Whether we like it or not, the future of our countries lies squarely in the hands of our youth, most of whom are currently at school. Unfortunately, any mention of “school” today is likely to evoke more images of marauding savages torching their dormitories and assaulting their teachers than those of serious, focused young people steadily moving into an orderly future under the guidance of their mentors.
Yet the teacher and parent in me is still dearly attached to the latter image of the school as the cradle of our future. Indeed, come to think of it, I realise that whenever I travel around the countryside, my main landmarks are the gates or signboards of the secondary schools, many of which I have visited or intend to visit in the near future.
Of the schools visited, I have delightful or amusing memories of English, Literature or drama workshops with my fellow teachers, or of my KU education students delivering inspired practice lessons with me hovering over them at the back of classrooms.
Of those yet to come, my anticipation is just as intense, since I know for a fact that every visit to a school, whether for a talk, a workshop, a supervision, a festival or a game of tennis, is always a great learning and loving experience for me.
I am always at my happiest in the company of teachers and students.
Some of my landmarks as I drive from Busia to Kisumu, for example, are St Monica Girls, Chakol, some 10 kilometres off the road to my left, Sidindi “Tech” and St Mary’s Yala. Chakol and Sidindi I am yet to visit, but Yala feels warmly familiar, maybe because of my close association with many of its alumni.
Esibila Secondary, to the right, just before you get to Luanda, is on my “to-do” list. At one time, a couple who were both my ex-KU students taught there.
But it also reminds me of the endearing oral poem, reminiscent of the rain-pattern experts of the region, “The Beautiful Ones of Esibila”, collected and popularised by my dear departed colleague and co-author, Jane Nandwa.
Maseno School further down the road needs no introduction. If you have not been there, you have not been anywhere in Kenyan education! But it is the other schools, closer to Kisumu, that leap to my mind to complete my journey.
Before you get to the downtown establishments, like Kisumu Boys and Kisumu Girls, indeed, before you enter the city, you pass by Archbishop Okoth and, before that, the strikingly musical-sounding Chulaimbo.
Chulaimbo is one of the many beloved schools that have recently broken my heart. Dormitories were burnt there and students were arrested, apparently on suspicion of arson. Now, that, the arson, is utterly revolting in itself.
Of course, as far as the law is concerned, we cannot judge, let alone condemn anyone before they are subjected to due processes.
But the fact remains that two communal residential buildings have been burnt down, at a school, with huge destruction of possessions, though luckily with no loss of lives.
What is even more worrying is that Chulaimbo is not an isolated disaster but a piece in a pattern across a whole slew of educational institutions all over a region of our country and beyond.
Most disturbingly, how can a person who has been “educated” for at least eight years even be suspected of taking up a flame and torching a building where this very person and his or her colleagues are supposed to live?
What kind of “education” has that person received, or been receiving?
Many commentators, including my colleagues in these columns, have volunteered several opinions and useful tips on how to deal with the crisis of violence in our schools. You probably already know the main thrust of my own take on the matter.
I particularly emphasise good communication: clear, humane and open listening and speaking among administrators, teachers and students.
No school day should start without a “state of the compound” discussion among all the stakeholders in the school.
To this I add what I think is the essence of education: social sense. I would be happy with an education that taught our children nothing beyond this: self-respect, respect for others and respect for their environment.
A socially sensible person would not have to be told that it is wrong to cheat, whether in elections or in examinations.
There would then be no need for draconian measures against examination cheating, in which we now learn that students and some of their parents seek the “co-operation” (read collusion) of their teachers, with dire threats to the latter if they dare opt for honesty.
In any case, a sensible education should not make examinations the be-all-and-end-all of students’ lives.
Then maybe we teachers would concentrate more on really bringing up our young charges to be decent and responsible citizens than merely “teaching” (drilling) them to pass meaningless examinations.
I remember once, long ago, studying in a top-notch institution where those who did not feel inclined to sit examinations did not have to. Mechanical and artificial regimentation is not a sine qua non of life.
We can devise a more imaginative and flexible approach to education than the current conveyor-belt grind represented by examinations.
We could also reverse the “villagisation” of the teaching and school administration system that crept in with the so-called “district focus” of the mid 1980s and early 1990s.
In a sensible, effective approach, merit, competence and experience should be the criteria for determining who works or teaches in any of our educational institutions.
The shameful persecution of tried and tested administrators just because they come from “across the stream” should be a thing of the past.
It may sound ironical that, this soon after the great “Matiangian” education review, we are calling for yet another review.
But, as I keep saying, in these matters there are no final arrivals.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]