Thursday, July 24, 2008

Deadly Youth Riots Erupt in Kenya

Over the weekend, more violent riots broke out in secondary boarding schools across Kenya. Numerous dormitories were vandalized and burned, leading to one death in Nairobi and roughly 200 arrests. The upheaval has caused 200 schools to be closed across the country in the last 3 months. Articles from and BBC have attempted to explain why young students across the country are violently protesting school administrations by destroying millions of dollars of property and killing a classmate. One student blamed the upcoming mock exams. Some have blamed overcrowding since the government’s recent increases in school attendance due to a new bill offering free secondary education to over a million students, while others eye complaints of poor food quality for boarders and unbearable rules enforced by the administration. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education blames a ban on corporal punishment passed 5 years ago for creating a nation of undisciplined and violent youth.

How does this crisis relate to youth service or national youth service policy? Kenya’s situation exemplifies the significance and challenges behind how a government views and treats its youth population. The events have highlighted a clear communication breakdown between the youth and the government. The current government is in transition from a punishment-based education system to a modern education policy based on expansion through equality. This change and potential instability alongside major education initiatives cannot be understated. Although Kenya’s education minister, Sam Ongeri, had good intentions in paying the tuition for 1.4 million more students this year, Kenyan infrastructure has been as of yet unable to support this expansion and as a result, the youth cannot be expected to tolerate insufferable learning and living conditions. In dealing with these issues, Kenyan youth need to find and be helped to find a voice and stake in their futures as citizens.

Kenya does have a national youth service policy that was instated shortly after independence. However, the service policy is focused on internal security, recruiting police officers and members of the military. In June of this year, the National Youth Service budget was increased by $3 billion, creating 15,000 more jobs – 8,000 police, 1,000 nurses, and 6,000 teachers, illustrating the government’s emphasis on primarly internal security. This is reasonable since Kenya has experienced violent social turmoil due to elections and youth discontent in the last year. Thus, the government treats the youth as both a security liability and the answer to security. This measure is divisive, as there are youths in government service under the national youth policy attempting to control the civilian youths fighting to have their grievances heard. In considering a means to achieving sustainable peace in Kenya, the need for the 8,000 police and $3 billion budget increase could be diminished if youth programs for service were created to proactively address the students’ issues. These could include after-school programs that build schools, teach food preparation, hold gardening classes to improve quality of produce, or the planning and hosting of youth conferences discussing national testing and elections. Of course this is the idealistic approach: Kenya’s youth improving school’s food quality while learning to garden or sitting at a round-table to discuss the unfairness of national tests. This would mean the government’s perspective on youth would again need to transition from viewing the youth as a group that needs to be controlled to a group that has a positive and active role as well as acknowledging the group’s potential contributions to the democracy.

Until productive strategies and programs are in place, successful public schooling will be a dream, just as independence from oppressive colonial leadership was nearly 60 years ago. Weathering the storm of change towards progress instead of reverting back to older systems will push Kenya towards a more inclusive democracy. National youth service programs based on community welfare could be the peaceful means for Kenyan youth to publicize their grievances and help incorporate Kenya’s youth into a more consolidated democracy.

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