I left Ofafa Jericho Primary School, Nairobi, in November 1972. That was 44 years ago. I was a high-spirited youth in Class Seven Tiger. School was fun. Learning was great and it blended well with foolish childish mischief.
I recall receiving six strokes of the best from my class teacher, Samuel Ng’ang’a Mwaura, for posting on the class bulletin board a cutting from a daily newspaper, titled “Save the tiger.” Mwaura’s angst with the poster was lost on me. I understood that naming classrooms after the wildlife was our modest contribution to the conservation effort. Each classroom in the school took its name after one beast or the other. And I was a tiger always ready to pounce. There were many adolescent goings on, however, and they possibly explain Mwaura’s misallocated anger against an innocent newspaper cutting.
A recent visit to the school upon the invite of the PTA reunited me with my classroom, with a blending of nostalgia and sorrow. The plaque outside the door remains, four and a half decades later. But many other things remain, too. The coat of paint on the walls is the same that we left in 1972. The school has not enjoyed a single stroke of the brush ever since this block was constructed in 1970, some 46 years ago. The offending bulletin board has worn out with time. It makes nonsense of the original reason for being there. The blackboard has lost its black. It has picked up potholes allover.
Individual lockable desks with detached chairs have replaced the long desks that we shared between two kids. These, however, are in a sorry state in every classroom. All are at one stage of collapse or the other. Some have no backrest. Others miss a leg or two. These kids do miracles. There is a girl following the lesson while delicately balanced on a two-legged ramshackle of a chair. Elsewhere, a boy is balancing on what is now a three-legged chair. In front of him is a desk without a worktop. Somehow, he manages to listen to the teacher, balance on the three-legged contraption and scribble in his tattered book in the hollow of the desk. Would be that this were an isolated story. Unfortunately, the whole classroom is like this. And it is the same story everywhere in the school. This is a modern school in East Africa’s seat of economic power – Kenya’s capital city that houses State House, City Hall and all that.
A visit to the washrooms is depressing. There is leakage everywhere, I am not sure of what. The place is odoriferous. This applies both to the pupils’ and staff washrooms. Our once immaculate ‘Ofafa Jericho Gorofa Primary School,’ as we loved calling it, is in a truly sorry state. Yet as you walk out, you come across young men from the neighboring boys’ secondary school. Apparently, suffering inadequate space in their own school, it was decided that they should “borrow some space” in the primary school in return for water from their borehole. There have been tales of gross indiscipline involving these high school gents and our prepubescent primary school girls. Where this will end, I don’t know!
Something is grotesquely wrong. But the bad news does not end here. The story of dilapidation is the same in all public primary schools in Eastlands. It is the same narrative at Martin Luther Primary School, Rabai Road School, Dr. Livingstone, Dr. Krapf, St. Patrick, Kimathi, Cannon Apollo, St. Michael’s Jogoo Road, Heshima Road . . . God, we are in trouble! Decades ago, these were immaculate structures.
We had modern class libraries, equipped with memorable story books. From them, I gathered fledgling language skills. I even began dreaming of the art of writing. I was introduced to the Bronte sisters. It was here that I met R. L. Stephenson, Jules Verne, R.M. Ballantyne, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Richard Blackmore, Jonathan Swift, Herman Melville, Miguel Cervantes and Alexandre Dumas, among other canonical writers. This was how I met my favourite Lorna Doone and Jane Eyre. I found Pip, Estella, Joe Gargery and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. I discovered Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in Class Six. I devoured it. Ngugi ravished me in Seven Tiger as did Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Betti and Camara Laye. Many were the hours passed discussing Jane Eyre, Lorna Doone, Don Quixote and Oliver Twist.
Today these children have no idea what this stuff is all about. How can they? Their circumstances cannot afford them that kind of luxury. Six years ago I visited to make a book donation. Nobody seems to know what happened to the books. But that is not even the issue. The issue is that I had thought that Devolution would make a difference. It has not. In my time, we were served hot lunch from the City Council kitchens in Eastleigh. We called the food “supro” or “burgar.” It kept our intestines calm so that our heads could remain open to study. I had thought Devolution would return some of this. It has not.
I see that Nairobi’s Governor Kidero is asking city residents to vote for him again. I don’t know what he has to show for his four years. I would have thought that our children and their schools would be quick wins for the governor. He has done absolutely nothing for them. Why should a child who has a governor balance delicately on a two-legged chair? Why should she not have a proper toilet to go to when pressed by a call of nature?
The city county leadership has failed our children just as has the National Government. Where is our collective conscience as adults when we subject our children to such adversity? In 1729, Jonathan Swift advised the British that if the children of the poor were a burden to them, they should just sell them as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. Nairobi’s poor children waddle through fresh sewage everyday, even in school. They suffer regular water shortages and walk through dark alleys. Privileged citizens drive on potholed roads and live in stinking garbage. Poor voters go to county dispensaries without services. I sincerely don’t know how Nairobi’s County Government justifies itself. And I see a lot of rich characters out there noisily scrambling for Nairobi 2017. I don’t know what difference they propose to make.
Two things remain. First, for the sake of honour, Governor Kidero should not seek reelection. He has failed us. Second, the rest of the pretenders should demonstrate what they have done for Nairobi – and especially for the poor. If they cannot, they should hold their horses. Meanwhile the National Government should step in to save our children, or show us how to eat them.