KENYA: University's re-opening a lesson in peace amid diversity

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Kenyatta University, the first public university to re-open since Kenya's post-election crisis began, has put in place elaborate measures to ensure learning goes on uninterrupted, despite continuing violence and tension in parts of the country.

"After four weeks of delaying the opening date, we opted to take the bold decision to open, and we involved all the parties concerned, including the students, in putting in place coping mechanisms that we hope will work for everyone," Gabriel Katana, the university's registrar, told IRIN on 6 February.

The measures include counselling services throughout the university's departments; meetings with leaders and members of the community around the college; beefing up security on campus; and holding discussions with students as well as student and staff unions.

Katana said the re-opening was risky but the administration was willing to take the chance and would assess the situation regularly.

Regarding the content of courses such as political science, Katana said the university had urged lecturers to be "relevant and moderate in their teaching".

"What we are saying, for instance, is that when giving examples, the lecturers should be sensitive to the political realities in the country; they should try not to digress from the topics at hand," he said.

Moreover, he said, the university had "put on hold" student and staff organisations based on ethnic or regional composition. Only broad-based clubs and sports associations are operating.

Student support

Cecilia Thiga, a third-year environmental science student, said the banning of regional associations would encourage peaceful co-existence.

"What we need to do is to take action as individuals, we should not allow ourselves to be used by politicians; instead we should do what is required of us, follow the university's regulations and concentrate on our studies," she said.  

Katana said the university's administration had held consultations with landlords and caretakers of buildings rented by students outside the college about security and tenancy arrangements, and had also consulted the police and local government administrators.

"The district officer actually told us if any student is evicted on ethnic grounds, this should be reported to his office," Katana said.

He said at least 100 cases of students facing financial difficulties because of the unrest had been brought to his attention. He added that the university had set up five tents across the campus staffed by professionals who determine the type of help to give; those needing health and psychosocial support are referred to the university's health services.

The university has printed a booklet, Kenyatta University Moving Forward Together - Information and Coping Strategies, which each student receives upon reporting to college. It contains hotlines for information and help, and peace messages from the students' association, several chaplains and an imam.

"Several proposals were made in regard to how to deal with the opening but in the end we decided that an all-inclusive approach was the best," Katana said. "So far, classes have started and are going on well; and we continue with our efforts to talk to the students, the teaching staff and non-teaching staff, even the casual workers, on the need to co-exist in harmony and for learning to continue.

"We have held meetings with different groups of students as they arrive and we tell them why we decided to open and also what we expect from them. Our core mission of knowledge dissemination is still intact, and we feel that as a university we go beyond borders; our students can pursue further studies anywhere."

Katana said 200 members of staff had been coached in counselling skills.

Working for peace

According to a statement issued by the Vice-Chancellor, Olive Mugenda, most students, from across the country, had reported to college. However, a number were affected by the violence and some had been living in camps for the displaced before the university opened.

"I am trying to get my two children, who are in second year, admitted; we have been living in a police station in Londiani [Rift Valley Province] after I lost everything to the chaos," Andrew Macharia said. He was seeking help from Katana.

"The violence has affected me seriously," Macharia said. "I am here to plead with the administration to admit my children as I find ways of getting the fees. All my property was burned and my brother was killed on 1 January; my life is completely ruined, I hope my children can salvage theirs by continuing with their education."

Sylvester Kweyu, chairman of the Kenyatta University Students Association (KUSA), said members of the association had decided to set aside individual political opinions and work together in harmony, as a student body.

"A lot of the students have expressed their commitment to their studies," he said. "Those who may want to take part in political activities will be doing so as individuals, not as Kenyatta University, and we have made this clear to all students."

Kweyu, who comes from the western town of Mumias, said the skirmishes in his area had briefly displaced his family but that calm had since returned in the region.

"Initially, the university was to have opened on 14 January but we [KUSA] advised the administration that emotions were still high and that the opening should be postponed; after some time, we came to realise that students from Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley were suffering, some of them were at police stations, and we urged the administration to open so that some of the students could get into the campus, which you can see is a safe haven."

Eric Masenge, KUSA organising secretary, said he hoped the university’s experience would motivate students and officials of other public universities in the country that have yet to re-open.

"Universities in areas where there is still tension can perhaps remain closed but KU [Kenyatta University] should encourage the vice-chancellors of other universities to consider re-opening as most students are committed to completing the academic year,” he said.

Kenya has six public universities, three in Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces, which have borne the brunt of the violence that erupted soon after the outcome of the 27 December presidential elections was announced. Opposition leader Raila Odinga is disputing the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki.

Source: IRIN