The Prefects


They were only 16, give or take a year. But so powerful were they their mere appearance caused dread in girls no matter what we were doing. You could be sitting quietly during study hour and see a maroon sweater pass by from the corner of your eyes and your blood pressure suddenly rises. Most of us have forgotten that dread, but the effect of bizarre, unfair and extreme punishments remains, like an old scar that has created a limp in our personalities.

They carried around power like a hammer that was too heavy for their untrained muscles to carry. So it often came down and smashed the fingers of those they felt needed to be punished. They did not mean to be cruel. They were only 16. They were just being true to the duty of prefecthood that had been placed on their small child shoulders. They were used by an administration that somehow thought cruelty shaped character.

The prefects were the victims of adults who never taught them the nature of power. They were only 16, and that was too heavy a burden to place on a child without proper training. It is not fair, because no child at the age of 16 should be given a chance to test out the drunken joys of unhinged power. Some turned sour and punished their way out of their own pain.

There are many adults in power right now who are clueless about how to handle power, and they wreak havoc on citizens every time. How on earth were 16 year-olds expected to know? It was like giving a teenager the keys to a 16-wheeler to drive down the highway without a license, and the emotional and psychological havoc they wreaked was counted as part of the job. Human nature being what it is, some of these prefects grew to enjoy it.


They had girls kneel on hot tarmac cooked to a boiling point by the tropical sun, their hands raised up as the punishing prefect kept a hawk eye on them, daring them to drop their hands. They had girls sort sacks of rice for endless hours, their eyes getting into a blurry pain as they flicked through grain after grain like sorting out sand on the sea shore, removing tiny black stones so that it felt as if the mind was drowning, backs broken from the pain of bending over a sea of rice at the end of the day.

They put girls out in the field to clean a long drainage all day long on empty stomachs, and forced to redo the punishment if the inspecting prefect so much as saw a smudge of imperfection. They forced some girls to travel back to school during holidays to do punishment for a whole day, no matter how far from the city you lived.

If you failed to show up for holiday punishment, you were punished for five consecutive days when you got back to school, and you missed all the classes for those days. Imagine parents in the village scrounging up money they don’t have to send you back hundreds of kilometers to the city to do punishment. Your grievous crime? Running across the gate to buy a packet of biscuits and other mafia delinquencies. I never found out if the prefects had a penal code they referred to or they made up the crimes and punishments on a whim, but from experience, I know some prefects just imagined crime and assigned the meanest punishment the little devil in their little minds cooked up on the spot.

I did it all, even the holiday punishment part. My dad asked me, “Why do you have ‘Holiday Punishment’ marked on your report form?” I said: “The prefect and I crossed each other.” I had challenged a prefect over something I must have thought was unfair and her ego had caused her to give me maximum booking. Minus 50. Dad said, “You mean she crossed this way and you crossed the other way?” And laughed at his own joke.

I knew right there and then that my dad was secretly on my side. He made it funny and it lifted the weight of me being a disappointment to my parents off my mind. He wasn’t going to get me on a bus 7 hours to Nairobi to do punishment for crossing a prefect. I ended up doing five days of slashing grass in the school field when I returned to school. My desk mate took notes for me for all those days.


I could handle being punished, zap it off with a joke. I couldn’t handle seeing my sisters being victims of overzealous prefects and cold administrative power. We were three sisters in the same school. I had seen my big sister cry over being unfairly punished, and to me there wasn’t a more conscientious human that her. I had seen my other sister sick with malaria for days in the hostel, neglected without doctor’s care. I remember how angry I felt when I learnt that one girl had chipped her tooth and quickly been whisked home for special care because the deputy Headmistress was her relative. Meanwhile, my sister lay sick in bed for days. Of course it wasn’t the chipped-tooth girl’s fault.

But our class of 86 will never forget Francisca. One of the smartest girls in our year. She had grown up in the tough neighborhoods of Nairobi’s eastside. One Sunday afternoon, we were walking to parish church outside the school for mass. As we walked by the roadside, a cyclist knocked down Francisca and she fell hard on the tarmac, head first, cracked her skull and started bleeding profusely.

She was rushed back to the hostel and the nun in charge later came to see her. The bleeding continued throughout. No sense of urgency. I don’t know how long she lay abandoned there, bleeding out, but by the time she was picked up and carried out of the school, she had suffered extensive brain damage. The school washed their hands off of her. They could have rushed her to the hospital. They did not. Her accident was an inconvenient interruption to a strict schedule, a mechanized life of compulsory duties and predictability that served to graduate perfect top-brain girl-robots.

Francisca returned to school several months later, paralyzed on one side, unable to really catch up. Many years later, I learnt about the tough life she had led after school, and how she had died a forgettable death. The cruelty of neglect. The girls were simply brains walking around with the express purpose of scoring an A in the national exams. That they were human was incidental. Say her name – Francisca Akinyi!

I was tired and angry over seeing students faint so regularly. Acute stomach ulcers became a common ailment. The stress was overwhelming. We were vessels being seared in the furnace of cruel academia so we could get A’s. Sure enough, the school was always right at the top in national academic ranking. What parent wouldn’t want their kid going to this exclusive school! I think I did not catch the fainting and ulcers like so many girls did because I didn’t bottle up the stress. I acted out. I resisted, I complained out loud, and I developed a wicked sense of survival humor.

