Al Kags

We have not innovated our institutions since colonialism

A picture of Al Kags standing left next to MaqC Eric Gitau with the artwork of the Youtube Channel -

Recently, I sat down with an old classmate of mine, MaqC Eric Gitau on his Youtube Channel, Development Dynamics. The channel is designed into go through the autobiography of leaders in the social sector – essentially from birth to date, while in the course of it sussing out the lessons and the influences that make them who they are.

You can catch the playlist here of my story here and the stories of AMREF’s Dr. Githinji Gitahi here and the legendary Dr. Katindi Sivi’s story here

As I was reviewing the episode that came out today, I found myself reflecting on the colonial practices that we have kept for our 50+ years of independence. In today’s story, I talk about my stint in a rural boarding school, Kilifi Township Secondary School. I think back to the life at the school from waking up at 3am (for form one students) so that they can go and shower in small dirty cubicles. Shower is a generous term to use because there was only a trickle of water that ever really came out of the taps and most students had to go fetch water and wash themselves out in the field – in the open.

Girls' dorms, Maji Mazuri Centre and School, Nairobi, Kenya Stock Photo -  Alamy
This is a dorm that I’d consider luxurious compared to the dorm I was in.

The dorms in which we slept were these large halls with hundreds of tripple level bunk beds, jammed in so tightly that you had to walk sideways in between the beds to move. I shudder to think what might have happened to us should a minor panic have ensued in the dorm. So many schools over the years have suffered the tragedy of losing students in dorm fires, where many students died either being trampled on, or in suffocation as they could not get out to safety on time.

Food consisted of a large ugali and soup of hacked cabbage. If you were lucky, you might have seen a sliver of tomato floating in the oily pool on your plate. On the good days, we had rice and beans – usually the weekends. Breakfast consisted of an unsliced loaf of bread cut into 4 and watery black tea that was unencumbered by sugar. 

The school had such a high level of scarcity of everything that it was usually a free-for-all push and pull for all resources – water, food, space, time… It is no wonder to me that many students developed a scarcity mentality that caused them to fight to get things – even if it meant bullying the weaker ones to submission. 

A painting of Lucky Dube
The late Lucky Dube

Bullying was so rampant in the school. I remember a man nicknamed Dube (after legendary artist, Lucky Dube). I call him a man because he was over 18 and had already been in form four twice by the time I got there. He was so notorious that even the teachers seemed to despair of him. It was not uncommon to see him beating a young lad with a wet towel converted into a club – take the towel, tie a big knot on one end, wet it and you could kill someone. What’s even more terrible was that he was the only form 4 who slept in the form 1 dorm with 14-16 year olds. 

Under these circumstances, how can we be surprised when students run amok and deal wanton destruction to their schools? 

A picture of Dr. Carey Francis
Dr. Carey Francis

What is interesting to me is that these school practices were the same practices meted out on poor Africans before independence – the days when Dr. Carey Francis was the shining example of teaching. In more than 50 years of independence, we have not innovated much in the way boarding schools are managed and run, especially in the public boarding schools. 

Mau Mau prisoners squatting with their hands up at gunpoint
Kenyan Prisons still have these practices.

Years ago, after a friend of mine spent some time in the Industrial Area Remand Prison, I was able to write the story of his experiences there. What was remarkable was that the bug infested, dirty, heavily corrupt prison system and practices were exactly as they were in 1911 when that prison was built to incarcerate and torture Africans – write down to making the squat in rows and counting them with a knock on the head using a club. 

Corruption is a consequence of scarcity – that is what gives rise to the impulse to take all that you can and hoard it for yourself – even at the expense of others. That scarcity in Kenya is bred somewhere. I think our institutions have much to do with it.

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