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Fired up: ‘Burnt’ schools rise from the ashes but pay dearly

By Erick Abuga | Wednesday, May 10th 2017 at 08:10
Iterio Boys principal Isaac Ogol shows some of the renovated dormitories in his school

In July last year, over 3,000 students from 18 schools in Kisii County were sent home over ‘mysterious’ school fires that caught the Ministry of Education officials napping.

Property, which school authorities estimated at Sh250 million, was destroyed with the government maintaining that parents will have to bear the costs.

These acts were worrying. Many felt that the younger generation had departed from the values broadly espoused by our ‘religious’ nation. What happened to discipline?

In an attempt to contain the vice which was fast becoming contagious — like chickenpox — the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) sent home a few head teachers. This however did little to reverse the worrying trend.

The burning down of seven dormitories at Itierio Boys in June 2016 bore the hallmark of a ruthless generation. This act stirred Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang and TSC boss Nancy Macharia into action. A high-powered delegation visited Itierio School. To see for themselves.

The visit would lead Matiang’i and his team to Nyamache Boys High School where they attended an Educational Day for Nyamache Sub County. Ironically, moments after the CS left for Nairobi, a dormitory at Nyamache Boys School went up in flames. This was the second fire in the school in a span of one month.

The principals of Nyamache and Itierio — together with their deputies — were immediately interdicted. The CS would go on to constitute a committee to investigate the rampant school fires in the country.

The Nairobian recently visited Nyamache and Itierio Boys that have since returned to normalcy despite having taken several steps backwards. The schools’ new heads, Peter Lunani (Nyamache) and Isaack Okeyo Ogol (Itierio) are confident that their respective school will get up and compete favourably with other schools in the country.

A stroll into Itierio paints a completely different picture — one of change and optimism. The old roofs have since been replaced and the walls repainted in the grey and black school colours.

It cost parents over Sh12 million to put up the seven dormitories that were set ablaze at Itierio. The fire that consumed the dormitories is said to have been started by disgruntled students who had been denied an opportunity to watch a football match.

Okeyo however says he will not dwell on the past, and is happy that normalcy has been restored.

“It was a trying moment for parents and students. We have renovated all the seven dormitories and have put measures in place to have one ultra-modern dormitory,” he said.

His greatest responsibility at the moment, he says, is to instill trust and discipline among the 722 students.

“We received over 230 Form One students after the incident, and this is a clear indication that parents have hope in this school,” he says, adding that:

“The school has established a peer and counselling department with a well-established system to democratically elect school prefects.”

This, according to Okeyo, has helped in changing negative attitudes among students. To improve security in the school, Okeyo is in the process of erecting a fence around the school compound. The new administration has also installed firefighting equipment in all the buildings in the school.

“We now have security guards from a registered company to guard the school. Before, locals were recruited to man the school during the day and at night. We have also installed a 24-hour water system and students are no longer allowed to cross the road in search of water,” he said.

According to Okeyo, the fire could have been avoided if somebody cared to listen to the disagreements between the teachers, students and administration.

At Nyamache, the new principal, Lunani, says he has received Sh1 million and Sh1.6 million from the Bobasi CDF and parents respectively, to put up two new dormitories.

Lunani took over the school management after three consecutive school fires.

“We are crawling out of the fires, but still we don’t know where the fires came from,” he says.

He maintains that the school was on its deathbed, but today he believes the institution is back on track.

“We have introduced counselling groups as the first step towards improving discipline among students,” he says.

Our early investigations indicated that the school had no routine or hierarchy and no 10am tea for students. The difference between the current Form One students and those in Form Two up to From Four is evident. For instance, students who are more than two years old in the school wear no badges on their shirts. They are also allowed to wear different shades of school uniforms.

“I believe there were grievances among students, but these were not addressed early enough. We must change the students’ culture and learn to address their grievances.”

Seven months since the new head took over, the school has experienced tremendous change. All classrooms have been fitted with white boards, teachers have a television set in their staffroom, and students too have a three-hour entertainment session every weekend. Then there is the 10am tea for students. Beef too has been introduced on the menu. These two were a rumour in 2016. The school also has a nurse.

Lunani believes the school will prosper if there is goodwill from the community.

“Let us be given a free hand to manage the school. It is unfortunate that principals are never given time to actualise their vision because of grievances from within and outside the schools,” he says.

Kisii County Education Board Chairman Henry Onderi believes that poor fencing of schools and monitoring of students inside and outside schools are to blame for the unrest.

Evelyne Jepkemei, an educational researcher and leadership expert however says: “The school fires mania is assumed to be a purely student rebellion, a spontaneous violent campaign against changing of the school calendar, or ban on entertainment, but I don’t think that is the case.”

She adds that, “The current economic woes arising from corruption, robbery, assassinations, smuggling and vandalism are a result of school indiscipline. Court sanctions and orders are universally contravened not only by those who make or interpret the law, but also by those who took the oath to defend the law.

This national indiscipline is a mustard seed of rebellion in our schools, and the students, sadly, are a reflection of what we have become as a society.”

Other schools that went up in flames in Kisii include: Naikuru High School, Omobera Girls, Magena Boys High School, St Mary’s Nyamagwa Girls High School, Nyamagwa SDA Mixed Secondary School and St Peter’s Suneka Secondary School.

But the burning of schools is not exclusively a Kisii affair or a recent phenomenon. In 1998, 28 schoolgirls died in a dormitory fire at Bombolulu Girls Secondary School at the Coast. Three years later, 58 students lost their lives after a fire razed their dormitory at Kyanguli Mixed Secondary School in Machakos.

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