Most girls moved on from the interrupting traumas of daily life and remembered them as if they were normal, as if we deserved them, as if they were necessary for molding the strong high-achieving women we would become. We succeeded in burying it all because there was precious sisterhood, happy days, rare movie nights, annual Parents Day, and the excitement of sports and music competition victories that carried us through. Many girls carry the pride of these spikes of joys and refuse to remember the fog of darkness.

But the body keeps memory. It is in the solitude of adult life that things you bottled in as a 16 year-old come out like bile that demands to break a long-drawn fever.

My ability to resist injustice from an early age might have saved me from a complete breakdown as an adult. My first protest was at the age of 10 in Aga Khan Primary School in Mombasa over black kids being forced to drink all the milk that Indian kids did not want. I was angry at the teacher’s directive and blatant discrimination. I took all my maziwa ya nyayo packets, walked out and poured them down a sink in the hallway, all the time hoping the teacher will see what I was doing and confront me. She never noticed.

It’s not that I didn’t need the milk, but that I hated the obvious discrimination. At the age of 10, I was fully conscious of this reality. It was not the first time Mrs. Pujara had shown open discrimination in class. She was an adult who thought children were too dumb to notice her racism. In Kenya, the generally wealthier and fair-skinned Indian kids were the “whites” in our black lives. One of the best experiences of Precious Blood was the administration’s deliberate creation of material equality while in school. We never knew or cared who was rich or poor. Traditional bullying was non-existent. The excessive punishments by prefects were an unfortunate product of untrained power.


When I was barely 14 and in Form 2, the deputy Headmistress told me I was provocative, a word I first learnt from her. When I was in Form 3, I was suspended for sneaking out to buy a pack of Marie biscuits. A prefect had spotted me that early morning down at the gate and sounded the alarm, leading to a sudden stampede by other prefects hunting me down like hound dogs hot on the heels of an escaped criminal.

When I was in my final year in Form 4, the Headmistress, a German nun, summoned me and told me my graduation testimonial will not be good. I have never picked up that document, good thing she warned me. It would have messed up my mind bigtime to see “bad child” written on that testimonial, even if in years to come I would struggle with that bad-child label. It was already seared into my psyche. Seeing that bad school testimonial would have hammered that label in my young brain even deeper, with a 12-inch nail I’d probably still be struggling to pull out.

I also came to the brink of leading a strike when I stood at the window of the school’s top-floor hostel rooms and shouted my voice hoarse over the Nazi-style running of the school. As I spoke, some girls gathered down below and listened, and I felt a strange kind of power. The story made it to other schools, I don’t know how. I know this because years later a Starehe Boys alum said to me, “I heard about you! You led a strike!” I wish I had, I said. That was the only thing I did that might have deserved expulsion in such a strict school. Strange that nothing came of it, not even a punishment. I think it was so shockingly wild the prefects got cross-eyed trying to figure it out and let it be – is she demon-possessed or just trying to be funny?

One day, a prefect who had graduated came by to visit no one in particular. She was idle – that blank period between finishing secondary school and joining high school – and I suppose she missed the school. But now she was powerless, and it seemed to me, quite unprepared for the feeling of being a nobody. She had been one of the mean ones. I noticed how she constantly looked down. When she had power, it had not fazed her that she was disliked. Years after graduating high school, I ran into another infamous prefect at the airport. She had been a class ahead of me. She too looked down when I said hello. Ashamed. Power had scarred them too.

But they weren’t all power-drunk. In fact, I hardly remember the prefects from our senior year. Mostly, I remember the ones from when I was in Form 2 and 3. There was the head-girl with thick glasses who stuck out her lips a mile out and said to me, “Who do you think you are, the queen of Sheba?” I was thoroughly tickled.

When we got to senior year the prefects were my classmates. Either they were uninterested in the games of power or I had become too immune to their ways by then. Or perhaps they punished the lower classes more. I don’t know. Some, I remember clearly, did not reflect the dark nature of wanton power; they remained friendly. They breezed through that heavy responsibility of prefecthood with a quiet discomfort. Not everyone who is given power gets to misuse it. But it only takes one dictator to destroy a whole nation.


Fast-forward. Most of these girls have done phenomenally well, in spite of the traumas of Precious Blood Riruta, and that emotional limp that never goes away. Getting A’s gave many the advantage of climbing a very steep Kenyan academic ladder. I hope someday we as a nation will burn down this ladder and replace it with a field of learning marathoners.

But I think resilience, discipline and a sense of competitiveness that came with simply having attended a certain school gave us the drive to become who we are. It’s a drive that has made many of us annoying perfectionists with varied cases of OCD. Me, I cannot abide any piece of unfolded laundry, and folded to perfection at that. Thanks to a sisterhood we cultivated in school, we have bonded over the years, even with the prefects. They are our sisters, our beloveds.

Years bring wisdom and maturity.  I’ve heard one of the teachers has been offering profuse apology for his role in the gleeful torture-discipline of the girls. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s enough relief to imagine it being true. Years bring awakening to those who have a heart. Much else has changed I hear. While the school struggles with expansion and the population explosion experienced by all institutions in Kenya, it has erased the culture of authoritarian terror, a testament to adults who make a conscious choice to create a better world for the coming generation.

Almost 4 decades later, we still meet and share good memories, support each other through grief, celebrate each other’s joys, but my best moments are when we share all the old jokes that still floor me with punch-drunk laughter, as if we were still only 16.

**This is a personal account of the past, an exorcism of sorts, and does not seek to target any specific individuals**

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