MORE than 100 secondary schools in Kenya have been set on fire this year, a trend that has created national panic and widespread hand-wringing about the “crisis of school indiscipline”. 6,000 students so far have been sent home after their schools were forced to close.
There have been many conflicting explanations for the spate of school arsons, most of which are believed to have been started by the students themselves.
The explanations range from juvenile delinquency, drug abuse and peer-pressure – in one prominent incident, boys from Itiero High School in Kisii torched their dormitories apparently because the school administration had barred them from watching the Euro 2016 final match.
Others say it is because caning was abolished in Kenyan schools some years ago, and parents are “abdicating their role” of disciplining their children.
The most elaborate explanation has something to do with exam cheating. Apparently there are nameless, faceless cartels at the examination headquarters who make a killing selling advance copies of national exams to school headteachers.
Some estimates put the value of the exam leakage syndicate at Ksh400 million ($4 million a year).
Education minister Fred Matiang’i has been working to stop the cheats, in a heavy-handed management style that has been praised and criticised in equal measure.
Now, “the cartels” are fighting back, ostensibly colluding with teachers and students to burn down schools so that the minister can be fired.
But there is more to the story. School strikes, and arsons in particular, are not new to Kenyan schools – it is perhaps just the scale of the current fires that has people scratching their heads.
A recent research paper by Elizabeth Cooper titled Students, Arson and Protest Politics in Kenya: School Fires As Political Action sheds some light on the issue that has gripped public debate in the country. Cooper conducts a comprehensive survey of media, government, and court reports, as well as primary data collected through interviews with teachers, education officials, and most importantly, students.
Her research discovers that school-based arson is a phenomenon that spans regions in Kenya, and occurs in boys, girls and mixed schools, private and public schools, and across school calendars.
Most importantly, she recognises arson as an effective and accessible protest tool for Kenyan students.
“The use of arson by students reflects what this generation has learned about how protest and politics work in Kenya,” says Cooper. Students recognise that destructive collective actions are effective in winning a response from authorities.
It is part of a broader reactionary mode of governance, which teenagers are already aware of – that citizen initiatives are ignored until they pose a direct threat to property and the public peace.
As one student explained, a street protest without destruction, looting or deaths does not receive media or government attention and the protesters’ grievances are simply ignored.
Most telling from the students interviewed was that arson, in particular, as a protest tool makes good sense. Fire is dramatic, and achieves the immediate goals of drawing the attention of authorities above the school principal, who typically run their schools like small fiefdoms.
“It also wins students a break from their prisons (a very common description of boarding schools). Arson is also easy and cheap to implement, and there is minimal risk to perpetrators in that students know it is hard to prove arson and to collect sufficient evidence to convict student arsonists.”
What are the student grievances, then? They are many, and often localised. But two common ones are exam pressure, and a boarding school system that is unnecessarily harsh and tyrannical.
Cooper describes students having “extreme anxiety” about being poorly prepared for national exams, and the overriding importance of exam scores to the students’ future.
But the students may already know that the education system is failing them. By one measure, 20% of children completing primary school in East Africa have not mastered basic literacy and numeracy skills.
A report on employers’ perceptions of graduates published in 2014 by the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council concluded that on average, 56% of students graduating from East African universities lacked basic and technical skills needed in the job market.[iframe securitykey=”68f51ed951ec4f22230bb7eb91315944cb08a912″ src=”//datawrapper.dwcdn.net/JOqNW/1/” frameborder=”0″ allowtransparency=”true” allowfullscreen=”allowfullscreen” webkitallowfullscreen=”webkitallowfullscreen” mozallowfullscreen=”mozallowfullscreen” oallowfullscreen=”oallowfullscreen” msallowfullscreen=”msallowfullscreen” width=”100%” height=”400″>]
It may not seem so, but through the adolescent incoherence, teenagers are already aware and anxious about these contradictions; they see the failure of an exam-centric education system that emphasises rote learning with no real life skills.
In the latest wave of school fires, it is interesting to note that there have been almost no casualties. The level of coordination – including evacuating sick students from dormitories before torching them – has led to murmurs that the fires could not possibly be the work of only students. There must be teachers and the faceless “cartels” inciting and supporting them.
But this is to underestimate teenagers as sovereign political actors, who know what they are doing. Cooper argues that we should consider arson not as a problem of indiscipline, but as an “important challenge to the existing disciplinary status quo in Kenyan schools and society.”
By setting fires, students are not giving up on their education, they are demanding better. Self-immolation has long been understood as a desperate yet noble form of political protest for the most disenfranchised.
The most famous case in recent times is Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself alight when his cart was confiscated by local government officials, and sparked the Arab Spring in early 2011.
In other words, argues Cooper, the school fires are a form of simultaneously self-inflicted and externally directed violence that is “desperate, principled, popular, and ultimately political.”