Let’s be honest, we all had our fair share of little tragedies back in school. I’m talking acne, bad teachers, and that one really sucky chemistry grade. But some of us had different sorts of problems.
Somewhere in Westlands, early afternoon. I am sitting around with my three Kenyan co-workers after lunch. We have lots of things in common: We’re all more or less the same age, went to university, laugh about the same bloggers’ jokes.
We exchange stories about the holidays, going back home, meeting the people we know from school. We start reminiscing about those good ole’ days, when we did not have any responsibilities. No taxes, no jobs, no forms to fill in.
“It wasn’t all good, though”, I say. “We tend to forget the things that were bad in those times. Like how you were always dependent on someone else.”
“True”, one of my co-workers agrees. “And also the bullies. When you started becoming a woman, developing breasts, the comments would never stop. Especially if you were an early bloomer. Or a late bloomer.” “Yeah, like people who were held back. Some people would repeat a grade so often, they would go onto twenty and still be in grade 7 or 8.”
“And those were usually the ones who would get beaten so much. Remember getting beaten?” They all nod vigorously. “The girls were beaten on the calves or the palms of their hands, the boys were beaten on their behinds. Sometimes the lines on my legs would be so bad, and it hurt for days.”
I am thinking back to my own pubescent self. What were my biggest problems? Probably weight issues or something trivial as that.
“There was this one boy who had been held back so often. He was really big, and his voice had broken. He was like 17. One day, the teacher beat him up so badly, he crawled out of the classroom, all the way back home. His parents had to take him to the hospital. The case even went to court, but the charges were dropped. And that teacher had already beaten two children to death.”
“And the canes they used to beat us with? We always had to collect some sticks and bring them to school, so the teachers could beat us with them. If we did not bring any, we would be beaten for that.” “We had to go out and find the sticks, and carry them all the way to school. That, plus the firewood for cooking lunch, and the water.” “Our school did not have a fence, so we had to look for some thorny acacia branches and bring those to school, too. For fencing.”
“We would have to carry all that, for so many kilometers, walking through the rain, in the sun, in the dark.” “And some kids did not even have shoes.” “Some? More like most, at least 80 percent. And the ones who had shoes were bullied for having them.” “I always used to put my shoes in my backpack so I would not get bullied. Who do you think you are, wearing shoes??”
“I would hate getting up on school days. We woke up at 5, because school started at 6. If we were not in the classroom at six, we would be beaten. And then we would sit in the dark there, because of course we did not have electricity. One morning, my sister and I were chased by dogs on our way to school. Pitbulls. We managed to escape into a shop. Those people saved us.”
“And if you would bring something to eat for lunch, you would be bullied for that. Oooh, you’ve got bread? You think you’re special? They would always take the bread from you. When I was back home over the holidays, I saw this one girl. She was always beating me up for bringing bread to school. She was asking me for 50 bob for some food for her child. I just thought I hope no one will bully your child for that in school, like you did to me.”
“And you remember, in January, when it was mango season? Everyone would always just bring mangoes for lunch.””Sometimes, we would get relief food at school. Those were always the times when everyone came to school. Even though it was just maize meal. The school was so crowded then.”
“Did you also have those people coming to your school to tell you about pads?” “They came and gave us some free pads and showed us how to use them. The girls who had already gotten their period would always come and beg for them.”
“Because nobody had the money to buy pads! Our teachers showed us how to use old rags to stop the bleeding.” “And they would always leak.” “Always!! Oh, how they would leak. We had these blue dresses, very thin fabric. There would always be patches where you had leaked.” “And then you’d tie a sweater around your hips to hide it, but everyone would know. Haha, that girl is on her period!”
“Many girls would stay at home because of that, every time they got their period.” “And some dropped out of school because of that. Because they were absent too much.”
“But I hear things are getting better. They are not allowed to beat kids anymore, even though I am sure they are still doing it. And most schools have electricity by now.”
I think of the primary school I pass by every morning on my walk to work in Nairobi. Sometimes, the askari will be leaning against a sign in front of the gate. It has the school’s motto written on it: “Self-discipline promotes excellence“. One can only hope that the focus nowadays is a little less on the discipline and a little more on the self.