With or without guns, it’s in Standard Eight exams you come under fire for the first time - The East African

With or without guns, it’s in Standard Eight exams you come under fire for the first time

Tuesday November 6 2018

Kenya Certificate of Primary Education candidate

Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) candidates sit their mathematics paper at the Kibera Primary School in Nairobi on October 30, 2018. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The week has come to an end and Standard Eight candidates have closed the chapter on primary school education; they can finally take a deep breath, relax and enjoy their holiday.

But the holiday may not last long. Last year, we saw how fast the results came out – the year had not even ended!

When I was in Standard Eight, I had a Kiswahili teacher, who never failed to remind us that this was the defining moment of our lives. This examination would determine which national school you got into and the type of education you would receive, the kind of circles you would join.

I used to sit at the back of the classroom, and remember staring wide-eyed, wondering how, at the age of 13, a piece of paper could determine my life. This was really scary, how come everyone was taking it so calmly? So not all of us would be placed in a national school?

I have never done well in Kiswahili, and a part of me believes it was the teacher who made me dread the subject. As soon as the bell rang, I was ready for him to walk out so that I could enjoy something that day.

My first encounter with the fear of examinations was when we were doing our mocks. That is the exam in which, our teachers told us, most students got close to the result they were going to get in the final exams. Very few would improve much upon their mock results.

That is also the examination that determined where you would sit and it became your index number. We were a stream of about 80 students. When I did my mock exams, I was given index number 17. You would think that this would make me relax, that I would do just fine during the exam…

I remember sitting in this big hall we often used for Mass at our Catholic primary school. This hall on Thursday morning could hold up to 400 students, but today it was determining the lives of 13-year-olds. The examiners walked in carrying elaborately sealed envelopes. The intimidation was palpable.

And this year, it is even worse with all the armed security. That certainly doesn’t make you feel relaxed, you are already tense, for crying out loud!

After the examinations the one thing I truly enjoyed was going home early. By the time you are in Standard Eight you are in class before sunrise and at home after sunset. It felt so good to be home early.

And I finally got to enjoy a holiday, absolutely no homework, no pressure to spend some of it studying. I relaxed so much that I did not even want to go to pick up my results when they came out. These days you can simply send a text message with an index number…

When the results came out, the news media rushed to cover the high performing schools and the top 10 were plastered all over our screens and newspapers. They also published the top schools and the top 100 candidates in the country.

I remember never bothering to check, I knew I was not there. No hoping for a miracle. I remember my parents picking up my results without me.

One day, I was called downstairs, they were seated outside in the backyard, holding the bright yellow envelope. When I saw it, my heart sank. I took one step forward, with my hands behind my back, portraying humility.

And I asked one question: “Did I pass or fail?” My mother smilingly responded, “You passed!” I was genuinely happy. The marks were just a by the way. At that moment, I realised how much Standard Eight had stressed me.

It is drilled into our heads at a young age that good grades and working hard in school will give you a successful life. It has never been about learning, it has always been about passing.

We are living in a world where an education does not equal employment. People work hard to graduate with honours but find themselves tarmacking because there are no opportunities.

We have to change how we view these examinations. I read in the newspapers of several candidates who gave birth and still had to write their examinations in hospital. What sort of pressure is this?

At the end of the day, I am fortunate to have parents who allowed me to breathe. I was getting enough pressure from school, teachers and society.

Home is the one place a child should feel at ease. Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director of Siasa Place. Twitter: @NerimaW