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Society & Success

Alliance Girls: The pioneer school that moulded top leaders

Alliance Girls High School  (AGHS) was the first secondary school for African girls. PHOTO | FILE
Alliance Girls High School (AGHS) was the first secondary school for African girls. PHOTO | FILE 

Alliance High School is separated from Alliance Girls High School by a sort of no-man’s land forming a valley. During my time at the boys’ school from 1968, I recall there was a fence along the northern boundary of the girls school beside which was a footpath leading to the local shopping centre known as Maai-a-Ihii.

Often, as we were going to the shops (or pretending to), we would find the girls taking a leisurely walk on their lower sports field which happened to be conveniently near the fence. We would gladly accept requests to run errands to the shops for the girls, mostly for mandazis (buns) and chapatis which were in plentiful supply at Karanja’s “hotel”. The goods would be handed over the fence in exchange for money. Of course, if you fancied the girl sending you, the service would be provided at no cost.

Karanja’s “hotel” had other offerings which were displayed on a menu board hung on one of the walls imploring customers to Ripa mbere ya kura (a Kikuyu corruption of Kiswahili meaning “pay before eating”). Chapati was displayed as “cabaci” which those students claiming proficiency in Latin pronounced as kabakai.

Another popular offering over the weekend for those of us who were chartered members of the “Royal Society for Prevention of Desertification of the Throat” (we loved big words) was karara a potent local brew served in various sized tins to suit your pocket. Karanja himself provided us with cover but woe betide you should you be caught by the school authorities, immediate suspension from school would follow.

There were many other opportunities to interact with the girls whom we called “acrossians” when they came over in green uniform for plays, clubs, and along the “valley” over weekends. We would escort them back to school and be at our best behaviour like perfect gentlemen. There was an overnight mail service between the two schools from Monday to Friday and we waited anxiously during lunch to hear our names being called out for mail. Many relationships blossomed out of these activities.

When the Church of Scotland Mission set up a mission at Kikuyu, one of their main pillars was to provide education amongst Africans. At first there was resistance to education from the Africans because they regarded it as an interruption to their normal way of life which, in their view, was working in a satisfactory manner.

Children were seen as a source of free labour; the boys herding cattle, sheep and goats while the girls did domestic chores within households. With time boys were reluctantly allowed to attend school and vocational training but the elders held the stand that education was not for girls especially since they were worth a tidy sum in dowry when they reached marrigeable age.

The issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) was also very contentious. While the Africans considered FGM as part of their traditional rites of passage symbolising enculturation and means of identity, the missionaries condemned it not only as a backward and evil practice but also as being unhygienic and medically undesirable. In 1907, a boarding school for girls was started in Kikuyu and missionaries preached strongly against the practice encouraging Africans to reject it. Many of the girls who dared to enrol in the school had to do so surreptitiously fearing the certain backlash from their parents.

Many parents came to the school and forcibly removed their daughters when they found out. Minnie Watson (Bibi wa Ngambi) pioneered the education of girls and accommodated those who were most threatened in her own house.

Controversy

The controversy over FGM continued to rage, with newly educated African leaders seeing it as a form of religious and cultural imperialism. The matter became politically charged, coming to a head in 1929 after a movement to bar those supporting FGM, polygamy and other native cultural practices from membership of the church. This led to the formation of the African Independent Church which, while espousing biblical doctrines, actively supported African cultural practices.

This period is also associated with the muthirigu dance song, mocking missionaries and colonialists who were opposed to FGM. The colonial government banned muthirigu in 1930 which was then being danced in deserted missionary buildings.

By this time the Church of Scotland Mission had established other stations at Tumu-Tumu and Chogoria and each had a boarding section for girls popularly known as “Mambere”. With time, the girls’ curriculum had expanded from simple domestic science instruction to a full academic programme at par with the boys but there was no secondary school for African girls.

Started in 1948 by Scottish Missionaries on 71 acres of land, African Girls High School (known as Alliance Girls High School after Independence), was the first secondary school for African girls. Although the first girls were admitted to the school in February 1948, four other girls were already studying at Alliance High School with the boys since 1946 in readiness for the opening of the girls’ school.

The girls were Joan Gitau (later Joan Waithaka and who went on to become the first African headmistress at Alliance Girls High School in 1969), Isabella Muthoni, Margaret Kenyatta and Mukwa-Mugo. They were accommodated in teachers’ houses.

The first headmistress of Alliance Girls High School (AGHS) was Jean Wilkinson, herself a Sottish missionary. AGHS was perceived to be serving in parallel with Kenya High School, which at that time admitted only European girls. Within no time AGHS established a record of excellence in academia and other disciplines.

Notable alumni include Lucy Kibaki, Dr Sally Kosgey (first woman head of the civil service), Prof Micere Mugo, Nyiva Mwendwa (first woman cabinet minister), Charity Ngilu (first woman presidential candidate), Betty Maina (first woman chief executive of Kenya Association of Manufacturers) and Dr Margaret Ogola (renown pediatrician and novelist).

AGHS has continued to be a centre of academic excellence over the years and its graduates are admitted to prestigious local and international universities. Some of its students have in the past been selected to attend the African Leadership Academy.

In the recently released results of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examinations (KCSE) for 2016, AGHS emerged the top school nationwide registering 25 straight As. AGHS was singled out by Education Cabinet Secretary, Dr Fred Matiang’i as the most consistent school in KCSE results over the years, demonstrating that honesty and hard work are the keys to sustainable success.

The author is a retired banker and motorcycling enthusiast
[email protected]

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