Why it is Archaic to Imagine a Return of the Cane

By Japheth Oluoch Ogola

Jane (not her real name) was a very intelligent girl. Whenever we were assigned to different streams, she would top in her stream as I did in mine. Whenever fate domiciled us in the same stream, either of us would top the class and the other would follow. My primary school had this rule that pupils would sit according to their rankings after every examination. A visitor to the class would therefore know who was number one from the top of the class and who topped from the bottom. This is how Jane became my longest serving classmate for the better part of my primary school days. 

There is one thing that terrified Jane and would completely disorient her concentration in classwork. This was the cane. You see, in our primary school, you didn’t need to be on the wrong to get the cane. A teacher would come to class and cane all of us without an explanation. One pupil’s wrong answer to a question would irritate the teacher and invite all of us to a caning spree. A bright pupil would be caned for not scoring 100% even if he/she had scored over 80%.  We were doomed when we passed our examinations. We were doomed when we failed. It is true that the once who were considered poor performers performed better in receiving several rains of canes.  A boy who was deemed to be closer to a girl who was not responding to a teacher’s advances was a victim of unsolicited beatings from the aggrieved teacher. I was once caned thoroughly for meeting with one of the teachers in the company of one of our classmates. My mistake was ‘kazi yako ni kufuata vile walimu wanatembea kwa vijiji’. Remember I had not planned to meet the two. It was a coincidence the same way I would meet a mother proceeding to the market to sell her groceries.  Whenever one of us was injured and his/her parents reported the case to the local education officers, an officer would visit the school, proceed directly to the head teacher’s office and emerge smiling from there with a wide smile on his/her face on his/her way out to the gate.  The case would not be heard of again.

Considering that our parents also believed on the cane as the only tool of disciplining us, it meant that caning otherwise decorated as corporal punishment dominated the better part of  our primary school days. There were of course several fatal cases reported in the media when children were either caned to death or were left with untold injuries. It was therefore a big relief to Jane and millions of other children like her when the government banned   caning in learning institutions in 2001 through the Children Act (No. 8 of 2001). This development required that alternative means of punishment be innovated. This directive did not however eradicate caning in schools but rather reduced it. Poor enforcement framework for the Children’s Act was responsible for lack of complete elimination of caning in learning institutions.

 Jane would not have failed her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education if the Children Act would have been enacted two years earlier.  The velocity of caning (as we used to call it), increased exponentially as we neared our KCPE days. There were moments when we would be in a class and caning at the slightest provocation would dominate the better part of the lessons. I don’t know whether this was the teachers’ ways of demonstrating their goodbyes to us. Jane would not hold it and by the time we sat our examinations, she was psychologically wrecked and it reflected on her results.

It therefore surprised me when the Education Cabinet Secretary Prof. George Magoha suggested the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools. According to the good professor, ‘’Learners will not commit crimes and walk scot-free. We shall ensure that these situations are neutralized before they escalate. They must be caned and we shall authorize teachers to punish them”. The cabinet secretary was attributing recent reported cases of lack of discipline in schools to the ban on corporal punishment.  What he did not reveal was whether any research informed his opinion…or was it an order? The Ministry of Education would have been more helpful if it explained to Kenyans why cases of indiscipline in schools are not routine but rather seasonal.

 The Ministry should also explain the alternative punishment mechanisms which it has innovated, why these have failed and the remedial measures which the Ministry has taken.  Human rights are progressively realized and this cannot be done by reversing any gains realized. It is archaic to seek to reverse one of the cruelties which the government has tried to mitigate in the last two decades. Considering that reverting back to corporal punishment will require amendments to the Children Act, I hope that Members of Parliament will rise to the occasion and defeat the Bill seeking the amendment. I am afraid that if we revert back to the retrogressive culture of caning in schools, the next move would be to re-introduce it in penal institutions.

The writer is a governance and management consultant in Kenya. He may be reached on japhol2002.japheth@gmail.con

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