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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Teachers and the Cane: Reminisce

Guest post By Ritchie

Of late, there have been cases of teachers accused of inflicting untold suffering and injuries on students and pupils. Instrument of torture? The good old cane.

One is left wondering what the intention of the teacher was prior to the 'accident'. Did the teacher intend to correct a misdoing (by use of corporal punishment-which is now illegal in many places) or to maim the student to show that he/she is in control of the class. These thoughts are doing their rounds in my head.

I remember when I was in school in the eighties, the cane was the trademark of any 'proper' school. In other words, cane and school were twin brothers. When I was in Standard Four, for instance, my Mathematics teacher used to 'burst' into class, a nyahunyo (Maasai whip made from car tyres) dangling under his arm and he would menacingly blurt, "Stand up...Tables!" By this he meant that we were to start reciting the Mathematical multiplication tables. Anyone showing signs of not knowing what was going on would be descended upon by his whip.

I was a victim of the swish of his whip almost every day: numbers and mathematical signs were Greek to me. We got used to such treatment and never at one time thought that our rights (what were children's rights at that time – they were gathering dust in the United Nations books – or were they?) were being infringed.

When I was in Standard Eight, my English teacher decided that using the cane was a thing of the past and instead resorted to using his fists and legs. He would get into the classroom (the sight of him would send chills of terror down our spines) and we would stand in unison. Our greeting to him would reverberate throughout the block: "Good Morning Mr. Mbugua." He would look at us as if we had insulted him and, with the ferocity of a bull, he would come towards us.

For no reason at all, he would rain blow after blow on our small forms (especially around our stomachs) and no one would dare cry out for fear of stoking his latent fury. All that was in the name of corporal punishment. In retrospect, that was terrorism!

Sometimes I doubt whether some of that was punishment to rectify behaviour or an avenue for someone to vent his/her pent up heartaches on young, innocent and undeserving pupils.

Fast forward to the present...
Most of those dubious forms of corporal punishment have died down, thanks to Human Rights activism. 'Exploded' cases of a teacher punching and kicking a student are few and far between. But, of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
Carrying of canes, let alone using them, in schools is not allowed. This is a trend that is catching on in Africa. But sometimes you find some teachers carrying 'small canes' (literally folding them to fit in their coat pockets) for emergency, as some are heard to say. Circumstances for such 'emergencies' are as ambiguous as the word "emergency" itself.

Although this is the status quo that teachers in Africa are trying to come to terms with, we still hear of some isolated cases of teachers 'beating to the point of death', 'injuring', or even 'killing' students. The 'crimes' that warranted such outbursts range from not respecting the teacher (rudeness), failure to attempt assignment, an untoward brush with the teacher and so forth.

The Nyeri (a district in Kenya's Central Province where President Kibaki hails from) incident last week where a pupil collapsed after being punished, speaks volumes of such a state of affairs. I don't think that those were just 'some' inconsequential strokes on the bums. There must have been some brutality somewhere somehow.

I know of a case where a teacher was so irked by a student that, in a stroke of 'genius', he reached for his leather belt and let out his steam on the student. Unfortunately, the metallic buckle hit the student on the head with such a force that the next thing the teacher knew was the student reeling and falling to the ground, head first. He was rushed to hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival.

Although banning corporal punishment is not a cure-all, it sure will save our children from emotional trauma and fear. (I found out that a bigger percentage of the fear I had, emanated from the crude forms of punishment I received when I was in school!).

This ban will also help mould students and pupils who can think on their feet (by this I mean that there is no coercion used to initiate decisions).

A better Africa is what we need and this is the way forward.

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