Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Caring is the only way to rescue our children

My parents are doctors of philosophy. I am not and, bar some quick-minded academic nimbleness, I am unlikely to ever be. My brother, G, is an engineering genius with a Masters to prove his chops. My brother, R, can speak Russian, Spanish and French, in addition to the English/Swahili/Sheng combo we are all fluent in. I mention all this to illustrate a point. Those of us who grew up in the 1980s in stable and happy homes, and attended nurturing state-funded schools (yes, they existed), were expected to pass our exams with one crucial difference: the pressure we faced was not informed by the chronic joblessness and high cost of living we have experienced over the past fifteen years of post-KANU "economic growth".

My parents were the among the first generation of post-Independent couples who both held down professional careers while raising families of their own. My brothers and I were lucky enough that we saw both of them before we left for school (at 7:15am) and before we went to bed (at 9:00pm), having come home from school at 3:45pm, played, had evening "tea" and had our supper. Even when my younger brother was sitting for his KCPE, children were not carrying ten kilograms of books to school; at most, it was about a kilo. I don't remember any of us being saddled by holiday-buzz-killing "homework" when we in secondary school or suffering through sweltering holiday "coaching" sessions. Holidays were sacred, intended to decompress -- and empty the fridge with frightening (for our parents) efficiency.

My brothers and I were the first generation to successfully complete the 8-4-4 but as we were exiting the system, things had already gone terribly wrong for the generations of pupils and students that came after us. While school fees had progressively gone up during our tenures, they rose sharply after 1997 in keeping with the precipitously ruinous rise in the cost of living. This had two consequences whose reverberations are being felt today: the expansion and improvement of educational facilities suffered deep cuts, and parents spent more and more time away from their children in order to earn more to send them to the reducing number of "good" schools for which competition was sharp. Many of these parents were beneficiaries of a combination of their hard work and the relatively wide availability of good education facilities and the prevalence of relatively well-paying clerical and middle-management jobs for even those with modest basic academic credentials such as the KCSE certificate. The mantra of "hard work = a good life" took root but it applies only in a very limited way today.

With the massive cuts in the wide provision of acceptable and adequate education facilities, fewer and fewer children have access to good education facilities, with access being determined by how well they do in examinations, such as the KCPE or KCSE. Parents, who are spending longer and longer hours away from their children in order to provide for their every need, insist that the children must show their determination by scoring the highest marks in their exams. This insistence is not of the benignly autocratic style but one that is relentless and almost sadistic. In many parents' minds, an "A" is the only ticket to a better life. Children are being forged into adults in furnaces devoid of joy, care, peace of mind, love or honour.

In this environment, eleven-years-old children are becoming suicides because of slight falls in their academic results, even where they are in the top quartile. Still others, in fear of testing their academic mettle in end-of-year examinations, are setting school properties on fire, sometimes with tragic outcomes. Others engage in dangerous activities such bingeing on narcotic drugs or alcohol or sexual relations with strangers. Many parents and school authorities, caught up in their vicarious pursuit of "A" grades, learn about these children's crises only after it is too late, often after tragic events. We have been unable to see the signs of the risks engendered by the current system because we are all complicit in its creation and perpetuation. Our children are paying the price in mental health problems, gross acts of indiscipline, the destruction of public property and the deaths of our children.

If we wish to rescue our children from these tragic fates, we must make changes in how we raise and educate them, foremost being committing more public resources to state-funded schools to ensure that our children receive the care and attention they need in order to thrive, both as children and as students. If we are unable to improve the economic conditions sufficiently to improve how parents raise their children, then we must ensure that the surrogate homes these children enter -- schools -- are safe, secure, humane, caring, nurturing and educational. We cannot treat our children as if they have deliberately decided to "act out" or commit unspeakable acts of destruction; we must treat them as suffering from a combination of neglect and pressure at ages when they can handle neither. In other words, regardless of what the Penal Code says, we must treat them as children in need of care first. If we don't, no matter how many disciplinary codes of conduct Mr Matiang'i and his ministry's sadists draw up, our children will continue to suffer and their suffering will continue to have tragic outcomes.

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