Africa Environment News

Kenya’s School Floggings: The Children Suffering From a Hidden Epidemic

Caleb Mwangi was beaten so severely at his school in Kenya after he took extra food at breakfast that he was put into an induced coma and spent 11 days in an intensive care unit.

“When I got there, he couldn’t leave his bed. He couldn’t speak,” his father Fred Mwangi told the BBC.

This happened nearly two years ago when Caleb was 13 years old. Sitting now between his mother and father on the sofa in their home in Mombasa, a city on Kenya’s coast, he says he tends to zone out from time to time.

The teenager is filled with rage that sometimes makes him punch the wall. The effects, he says, of the trauma caused by the near-death experience.

Mr Mwangi gets his son to stand and pull up his white vest to reveal a thick, angry scar covering almost the width and length of his back.

He says the wounds were so deep the surgeon had to remove large pieces of skin from his thighs to use as skin grafts.

Fred Mwangi showing his son Caleb's scarred back
Image caption,Caleb’s beating has left him with scars all over his back and legs

“This is him in hospital,” says his mother Agnes Mutiri, showing pictures of Caleb on her phone, too graphic to publish. Lying face down on the bed, lacerations cover his legs, back and arms, and even his face. There were almost a hundred in total.

“His whole body was like this.”

Corporal punishment in schools has a long history in Kenya, dating back to the era when missionaries and colonisers relied on it to assert their authority.

In 2001, the Kenyan government banned the practice in schools, but it has been harder to change people’s attitudes.

Figures from the latest Violence Against Children report, a national household survey in 2019, revealed that more than half of 18 to 24-year-olds in Kenya agreed it was necessary for teachers to use corporal punishment.

BBC Africa Eye has uncovered a worrying increase in the number of severe cases being reported.

Caleb says in his case it was Nancy Gachewa, the director of Gremon Education Centre – a school in the town of Bamburi near Mombasa – who first beat him and then ordered other students to continue the punishment. Ms Gachewa denies this, and says she was not at the school when it happened.

“I was so hungry, I took five chapatis and ate them with tea,” Caleb says.

Ms Gachewa and an older student, Idd Salim, were arrested and charged with assault and causing grievous bodily harm. Salim was sentenced to four years in prison last year and, in a plea bargain, he has testified against Ms Gachewa in court. The case against her continues.

While Caleb’s case is horrific, it is far from unique. An employee at the Teachers Service Commission (TSC), an independent organisation that manages all aspects of the teaching profession in Kenya, spoke to BBC Africa Eye on condition of anonymity.

Beacon teacher Robert Omwa holding a workshop for teachers in Kenya

They said that in the last three years, reports of the most severe school beatings have more than quadrupled from seven to 29. Most incidents are never reported.

“It is becoming a crisis and… we feel it is going out of hand now. Cases of children being injured and maimed. Some of these cases have resulted into very severe consequences, even death,” they said.

The source said that cases of school beatings reported to the TSC at county level often never go any further, adding that incidents were “killed” and “never see the light of day”.

“So many times, by the time the case reaches us, so much evidence has been corrupted. Sometimes we cannot even get a hold of the witnesses.”

BBC Africa Eye contacted the TSC to respond to these allegations, but it did not reply.

The thought that a student could die at the hands of education professionals who are supposed to protect them is unimaginable for most people, but in the last five years, more than 20 deaths linked to school beatings have been reported in the media.

A framed photo of Ebbie Noelle Samuels hanging on a wall

Fifteen-year-old Ebbie Noelle Samuels is believed to be one of them.

Ebbie was a boarder at Gatanga CCM Secondary school in Murang’a county, around 60km (37 miles) north-east of the capital, Nairobi.

On 9 March 2019 her mother, Martha Wanjiro Samuels, was called by the school to say her daughter was unwell in hospital.

When she arrived there, Ebbie was already dead.

The school said that she had died in her sleep, but witnesses say she was beaten by the deputy principal because of the way she wore her hair.

“The autopsy report revealed that she had severe head injury, blunt force trauma. So, somebody hit her to cause that kind of an injury to her, leading to her death,” said Mrs Samuels.

She campaigned for four years to have her daughter’s death investigated.

Martha Wanjiro Samuels

Last January, Elizabeth Wairimu Gatimu, the former deputy principal of Ebbie’s school, was arrested for murder. She denies the charges against her.

“I will do everything that I have to do as long as I’m alive to ensure justice is served for my child,” said Mrs Samuels, who is still waiting to hear the outcome of the case.

“I told myself: ‘I will not be silenced. I will not keep quiet. I will not give up fighting.’ Maybe the day I give up is the day that I sleep like my daughter. But as long as I breathe, I will not give up.”

BBC Africa Eye requested an interview with the Kenyan Ministry of Education, but nobody was willing to speak.

One organisation which is pushing for change is Beacon Teachers Africa. Launched in Kenya four years ago by the non-governmental group Plan International, together with the TSC, its aim is to give teachers the opportunity to protect children in schools and their communities.

It now has a network of 50,000 teachers across 47 countries in Africa.

Agnes - showing a photo of her phone - Fred and Caleb Mwangi on a sofa in their home in Mombasa, Kenya

Robert Omwa is one of 3,000 Beacon teachers in Kenya. As well as educating children about their rights, he also holds workshops to train teachers how to deliver discipline without using corporal punishment.

“Initially I was sceptical about it. I thought this is Western ideology, an African child has to be beaten. But when I tried it, I felt relieved as a teacher. I felt lighter. I felt the children gravitating more towards me,” he said.

Back in Mombasa, Caleb and his family are waiting to hear the fate of his school director. Ms Gachewa has pleaded not guilty.

The 15-year-old still finds it hard to process what happened to him.

“For me to get justice, I want this woman to be jailed.”

Source: BBC