KBC Channel 1 / screenshot

In February, an 18-year-old Kenyan schoolgirl was sentenced to five years in jail for setting a school dormitory alight. Ten of her fellow students died in the blaze.

When she committed the crime, she was 14 and in her first year at the well-known Moi Girls School in Nairobi.

This sounds ghastly, but arson committed by students in boarding schools is horrifyingly common in Kenya. A recent BBC report characterised the pattern as an epidemic.

In a recently-published book, Elizabeth Cooper, a Canadian researcher who has spent nearly a decade studying the subject, estimates that, between 2008 and 2018, an average of 75 schools went up in flames every year.

While some of these incidents have resulted in the loss of students’ lives, they typically result in only structural damage, with dormitories being the most common targets. Cooper sees in this an indication that the students behind the fires are sending a message, however imprecisely, that is yet to be honestly examined and responded to by education sector stakeholders.

In any case, both Cooper and the authors of the BBC article speak gingerly about the issue, emphasising its complexity, refraining from drawing specific conclusions about its causes and, even more stringently, refusing to prescribe solutions. Their caution isn’t unwarranted. Cooper is a Canadian, for one, and so must not strain her welcome; and the issue is indeed complex, for another.

However, as young Kenyan who, along with a large majority of my contemporaries, passed through a public boarding school relatively recently, I can afford to be blunt: Kenya’s boarding schools are broken. Most of them are overpopulated prison slums for pubescent youngsters ruled over by tyrannical teachers and abetted by hapless parents.

They must be phased out.

This hasn’t always been the case. Boarding schools in Kenya are as old as the country’s formal education system. European Christian missionaries set up the first ones to guarantee stability for their students, whose villages were generally too far off for daily commutes. This era produced some of the most successful and prestigious schools in the country.

Shortly after independence, the Kenyan government moved to take over many of these schools and established a number of new ones as well. Many have seen in the school grab a tragedy — and it very likely was. The bigger tragedy, however, is that the Kenyan government does a dismal job of running schools. In the case of boarding schools, which must take care of the full gamut of needs of large groups of growing and energetic children, away from their parents, it failed outright, and continues to do so.

The result is that, at least over the past few decades, most boarding schools haven’t been fit for human habitation. Children are corralled in cramped dormitories with dirty walls, flaking paint, and no running water. In the better-off schools, which once had showers and actual toilets, these facilities are rarely in working order. Across the board, meals are of such low quality they only barely qualify as human food.

What’s worse, many boarding schools accept too many students for the sizes of their compounds, with the result that they are woefully overcrowded, with hardly any green spaces and no proper trash handling mechanisms. Additionally, because there are too few teachers per student, many teachers resort to dictatorial techniques to establish any level of control.

All this, combined with a nearly uni-dimensional obsession with examination results, to the detriment of all other aspects of a good education – like sports and the arts – have turned Kenyan boarding schools into cauldrons of discontent for kids who yet lack the sophistication or courage to identify and express their grievances.

This was true when I was in high school. It is not only still true now but it has actually gotten worse. I know this because, over the eleven years since I cleared high school, I have had the chance to visit many boys-only boarding schools around the country, for personal reasons.

It is incredible how much student put up with, and the fact that most don’t end up setting their schools on fire is a testament to their adaptability.

What’s even more incredible is that boarding schools still exist in such large numbers in Kenya (the ministry of education has 4,000 on its rolls). Unlike in the early days of formal education in Kenya, most villages and towns now have a high school within walking distance of every homestead, at least in the heavily populated southern third of the country.

Their survival is a function of the belief that they are better than day schools, which is still held by many people. This is not a trivial matter. Boarding schools cut out the distractions of daily life and, in a culture obsessed with examination results, give children ample time to study and get drilled for tests. For girls, their importance is even more prescient; they are effective contraceptives — or at least parents believe they are.

However, it’s not as if everyone agrees with me. Kenyans have argued over the future of boarding schools for ages, with good arguments for and against the idea. Over the last few years, that conversation has become much more heated. Part of the reason for this is that the country is in the midst of a curriculum transition, from the current test-obsessed one to a new one focused on developing competencies and greater parental involvement.

The first group of students transitioning to high school (at a new junior high school level), will do so at the beginning of 2023. In another two years, they’ll then move on to senior high. The ministry of education’s plan is that, except those in under-resourced parts of the country, as few of these students as possible should go away from their homes for high school.

For the first time ever, it seems the days of boarding schools in Kenya are indeed numbered. And it’s as well they are. They have outlived their relevance, and we have long forgotten how to run them well. The only way to reform them is to phase them out.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.