Independent schools’ movement in colonial Kenya 1910 -1960



During the colonial period in Africa, education was almost entirely the monopoly of the missionaries. Missionaries had close ties with the colonial power. In Kenya education became the weapon white settlers chose to maintain a firm grip on the country. By limiting the advancement of Africans in every way. Nothing posed a greater threat to their rule like an educated African.

A Dr H. L. Gordon President of the Kenyan branch of British Medical Association in a speech in 1929 at the organization’s dinner at the Norfolk Hotel, declared that the promotion of education among Africans was irresponsible.

Such prejudices made Africans to come up with their own ways of achieving education. Africans knew that political and social advancement could be achieved only through education. They also felt that mission school education was eroding African values.

Accordingly, Africans established their own independent schools in different parts of Kenya and set up self-help organizations to sponsor promising young Africans to pursue further education abroad. For example, the Luo Union secured a scholarship from the Indian government and provided financial support for SM Otieno to study law in India. Otieno later became a prominent criminal lawyer in Kenya.

Another beneficiary of the Union’s financial support was Dr William Ouko Njenga who was among the first African medics in Kenya, and the first Kenyan to open a private clinic. After studying medicine at Makerere in 1948 the Luo Union fundraised for him to pursue his post graduate studies at Queen Mary Hospital University of London in 1952.

In 1910, Yohana Owalo rebelled from Church Missionary School (CMS) to form his Nomiya Luo Mission. In his book Not Yet Uhuru Odinga wrote that Owalo had taught Jomo Kenyatta at the CMS mission. His new mission combined independent Nomiya church and primary schools. In the early 1920s, another lay reader Johan Okwala rebelled from the Independent Nilotic Mission, a western missionary body to form his own church and schools.

Among the Kikuyu an independent school and church emerged at Gakarara in 1927. And at Githunguri, a completely independent school was formed in 1925 by a group that had rebelled from the Gospel Missionary Society. Perhaps the most prominent of the independent schools’ movements was the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association (KISA) and Kikuyu Karinga Educational Association (KKEA), both founded in late 1920s.The two organizations were started by the Kikuyu through their own initiatives after the government turned down their persistent request for schools and after they became dissatisfied with mission education

While the KKEA had schools only in Kiambu, the KISA had schools throughout Kikuyu land and beyond. Its Schools could be found in Tanganyika and Rift Valley. KKEA was however more radical especially in its relations to the colonial government and the missionaries. Nevertheless, the two bodies had the same approach to education of Africans. They set up committees in villages and at district level to raise money to build schools and to recruit teachers.

Until 1929, government limited education of Africans to industrial education, meaning gardening and local handicrafts, students alternated between workshop and classroom. The aim was to make access to job opportunities difficult for the Africans. Despite the emphasis on farming, no attempt was made to introduce students to new farming techniques or new crops such as coffee.

In 1929, the government made some modification to allow Africans to access higher education and enjoy opportunities provided by the government. A small number of Africans were given bursary to study in countries like Britain and South Africa. It, however, became a scheme to reward the loyalists while isolating agitators.

Among the beneficiaries were the sons of Chief Njonjo and the sons of Chief Waruhiu. As Sorobea Bogonko argued, education in Kenya was tailored towards developing “European culture and leadership and promote an enclave economy rather than serve the interest of Africans”.

By sponsoring children of collaborators, the government hoped to create a British educated African elite which would help maintain the status quo.

Since the government only allowed English to be taught to Africans at class IV, which was the last year of elementary education, the Kikuyu Independent schools Association (KISA) altered the government’s syllabus and started teaching English from standard 1.

At the same time, while inculcating African values, the KISA also endeavored to promote British culture. This made KISA very popular among parents who began to avoid government backed mission schools. Inability to write and speak good English, and lack of knowledge of British culture, had hitherto been used as an excuse by the colonialists to employ Africans.

It was therefore quite common for parents to bring their children to KISA schools purposely to learn English so that they could get good jobs in future. This triggered a protest from head teachers from mission schools who complained about their schools suffering irreparable damage as Kikuyu parents took their children to independent schools.

The fact that by 1936 the Kikuyu independent school’s movement had 5,111 students in 50 schools all over Kikuyu land and beyond, is an indication of how popular the movement was. When the independent schools first emerged, the government was convinced that they would soon collapse. This was because of the colonial belief that Africans were not able to undertake such an important venture. But the ability of the Africans and the success of the independent soon proved them wrong. Subsequently government tried in many ways to suppress the independent schools, including limiting their syllabuses, especially regarding the teaching of English.

Some independent schools cooperated with new government regulations, but most ignored it. Africans felt government was trying to take away their schools.