Lutivini Majanja: You Can Go Free

Kangubiri Girls

The word that hangs over my conversation with an ex-student of Kangubiri Girls High School is ‘normal’. I expect that she’ll tell me that she and her schoolmates were burdened with the weight of living in a place that bears this history. Instead, I hear that everything was normal. Kawaida. I try and fail to conceal my disappointment. I have to concede that Kangubiri Girls isn’t a perfect school, but it is not a bad school. Perhaps I’ve thought too hard about the barbed wire, the interrogation rooms, and the cells turned into classrooms. I expected that this memory is as present and as haunting as the things I am learning. Maybe it isn’t. Instead, the Kangubiri alum, who attended the school in the early 2000s, tells me that though they were aware of the school’s past, they weren’t preoccupied by it. There were no remembrance rituals or songs of lament, just common knowledge that the old buildings they’d gradually stop occupying were originally holding cells for Mau Mau detainees.

Her experience of boarding school did not differ significantly with her peers in other schools. Like many boarders across Kenya they woke up at 4 am, and had morning prep studies before breakfast. Like many schools across Kenya, there were restrictions on what they could take to school. A school canteen had been shut down because it was a conduit for prohibited items. This problem wasn’t unique to her school, we both agree on this. There were days set aside for parents to visit and consult with teachers, she says, even though there were some restrictions around this. At the end of the week, students worked on the school’s farm. Though this wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t as if they did back breaking work. 

It makes sense that to run a school, any school, one has to have ground rules, one has to set a standard way of doing things or else things will run amuck. Time to wake up, time to clean, meal time, assembly, roll call, lesson time, and then sleep. 


The secondary school I attended, slightly more than 150km away from Kangubiri Girls, was established in the 1960s to provide education for girls who had been affected during the Mau Mau struggle. I imagine that among its early enrollments there were girls who’d been directly involved in the liberation struggle either by choice or by proxy. I imagine that some of these girls had done their part—delivering meals, keeping secrets, concealing weapons, and running errands to support those on the frontline. I imagine that there were girls who weren’t enrolled because they had been on the frontline. Maybe this marked them as unsuited, or created for them paths that did not include attending school. I imagine that some of these students carried the losses of loved ones, wondering about those who’d never returned, and were disoriented from the many cycles of having their homes dismantled and being corralled into new villages. There surely must have been girls who’d missed moments of tenderness among loved ones languishing in the detention pipeline, or whose relatives returned broken or hardened by their service for or against the colonial government. And maybe they were glad to get away from these unpleasant relations.

Maybe some girls saw the school’s buildings and routines and recognised them as similar to detention camps.

There must have been girls who knew the stigma of being related to former detainees, or families that bred home guards. Maybe some girls saw the school’s buildings and routines and recognised them as similar to detention camps. Perhaps these were girls who’d heard firsthand accounts of what happened in detention. Even in school they would have been regarded with reasonable suspicion, why not? But for some girls, it wasn’t complicated. They were just girls who’d lived their lives free and happy, and were glad to be enrolled in school with the dream of changing their families’ fortunes. They arrived here on the wings of the independence euphoria. Matunda ya uhuru – the gift of freedom.

I wonder about what adjustments and modifications the teachers and administrators of schools like mine, or Kangubiri Girls, or any other school in this republic, made to ensure that their students and their schools got the best outcomes. If these girls hadn’t been Africans, if they hadn’t come from those places they came from, would the school have been run the same way? What reasons made it necessary to remove these girls from their homes? What were the re-education goals? What were the desired outcomes? Why did it have to be this way?


A few years prior to my joining high school, radio and television aired an infomercial ‘Send your girl child to school’. This is in a country where people celebrate hard when children pass exams well enough to secure access to limited spaces in secondary schools, indicating to me that it wasn’t obvious or automatic that I would proceed to high school – I had to pass my exams, and my family had to then send me, their girl child, to school. It was a privilege I had to earn. 

I have mixed feelings about my time in my high school. Though I disliked being there, I knew I had so many more privileges than most high schoolers in Kenya did. In school, we shared stories about peers we knew from back home who were disappointed, and even shed tears because they’d missed their preferred schools. Still, we joked that our school’s acronym stood for Prison Barracks because of the overwhelming number of rules and restrictions we had to abide by or risk punishment. Elsewhere I have written about my dislike for that logical yet convoluted numbering system which included a laundry number; a class chair and desk number; a dining hall chair and locker number; a bed number, and a room number. We were numbers. 


After the new-arrivals inspection at my high school, we deposited our labeled jembes at the agriculture store among piles of older jembes. It was a purpose built room, part of the school hall, about the same size as the former single solitary cell depicted at Kangubiri Girls. For a few weeks we were careful to use our own jembes, possessive of what we owned, what our parents had bought us. Some of us were not used to owning things—we relished this. Over time our new tools, mixed up among the old tools, were not differentiable. Our identifier numbers marking the wooden handles were covered in dirt or faded off. 

When our meals were unpalatable, we’d innovated new recipes and created our own underground spice routes. If we had to work on the school farm, at least we’d found ways to get away with roasting maize or slaughtering and cooking the school chicken.

The school’s name became one of our names. We shed or set aside our ‘former student at Z school’ or ‘resident at P town’ or ‘daughter of Y’ selves. We remembered those outside our inner circles by the class streams they belonged to, the dorms they slept in and the tables they sat at. For example: She’s a Two Eastern, She sits on table 16 at the dining hall. It was logical. The ones who had the hardest time were those who held onto the selves they were expected to shed or conceal, they were shunned for it. The ones who said too loudly, that they didn’t like the rules, and didn’t mean to abide by them. They were unruly. We were encouraged to practice sameness. Even though we were known by our registration numbers, we sneakily named each other as we recognised each other. We were supus, and splengs. As those girls of the first intake must have, we found ways to spice our food so that it tasted more like home, and less like prison. We’d never served in prison but were certain that that insipid food with its incongruous textures was for prisoners, not for us. At least it fulfilled our daily calorie intake requirements, we learnt to be grateful. We found humour in repetitive punishments, they were never so severe. 

