By Jerry Okungu
September 7, 2011
From the beginning of last week, when schools in Kenya were supposed to open for the last crucial term of the academic year, the powerful teachers Union called a national strike. And for the first time in a long time, the two rival unions representing Primary and Secondary School teachers found a common ground. They were angry that funds set aside to employ 28,000 extra teachers were diverted to the military and sitting Members of Parliament to increase the soldiers’ pay and ease off the tax burden on sitting honourable members of the august house.
Talking to some top Ministry of Education officials recently, I got the other side of this strike that I had not thought about. This official reminded me that for the first time, teachers were on strike on a matter that did not touch them personally. In the past they had walked out of the classroom to demand promotions, pay raise and all manner of personal allowances. On such occasions they cited rising inflation, the cost of living and all manner of reasons that make strikes credible. However, this time round, they were generous enough to go on strike for someone else, the 28,000 teachers that were yet to be employed and of course the humanitarian aspect of it; their sympathy with peasant children who are being denied better education because of lack of enough teachers.
If you ask me, these are truly noble ideals that are worth going on strike for; selfless desire to be our brothers keepers. However, if teachers are on strike because there are not enough teachers in our schools; if these teachers are indeed on strike because children in public schools are getting a raw deal compared to their counterparts in private schools then may be the whole country should be on strike. I’ll tell you why.
Let us look at the health sector in our country where citizens expect government service delivery so that their wellbeing can make us a strong, healthy and productive nation. When you walk around in divisional health centers, district and provincial hospitals; what hits you most is lack of basic facilities like beds, bed sheets, blankets, medicines and acute shortage of doctors, nurses and other paramedics. Getting healthcare in a public hospital is a nightmare. The lines waiting to be attended to by the few nurses and doctors keep growing longer with each passing day. It is not uncommon for a seriously ill person to travel long distances to a district hospital, queue for treatment the whole day and still return to his village without being attended to. Should the health workers go on strike citing inadequate personnel to man public hospitals? Should they go on strike because many sick Kenyans are dying unattended?
Another sector that is seriously short of personnel is the police force. Because of this shortage, most Kenyans cannot enjoy security and protection either in their homes or at their work place. Too often one police station can be in charge of a division with a population of 100,000 people. In most cases such police station hardly has 10 police officers. More often than not such a police station does not have a single vehicle to be used in case of a distress call and even if it had a vehicle, chances that that vehicle would lack fuel are very high. It is therefore not uncommon to call a police station when a robbery is in progress in one’s apartment and get a response that the station has no vehicle or fuel. In some instances a few sadistic police officers would ask a victim in distress to go and pick them up to come to the scene of crime!
Should our police force go on strike to demand that their number be increased, more vehicles given to them to combat crime and that each station gets enough fuel for their operations? Should they go on strike because many more Kenyans are unnecessarily being killed by thugs when they could have saved such lives if only there more police men, more vehicles and more fuel to run such vehicles?
Perhaps one of the government departments with the worst service delivery in Kenya is the judiciary. Too often we have shouted at the roof tops that justice delayed is justice denied. Too often petty offenders are locked up in remand prisons for months and even years before their cases are determined. Quite often, suspects charged with capital offences can remain in custody for up to five or even ten years before their fate is determined. And we have always cited lack of enough courts, magistrates and judges to hear these cases and determine them on time. Now that teachers have gone on strike because their numbers are not enough, should magistrates, judges and prosecutors also go on strike to protest the suffering of criminals in our police stations and remand prisons?
Do not get me wrong. I am not disparaging the teachers’ strike. All I’m saying is that when it comes to service delivery in our public institutions, we have a handful of challenges beyond the scarcity of teachers. However, one good thing that this strike has done to us has been to open our eyes to a myriad problems we face as a nation. Now it is up to us to pick the lessons learnt and pressurize the government to do better in these departments. We need more doctors, nurses, paramedics, policemen and even more beds in hospitals as we make sure we have enough teachers in our classrooms.