Last month, on September 2, fire gutted a students’ hostel at Moi Girls School Nairobi. In 1998, 26 girls perished in a dormitory fire at Bombolulu Girls Secondary School. In 2001, 68 boys were burnt to death in their dormitory at Kyanguli Mixed Secondary School. When will we say ‘enough’?
Last Thursday I attended the funeral service of the 10th victim of the Moi Girls School fire. Watching her classmates file in a semicircle in front of her casket was painful and shameful. Virleah Wambui Ngoiyo was just 14 years old.
Her death was both macabre and untimely. Her death and that of hundreds of schoolchildren we have lost in dormitory fires is an indelible indictment of our society. School is not a place children go to die. Teenagers must not be subjected to the trauma of mourning a dead classmate.
The teenage years are the time to forge friendships, form character and personal ideals to navigate what ought to be a long and fulfilling life ahead. They should be a time of dreams. I remember my own dreams.
Growing up in the Cold War era, I imagined world peace and was exhilarated by the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and German reunification. I read Newsweek and Time magazines and listened to Radio Moscow on short-wave frequency. This was before FM radio.
The school dormitory is not the place where students face the peril of death. The school dormitory is the place to forge tight and life-long bonds of friendship. My dormitory, Mayor One, was the place we told and listened to stories, even long after lights-out. It was the place where we learned to live together and to compromise and to solve common problems.
These 10 girls, unoffending, innocent and beautiful, have exited this earthly stage. Their spirits have commuted back to that eternity from which we borrowed them. Like hundreds before them they are victims of the most heinous crime, committed willfully and aided by negligence. Their funerals must be more than arenas for politicians and education bureaucrats to earn cheap publicity and make perfunctory promises of change.
These innocent girls have something to say to politicians who have refused to pass legislation to fundamentally reform our public education system and make high-quality education available to every child within commuting distance of their family home.
They have something to say to the all-powerful school principals who pack our children like sardines in squalid boarding facilities to maximise government capitation revenue and enrich themselves.
They have something to say to every parent who has remained silent at gatherings of parents and teachers and annual general meetings, afraid to call out the rot in public boarding schools.
They say to us, as parents and a society, that we must be concerned about the values and ethical system that created those who murdered them.
The innocent blood of these girls must be redemptive. It must cause us to reexamine our school system. Schools must not be squalid deathtraps.
Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University