Saturday, 27 July 2013


As Entertainment Prefect in 1986, I was part of the inner student cabinet, the top five student leaders at Alliance. At the head was our School Captain, Hardisty Lwaki. His deputy was Andrew Kiragu. These were supported by the three of us – Adongo Adeya, the Games Captain; Palmer Thambu, the Dining Hall Prefect; and myself. It was never really decided what the pecking order was among the three of us, but in retrospect, I imagine that food is more important than either games or entertainment, so Palmer should have been first among equals.

From early in our year of student government, Hardisty and I had a special relationship. He was my school captain and I saw it as my role to support him and help him succeed as overall student leader. We became good friends and together we weathered many a storm. The school captain had a daily early morning audience with the headmaster to discuss the goings-on in the student community. In most cases, Lwaki would share with us, especially with me, the details of these meetings. He would also sound me out on some ideas that he was hoping to propose to the school administration. It was good to be right at the heart of the decision-making process.

But one day, we were in the process of discussing who was to be appointed the incoming Form 5 prefects whom we were to start grooming to take over from us when we left. Then during the school parade and without any warning, the headmaster announced that Duncan Mwenda, one of the most promising young men in my House, Selwood House, would be moving to Arthur House as a prefect. I was incensed. Losing Mwenda was bad enough, but the fact that my supposed good friend and confidant, Hardisty, had advised this move and kept it from me was more than I could stomach. What’s more given the nature of our close relationship, how would I ever convince my house captain and other housemates who also had high hopes for Mwenda that I was not part of this conspiracy to deny them of his talent?

At the earliest opportunity, I confronted Hardisty and made him know just how betrayed I felt. “Why would you do this behind my back?” I asked, unable to hide my hurt. “We had to do what was best for the school,” He simply declared. “And Arthur just didn’t have enough talent.”

On that day, I learned an important lesson in leadership. No matter how close you get to the seat of power you should never lose sight of who really wields the power. In this case, it was the school captain, not me. I was a mere trusted advisor and though he had been gracious enough to seek my advice and confide in me in the past, he was by no means obliged to always do so. I also learned that there was usually a bigger picture that may not always coincide with my own narrow interests. I wanted to keep Mwenda in my own House because I knew his value to Sellwood, yet the school as a whole would benefit from a fairer distribution of leadership talent. Mwenda went on to become a superb House Captain for Arthur House

From then on, the boundary lines between the school captain and I were better defined. He continued to seek my analysis and views on diverse situations, but I always knew that it was his call to make in matters pertaining to the general welfare of the student population. We made a good team and remained good friends even upon leaving Alliance and going our separate ways.

This team work was to be sorely tested in the days ahead. Sometimes during Second Term of 1986, waves of extreme religiosity hit the school as well as, we were to find out, other high schools around the country. Certain students, claiming special visitations from the Holy Spirit, started skipping class and other scheduled activities on the pretext that they were praying. They also started aggressively and indiscriminately confronting other members of the school community threatening fire and damnation if the rest of us did not see the error of our ways and “get saved”. As the term progressed and mock exams approached, the issue threatened to get out of hand and the authorities seemed to be paralyzed as to what to do about it.

The student leadership held several crisis meetings but we never did resolve how to confront the situation, especially since some of the more respected of the Christian community and teachers seemed to support this new wave. Several times, members of this group confronted me telling me to get saved and I rebuffed them offhand.

Then one Saturday evening, during a Talent Show at the Alliance Girls High School, some of this group took it upon themselves to lecture some of the girls about the way they dressed during a fashion show leaving the girls quite distressed. The following Saturday, this group interrupted an entertainment programme to tell us judgment was at hand and we needed to repent. After a couple of other incidents, I decided this had gone far enough.

One Thursday evening during announcements preceding supper in the dining hall, I sounded a strong warning that I would no longer tolerate people interrupting our entertainment programmes in the name of passing on messages from God. As I was making the announcement, one of the young men, who was a fourth former but quite big for his age, stood up from the Livingstone House table and started menacingly towards me. I could see him from the corner of my eye and I was tempted to take off in the opposite direction. But I knew that the time had come to stand up to these fanatics.

“SHUT UP!” he screamed, huffing and puffing like a steam engine train going uphill. “We did it!!!” He looked like he would strike me down and I was terrified, but I stood my ground long enough for the other prefects to come and drag him out of the dining hall. I continued with the rest of the announcement and reiterated that the student leadership would not allow a few people to hold the whole school at ransom with their peculiar brand of disruptive religion. The Rubicon had been crossed. The following morning, the boy who had made a spectacle of himself was duly suspended and the headmaster announced a crackdown on religious extremism that probably saved the school from a complete breakdown of order.

Up to the point I decided enough was enough and confronted the growing menace of religious extremism, it was clear that few of the leadership were willing to bell the cat. This often happens when it comes to religious matters in Africa. We are a very spiritual (some would say superstitious) people, you see, and few leaders want to entertain even a remote possibility of angering the gods and inviting divine wrath upon themselves by questioning religious practices.

But we must recognize that while freedom of worship is important in any democracy, we live in a diverse society and leaders cannot sit by as one religious group forces its particular faith down the throats of others. I am a committed Christian myself, but if I was to serve in government, I would regard it as my solemn duty to safeguard the right of every religious group to practice its faith without fear of intimidation or persecution. These are lessons I learned early during my days in student leadership at Alliance. We need to build an inclusive society where all religious communities can co-exist side by side and enrich each other’s lives as they learn to share this beautiful country we all call home. 

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