As he prepared to join Form One at Maranda High School, Emmanuel Onyango, like many other boys and girls around the country, was very excited.
For one, he could finally say goodbye to those awful shorts he grudgingly wore to school every day and graduate to long trousers. His invitation letter also mentioned a tie, blazer and a number of new subjects.
What’s more, he would be given pocket money which he could use the way he pleased.
Although he was bit anxious about being away from home since he was going to boarding school for the first time, Onyango couldn’t wait to go to school.
What Onyango and other students of the selfie generation might not know is that there was a time when making the transition from primary to secondary school was a dreaded experience.
Many students wished there was a way around it after hearing tales of the horrible treatment form ones were subjected to. Those who went to school found the nights incredibly long and would seek the slightest excuse to go home, including feigning illness.
And that is despite the fact the Form Ones those days were relatively older, bigger and stronger than some of the slightly built boys and girls who join secondary school these days, some as young as 13.
When John Odari Odondi received an invitation letter to join Form One in 1988, he was elated.
It meant he had taken a big step academically. As a secondary school student, he could would walk with his head held high in the village, knowing he or she was now considered among the top brains in society. He could also be allowed to talk in the presence of other “intellectuals”.
Unfortunately for Odondi, his older brother had attended the same school and had bullied students who would now be his seniors, and were more than ready to “monolise” him, as initiating Form Ones into a school’s way of life was then known.
Come reporting day and Odondi, smartly dressed in his new uniform, complete with knee-length socks, accompanied by his father, set off for his new school.
Trouble started shortly after they entered the school compound immediately when the senior students waiting to receive “monos” saw the wooden trunk he was carrying instead of a more respectable suitcase.
“I saw a group of boys coming towards us wailing and waving twigs. They took my trunk in a frenzy as my father and I stood watching them. I heard one of them say that my trunk looked like a coffin with my corpse inside, and they were going to bury it immediately.
I started panicking as my father stood there, shocked by the way those who seemed to have come to help us carry my us luggage grew wilder as we approached the school office,” remembers the father of three.
Odari’s experience was characteristic of what many first formers went through in the Seventies, Eighties and early nineties. Form ones were welcomed with all manner of treatment, some of which bordered on sadism. Unable to bear the treatment, some dropped out of school, others sustained serious injuries while in a few extreme cases, students died.
Odari recalls a number of humiliating incidents he underwent. On one occasion, he was sent to the school canteen with a long list of items to buy, but was given only a 10-cent coin — which was worthless — and reminded to “bring back the change”.
Knowing what awaited him if he failed to do as told, he got most of the items from his trunk and used some of his own pocket money too buy those he did not have.
Mr George Steven Opiyo, the Principal of St Augustine Secondary School in Kisumu County, was a victim of bullying himself, and noted that things have changed for the better during his 25 years as a teacher.
He says today the older boys are prepared to meet the Form Ones in a totally different way, including providing care and support throughout their orientation period. Almost every newcomer is assigned a mentor who ensures that he or she is comfortable, which, Mr Opiyo says, was unheard of in his high school days.
“The way a new cockerel is welcomed with hostility when it is introduced to the brood is the way form ones were welcomed during my days. Our worst moments were mealtimes and after supper. I remember the first week, whenever we were served meat, the Form Two students would come holding forks ‘to teach us how to use them’. They would then pick the pieces of meat from our plates and eat it slowly as we watched helplessly.
“Another group would come to ‘teach us how to pray’ before meals, The prayer would be long and by the time they told us we could open our eyes, our plates would be empty,” he recalls.
In another old boys’ school now in Narok County, the older boys conducted mono hunting sessions every night. As soon as the lights were switched off, some boys from the upper classes would start whistling and moving in well co-ordinated formations in the dormitories in what they called “Maasai hunting sessions”.
The hunters’ weapon of choice was a bath towel with a cake of soap tightly secured in one corner.
As they walked through the dormitory, they would swing the weapon viciously on the beds on the top-decks, most of which were occupied by form ones. To avoid being hit, the news boys would run to the toilets or even climb up the ceiling.
These hunting sessions sometimes went well into the night, meaning the newcomers had sleepless nights.
BOSS ON THE LOWER BUNK
However, they knew that reporting their tormentors to the school administration would only make things worse, so they would simply wait for the painful year to end and wait for their turn to bully newcomers.
Some forms of bullying did not involve any beating but were, nonetheless, still humiliating.
One victim recalls having been given a smelly shoe to use as a receiver “to make a phone call” the day he he reported to his new school.
He was made to use the smelly end of the old shoe d as the mouth piece to explain his arrival at school to an imaginary parent. Any negative comment elicited vicious slaps and kicks. And to prolong his torture, the phone call was also made extremely long.
In some schools, form ones would be arranged in a semi-circle and be made to sing a song composed by one of the seniors. The song’s lyrics belittled the newcomers, yet they were required to sing it at the top of their voices, and smile while doing so.
Meanwhile, the conductor would slap them at random when he felt they were not singing at the “right” pitch.
