In 1997 when the late Ambrose Adongo was the secretary-general of Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), teachers in Kenya downed their tools, and the result of their industrial action was clear for everyone to see. Those were days when public primary schools (although private in some ways) used to top in national examinations because of the input of teachers. Kibera Olympic Primary School in Langata was a powerhouse, a perennial national topper, sadly, not any more. Taking a walk in my hood on the first day of the strike, confusion reigned, pupils were wandering about aimlessly having gone to schools and found no teacher to teach and cheat them. The private schools (academies) craze was in its nascent stage and it was not surprising to find children of prominent Kenyans in public schools. I was not affected by the strike because I was not in school having gone on a sabbatical a few months earlier for some unknown reasons. It was said that the last time teachers had gone on strike was twenty years earlier. So we were witnessing a watershed moment in our nation’s education history.
A way was supposedly worked out and an amicable solution reached enabling teachers to resume their vocation. Since then, the government has not been willing to honour its part of the bargain leaving the teachers with the short end of the stick. Strikes have become a norm whenever teachers want their salaries and allowances increased and they have to a certain extent acquired normalcy in Kenya. At present, it is almost two weeks since the strike started and there appears to light shining from either the Treasury of Jogoo House B each on either side of Harambee Avenue. This is despite the fact that this is a critical term for hundreds of thousands of students. It is this term which will decide on whether these pupils and students join Starehe, Alliance, Mangu, Riruta Precious Blood, Bahati Girls, Limuru Girls or some backstreet dingy pubs-cum-secondary schools, whether those in high schools will get to study Medicine, Actuary, Architecture, Engineering, Law or end up in village polytechnics studying carpentry and masonry. This is hinged on the assumption that the examinations will go on as planned.
The worst thing with the way the strike is being handled is the attitude of the government in the negotiations; its hardliner attitude is making matters worse. Teachers have tabled a proposal, a 300% pay increase, a colossal figure indeed. Matters are not being helped by the government which has through the minister in charge of Basic Education, Hon. Mutula Kilonzo, MP for Mbooni constituency (well-known for being plutocrat Moi’s lawyer for a long time and having walked to high school with shoes in his metal trunk because his admission letter indicated that he carries his shoes with him), asked the Teachers Service Commission, an entirely independent entity to stop the salaries of striking teachers, some quarters have come up with the crazy idea that all striking teachers (said to be almost 250,000) be arrested and locked up. You cannot negotiate with closed fists; each party must place all its cards (safe and trump) on the table. What is needed is a compromise, where each party allows the give and take attitude to prevail.
That being said, this strike is not about to become a defining moment in our nation’s history, its is a passing cloud in the eyes of the powers that be. Teachers must understand that a sheep will never get justice in the hyena’s court, whatever they will eventually get will just be for placating them nothing much. The government is run by members of parliament, they call the shots. If they want to increase their salaries and emoluments they do so without regard for the rest of the workers. You heard the other day their high priest Hon. Marende complaining that they are paid peanuts and they need a pay rise. Most of them are so vile that they had to be bribed in order to campaign and vote for the constitution with the promise that they would not pay taxes, and their terms would not be altered with the enactment of the new constitution. The ministers concerned with the teachers matters are all members of parliament and we are not about to get milk from chickens. Teachers, open your eyes and improve your lot, if possible change even your profession if indeed you want very high salaries. This is a man eat man society.
What the strike has exposed to me is that we live in a stratified society, we can never be equal and we must always strive for high ideals and perfection in our own little ways. Whatever one does, it must be done with utmost and unwavering commitment. If it is a student, his focus should be to score the best marks because we know that not all of us can be LeBron James, Dennis Oliech, McDonald Mariga, Mulu Mutisya, Kariuki Chotara, Johnston Muthama or Njenga Karume where formal education is an end to the means and not the means to the ends. Some of us need education to even pay the most basic of the bills due to the absence of athletic prowess or business acumen. We have a lot of disgruntled and disillusioned workers across all sectors of the Kenyan economy. The sad fact is that not many of them want to improve their professional standing by educating themselves but just want promotions.