How Hospital Hill debunked mixed-race education myths

Hospital Hill School. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Hospital Hill School. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

White society in Kenya appeared to have acquired some modicum of permanence after World War 11. Kenya was perceived as the new land of opportunity by the British for investment, employment in the emerging civil service and private sector, and as a premier holiday destination.

The war years had witnessed an abating of African nationalism and the environment generally looked ripe for European settlement.

The war had also caused an increase in the number of children of mixed race, the product of liaisons between white soldiers and African women, leaving coloured children behind upon their return home after the war. Fortunately, the Roman Catholic Church came to their rescue and educated the girl children at Mary Hill School in Thika.

After the war, the number of whites had increased rapidly in towns to warrant literary and cultural pursuits to expand, and as they did, Western culture became more entrenched, much to the dismay of Africans.

The English-language press flourished with the Nairobi newspapers the East African Standard and the Sunday Post, The Kenya Weekly News edited in Nakuru by Mervin Hill, and the Mombasa daily, Mombasa Times. The weekly East Africa and Rhodesia edited by F.S. Joelson and published in Britain, was widely read in the colony.

One of the best-known journalists in the country was Edward Rodwell, editor of the Mombasa Times and writer of the column “Coast Causerie” printed in that paper.

A compendium of local lore and history, the activities of local people and his own family, the column captured the imagination of its readers with gentleness, charm, wit and typical British humour.

Broadcasting also flourished with compères such as the popular Alan Bobbè, knowledgeable about classical music since his father was a musician in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Education, that tool of social engineering, remained as segregated as ever.

When John Karmali, an Ismaili pharmacist and photographer and Joan, an Englishwoman and also a pharmacist, married in 1943, they attracted the wrath of Europeans. They could not get admission for their children in European schools, being of mixed race.

Emboldened by the launch of United Kenya Club, a multi-racial social club in 1947, the Karmalis started a school for all races in 1949.
The first classes were held in the Indian High Commissioner’s dining room and later in the Karmali’s house. At the mere suggestion that African children be admitted to the school, the English parents withdrew their children claiming that mixing races would lower the standard of education.

Later in the year, the paternalistic Governor, Sir Philip Mitchell sarcastically promised to help the Karmalis with their experiment in multi-racial education “if it proved successful” within two years.

Upon Sir Mitchell’s departure in June 1952, some government assistance was made available to the school when Sir Evelyn Baring took over in September that year. The Karmalis were given land on Hospital Hill Road (now State House Road) next to State House, where they started Hospital Hill School, the first truly multi-racial school in Kenya, in a three-roomed house.

After the Declaration of Emergency at the end of 1952, some quarters within the white community and the press thought that multi-racial education might be a solution to the unrest. Hospital Hill School slowly and reluctantly gained acceptance.

When Dr Julius Kiano returned to Kenya from America in 1956, his children went to Hospital Hill School which was just across the road from their house.

Through membership of United Kenya Club, Dr Kiano and Tom Mboya became close friends with Gloria and Gordon Hagberg, an American couple working in Kenya. Gordon was working with the United States Information Services (USIS) while Gloria was a teacher at Hospital Hill School.

After Gordon left government service he joined the Washington-based African-American Institute becoming the Director of the East African office of the Institute of International Education where he helped organise the student airlifts to America between 1959 and 1962.

Hospital Hill School continued to grow and maintained high standards in academic performance, debunking the myth that mixed race education would lower academic standards by beating European schools in national examinations. Needless to say, only well-heeled parents could afford to enroll their children at the school in those days.

In the early 1960s, the school moved to its current location on Parklands Road and was handed over to the Nairobi City Council in 1973.

Today, it is a mixed day school with a student population of over 1,700 and continues to be one of the best performing schools in Nairobi County.

Notable alumni include, Marsden Madoka, Udi and Noni Gecaga, Shereen Karmali, Christina Pratt, Paula Schramm, Margaret Masbayi, Julie Alicker, Nicholas Pringle, Njeri Karago, Jane Kariuki, Jeff Koinange, Charles Radier, Amolo Ng’weno and Wahu Kagwi among others.