In a country where education is still considered a privilege, Kenyans have been shocked by the latest violence: Students trying to burn down their schools. An unprecedented wave of student strikes and riots has closed about 250 high schools over the last month. There have been arson attacks at about half of them. Many teenagers have been arrested and thousands more sent home. One student died in a dormitory blaze.
Students cite poor facilities, overcrowding, abusive administrators, and the schools' failure to prepare them for national graduation exams.
But to many adults, the violence seems more likely the result of spoiling young people, whom they say are involved in drug use, promiscuity, and even devil worship. Their solutions include banning cellphones in schools, restricting television, and calling for a reinstatement of corporal punishment.
Experts say Kenya's leaders are looking at every explanation except the most obvious: The meltdown that killed more than 1,000 people after the disputed December 27 presidential election.
"In a sense, they are blaming children for their own bad behavior," said Birgithe Lund-Henriksen, chief of child protection at UNICEF in Nairobi, the capital. "These kids saw appalling violence," she said. "They're traumatized.... Now they are reflecting the behavior of the adults."
Kenyan sociologist Ken Ouko said the student riots have also exposed a fracture between the country's older generation, which holds political and economic power, and those coming of age at a time of high inflation and unemployment. "The sleeping problem that no one wants to talk about is the generational divide in Kenya," he said. "Young people feel shortchanged."
UNICEF and others are calling for greater sensitivity to children's needs, more on-campus counselors, and the creation of student parliaments or advisory committees to permit students to vent frustration.