NAIROBI Nov 18th
What an extraordinary day. I was ushered into the office of the Director Emeritus at 8.30a.m., who turned out to be Joseph Gikubu, the only one of the three founders still alive. He gave me his totally undivided attention for 10 minutes and could not have been more welcoming. I then had half an hour with Matthew Kiriyaki, the current Director. What a nice bloke he is. Both of them explained the school’s roots, outlined the fact that the values they began with are still every bit as important now as they were in 1959 and expressed their gratitude to me as a representative of a school that funds three of their boys. They were almost gushing in their welcome but it could not have been more genuine.
I was then driven over to the Girls Centre, about 10 miles north of the city. This is only in its 6th year. The Director, Margaret Wanjobi proceeded to look after me personally for the next two hours. She is an absolute livewire and has succeeded in pushing projects through that, left to the planners, would still be just drawings. The school runs in exactly the same way as the Boys, with teachers being employed almost exclusively to teach. Extra-curricular activities are run by the girls wherever possible. The school was a farm until 2005 and it is still very productive. It is now the girls who do the farming and the produce forms the basis of their daily food intake. New classrooms, laboratories and accommodation blocks have all been built in the last 4 years. They do not look like they are new, with their unfinished breeze-block and girder exteriors, and by British standards they are fairly raw inside. It is the equivalent of luxury here, however and the girls are immensely proud to be part of it. I spent some time with the three funded by Wellington, which was fascinating. They are all village girls for whom Starehe has given a way out of a life of early marriage, farming and child-bearing. One wants to be a lawyer, one a medic and one an academic. It was impossible not to feel a bit lumpy when they thanked me in turn, in rehearsed speeches, for the opportunity that Wellington is helping them to experience.
I came back to a post lunch meeting with Alphonse. I pumped him with questions. He gets very little discipline that comes as far as him. Most boys don’t break the rules because they are so aware of their privileged position and anxious to live up to it. The House Captains keep everything in check and are as happy to tell one of their peers to do up his shoelaces as one of the first years. Adults only get involved in serious pastoral issues involving non-school issues. The weekly Baraza, or parliament, is a forum where any child of whatever age, can air anything that is troubling them. The absolute rule is that what is said should not influence the way the child is treated once Baraza is over. Baraza is attended by prefects and senior staff, who only answer questions addressed specifically to them. Rooms in the houses are known as ‘cubes’ and house 4 students, once from each of the years in the school. There is an adult attached to each house but their role is almost entirely nominal. The younger boys strive to conform at first and to demonstrate positive initiative once they have settled. It sounds Utopian and it must be as near to it as it gets. The ideals of our public schools are similar but the outsourcing of day-to-day school issues to the students has foundered on the rocks of self-interest, self-indulgence and the knowledge that, if it comes to it, Dad’s bank balance will come to the rescue.
As we were drawing to a close, Matthew asked me if I would like to join him for assembly. This is a daily event at 4.00 and Matthew insisted I sat on the stage next to him. Thursday assembly, so I was informed, is a hymn practice for the weekend chapel service. The regular boy leader has finished his exams and left school, so Alphonse was in charge. He sang a decent solo version of ‘Be thou my guardian and my guide’, which the rest of the school did not know well. We were then encouraged to join in and by verse four it was not too bad. Alphonse was not happy with the 3rd year, however. He made them stand on their own to sing verse one and when that was still unsatisfactory told them they would be back in the assembly hall, after supper, to sing it until they did so properly. Imagine a Wellington prefect telling all the Lower Sixth to front up for extra Congregational Practice. We then had a second year lead the school in a rendition of ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus’, which was enthusiastically taken up by everyone else. Then, in my honour, the entire school sang the school song, after which Matthew asked me to say a few words. I simply stated that if I am half as welcoming to others as the Kenyan people in general and Starehe in particular have been to me, it would come over as being very generous.
Matthew then asked me to follow him out of the hall to the grass quadrangle outside. The students filed noiselessly out of assembly for roll-call, each year group occupying a different side of the quad. Inspection of appearance followed, carried out by the various captains. Those who did not pass did varying numbers of press-ups, in full view of the entire school, on the grass in front of their line-up spot. Finally, the school flag was lowered to the accompaniment of bugles.
It works here and does so in spades. Interestingly, the view of all the pupils and staff I have talked with is that with a new constitution ratified a year ago, with a leader who is publically anti-corruption and, thus far, clean privately and with the will and support of the people, Kenya is more positively placed now than at any stage since independence. With a future generation influenced by the old girls and boys of Starehe, it must stand a fighting chance.
I am writing this to the background strains of a brass band, without harmonies and sounding tinny, as only colonial bands can, playing Silent Night and Mary’s Boy Child with full oompahs. Totally incongruous.