Author’s Note: Here is another sneak peek at what I’m working on, a memoir about my painful (and pointless?) pursuit of education. This one is about corporal punishment and child molestation in the schools I attended. Please note that these are memoirs from my childhood in the ’80s and ’90s. They are in on way a reflection of the Kenya of today. Corporal punishment in schools has been outlawed in Kenya since 2001.
The violence in my childhood goes beyond home. In Kenyan schools, it’s widely acceptable for teachers to “discipline” children using canes, belts, punches, pinches, or a combination of any of those methods. Every one of my teachers at Makairo Primary School comes to class with his or her favorite instrument of torture. Be a minute late and you’ll be flogged, and subjected to hard manual labor at the end of the day. Ask a question about something you’re supposed to know, or get one wrong, and the beasts beat you like a venomous snake. One teacher in particular, freaks me out. If he smells a fart, he picks on the fat kid in the classroom and asks the bigger boys to take him to the toilets and plug his anus with maize cobs to block farts.
My life at school is made worse by the fact that all my teachers are my father’s friends. Even though he doesn’t teach at Makairo, he demands that I sit in the middle of the front row in class, directly in front of the teacher, so that I don’t get distracted. He is an official in the PTA, so he’s allowed to pop in anytime to see if my teachers are keeping their promise to monitor me. His friends punish my classmate and I for any mistakes we make in our classwork. But for me, they report to my father, who often gives me another beating, often worse than my teachers’.
As I grow older, I develop a strong desire to revenge against my teachers. But I’m only 11 years old, so all I can do is pray for their death. I promise myself that I will attack them when they are old and blind, and therefore just as defenseless as me.
My classmates must be feeling the same. One day someone writes, “TEACHERS, FUCK YOUR MOTHERS” in black charcoal behind one of the buildings. Teachers suspended classes for the day to whip every boy old enough to spell the words “FUCK YOUR MOTHERS.” They make us lie face down in the grass, as they take turns caning us. They call us, one by one, into the office for interrogation, while the rest burn in the sun. When they are done deliberating, my name appears on a list of nine culprits. Apparently, by questioning if it was possible that more than 100 boys collaboratively authored the insult, I had confessed. After more flogging, the teachers sentence us to four hours of digging drainage trenches around our swampy football field.
My chance to revenge comes one day, when a teacher assaults a female relative on mine so severely that she comes home bloodied. Her crime? She refused to participate in physical education because she felt sick. The 14-year-old girl tells her older brother that the real reason the teacher beat her is because she refused to have sex with him. The problem of teachers raping children is so severe that the government has place in every classroom posters of pregnant teenage girls with the caption, “HAIFAI WATOTO KUZAA WATOTO” (It’s wrong for children to give birth to children). There is nothing in the poster to suggest that sex with underage schoolgirls is illegal. It’s more like an anti-smoking billboard than a decree. The implicit message seems to be: Have sex with kids; just don’t get them pregnant.
Following the PE teacher’s assault of the girl, I gang up with her brother and other boys to plot revenge. We terrorize him and other teachers by raining stones on the corrugated iron roofs of their school-provided houses. No one finds out who the terrorists were, perhaps because it could have been any of our schoolmates. That emboldens us.
A few weeks later, another teacher punches a student so hard and knocks him down. When his mother goes to school to complain, teachers hurl insults at her, saying that if she’d been a good mother, they’d have no need to discipline the boy. We decide to avenge his beating, too, by ambushing the teacher as he staggers past our homestead from a night of drinking. He cries out that he is being assaulted in the homestead of a teacher, and calls out my father by name. He vows to hold my father accountable. We run back to saiga, the boys’ quarters, to get in bed before my father comes to check on us. We’re too late. He gives us a beating in the middle of the night.
Still, my father goes to my school the next week and threatens to mutilate my teachers with a machete for accusing him of the assault. He vehemently denies that any of the children from his homestead was involved. He’s too proud to admit that his son could attack anyone – especially teachers.