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Students may not be as innocent in school tragedies

Bernard Gitau @bernagitau

Date: March 26, 2001

Time: 1.40am

Location: Machakos

The more than 600 students are in various stages of slumber. Even the shock of having results of more than 100 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) candidates cancelled had no power to interrupt the tranquillity in the school.

But something else had, did! Soon, screams of terror rent the air, rudely shattering the night peace. Its source was one of the dormitories sheltering 130 students.

The magnitude of the problem was not immediately visible as the darkness did a brilliant job of veiling the smoke billowing out of the doomed hostel. In the end, 67 school boys were burnt to death.

Yes, 67 lives that would be at their peak of productivity today, snuffed before they even had a chance to bloom. And this, by a fire lit by their peers, as investigations would later prove.

The Kyanguli Secondary School fire tragedy was not the first in learning institutions —but it remains the worst in the country’s history.

Three years earlier in 1998, a dormitory at Bombolulu Girls’ Secondary School, now known as Mazeras Memorial Secondary School, in Kwale county went up in flames and 26 girls lost their lives.

A year later in 1999, four Nyeri High School prefects died after their cubicle was reportedly locked from outside and set ablaze by fellow students.

And in 2010, two students of Endarasha Boys Secondary School were killed by a fire started by schoolmates.

And just last year, 10 girls from Moi Girls School in Nairobi perished in a dormitory fire, allegedly lit by a colleagues. A student has since been charged with the crime.

Today, there is intense focus on security and safety of learners in schools after the alleged rape incident at the same school earlier in the month.  The then principal Jael Mureithi has  since taken early retirement as the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) continues to piece together evidence.

However, even as emotions run raw in the country with school administrators receiving all the flak, we could be overlooking a key side to a double-sided coin —the role of students, who we like to presume innocent —in cases of insecurity and tragedy in their institutions.

(Un)fortunately, High School coincides with adolescence, perhaps the most disruptive period in a human’s development journey. It is a highly confusing time, a period the minors are too old to be termed children, yet too young to termed adults.

But teens think, and they are master manipulators. Teenage and innocence is perhaps one of longest-living lies around.

Many of the tragedies caused by adolescents are a result of well thought-out, cleverly-calculated decisions. One such nearly killed me in 2004.

I was then an ordinary near-Form Two student at Elburgon Secondary School in Nakuru county. There was an air of ease that particular day as that year’s candidates had just completed their KCSE exams. It was also a matter of days before my class graduated out of the dreaded “mono” phase.

With my wallet holding some happy sum, extending the evening preps to 11pm was easy with the knowledge I could afford a kangumu (doughnut) from some enterprising, albeit illegal, merchants later.

We got back to the dormitory and found Form Three students had already claimed the prestigious raised part of the dorm from their predecessors. It was also the class of the illegal businessmen.

I acquired the precious wheat goody from one and made my swift retreat to my quarter. Shortly after, I was the subject of a painful Physics lesson. Yep, learned that metallic bed frames are really good conductors of electricity.

Unknown to me, some of the students had tapped electricity from a missing overhead bulb socket and directed it onto the bed. 240 volts of Kenya Power product raced through my body the instant I lay my young hand on the frame.

It was unlike anything I ever experienced. I could feel my body baking from within, smell the fabled burning hair on my head. I wanted to scream, run, cry but I was paralysed, couldn’t do a thing. Yet I was surrounded by boys who could. But they picked the worst of the available options of “things” to do –laughter.

It took a quick-thinking classmate, a David Kanja, who struck the barbed wire connecting the current to the bed with a towel to save my life.

Thinking back, it is clear from the generous mirth that suddenly erupted all around me that night that almost the entire dorm was in on the deadly plank. There was nothing innocent about their action.  So as we intensify efforts to secure the school environment, it may be advisable to, at some point, step back and look at the victims as suspects, treat the cyst within as well.

School security is a collaborative responsibility of parents, teachers, government, community –and learners too.

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