The rise and fall of Kenya’s Independent Schools movement

by Julie Ngigi

In 1929, three missionary societies in colonial Kenya banned what they deemed a ‘barbaric act’ in the Kikuyu traditions; Female circumcision, a revered age-old tradition.

To the Kikuyus, the ban represented an unwelcome encroachment of their traditional culture and identity. This, compounded by colonial policies such as the hut and poll tax, made the Kikuyu fight back. Consequently, they boycotted missionary schools in an act of defiance.

But there was some of form of dissonance. Kikuyus had realised, early enough, that education was an important step to self-development and a section of their population wanted their children to go to school. However, education at the time was the monopoly of the whites, the same people Kikuyus regarded as enemies.

There was a dire need for alternatives.

Education during colonial times was racially stratified. The Fraser report of 1909 outlined that the Whites and Asians would receive academic education while the Africans received industrial and agricultural training. The colonialist also limited Africans from learning the  English language.

The imperial government justified the low quality of education given to Africans on the theory that Africans mental capacity could not handle complex academic studies.

Such details were unknown to majority of Kenyans and they felt that their children were receiving inadequate skills for lucrative jobs.  As such, and in Central Kenya, majority of Kikuyu parents kept their children away from school.

Soon, parents realised their children could not stay out of school for too long. They petitioned the Director of Education in Nairobi to establish their own schools, free of government and mission control.

The missionaries objected to this request arguing that the government and the missionaries, through the colonial office in London, had exclusive mandates to run schools. The colonial office on the other hand, feared that the schools would become the hub of resistance.

However, pressure mounted on the imperial government to handle the controversy emanating from a blanket ban on female circumcision. To quell widespread discontentment with this ban, the British prevailed on John Arthur, the head Church of Scotland Mission (CSM), to resign.  This failed to achieve the intended purpose.

Africans did not relent from their desire to establish their schools. This placed the government in a hard place. Then Director of Education warned that the continued refusal by government to allow independent schools only served to confirm the dalliance between the government and the missionaries.

The government finally allowed Africans to open Independent Schools. To imperialists the independent school movement was just but a passing cloud. They believed that the schools popularity would wane once the controversy on female circumcision was handled. Further, the colonial authorities also imagined that the Africans could not finance or run the schools without support from the colonial government.

They were wrong.

The parents pulled all stops to ensure they built schools for their children. They donated land, building materials and labour. Teachers were paid a minimal wage and were sometimes paid in kind.

The odds were with the independents, the global depression of the 1930s made it difficult for the colonial government to finance the opening of new schools. The Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) strongly suggested that the British should institute compulsory education “as practiced by all civilized nations.”

Their efforts paid off, the independent schools movement grew steadily. By 1937, there were 54 Independent schools with a student population of about 7,500. This did not auger well with the colonial government and the missionaries.  

While the Education Ordinance prohibited closure of schools as long as they had certified teachers,  the only option  left in stifling the independent institutions was by amending the law.

That is why in 1934, Governor Philip Byrne amended the Education Ordinance and conferred more powers to the Director of Education. This amendment sought to give the government the powers to close schools deemed to contravene the spelt out teaching curriculum. The amended ordinance stated that schools would receive financial aid from government. However, there was a caveat. The government had discretion to withdraw this funding. 

In 1935, another attempt at crippling the independent schools movement was introduced. The Director of Education ordered the suspension of subsidies given to independent schools. Further, the government also allocated itself the powers to bar students from sitting examinations.

But all these measures failed to stop the rise of the independent schools movement. In August 1936, a meeting to set out a framework of operation was held in Kabete by government and all stakeholders in the education sector including representatives of the independent schools.

But the independents were also having internal struggles. The movement had split into two factions; the moderates and a radical group. Despite the internal disputes, the independents attended the meeting.

The meeting resolved that no new schools would be opened untill existing ones were inspected. The meeting also resolved that schools would teach English language to students. In return, the government agreed to pay qualified teachers working in independent schools.

The independents were agreeable to the recommendations. Seemingly, the independents and the colonial government had approached modus vivendi. However, the radical grouping in the independent schools movement defiantly opened three schools between 1938 and 1939 without approval. The schools were closed.

KCA openly wrote to the Colonial Office in London protesting the directive to close the new schools. The British Government in London called for a common solution. In Kenya, the authorities decided to inspect the schools for compliance

The independent schools operated in a hostile environment. The government linked the schools to political activity. They advertently decided to adjust the education system with all stakeholders apart from the independents. They established the Beecher Committee on Education that recommended stricter control of the schools.

By 1950s the government believed that the schools were being used to recruit Mau Mau fighters. An investigation in 1952, conducted by the colonial office special branch, reported that some schools were  linked to KCA. In the same year, the government declared a state of emergency and closed independent schools.

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Mike May 1, 2021 - 9:11 am

Nice read

Kaniaru May 13, 2021 - 4:23 pm

The Hellish Colonialists are Barbarians who have terrorized Africans as organized Criminals masquerading as Government.
It pains as Kikuyus have suffered and continue Sufferings to this day because they dared these Criminals and showed them that BRAINS not WEAPONS is greater.

But what Many Don’t understand to this day is that what has Finished Kikuyu is Basically a Covert Psychological Warfare that these evil Tormented Criminals unleashed against Kenyans since 1950 and goes on today via our education system that to this day is designed and funded by these Colonialists.
How Painful that despite wasting our prime age and money in Schools, for majority the main purpose of our education, the evidence shows is not to impact Knowledge but to Kill our Inbon Critical Mind through a Social Engineering (mind hacking) scheme that brainwash, mental Manipulation that everyone into a Mental Slave who today keep praising, worshipping and defending criminals who Terrorized, Looted and Killed our people. These are the Horrendous signs of the effect of Mental Slavery.

To liberate our Country which today faces even more serious trend of renewed effort to pacify Kenyans for total recolonization, Kenyans must orient themselves on all details and areas of Psychological warfare that uses brutal Violence to scare people into submission to the rules of Criminals.

Today the effect of this fear is evident by a now Timid and Tamed Kenyans population that Praise WAZUNGU

Knowledge is power


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