Over the past few years, students have set fire to hundreds of secondary schools across Kenya. The tally includes more than 120 cases in 2016 alone. Why students are setting fire to their schools has been the topic of repeated investigations by police, education officials, government inquiries and journalists. Indeed, explanation –- or rather blame –- for this trend has been levelled in every conceivable direction.
Kenya’s Education Minister and other members of the government have suggested that the fires have been masterminded and supported by “cartels” in retaliation against the government’s crackdown on lucrative exam-cheating schemes. This is a claim repeated by the President. The government has also fingered ethnic and clan hostilities as motivating attacks on schools headed by principals who are identified with different communities.
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In these ways, the government’s explanations treat students as unwitting pawns in political disputes that are actually not really about them or their schooling.
Meanwhile, many public policy analysts and members of the public have blamed students’ “indiscipline”. This lack of discipline has been attributed to lackadaisical parenting as well as the ban on teachers’ use of corporal punishment.
Again, students are understood to be relatively passive receptacles of adults’ management.
My research with students and in schools across Kenya indicates that most of these explanations miss the mark because they depreciate, rather than appreciate, students’ capacities to engage in purposeful political action.
Rational political tactics
In the media, students’ actions are cast as “mindless hooliganism”. But students can rationally explain why they use arson in their schools. Students have learned that setting fire to their schools is an effective tactic for winning acknowledgement of their dissatisfaction.
Their use of arson represents an astute reading of the limited options available to citizens to practice meaningful dialogue and peaceful dissent related to the conditions of public services, such as education. As many analysts have noted, limited options for meaningful citizen engagement in Kenya’s policy arena has given rise to the popularity of a “strike culture”.
In fact, students easily identify other examples from Kenyan political struggles that demonstrate how violence and destruction have proven effective means for citizens to win public and political recognition of their grievances.
As one student explained, “What I see is that in Kenyan society, the bigger the impact, the quicker the reaction. The government sees these people are serious and they can think “if we don’t meet their grievances now, we might see worse”.
Students target their schools because their grievances tend to be school-based. The most commonly cited complaints among students include principals’ overly authoritarian, “highhanded” and unaccountable styles of management, poor quality school diets and inadequate learning resources, including teaching. Many of these criticisms reflect suspicions about how school budgets are being allocated.
The overwhelming majority of school arson cases have occurred in boarding schools across the country, including boys’ schools, girls’ schools, and mixed schools. Schools that perform well and those that tend to perform more poorly on national examinations have all been affected.
Why are boarding schools such common targets? Some of this is explained by prevalence: nearly 80% of Kenya’s secondary schools are boarding schools. However, students explain that boarding schools are targeted because life for them in these schools can be “like prison”.
The boarding school, like prison, can be considered a “total institution”. This idea, theorised by sociologist Erving Goffman, refers to a situation where all aspects of life occur in the same place, with the same cohort and according to a stringent schedule. This regime is enforced by a single authority according to an overarching “rational” plan. In practice, boarding school life is often experienced by students as excessively rigid and authoritarian.
The majority of school fires are set in students’ dormitories, thereby also destroying students’ own personal belongings. The rationale given by students is that the destruction of their dorms means that they will be sent home and given some respite from their intensive boarding school lifestyles.
Understanding adolescents and risk-taking
Interviews with students as well as reviews of court case proceedings indicate that it can be difficult for students to imagine the long-lasting detrimental consequences that might arise from setting fires in their schools.
In part, this is due to students holding cynical views of the ineptitude of the Kenyan enforcement and judicial systems. Students note, for example, that many prosecutions fail due to deficient criminal investigations, including unlawful interrogation practices.
Additionally, some students who played active roles in setting fires later claimed that they had been unable to anticipate the scale and scope of the damage the fires would cause to their schools as well as to their own futures.
These kinds of experiences jibe with emergent understandings from neuroscience concerning the unique developmental stage of adolescents’ brains. We now know that the brain is still developing during adolescence. The prefrontal cortex of the brain – which is implicated in impulse control – may not be fully developed and functional until the early 20s or later. Consequently, neurodevelopmental researchers theorise that “adolescents may have less inhibition, be more prone to take risks, more impulsive, and less likely to consider the distal consequences of their actions than adults”.
Recognising these potential differences does not cancel out the immediate deliberateness of students’ acts to affect change in ways that they understand to be effective. But it does complicate the question of how to respond to students’ palpable frustrations.
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Alternative possible futures
All of this indicates that the government’s intention to respond to the trend of school-based arson with more discipline and punishment of students is misguided in two crucial and connected ways.
First, this approach only addresses symptoms exhibited in rebellious acts. At the root of students’ dissatisfaction and desperation is a gruelling education coupled with often unaccountable authority, both of which are acutely experienced through the “total institution” of the boarding school.
Second, threats of more punishment misjudge the unique conditions of adolescence in terms of neuromaturation, and specifically how this can affect risk-taking and consideration of long-term consequences. More threats and interventions of punishment are unlikely to affect these predispositions.
Kenyan students have learned that arson works as a tactic to express dissatisfaction and opposition. To change this lesson, the government needs to open peaceful and effective channels for young people’s perspectives to be taken into account, both in education and government. Otherwise, we can likely expect more fires next year.