Masculinity and Adolescent Male Violence: The Case of Three Secondary Schools in Kenya

By Caroline W. Kariuki



Student unrests in Kenyan secondary schools date back to 1908, when the first student strike was reported in Maseno boys’ school. But no school strike has questioned the moral fabric of Kenyan society to the extent that strikes have in recent years.  During the 80s, the number of disturbances in schools increased from 0.9% to 7.2%, with destruction of school property being the most serious crime in Kenyan schools. Currently, however, Kenyan secondary schools are faced with not only destruction of property, but also mass rapes and murders never previously witnessed. (See table 1 at the end of this paper). The major focus of this paper will be on the following three secondary schools, namely, St. Kizito secondary school, Nyeri high school and Kyanguli secondary school.


Of the three cases of violence mentioned above, male students carried out all three incidences of violence and yet issues of gender were not raised. The students who committed these acts of violence were described as “other students”, “colleagues” and “children”, but never as male students. Moreover, data on the student violence generated by the Kenyan ministry of education, science and technology was not desegregated in terms of gender. (See table 1) The gendered politics of the boy’s actions were therefore kept out of the general accounts of these acts of student violence. This amounts to a cultural silencing of gender dynamics in individual conscious, behaviour and social relations.


In the report by the Kenyan task force on student discipline and unrest, the particular behaviour of adolescent male students was seen as one factor within the nineteen  factors surrounding student disturbance and unrest in Kenyan schools. Although the adolescent male student was mentioned in the light of their disrespect towards female teachers and girls in mixed schools, particularly in certain communities, what is interesting is that the task force observed that, “as the communities appreciate the role played by the few of the girls who have benefited from formal schooling, it was expected that some of these cultural practices would gradually disappear”. This reveals how gendered behaviour is trivialized and seen as incidental or insignificant. 


Also of interest here are the critical statements made by Kenyan opinion shapers regarding the motives for the student violence that rocked the country. Nothing in their accounts pointed to the responsibility of the adolescent male student for the violence that proceeded. President Moi, for example, is on record as having attributed the upsurge in violence in schools, especially where arson attacks had occurred, to the influence of opposition parties that encouraged civil disobedience to the government. A leading Kenyan psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Njenga, also tended to displace the violence elsewhere when he said that the motive of student violence lay in the Kenyan society, which has institutionalized violence ranging from civil disorder to police violence. (See ANB-BIA supplement, 2001). According to Oriang (2001), a Nation columnist on gender issues, “someone” decided to sacrifice the 68 students at Kyanguli secondary school for a cause that remains as obscure today as it did when the news first broke out on that day. While adolescent behaviour clearly does reflect the standards of the society, and while certain politicians may have exploited student unrest, what is noteworthy is the avoidance on focusing on the male students themselves. The failure to define or redefine school violence in terms of gender therefore needs to be addressed.


To unravel the connection between masculinity and student violence in this paper, I will  explore three major themes. First, the paper discusses the gendered nature of violence. Secondly, it looks at the relationship between power, violence and masculinity. Finally, it takes a look at politics and masculinity. These three themes are traced from the three cases of student violence in St. Kizito, Nyeri high and Kyanguli secondary schools in Kenya respectively. In trying to illustrate these three complex cases of violence, a brief synopsis of the events that transpired in relation to each school will be presented based on a variety of documents such as the government report on the task force on student discipline and unrest in secondary schools coupled with collaborative press reports.


Champagne (1999) indicates that even though the media is stigmatized for its inevitable bias, journalism claims that there is nothing worse than silence; at the very least, journalists pose social problems publicly and on occasion elicit positive reactions from government offices. One promise that press reports hold is that for a long time, the government of Kenya under President Moi rarely released public documents prepared by government-funded taskforces. Here I am thinking particularly, but not exclusively, of the report on the task force on devil worshipping in schools and the report on the task force that investigated the violence at St. Kizito secondary school. The use of press reports here is therefore as difficult as it is necessary. I will reflect on the synopsis of the violence that occurred in the schools mentioned in light of other pertinent literature.


Gender Relations and Violence: St. Kizito Secondary School

On 13th July 1991, male students at St. Kizito mixed secondary school invaded the girls dormitory and violently raped over 70 of them. In the melee that followed, 19 girls lost their lives. The fracas is said to have begun when the girls at the school refused to join a strike planned by the boys. The St Kizito incident caused public and international outrage, especially following the headteachers’ casual comment that the boys had never meant to hurt the girls but "only wanted to rape". Some of the boys involved in the violence were taken to court. The school was closed and an official at the education department of the Kenya catholic secretariat said the church would focus more on single sex secondary schools rather than mixed ones. (See Republic of Kenya, 2001; Feminist Majority Foundation, 1991; East African Standard, 2003; Atemi, 2000)


In the case of St. Kizito mixed secondary school, the rape of over 70 girls and the subsequent death of 19 girls in the school indicated the entry of the most shocking acts of sexual violence in Kenyan schools. St. Kizito serves as a unique case study because the school accommodates both boys and girls and reflects the gendered system of the broader society. In this context, mixed secondary schools need to be seen as sites of structured inequalities between boys and girls. That is why I want to focus urgently on  the conditions in which mixed schools reinforce sexual violence. As a student in a mixed primary school in Kenya, I have encountered the “culture of silence” on matters pertaining to sexual harassment. At the age of eleven, I was “naïve” enough to report to a female teacher that I had received a note with sexually obscene language from a male classmate, only to be punished by having to clean the boys’ toilets, so that other girls would know that sexual harassment was a girl’s fault. Rather than being encouraged and equipped to know and respond to sexual harassment, we girls learnt to keep quiet about our male classmates sexual advances. The raping of over 70 girls at St. Kizito secondary school is a terrifying indication of the consequences of silencing and implicitly condoning the aggressive sexual behaviour of male students.


The way rape is understood by the adult males as well as the adolescent male student gives insight into the range of attitudes on sexual violence. The headteacher of St. Kizito secondary school indicated that his boys meant no harm but “only wanted to rape” the girls. He seemed to think that the emotional and physical consequences of rape were not as severe as the deaths that took place that night. (The death of the girls was caused by suffocation from crowding in the dormitory as they tried to escape the sexual advances of their male classmates).  The students indicated on their part that the boys, angered by the girls refusal to participate in a school strike, sought to teach the girls a lesson or two. In this context, rape seems to be an acceptable instrument of “persuasion”, although it is obviously a vicious form of domination. Jukes’ (1994) explains that the definition of rape varies according to the context in which it is placed. In the male context, rape is a sexual act of a “normal male” interpreting resistance in a self-serving way: “to expect resistance from women and that indeed women want this resistance”. Whatever the definitions about rape, the adolescent male student’s definition of rape had devastating consequences for the girls at St. Kizito secondary school. It must be acknowledged here that adult males in Kenya routinely use violence to “discipline” women. For instance, Mitullah (1989) shows that violence against women in Kenya normally arises from minor misunderstandings such as a woman coming home late, not cooking in time, or a man not being welcomed home.


The central element of in the sexual violence perpetrated by the boys at St. Kizito secondary school is two-fold. Adolescent male student’s needed to control the females, and secondly, experienced a feeling of impotence at losing that control. The question remains why the boy students chose to use sexual domination? Candib and Schmitt share in the difficulty of trying to understand why sexual control by means of the penis is so important to men, and want to apply the fear of impotence to men’s desire to control women’s sexuality to understanding sexual domination. Such a view is based on the premise that, for men, surrendering potency means losing control over sexuality and inevitably their masculinity. This explains why men are prepared to pay a high price for the power to exploit women sexually, emotionally, and materially, as the rewards are ‘considerable’.  As Harry (1992:115) puts it, adolescent males, without realizing it, are constantly mutually pressured to prove their commitment to the male gender role. In the rather primitive eyes of the adolescent male, sexual and violent acts are the two main means by which they can prove their “commitment”. Violence, according to Owen (1996), thus needs to be understood as a relatively accepted part of men’s lives. For men, violence is a potentially less threatening experience, because violence itself is not considered so alien and separate from the everyday male (especially young male) life. When violence appears in women’s lives, it is almost always viewed as a disruption, a negative occurrence.  


These perspectives raise a key question for the adolescent male students that engaged in sexual violence at St. Kizito secondary school. With which masculinity does the adolescent male student in Kenya ally with? Within the general concept of masculinism the adolescent male student is groomed for a world of proving his masculinity through domination and aggression. This includes toughening the boys up to survive in a harsh world. Early on, the boy child is influenced by his parents and later on his peers to conform to male stereotyped expectations. Team sports and military service continue to be widely valued as ways of turning boys into men, transforming earlier defeats into ammunition. They provide the essential ingredients of violent competition, the willingness to inflict pain on others in order to win, and obedience to the “captain”. Independence, aggression, fearlessness, leadership, tenacity, anger, stoicism, and triumph over defeat are the psychological bricks and mortar of male gender roles, geared for powerful, controlling adult positions. (See McLean, 2002; Blumen, 1984: 55-57)


The male consciousness in Kenya conforms to the general concept of masculinism and is aptly demonstrated in Kenyan cultural norms. For example, a quick comparison of the vocabularies on gender in the Kikuyu language (my ethnic language) reveals that the word for man—mundu-murume comes from the word urume, which means “extremely courageous”. In contrast, the word mutumia (woman) comes from the word tumia, which means to “use”. Thus men from the Kikuyu ethnic community not only define themselves as the dominant sex, but also in terms of the norm of seeing that women merely exist for their use. In the voice of a Kenyan woman who recounts the advice she got from her mother prior to marriage: “respect him (her husband) and do what he wants” lest he demand back the ruracio (bride-price) that had been paid (Davison, 1989). There is thus every reason to believe that the Kenyan society has socialized the adolescent male students to think of girls not only as subordinates, but also as their “instruments”.  


Having problematized the nature of masculinities in the Kenyan environment, it seems clear that we can connect the Kenyan adolescent male student’s need for sexual domination to the larger issues of socialization. The main ingredient in masculinity is the male body masculinized by the double work of inculcation, at once differentiating the sexes and imposing a specific set of dispositions with regard to the social games that are held to be crucial to society. (See Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:172) The socialization of the adolescent male student in Kenya starts from the recognition that patriarchy in Kenya is sustained by what Masingila (1997) calls the African family concept of male leadership, and has since been strengthened by the colonial systems of governance and the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious practices that largely shape the theory and practice of the lives of Kenyans. The more we understand that the patriarchal culture in Kenya is central to masculinism, the more sexual violence can be understood. If we start with the notion that patriarchy and masculinity are issues interrelated to socialization, then we can critically explore the power dynamics in sexual violence. This means appreciating that aggression towards women is deeply embedded in the socialization process of the Kenyan society.


It is also worth noting that not all the boys at St. Kizito secondary school participated in the sexual violence that also led to the death of their fellow female students. It is not clear whether they resist or passively accept the Kenyan masculinized image of men. What is clear, however, is that the Kenyan society provides the entire terrain of sexual violence by the adolescent male student through male domination of women. As the Feminist Majority Foundation (1991) put it, the adolescent male student finds legitimacy following the way the Kenyan society subordinates women and girls. Through socialization, the adolescent male student’s ideal is to be a man; but for him to be a man he has to dominate. Therefore, socialization provides a good footing for understanding sexual violence on the part of the adolescent male student, but within the context of intersecting links to gender relations and power dynamics in schools.


Power, Violence and Masculinity: Nyeri Boys’ High School

On 25th May 1999, male students in Nyeri high school locked the school prefects in their cubicles while they were asleep, killing four of them by pouring petrol on them and setting them on fire. The four students, Harrison Munge, the school captain, former games captain Anthony Kariuki, assistant dormitory captain Eric Kiarie, and library captain Paul Musyoki, were badly burned by the petrol poured into their room as they slept. All four later died in hospital. Three boy students were consequently charged with the murder of the prefects. Two were acquitted for lack of evidence, while the other was convicted and detained at the president’s mercy since he was aged below 18 years at the time of the incident. The “Nation” team established that the motive for the attack was not known, although sources at the school said that the prefects had differed with some of the students prior to the attack. (See Republic of Kenya, 2001; Githongo, 1999; Nation Correspondent, 2001; Nation team, 1999)


The murder of the four school prefects in 1999 by male students in Nyeri high school is no less chilling than the violence that took place at St. Kizito secondary school. Something was going on in this school deemed to be one of the best secondary schools in central Kenya. It is reasonable to believe that an argument had broken out between the prefects and the other boys prior to the grisly murders of the four male prefects. In this case, I want to suggest that there were stakes in this argument.  In this space, power seems a plausible stake. The history of prefect-student relationship may be read as a power relationship whereby each group endeavors to exert its will over the other through the use and control of resources. From their different positions, both groups, aware of their “maleness”, play out these beliefs of strength, aggression and control in search of personal respect and self-esteem (Carter, 1996). The prefects in this case exercise public power while the other boys use their private influence to bring down the power of the prefects.


I want to explore this theme through looking at of Jean Baudrillard’s, The Spirit of Terrorism. I want to use this article to bring out the issues on power and violence. Baudrillard has achieved some notoriety as a theoretical terrorist, a position he envisages as valid. I do not want to defend his position, but rather use his ideas to shed light on the murders that were committed by the boys at Nyeri high school. The Spirit of Terrorism is about the hitting of the World Trade Center & New York by terrorists, an event Baudrillard describes as the pure, absolute and "mother" of events. Although he claims that we all unknowingly harbor a terrorist imagination and dreams of destruction of any supreme power, these acts of terror go much further than a hatred for the dominant global power by the disinherited and the exploited, those who fell on the wrong side of global order. Violence was initiated by the internal fragility of a global system that concentrates power in only one network leading to its vulnerability. The West, in its God-like position of divine power, and absolute moral legitimacy thus becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself. Although terrorism is immoral, it answers a system whose excess of power creates an unsolvable challenge. In this article it is “they who did it, but we who wanted it” Baudrillard argues. It tries to project the violence of the terrorists as not real but a symbolic act of humbling a power by an adversary. Yet he claims that any violence would be forgiven if the media did not broadcast it: "terrorism would be nothing without the media".


Let's suppose that we were to take Baudrillard at his word, first, the four prefects who were killed at Nyeri high school would seem to embody dominant symbolic power that the other boys did not have. Flowing from this one could argue that the attack on the prefect body at Nyeri high school, was an attack on symbolic power from the powerless position of the other boys, perhaps even having been on the wrong side of the school laws. The school prefects in this case embodied perfectly the orderliness of the school laws. If the school prefects were oppressive and this is reflective of the entire school administration, then it is inevitable that they were the objects of the violent attacks by the other boy students. The power of the school prefects thus conspired in their own destruction. It is sufficient to show that when a school management is monopolized by power exclusion as opposed to power sharing, what other way is there, than for the students to desire to reverse the situation. If we add an additional premise that the prefect system naturally oppresses other students particularly when prefects hold excessive powers in schools, one might well conclude radically that the prefect system in the schools needs to be abolished.


If the event of murdering the prefects, themselves the embodiment of symbolic power, was dishonorable, it answered a school administration system that was perhaps dishonorable. The adolescent male student responds dishonorably to gain honor in proportion to the degree that the school administration has dishonorably apportioned upon the school prefect body monopoly of power. Thus, a dishonorable school administration can be answered only through an equal or superior dishonorable act. It is thus easy to understand why the boys would use arson as a tool of destruction in support for their mission. Ultimately, traditional masculine codes based on honour and war,   usually resulting in death, are enacted by the adolescent male student’s desire to humble the dominant patriarchal system in the school. Here the concept of differential patriarchies is important: Kaufman (1994) suggests that patriarchy exists as a system of hierarchies of power among different groups of men and different masculinities and not only in men’s power over women.


Although only a few boys were charged with the murders of their fellow students at Nyeri high school secondary school, I wish to argue that, like the terrorists who hit the American twin towers, they were the sacrificial lambs of a larger network of boys that had each contributed to the act of violence either intellectually or morally if not physically. It was as if it was “they who did it, but their fellow students who wanted it”, as Baudrillard would say. The motivation for the Nyeri high school prefect murders seems to be linked to achieving honor.  After all, there are other boys in Kenyan schools who went on to use arson as a tactic against hegemonic powers in their schools. Harris (1996) suggests that honor has been the most often masculine good in the sense that the ability to kill, destroy, compel others to subordinate themselves has been most often a power held by men. Men, for example, are most often the symbols of a nation’s warriors, regardless of the roles played by women. Clearly, one sees power and the image of male honor serving as a high stake in the game of adolescent male student violence.


Politics and Masculinity: Kyanguli Secondary School

On 25th March 2001, 68 students were burnt to death and scores injured by two students at Kyanguli secondary school in Machakos district, 50 kilometers southeast of Nairobi. According to the “Nation” team, the parents of the Kyanguli blaze victims screamed, broke down in tears and fainted as the names of their loved ones were read out to them. "Don't you know that I have no child remaining," cried Margaret Njoki Paspao, mother to a Form 3 student, Joseph Solanka who was among the dead. Because of the extent of the damage done to the students’ bodies, the parents agreed to a mass burial of their children within the school compound. The female magistrate handling the Kyanguli case is reported to have said that the actions of the Kyanguli School principal and his deputy were "not those of prudent reasonable men exercising care," and sentenced them to eight months in jail for negligence. In addition, two students Felix Mambo Ngumbao, 16, and Davies Otieno Onyango, 17 were charged with the 67 counts of murder. Ngumbao stood with his head bowed and fought back tears as the chief magistrate's clerk took three minutes to read the names of the all the victims. Onyango stared at the clerk without showing emotion. Students at Kyanguli School believed that the angry students set the blaze over the annulment of final exam results and demands that they pay outstanding school fees. (See Republic of Kenya, 2001; Nation team, 2001; Chepkemei, 2002; North County Times, 2001; Africa News, 2001)


In the previous cases of school violence, the causalities in terms of human life were not as colossal as the Kyanguli case where two boys murdered 68 students, and so this marked the apex of the reign of adolescent male student terror in Kenyan secondary schools. A reading of the motive behind this act of violence suggests that the students were angry at the school administration. Whether it was a case of some students not receiving their O-level examination results as a result of cheating in the national examination or whether it was the subsequent demand by the principal that the students pay school fees amid this crises, the insensitiveness of the school administration to the students vulnerabilities was reason enough for the students to protest. The more the school system fails to care for the individual needs and feelings of the students, the more it must contend with resistance from the students. Granted that the school administration had been warned by some of the boys about the impending attack (a factor that was taken into consideration when the school principal and his deputy were subsequently jailed for negligence following the attack), it is clear that the school administration either found the boys discontent unreasonable or hoped it would quietly fade away. Clearly, there was no free flowing discussion about the issues that the student’s were dissatisfied with. The boy’s rage was there. How do we make sense of the violence that followed?


To answer this question I find it useful to have recourse to Freire’s concept of violence. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire speaks of how violence is both initiated and counteracted. Freire understands violence as an oppressive situation in which A objectively exploits B or hinders his pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed granted that they are the products of violence. For the oppressors, however, it is always the oppressed that are disaffected, who are ‘violent’, ‘wicked’, or ‘ferocious’ when they react to the violence of the oppressors. Yet it is precisely in the response of the oppressed to the violence of their oppressors that a gesture of love may be found. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression. Freire points out that certain attitudes in the education system mirror an oppressive society as a whole such as “the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing” or “the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined”.


In one sense, the school can be understood as just such a site of struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed, and in which these agents struggle against one another. Indeed, the school administration can be clarified as the oppressor, with the power dynamic to impose its will on the students who ostensibly are the oppressed. Power relationships are embedded in the school that assigns power to the school administration, in this case, the principal, the teachers and the prefects while the students are bound together in a system of powerlessness particularly in an oppressive school system. Power in this case is exerted through the use of rules and regulations that are sometimes enforced brutally. The struggle at Kyanguli secondary school can be grounded on the basis of this power relationship and the masculine picture where males have been socialized to demand change aggressively.


The inconsiderateness of the school administration that failed to listen or respond to the student’s complaints is a genuine mark of violence, as Freire would say. Such persistent exclusion of the students will, at the very least dehumanized and violated the rights of the students but also dehumanized the school administration. The male students, believing in their male power answered this act of symbolic violence with deadly dehumanizing violence. Thus, the lack of an appropriate mechanism for channeling their complaints perpetuates the compelling force to resist using unorthodox means.


The self-image of the adolescent male student as an oppressed and powerless individual is a devastating blow in the light of the pervasive socialization that the adolescent male student receives from his parents, teachers and other forces of socialization. Having been groomed to react aggressively and violently through socialization, the adolescent male student is caught in a Catch 22 situation where he has to respond aggressively or passively and risk being seen as ‘un-masculine’. Only then do the boys begin to organize their line of attack on the calculated bases of their powerlessness. Student violence in the schools should thus be viewed as the embodiment of a power struggle where one of the stakes is the societal meaning attached to masculinity.  Bourdieu (1994) suggests that a weapon available to workers in a labor union strike are the values of masculinity and combativeness which is also one way that the army ensnares the working classes by exalting the male virtues of machismo and physical strength. There is something to this view: the combat readiness of the masculinized adolescent male student and the belief in male power that gives meaning to any struggle. The violence that took place at Kyanguli secondary school thus rests on a number of factors. The symbolic violence of the school administration, the violence of the students and the masculine values and norms reinforced by the social system upon the boys, which all combine to create the complex power relationships among the members of the school.



This paper has tried to convey the numerous problems, contradictions and questions regarding the relationship between masculinity and student violence in Kenyan secondary schools. This discussion is long overdue, given that student violence in Kenya has long been viewed as gender-neutral. Tracing the adolescent male student’s involvement in school violence is an effort to retrieve the neglected aspect of masculinism in student violence in Kenya. The three cases of adolescent male student violence reviewed were dissimilar in terms of the nature and magnitude of the violence perpetrated. Three forms of masculinism and violence were identified: gendered interactions and dynamics between male and female students in mixed schools, power struggles among male students in boys schools and the victimization of powerless male students in boys schools. But how are these related?

It has been argued in the paper that the sexual violence carried out by the adolescent male student in the school might be read as a sign of an intricate enactment of masculinity. The patriarchal order that sets males and females in place in the Kenyan society creates a power matrix that finds expression in the act of sexual violence. This has been particularly true with the respect to the male definition given to rape in this context. It also becomes clear that the nature of adolescent male student violence is grounded in the stakes of male honour, respect and power. This is especially prevalent in cases where boys aggressively destroy symbols of school power. The adolescent male student’s vulnerability to subordination by fellow males and other symbols of power has been demonstrated. It has also been suggested that an oppressive school power system is vulnerable to its own logic of self-destruction and dehumanization, which explains why the oppressed adolescent male student responds with dehumanized violence.


For the school administration system the challenge is to take a more accommodating view towards student grievances and not to underestimate the power of masculinity in the oppressed adolescent male student. For policy-makers, the mixed secondary schools need to be defined as sites of gendered power struggles. For the adolescent male student, tough times are ahead as he battles with the cost of living up to the hard-line masculine image.  Future research needs to analyze in much more detail the connection between comradeship and masculinities in relation to violence. This paper will have served its purpose if it contributes to opening up intellectual space for this endeavor.



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Table 1: Number of schools that experienced student unrest by province in the year 2000/2001



Existing number of secondary schools

Number of schools that experienced student unrests

Percentage of schools going on strike






Violent and destructive





Destruction of school property





Destruction of school property





Destruction of school property and loss of life

Rift Valley




Violent and destructive





Minor destruction to school property





Minor damage to school property

North Eastern




Destruction of school property

Source: Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, 2001.