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Book details rise of Kenya’s educational ‘army of development’

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

LAWRENCE — It has interracial conflict and cooperation, anti-colonial struggle, the involvement of one of the world’s largest corporations, the British royal family, and more.

No wonder, then, that University of Kansas Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies Peter Ojiambo wanted to tell the story of one of the pioneering educators in his homeland, Kenya.

Ojiambo’s just-published book, “Kenyan Youth Education in Colonial and Post-Colonial Times: Joseph Kamiru Gikubu’s Impact” (Palgrave MacMillan) is part of the publisher’s “Historical Studies in Education” series.

The camps, clubs and schools that Gikubu helped build were crucial to Kenyan independence and modernization, Ojiambo writes.

“Kenya’s development up until now would not have taken place without the National Youth Service,” Ojiambo said. “They built roads, buildings, rail lines. I call it 'an army without guns'; an army of development that volunteered their labor, strength and time with little stipend to spearhead national development.”

The story starts when Gikubu, a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, joins the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in the 1950s. Like hundreds of his fellow rebellious youths and freedom fighters, he winds up incarcerated in the Manyani detention camp.

There Gikubu meets the man who would become his mentor, Geoffrey William Griffin, a white former military officer who had become disenchanted with his role in the counterinsurgency campaign and made the switch to colonial community development officer.

Manyani means “a place of monkeys” in Kiswahili, and the name referred to the raucous behavior of the detainees, many of whom were teenage boys like Gikubu, as well as to the actual simians who lived in the area.

“Griffin reports back that you must separate the kids from the adults and create a separate camp, so they agreed,” Ojiambo said. “This was the Wamumu detention camp, and he brings in 2,000 kids.”

In Wamumu, Griffin weeded out the most violent youths, then set about educating the rest, elevating Gikubu to a leadership role.

“Let’s start with simple things,” Ojiambo said Griffin proposed. “What do young people like? Sports! They need to be clean, so let’s teach health and hygiene. They need for them to love the place and not look at it like detention, so he had them build their own dorms. He was going on instinct, through trial and error. He was very creative and innovative."

For instance, Ojiambo said, Wamumu lacked such basics as chalkboards, pencils and paper, “so they drew in the dirt.”

“They taught simple trades like carpentry, masonry, leatherwork, painting. The kids picked things up so fast. At the end of the two-year program, an officer from the colonial government comes to see, and he is impressed with their work. Griffin realizes he has a gift to reach the youth.”

Along with Gikubu, who, like most Kenyan youths, initially had no more than a fourth-grade education, Griffin tapped Geoffrey Geturo as a leader in Wamumu.

“The relationship that developed between Griffin, Gikubu and Geturo ... brings to the fore the often underresearched relationships that existed between colonizer and colonized,” Ojiambo writes in the book.

By the end of the 1950s, with independence clearly on the horizon, Griffin was given the job of colony youth organizer for the entire nation, assigned to address the problem of numerous uneducated and unemployed youths roaming the streets of the capital, Nairobi, causing trouble.

“These boys are older – they can’t go to grade one – so he decides to start youth clubs, where they can teach trades, offer literacy and keep them busy,” Ojiambo said.

The youth-club movement, Ojiambo said, “takes off like wildfire.”

“Kids are coming in because families are encouraging them to join so that they can receive some education and training. They gain skills, literacy.”

Griffin started his own private youth club, the Starehe Boys Centre and School, in Nairobi. Starehe means “a place to relax.” And he reached out to young Gikubu and Geturo to help run it. The center combined paramilitary discipline with the education and training pioneered at Wamumu.

“It was the beginning of a vision that has lasted for over 50 years at that center,” Ojiambo said.

At Griffin’s behest, the Royal Dutch Shell oil company started an ongoing program of financial support for the center.

“The school (Starehe) grew like a pumpkin,” Ojiambo said. “The first 10 years after independence, it was the top school in high school exams. There was a lot of interest. The school attracts the British royal family – Princess Anne and Prince Charles come to visit – and draws support from the U.K.” Other famous visitors have included Muhammad Ali, soccer star Pelé, Indira Gandhiåç and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Gikubu was there every step of the way, serving in virtually every administrative role – admissions, finance, curriculum, executive director etc. — for 55 years, right up until his death in 2014 at age 80. He skillfully navigated any number of challenges, from political to financial.

Ojiambo writes that Gikubu’s legacy is embodied in Starehe, where 60,000 youths have received a quality education.

“Gikubu was an exceptional school leader,” he writes, “and a tireless champion of Kenyan youth education. His educational initiatives, administrative approaches and sacrifices were all aimed at empowering and liberating disadvantaged youths from illiteracy and poverty.”

Gikubu, Geturo and Griffin are still revered at Starehe, Ojiambo said, where “they are known as The Three G’s.”

Photo: Peter Ojiambo , University of Kansas associate professor of African and African-American Studies  stands by the grave of the subject of his book, Joseph Gikubu, in Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Peter Ojiambo)


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The Kansas African Studies Center has received $140,000 in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to launch public discussions, community programming, and the creation of educational resources in local communities to discuss the challenges and opportunities surrounding recent demographic changes in the region. Visit www.migrationstories.ku.edu to learn more. 

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