaincy, presided over by eminent pastors, preachers and counsellors. We often heard their sermons when Moi attended their services at the schools.

Regarding the straight and narrow path that one had to tread at these centres, my agemate at Sacho, for example, had to leave abruptly when she was believed, I heard, "to have been socialising with unacceptable elements" in the area. Kasigwa's "rebellious" story, which he told me himself, was even more dramatic, although it ended on a happier note.


Kasigwa had left Kabarak after several years and joined a prominent private school in Nairobi. This followed the blocking of his “benefits” at Kabarak, by an administrator who, unbeknownst to Moi, did not believe in favouring "foreigners."

I knew of Kasigwa’s daring move, and I should have been pleased about it, as I was a parent at his prestigious new school. But truth to tell, I was not comfortable with it. I felt deep within that it would lead to complications.

My fears were, however, considerably allayed when I visited my friend in his spacious apartment just off Limuru Road, near Forest Park, and he assured me he was settling in fine at the new school and getting down to work at what he did best. No questions had, so far, been asked from Kabarak. Maybe they would let him gradually become a Nairobian.

But all was not quiet on the western front. Kabarak’s slips in the disciplines that Kasigwa used to handle there were becoming increasingly noticeable, and maybe his absence was beginning to be felt. One fine morning several months later, Kasigwa told me, he received some visitors from Nakuru at his new school.

They told him that “Mzee” was not pleased about his abrupt departure from Kabarak, and he had better return there immediately. The consequence of his refusal, they told him, could be serious.


With the fast-response skills of the consummate dramatist that he was, Kasigwa agreed to return to Nakuru with his visitors, but with one request. Could they, please, take him to Mzee Moi so he could offer his personal apologies to him.

They did, and in the course of his “apology”, taking his courage into his hands, Kasigwa told the President of all his frustrations at Kabarak that had led to his abrupt exit.

Mzee Moi acted immediately. Summoning a handful of his staff, he ordered them to handle all of Mwalimu’s needs “without any delay”.

Kasigwa ended up not only "keeping" his citizenship (granted before his rebellion) and acquiring a car and a house with a big garden in Nakuru West (where I once spent a lovely night) but also, later, a facilitation to do a Masters degree at KU, and, before his death, holding a lectureship at Kabarak University.


My reader friend rightly expressed concern for the schools from which the teachers were "poached". But, as the English say, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Mzee Moi could also invoke the "forces" of the free market, and the plea that whether in Kaaga, Mulango, Ngandu or Kabarak, the walimu were teaching Kenyan children.

For us teachers, however, the moral is that all teachers should get better terms and more respect if they are to perform at their best.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]