Former President Daniel arap Moi’s life has come to an end. At the height of his rule, he had become a veritable demigod.
He could determine if you got a job or not. With one word, he could ruin your business. He could turn your life into a nightmare, not knowing when the secret police would come knocking on your door at night. Most terrifyingly, he had the power of life and death over Kenyans. But he did run the course of his life.
As the political class whipped the country into an amnesiac hysteria over Moi’s death, we might forget that children at the Kakamega Primary School had their lives cut short when 15 of them died in a stampede.
To take your child to school in the morning and be summoned to collect their dead body is a harrowing fate. Yet death of children at school or their maiming is not an anomaly in Kenya.
Last year, children at the Precious Talents Primary School in Nairobi were killed when the floor of their classroom gave way. And some time ago, at the Lang’ata Road Primary School, police tear gassed children causing them physical injury and lifelong trauma. There is also the case of a child whose body was pulled out of a school pit latrine.
All these and other cases are not unfortunate, as a priest pronounced during a cleansing ritual at the Kakamega school. These are not freak accidents or acts of God. These cases point to a negligent attitude of government towards children of poor people.
Take the Kakamega case for instance. While it has not yet been established what caused the stampede, the deaths occurred when children tried to escape using a narrow dimly lit stairway.
A layperson could easily have seen the stairway was a death trap in waiting. Yet this school received approval from government officials in the original and subsequent inspections for safety.
In the Precious Talents school, mesh wire was used to build the floor instead of the required steel rods. As a result, the floor used to be bouncy. Despite the danger, this school was given a permit to operate and a clean bill of health in subsequent inspections.
The gassing at the school on Lang’ata Road happened when parents and children were protesting theft of the school field by a high ranking politician. Several children were injured and some were rushed to hospital unconscious.
The pitiable state of ablution blocks for children is just one of many encumbrances poor children face. There are schools without walls or roofing. There are places where children learn under trees. Surely, in the 21st century, no matter the excuse for underdevelopment, no child should be learning under a tree.
In the slums, schools have squeezed spaces, if any, for sport. The neighbourhoods are unplanned which leads to all kinds of threats to learning and welfare of children. There are no halls for recreation, no green open spaces, no lighting, no sewerage systems, no paved roads. It should be a source of great shame that the colonial government built social halls in the poor neighbourhoods where Africans were sequestered.
As a result of this neglect, life for children in these impoverished environments is one of constant struggle. In the rural areas, many end up in activities like cattle rustling, while in city slums, some join criminal gangs.
The neglect of poor children has been present in the reigns of Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta. Each one of them could have enacted and enforced policy to upgrade all schools to an acceptable minimum standard.
They could have ensured that negligent state officials who issue permits irregularly are punished without fear or favour. They could have chosen to ruthlessly weed out grabbing of school land. They could have stamped out corruption which siphons away money that could be used to build playgrounds, social halls and other infrastructure in the slums and rural areas.
More fundamentally, they all could have ensured a decent standard of living for all citizens.
We can scream all we want about Vision 2030 and other visions we will create when one fails, but we will continue to fail unless all children are provided with everything necessary for their success.
There is a fundamental contradiction in having a plan for the future while neglecting the health and educational needs of children.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator