“I’m not only speaking for my daughter, I’m speaking for every child here!” My mother’s voice was a tone higher than usual. “Madam, you may have a different way of disciplining children, but when you bring them to school you’re also entrusting us with the duty of ensuring they become responsible adults,” Mr. Kuni stated solemnly. “And how does hurting a child this much teach responsibility?” my mother reiterated, turning me and slightly lifting my green tunic that we wore as uniforms, to expose the ragged scars and most recent raw welts running across my thighs. Her voice grew to a shriek. “This is not discipline. This is torture!” Other teachers were coming out of the staffroom and into the hallway to find out what the commotion was about. All the while I was standing there in awe, listening to my mother chastise Mr. Kuni. The usually big-built man standing at six-feet tall, appeared so small today against my mother’s fury, even though in reality my mother was at least one-foot shorter than Mr. Kuni. I felt pride in my mother’s courage, and fear for what would happen if she left me at school. Most of these teachers firmly believed in caning. I had lived with it for a long time.
. . .
My first memory of the switch is in second grade. Madam Watta, my English teacher, summoned me in front of the class because I had not finished my homework. She ordered me to lie on the floor. “Why?” I remember asking, surprised at the directive. “Three of these will help remind you to finish your homework next time,” she said, picking up a thick stick leaning on her desk. The class burst into laughter. I may have mentally blocked any such experiences before, or the teachers may have resolved that second grade was the class when children were “mature” enough to start experiencing the switch. Whatever the reason, I don’t recall witnessing this treatment before. However, I do recall this day, as my first experience getting whipped.
Corporal punishment was a common thing in Kenyan schools. My mother, an eighth grade teacher at a boys’ school neighboring my school, never believed in beating sense into children. She always spoke her mind about this, and encouraged people to use other forms of discipline. Having grown up with this belief, it took me a while to realize that beating in schools as a form of punishment was considered the norm.
My school was a strict all-girls Roman Catholic school. The school compound, situated on a twenty-acre land, was fenced all around with a tall cypress hedge, and had one huge main gate. Several scattered tall cypress and bamboo trees stood in between the hedge. The branches growing from the boughs of these trees, served as the sources for whipping-canes. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” This was a commonly used Biblical quote in my school that served to justify the actions of these teachers, who believed in beating.
My mother had brought up me and my siblings with a conviction in respecting ourselves. She had made it apparent that beatings did not result in discipline, and we should not allow anyone to convince us otherwise. However, it became increasingly clear that fighting the caning in school only alienated us from staff and peers alike. They saw our pacifism as indiscipline, almost taboo. The discrepancies in these beliefs became too stressful for me as a child. It became easier to soften the truth for my mother and just take the beatings.
For years, I trained myself to endure the whipping. I wore layers under my school uniform. I also learned to force my mind to focus on other things, like games I had enjoyed the previous day, while getting beaten. Most of all, I learned not to shed tears, no matter how much pain was inflicted. Not crying was my self-made form of rebellion. It denied these teachers the satisfaction they seemed to get from beating us. All these means of endurance seemed to pay off until one day in May of 1998.
I was in Mr. Kuni’s seventh grade Art and Craft class during that rainy season when we were required to make bricks for our class practical. We had to do all the brickmaking manually. We cleared the grass and prepared an area next to the playground for this project. We then made wooden molds for shaping the bricks, dug up and prepared the mud. When it was time to burn the bricks, we had to check on the kiln often to make sure temperatures were well-controlled. This meant we had to get to school by 6:00 am and meticulously toil on this project before classes started at 8:00 am, and leave much later in the evening, mostly 6:00 pm, around two hours after other students had left. We had to be on time every day, if not early, and we tried our best.
One morning after several days of this rigorous and exhausting schedule, I woke up late, at 6:00 am! I ran around to find my books, put on my white blouse and green tunic in haste without any layers underneath, and leaving without breakfast, mumbled excuses to my mother. An unusual cold air from the previous night’s downpour surrounded me when I stepped outside. I knew my body would not withstand any more beatings in such weather, so it had to get me to school. Fast. I ran all the way; the road wide, muddy and slippery under my feet, the big trees all along the way soughing from the wind, with their leaves still dripping from the rain.
After about half a mile of running, I got to the school’s main gate from where I could see the brick-making site. I noticed a group of about five students standing on one side while the other students bustled about various activities. There was no evading what was to come. Mr. Kuni told me to join the unfortunate group, who were the other latecomers. He then told us to lie down, facing the ground. I could smell the wet earth close to my face, two inches away a column of black safari ants marched in a straight line, most likely to the farthest peaceful place they could find. “I would be happier as one of them right now,” I thought, but held my breath lest I disturb their trek and got stung. Mr. Kuni left momentarily, and was back with a two-inch thick bamboo stick, about 70cm long. One stroke of the cane would slice our thighs for every two minutes late. My muscles tightened. I had been fifteen minutes late!
At the first lash, pain surged through my entire body; I could feel even the tiniest of my nerves. At the second stroke my muscles were screaming; they seemed ready to burst out of my body. By the third whip, my whole body was convulsing. I don’t know if all the sensations were from the pain or the cold, I just know I couldn’t take any more. I jumped from the ground. “No more!” I heard myself shout. Everyone who had been busy with the activities stopped, frozen look in their eyes. I could tell they were scared for me, from experience this reaction would lead to more trouble, and not only from one teacher. I didn’t care though, and was ready to go home, change schools, or even drop out of school. Whatever happened, I wasn’t taking any more beatings. I refused to get back on the ground.
Mr. Kuni sent me to the principal’s office, where I was to await the principal’s arrival. At 7:00 am the principal arrived and Mr. Kuni came and informed him about my “rudeness.” I still refused to be beaten, and was suspended. A few minutes after getting suspended from school, I ran to the boys’ school down the road where my mother taught. I was so distraught, that I could taste the pain and anger in my mouth.
One look at the nasty welts on my thighs and my mother’s eyes flared with anger and rage. For the first time in years, tears freely flowed down my face. I let myself cry. Twenty minutes later, my mother and I were back at the school. The principal had to be called from class because my mother was so upset, and didn’t want to leave me in the school. She wanted to take my things and was ready to have me change schools in the middle of the semester. “I can’t trust any of you right now. I will have her enrolled in the boys’ school if I have to,” my mother stated indignantly. “Calm down, madam. I know you are upset, but please, let’s not make any rush decisions.” I could detect an unusual panic in the principal’s voice.
Around this time, many parents, some teachers, and other activists had been working hard to have corporal punishment abolished. This was a policy that had been part of Kenya’s Education Act for twenty-nine years. Its affliction had caused fatal injuries, and regressed the development of many children. With all the attention surrounding corporal punishment, the administration at my school feared a scandal. They revoked my suspension immediately, and persuaded my mother to let me stay. My mother made it clear that whatever happened—even if she had to come to my school every day—nobody was to use a cane as punishment on me again.
This event didn’t stop teachers from caning other students, but it marked the start of a fight against beating in my school. The students realized that corporal punishment was a tradition they could oppose. With joint efforts from human rights activists, parents, and some teachers, the Kenyan Ministry of Education finally abolished corporal punishment in the year 2001.
I feel proud to have finally summoned the courage to stand up against this treatment. This was a small step towards the huge step it took to ban a custom that had caused so much distress and adversely affected many children, a practice that, hopefully generations to come will never suffer through.
Written by: Evelyne Gogo Mugadia