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Maseno School: The giant that started beneath gum trees

Maseno School’s assembly ground Below:  One of the dormitory blocks at the Maseno School. PHOTO | FILE | TOM OTIENO
Maseno School’s assembly ground Below: One of the dormitory blocks at the Maseno School. PHOTO | FILE | TOM OTIENO 

When John Hanning Speke “discovered” Lake Victoria as the source of the River Nile on July 30, 1858, the region surrounding the lake immediately assumed strategic importance for the British.

The first Europeans to move into the region, then known as Buganda, were missionaries from the Protestant, Church Missionary Society, arriving in 1877, followed by the Catholic, French White Fathers Society in 1879. They found a well structured kingdom ruled by a Kabaka. The missionaries started by teaching religion, reading, writing and numeracy, initially from their houses.

In a move typical of “the flag following the cross”, Uganda became a British Protectorate in 1894 extending the territory beyond the borders of Buganda into an area that roughly corresponds to that of present day Uganda.

The first formal school, Mengo School was started in 1895. From 1898 proper schools began to be established in the following categories: catechist schools, village schools, vernacular schools, central schools and high schools. While the other schools were open to ordinary pupils for primary education, high schools were boarding junior secondary institutions for boys who were children of chiefs, and highly placed people in society such as clan heads and clergymen. The teachers in the latter schools were European missionaries assisted by African teachers in the lower levels.

These high schools were loosely modelled on the British public school system and the students were expected to become junior and middle level civil servants and chiefs in the local administration under a central government run by Europeans in senior management.

Student protest

Maseno School, in what later became Nyanza Province, is the oldest formal education school in Kenya. It was established in 1906, beneath gum trees — Oseno in Dholuo or Omseno in luhya — by missionaries of the Church Missionary Society — later the Church of the Province of Kenya. Following the practice in Uganda, the first pupils were six sons of chiefs but soon the school attracted boys from all over western Kenya.

Besides writing and reading, pupils were taught carpentry, tailoring, printing, masonry, telegraphy and clerical work, clearly pointing to low level skills. However, soon after in 1910, a formal curriculum was introduced following a student protest led by Ojijo Oteko, in whose honour Ojijo Road in Nairobi is named.

In 1920, a teacher training course was introduced to train teachers who would, after successfully passing qualifying examinations, teach new pupils.

The first administrator of the school was Reverend James Jamieson Willis from the Church Missionary Society. He is described as a man with broad humanity, deep love and tolerance for his fellow man.

Nonetheless, Edward Carey Francis, the sixth principal (1928-1940) is the man most popularly associated with Maseno School. He was born on September 13, 1897 at Hampstead where he was also educated showing great promise as an all round student at an early age. His education was interrupted by World War 1 in which he also served with distinction.

Carey Francis proceeded to Cambridge University in 1919 where his academic, sports and leadership qualities blossomed. He was particularly gifted in the realm of mathematics, especially in its more abstract form, winning many awards at Cambridge for outstanding performance and originality. Joining the academic staff at Cambridge between 1922 and 1928, he was a brilliant and immensely popular lecturer, serving as a fellow of Peterhouse and director of studies in mathematics.

Patriotic calling

Around this period there was a well established school of thought, institutionalised in the premier British universities of Oxford and Cambridge and popularised in lectures and papers published by the likes of John Ruskin, that the white man was the first race in the world and that it was his divine duty to civilise the African and to convert him into a “noble savage”, for that was the best that could be expected of the native.

Indeed Cecil Rhodes, himself a product of Oxford and a leading proponent of this school of thought, had proved it could be done with great success in his many exploits in southern Africa. Of course there was the small matter of his considerable wealth accumulated in Africa but that was “coincidental” or in the minds of others, a just reward for answering this “divine” and patriotic calling.

Allow me to backtrack. By 1920, chiefs in Uganda, who by dint of their positions could afford it, were sending their children who had finished “high school”, abroad for higher education. The colonial authorities were alarmed by this development because they feared that the Africans would be exposed to the liberties of the free world which were likely to debunk the myth of white supremacy and therefore start challenging colonial rule when they returned home. In order to discourage Africans travelling abroad for higher education, the colonial administration established Makerere College, a glorified “A” level institution offering only diplomas but not degrees, in 1922.

High standards

Perhaps it was in this context that Carey Francis gave up his plum job at Cambridge and came to Africa to serve in a junior school on a mission of “civilising”. At Maseno School he soon established high standards of discipline and academic standards that are the envy of many to this day.

Maseno School became a centre of excellence under Carey Francis and when Alliance High School started offering Cambridge Certificate examinations in 1939 Maseno was one of the foremost feeder schools of Form Three students due to their outstanding performance. Maseno School started offering the Cambridge examinations in 1948. The school excelled and has continued to do so in national exams to date.

In 2013, the buildings at Maseno School were declared a Unesco World Heritage site.

Notable alumni of Maseno include Jaramogi Odinga, Prof David Peter Wasawo, Barack Obama Senior, Prof Bethuel Ogot, Prof Reuben Olembo and Prof Thomas Odhiambo, founder of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology.

Maseno School is yet another example of our spirit of self determination, sense of equity and work ethic which we can call upon to overcome current challenges in our beloved country. As Oscar Wilde wrote in his play Lady Windermere’s Fan, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

The author is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast. E-mail [email protected]

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