The mental health of Kenya’s school-going children

I had thought of writing this article before the Westgate crisis. Although the siege ended, it all feels so unreal. We who watched it on TV, like most people on the globe, still can’t believe what happened. The untold stories of the hostages who were mutilated by the terrorists are now slowly emerging. We would have been spared the full extent of that ordeal had it been left to the mainstream media but now we get to know so much.

I wonder how much we are protecting our children from seeing too much, hearing too much. Where are your children as you discuss all those going-on’s? What images are we allowing our children to see? What imaginations are we growing in their minds with the things we speak in their presence? If we can hardly sleep after seeing these images, what is it doing to our children?

I am a freelance writer for the Nation Media group and I religiously buy their papers. But I did not do so last Sunday. The front page was too gruesome and I was glad to see an apology in the paper today over the picture they choose for their front page last week.

I learned from my experience in the post election violence of 2007, to keep my very young children away from too much violence. At the height of the post-election violence of 2007/8, we were all at my mother’s home and the TV was on, every waking moment. My son seemed to be playing along happily with his cousin, he did not seem the least bothered by what was showing on TV. We all openly voiced our fears. What I did not realise was that he had gathered all the info and slowly processed it. The effects were obvious only later. He could not sleep without a light on and if there was a black-out at night, he would promptly wake up – his screams were so terrifying that his siblings developed his fear of black-outs. It’s only this year that the children now sleep with total darkness in their room. Black-outs are as common as ever, but the nights are way much calmer.

I can’t begin to explain how much TV frightened him and because we don’t watch regular TV at home, visits to other people’s homes were always tricky. My son was terrified of news, terrified of any non-cartoon images.

With Westgate, he gleaned things from school to imagine. But he did see some photos in the paper and I explained to him what had happened. I did not let him read the stories. I am not claiming that I am super mom – I wish so much that I was! BUT I want my children to sleep easy and not repeat the mistakes of 2007.

But before Westgate, I was already worrying about the mental health of Kenya’s school-going children. When the results of the primary school exams were announced in January 2012, several 14-year olds who had performed below their expectations, committed suicide. This was covered in our local papers:

http://www.nation.co.ke/lifestyle/DN2/How-not-to-educate-a-nation—/-/957860/1311934/-/12gmw5cz/-/index.html

There was much discussion as to why such young children are being lead to believe one was better off dead than failing a primary school exam. Parents in this country have beaten teachers up at school for ‘making their children fail exams’. Imagine what teachers put their pupils through to avoid facing the fury of parents who want their kids to excel in exams. God’s mercy on the child.

Secondary school pupils are super stressed too. Teenage boys tend to go on a rampage, destroy property or burn parts of the school. Fatalities in our schools have happened in the past though recently it’s rare.
Teenage girl’s response to stress is different. I saw this image in June 2013, of a girl suffering from ‘hysteria’ in a high school.
Student with hysteria

 

As in many cases, the girl was assumed to be possessed by the devil and so people pray to cast the demons out. More recently, (September 17, 2013) there was a similar story, this time affecting many more teenage girls in one school. Again, the devil was to blame. I can’t imagine what goes through the minds of these girls who not only have to deal with the stress they could barely carry, now having the additional burden of being declared demon-possessed.

 

Student demons

A school was closed in 2011 because the girls were ‘being sexually harassed by male demons’. It was a 50-word piece in the paper that I could not resist keeping (I can’t resist a ghost story in the paper..)

 

Sex ghosts in school

 

Isn’t there perhaps a simpler explanation that we can deal with? Is it perhaps a lot easier to just blame the devil than face the finger pointing squarely at us to take responsibility?
That perhaps we are exposing them to too much negativity. That perhaps we are filling our children with a sense of hopelessness. That perhaps we are telling them too often about this cruel world and denying them the joy of childhood. To enjoy that innocence of knowing that as long as mum and dad are there, everything will be OK.
Who will do the research of the impact of these negative messaging on our children?