The emergence of independent schools and churches is an important feature of our 20th century history.
Whereas the early missionaries saw education as a necessary means by which to proselytise Africans they did not at first consider it necessary to adopt new methods that would be suitable to an African context. In most cases they tried to create replicas of churches and schools in their homeland. As a result, both formal school and Christianity came to rely for their prestige much more on their apparent links with European technological advancement than on their relevance to African needs.
In the mind of the African, to become a Christian was synonymous with being educated as demonstrated in the Kikuyu word “muthomi” which was used to refer to both a Christian and an educated person. The pulpit and the classroom offered the independent African new opportunities of social status, power and wealth.
It is often said that the independent schools’ movement crystallised with the flashpoint created by the female circumcision controversy which arose in Kikuyuland in 1928-29. However, it was not in Kikuyuland, but in Nyanza that the first instances of educational reaction began to show. There the importance of European education had been recognised more rapidly because of the links with Buganda. The strike at Maseno School in 1908 led by Ojijo Oteko, when the boys refused to take part in manual labour and pressed for more reading and writing gave an early hint of the Africa students’ desire to select their own curriculum, and by 1909 Bishop Willis of Nyanza refers to some of the early village schools already “drifting their own ways”.
Under the strong Anglican influence, the aim of the early central mission schools in Nyanza, as in Buganda, was explicitly to separate and then acculturate their students to the church’s way of thinking, to provide catechists and ultimately church leaders. Thus, notwithstanding the efforts to include manual work, literacy was given a heavy emphasis. The colonial administration supported this policy, especially where “chiefs’ sons” were concerned, in order to secure literate administrators and a steady supply of clerks and orderlies all under a central government led by European senior management. Literacy therefore showed its rewards early in Nyanza and a big demand resulted. By 1916 there were 250 village schools run by African teachers in Nyanza.
Yet the limited nature of the supervision or indeed training given to such teachers, can be estimated in part from the fact that only two central schools, Church of Scotland Mission (CMS) Maseno and Butere were sufficiently well equipped to meet the requirements for government aid at that time. Even apart from separatist tendencies in the local churches, the lack of resources and staff at the missions for all intents and purposes made many of these schools independent whether they liked it or not.
The first break in Nyanza came when John Owalo, who after gaining valuable teaching experience at the CMS school in Thogoto (where according to Alan Ogot, Jomo Kenyatta was one of his pupils) finally formed his own Nomiya Luo Mission in 1910. This group built its own churches and primary schools and demanded a secondary school for Nyanza free from mission influence.
The quality of these schools remained very low and often did little more than prepare students for membership of a particular sect but some of them soldiered on until 1958 when they were taken over by District Education Boards (DEB) and never took on the impetus that independent schools were to later have in Kikuyuland.
The Fraser Report of 1909 recommended that academic education be given to European and Asian children while African children were to receive vocational and agricultural training. Christian education became compulsory while African customs and traditions were neglected. Furthermore, African children were barred from learning English until the last year of primary education.
Whereas it is true that Africans embraced education as a means of advancement and access to the powers and privileges available to the white man, they also realised that the system of education was designed to deny them or at the very least delay and frustrate the process of achieving those goals.
Following a ban on female circumcision spearheaded by the Church of Scotland Mission in 1929, the Kikuyu in Central Province began to boycott mission schools and demanded an end to the monopoly on education held by the missionaries. The Kikuyu began to open their own schools and during the early 1930s, extensive fundraising activities took place, school buildings were erected and self-help groups were formed. Each independent school was governed by a local committee, responsible for the recruitment and payment of teachers, the setting of school fees and other fundraising activities.
As independent schools became more established, joint meetings were organised and at a gathering in August 1934 the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association ( (Kisa) was formed. While Kisa was not averse to negotiating their demands with the colonial government, some independent schools wanted to steer clear of any European influence and introduced Kikuyu cultural practices in their curriculum. A rival association, Kikuyu Karinga Education Association (KKEA) was formed soon thereafter. By 1939 there were 63 Kikuyu independent schools educating a total of 12,964 pupils.
Faced with an increasing demand for trained teachers in 1939 both KISA and KKEA agreed to support the opening of a teachers’ training college at Githunguri, the site of the first Kikuyu independent school. Originally intended to train teachers, the college soon included elementary, primary and secondary sections with enrolment increasing to over 1,000 by 1947. It was at this college that Jomo Kenyatta would become principal, providing a base to consolidate his political career.
When the government declared a state of emergency in October 1952 a police investigation linked independent schools to the Mau Mau and all the schools which numbered over 400 were closed. Most of these schools were taken over by the government and some by mainstream churches later in the 1950s.
In Kenya’s struggle for independence it was our schools which first gained independence providing the momentum for political emancipation. The independent schools were the platform for our “harambee” (pulling together) spirit and self-determination.