The 91st birthday of Alliance High School, last week, coincided with the breaking story about shocking bullying that has been going on in the school. The first Sunday of March every year has been designed Founders’ Day at Alliance. On this day, the school holds a thanksgiving service to commemorate its establishment.
Over the years, the service has come soon after the “O” and “A” level examination results, in which the school has historically performed well. The service has, therefore, tended to be an occasion for the Alliance community to celebrate good examination results, and even gloat a little.
This year’s service, taking place on Sunday, coincides with unprecedented difficulties, following revelations about an ingrained culture of bullying, and official punishment severe enough to constitute torture.
As part of the fallout, the school’s Principal, Mr David Kariuki, has gone on early retirement and six students are facing criminal charges.
The reaction to the Alliance debacle has been interesting, to the effect that while what is reported on Alliance is shocking, it is not new, and that bullying that rises to the level of torture is common in Kenyan public schools.
A number of people have been able to relate the Alliance bullying with what happened to them in high school.
It has been argued that the media is interested in the story only because it relates to Alliance.
I attended Alliance for six years in the 1980s, and a pervasive attitude during that time was that people out there hated the school because of its academic success and were waiting for its fall. Year-in year-out, one of the factors motivating the students was that if the school should fall, this should not happen in their time.
Although falling was considered mostly in academic terms, and while the school continues to post good academic results, it was never considered that a fall could take other forms.
While thinking on what the school ought to do to address the terrible situation that it finds itself in, it is important to reflect on its history as this provides a useful perspective on the enormity of the problem.
When Alliance opened its doors on March 1, 1926, with 27 students aged between 19 and 22, it became the first secondary school for Africans in East Africa. The establishment of the school followed the report of the Stoke-Phelps Commission of 1924, which had carried out a survey in education in East Africa.
The commission found that while Uganda already had schools described as “high schools”, this gave an erroneous impression since these were only elementary schools. For example, the Government School, Makerere College, which had opened in 1922 with 14 students, only trained native assistants to become clerks, telegraphers, mechanics, gardeners, carpenters and the like.
J. Stephen Smith, the first teacher at Alliance, where he taught for 43 years, later becoming Deputy Headmaster, has written a book, The History of Alliance High School, which documents the struggles that went into the founding of the school.
It is a story of the grandest vision and a labour of love by those who dared to dream of a higher education for Africans. In the same book, Charles Njonjo, himself an old boy and also the son of an old boy, has written a foreword, describing Alliance as “the greatest of all pioneering efforts in Kenya.”
Alliance High School is the product of the Alliance of Protestant Missions, the four pioneering protestant Christian missions that established in close proximity to one another around Kikuyu area.
While they would have preferred to settle away from one another, they each had to establish around the railway line, as there was no supporting infrastructure elsewhere. Compelled to crowd one another, they decided to cooperate and, after a laboured birth, created an alliance in 1913.
Eventually, the alliance agreed on a common project, the Alliance Medical College, where Kikuyu Hospital stands today, which opened in 1924, and closed the same year, as it could find no qualified students. Other than becoming the forerunner of Alliance High School, the failure of the medical college demonstrated the need for African secondary education.
FIRST RATE SCHOOL
When the Phelps-Stokes commission reported the following year, it recommended that the buildings left behind by the still-born Alliance Medical College should form part of the plans for African higher education.
In the end, it was agreed to build a first rate secondary school, rather than a college, which the commission had recommended. However, the colonial administration opposed, arguing that secondary education for Africans was “premature,” while the burgeoning settler community, who had separate schools, waited for the school to fail. In a context of official equivocation, the missionary founders were on their own.
They risked everything in starting a secondary school deep in the bushes of Kikuyu.
The opening of Alliance soon set off other dynamics in African education, including the departure, in 1927, of Mbiyu Koinange, a pioneer Alliance student, for Hampton College in the US. He eventually emerged as the first Kenyan to acquire a university degree. By 1935 several Kenyans had been awarded school certificates.
When in 1946, Makerere entered into an agreement with the University of London which would allow the offering of degrees in Uganda, former Alliance students naturally formed the bulk of the pioneer degree students.
As the only African secondary school in East Africa, Alliance taught its own syllabus and, while it eventually acquired competitors, Alliance was, for long, the only school presenting candidates for Junior Secondary and Senior Secondary exams. Later, the success of Alliance inspired local councils to establish own secondary schools. When “A” level was introduced in 1961, Alliance became one of only six schools in the country to take in students.
Alliance initially opened only to boys. In 1938, the school took in the first girls, thus also pioneering girls’ secondary education. Later, the Alliance Girls’ School opened in 1948.
As the first, and, initially, the only African secondary school in Kenya, the history of Alliance High School is the history of Kenyan education. The terrible events reported last week are a blot on this history and merit punishment.