The “choirmaster” would sometimes turn into a gym instructor and take them to the toilets to carry out breathing exercises. To ensure his instructions were properly followed, he disciplined any “errant” mono using a hoe handle.
In some schools, form ones were assigned a house father (or mother in girls’ schools) who, ideally, should have helped the orient and make the new student comfortable. However, in many instances, “father” was a misnomer. Your “father” was usually the person who slept on the lower deck of your bed.
He was your boss and woe unto you if the two of you were about the same size because he would wear your clothes and return them to you to wash, together with his.
In addition, you would wash his bedding, serve him food and wash his plate after meals. On days when nice meals were served, you had to surrender a good portion of yours to him. Your “father” would also use most of the things you brought from home before thinking of using the little he had in the trunk. And if you replenished your stock, he would keep his for a rainy day.
“Form One was hell for those joining. I remember postponing going to school for more than three weeks after hearing stories about the things being done to new students,” recalls Simon Opondo. But that did not help, because all he did was postpone the unpleasant experience.
“On my first night I was told to put out a bulb by blowing it out the way you do a candle. I blew until I ran out of breath and started feeling dizzy,” says Simon Opondo, who attended a school in Kisii County.
But bullying was not restricted to boys’ schools. It also happened in girls’ schools, with slight variations and was slightly less violent.
A common one was “mourning” those who arrived with wooden trunks instead of the more respectable suitcases, never mind that they were made of cheap cardboard.
The older students would also single out a new student who was good at braiding hair and use her more or less as an unpaid salonist. She was expected to be at their beck and call and was expected to stop doing her homework to go and braid a senior’s hair.
Looking at today’s invitation letters, one also notices that a number of items have disappeared from must-bring list. Gone are the pangas, jembes and slashers that new students were expected to take to school, leaving many people wondering what happened to those brought by students the previous years. And that is not forgetting the hockey sticks many were asked to take to schools that never played hockey beyond the fence.
Some chores in school were also reserved for Form Ones, and included cleaning the dormitory, washing the toilets, picking garbage and any odd jobs that the seniors did not like.
Then there were the dreaded head teachers, who were widely known for their “innovative” disciplinary methods.
One was known to wear school uniform and hide among students in the dormitories to catch them either speaking mother tongue or smoking. He would quietly lead the offenders away, give them a thorough beating far from the dormitory and then escort them back. He was reported to be so good at it that few realised what was happening until they had fallen victim.
So feared were these head teacher that students could tell they were approaching from the sound of their car engines. Seeing the principal even during the holidays meant running for cover, even if one had not done anything wrong.
So as the 2015 class settles down in school, they should know they are the lucky beneficiaries of the “secondary liberation” that saw the government crack down on bullying.
The cases have, indeed, gone down since such incidents peaked sometime in the late eighties.
Mr Opiyo says that traces remain that largely go unreported and mainly involve seniors trying to grab the new utensils, troughs and mattresses the form ones come with. However, he adds that such incidents are isolated and punished immediately, thereby reducing them to a minimum.
When bullying was rampant in school, a Form One losing items was so normal that no one bothered. They would rarely report and those who dared ended up paying dearly for it.
Mr Opiyo attributes the decline in bullying to the introduction of the stiff penalties for the perpetrators. A campaign heightened in the mid-nineties after a few extreme cases led to students’ deaths.
In addition, the establishment of private schools with a different orientation gave parents wider choices of where to take their children, meaning they no longer had to take them to schools known for bullying.
“Form ones are also very enlightened about their rights nowadays. Even small forms of bullying like being bypassed in a queue now sees the newcomers report their seniors, who get punished. It also stopped being a glorified; it is no longer the thing to do,” says Lamec Owesi, who completed Form Four last year.
SCARRED FOR LIFE
Bullying can have long-lasting psychological effects on victims
Psychologists say that bullying is potentially hazardous to the social formation of the victims. According to Mrs Evelyne Monda, who a counselling psychologist in Nairobi, such abuses, which took place when the victims were teenagers, could contribute to depression and personality disorders later in life.
The psychologist notes that survivors tend to have low self-esteem, poor mental health, associated deviant behaviour like smoking, and sometimes poor physical health. A number of them remain reserved and live isolated lives as adults.
A new study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found out that the effects of childhood bullying can not only last through adolescence and young adulthood, but right up to middle age. Earlier studies had shown the negative psychological and social effects of bullying to be evident into a person’s 20s, but the new research titled Adult Heath Outcomes of Childhood Bullying Victimisation tracked the psychological health and cognitive function of once-bullied kids until they were 50. And the effects of bullying – particularly of severe bullying – affected a person’s well-being in many ways.
The team also found that frequent childhood bullying was linked to lower educational levels, a greater likelihood of being unemployed, and having a lower salary at age 50. People who had been bullied as children were also less likely to live with a partner or spouse at that age, less able to call on friends in the case of illness, and even less likely to have met up with friends in the recent past. People who had been bullied as kids were also not only less satisfied with their lives, but also anticipated being less satisfied in the future, compared to non-bullied counterparts.