Violent school riots were commonplace in the 90s. Students seemingly got ticked off by matters such as bad food and high handedness from school authorities. The tension would build over a long period before exploding. The disgruntled students would express their frustration by setting alight their own dormitories and chasing down teachers they hated. In the aftermath, the ring leaders were usually expelled, their parents fined and the remaining students subjected to even more stringent regulations. No deeper analysis of the root causes of this recurrent pattern of student violence occurred and it was largely attributed to a boarding school culture.
Then on the 13th day of July 1991, an incident, at St. Kizito mixed boarding Secondary school in the then Meru district sent the country soul searching. Earlier in the day, the boys in the school had decided to organize a demonstration to protest the inability of the school administration to pay fees that would have allowed them to participate in a zonal athletic competition. The girls refused to participate and that humiliated their male colleagues who vowed to seek revenge. On a chilly night of the 13th, 271 girls huddled in the most secure dormitory hoping to deter the inevitable threat. That did not stop the boys from smashing down the door to the female dorm in the dead of the night. In the ensuing melee, 71 teenage school girls were raped and 19 died in a stampede trying to escape rape. There was national outrage, enough to warrant the big man, President Moi’s personal attention. The incident was also picked up by international press.
A New York Times writer, Jane Perlez visited St. Kizito and wrote an opinion piece 10 days later where she made some poignant observations. President Daniel Moi had visited the school to condole with the victims recovering in hospital and to survey the extent of the damage. Various opinion makers offered their thoughts on the genesis of the attack. Politicians, media commentators and educators blamed indiscipline, drugs and staff incompetence. Religious clerics insisted that the nation needed to seek repentance. But what stuck out was a statement attributed to then deputy principal, a Joyce Kithira who tried to explain the context of the attack to the president. “The boys never meant any harm against the girls. They just wanted to rape!”
It was a simple matter of culture.
Hilary Ngweno’s, then editor of the very prominent Weekly Review went straight to crux of the matter and stated that St. Kizito incident was not an isolated act and largely a manifestation of a reinforced culture that viewed women and girls as disposable objects for self-gratification. It was also noted that had no one died, the incident would have passed unnoticed.
Twenty Four years later on the 3rd day of August 2015, a news report made a brief splash on the headlines. A group of 40 boys from St. Patrick’s Iten walked 6km to a neighbouring Sing’ore Girls Secondary in the middle of the night for a ‘sex date’. Some girls were startled by the presence of boys in their dormitories at night and raised the alarm. In the commotion that followed, some of the male students were apprehended by the police who had arrived to answer a distress call. Upon arrest, the boys explained that they were merely fulfilling a long standing school tradition and it was ‘culture’ to visit the Girls’ school during the winter season. Amazingly no one was fatally injured. Film maker Simiyu Barasa made a comment on his Facebook page that captured wider sentiments of those who remembered the St. Kizito disaster, “For one who was alive when the fatal St. Kizito tragedy happened where schoolgirls lost their lives, amazed is an understatement”.
Meanwhile, lying in the middle pages of the newspaper, a high court judge, Weldon Korir suspended a rape case that involved Imenti Central MP Gideon Mwiti, pending the hearing of an application by Mwiti’s lawyers who sought to bar the Director of Public Prosecutions from prosecuting the case. The case has been characterised by victim shaming. The consequences of being labelled a rapist are not exactly damaging to one’s social standing. All one has to allege is that the woman in question was asking for it and safely use ‘our culture’ as the position of defense. Any headline report on rape attracts undertones from naysayers both men and women blaming the victim for putting themselves in harms’ way.
Rape culture is rooted in a problematic idea of male identity. That forcefully having your way with a woman is an unspoken right of male privilege. Subsequently, as a society we have gotten into the dangerous habit of blaming the ‘culture’ and never apportioning any personal responsibility to the guilty offenders.