If we didn’t have a regular water supply, at least we didn’t have to go to the river. And if we had to go to the river, we had adventures anyway. If we were denied visits, at least we were allowed letters. If our teachers read our letters, then at least they let us have them after. When our meals were unpalatable, we’d innovate new recipes and create our own underground spice routes. If we had to work on the school farm, at least we’d found ways to get away with roasting maize or slaughtering and cooking the school chicken. If we were beaten in our school, it was never as bad as that other school. And when we were beaten in our school, at least it was with sticks and not with belts and cables. If disciplinary action involved having to work on the school farm, at least we’d blow off steam. If our prefects humiliated us unnecessarily, at least it wasn’t so bad that we set them on fire. If we got caught escaping school, at least they didn’t ask us to return with barbed wire for the fence. And even if the school demanded that we report to school with barbed wire, we were grateful they’d never given up on us, letting us stay and do our exams. We toughened. We’d never have gained such grit at home. We followed the assigned routines, and recognised ourselves as rehabilitated, even though we did not know what our malady was to begin with. We knew we would be rewarded for our determination to succeed. 

Aren’t you exaggerating? 

Why aren’t you grateful? 

It wasn’t that bad…

Our motto is resilience. Do we ask often enough, what makes home a disadvantage?


Parents and students with fresh haircuts and oversize uniforms, simultaneously proud and harassed, line up at the gate of a school with bags and suitcases, beddings, medical records, farm tools, sports equipment, and required learning materials. The passive, ‘a thorough inspection must be conducted’ guides them. They want to make a good impression; they do not want to be troublemakers, they want this school for themselves, for their children. They are stoic. Shamefaced, or barefoot, or dehydrated children are sent back for not having everything on the lists. Or, look at that one who walked 60 kilometres just to get in the line—such a desperate hunger for knowledge is inspiring. We applaud. It is us cheering when we see government officials and corporate donors rescue children out of desperate situations—my God, we are shocked by what we see, and how we gobble up every detail of their poor families’ lives—and depositing them in boarding schools. At last, we cheer, we agree. This is the way forward. Our motto is resilience. Do we ask often enough, what makes home a disadvantage?


At Aguthi Works Camp, the girls’ grandparents, great grandparents, fathers, uncles and brothers, then in their teens, twenties, and older lined up. They were identified, examined, numbered and categorized—hardened, not-yet ready for release, not-yet rehabilitated—not-yet ready to be free. They were called by their numbers but they called themselves general, captain, tajiri, mzee, guka, senior, chairman, njamba … To be here they’d confirmed that they were willing to change their ways, confirmed that they might become good, upstanding, obedient people, confirmed that they were teachable, confirmed that they were no longer going to be troublemakers. This was one last chance to prove once more that they were broken. They made bricks as penance. They tried to replace the memory of the sound of lashes with the sound of a plane smoothing out raw timber, turning it into something useful. They were going to be useful. They confessed, and folded into people who’d survive long enough to taste freedom. They disavowed with their mouths what their hearts would never forget. They fell in line for the roll call, performed their duties with militaristic precision, though they were no longer soldiers. And then they were told ‘you can go free’, after the torture, and the constant hunger, and the barely edible food. They had survived, that was the gift.

You Can Be Free

Students must learn to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion at all times. They must wake up at the stipulated wake-up-time, they must not be awake at the time when they should be asleep. They may only eat the food that is provided to them. They cannot be trusted with food from home as they are likely to sneak in contraband items. They must not complain about the quality of the food. They are lucky to be provided three meals a day. They must remember it is a privilege to eat. This is a country where people die of hunger. Students must learn to wear their uniforms correctly. They must be punished for not wearing their uniforms correctly. Students must learn to obey the bell. Students must not fail the cleanliness inspection. Students must obey their prefects and teachers. Students must stand in line for the roll call. Students must only be in the places they must be in. Students must know the out-of-bound places where they must never be at unless they are given permission to be at those otherwise out-of-bound places. Students must learn respect. With freedom comes responsibility. Students must learn that freedom is a state of mind. You can be free anywhere. It’s a choice.


Detainees must conduct themselves in an orderly fashion at all times. They must wake up at the stipulated wake-up-time, they must not be awake at the time when they should be asleep. The food provided is sufficient. They may have to rely on contraband medicines to keep themselves alive, it is their business to stay alive if they will. They must not complain about the quality of the food, they do not know modern nutrition. They are lucky to be provided three meals a day. They must remember it is a privilege to eat. Detainees must survive in whatever rags they have. They were once naked savages, this is better. Detainees must obey whistles and commands. Detainees must do assigned duties. They must not fail the cleanliness inspection. Detainees must obey the guards. Detainees must stand in line for roll call. They must never faint at the roll call. They will be disciplined. Detainees must only be in the places they must be in. Detainees must know the out-of-bound places they must never be at unless they are commanded to be there. Detainees must respect. Detainees will receive strokes of the cane. With freedom comes responsibility. Detainees will know that freedom is a state of mind. You can be free anywhere. It’s a choice.

This article was written as part of ‘DETENTION’ a multimedia installation curated by the Museum of British Colonialism, African Digital Heritage and Baraza Media Lab.

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