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Anger, grief after dormitory fire at Stephjoy School

A mother of one of the victims is being assisted by other parents after she collapsed/MUTHONI NJUKI

A mother of one of the victims is being assisted by other parents after she collapsed/MUTHONI NJUKI

NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 3 – The grey clouds hang low on the narrow rough road to Stephjoy Boys Christian Boarding School. Perhaps befittingly given the gray cloud that hang over the school; the death of two of its students in the night.

Rounding the corner to the school gates, the deserted shopping centre was explained; the tragedy having attracted many an onlooker.

Through the gates, boys huddled together in groups, blankets on their backs; their parents converged in the school courtyard, openly staring at the smoke stained dormitory with the yellow, “crime scene do not cross,” tape around it.

Addressing the assembly was the area county assembly representative; thanking them for turning up in large numbers in support of the school before inviting, “bishop,” to say a word of prayer.

“We thank you Lord,” Bishop said out loud, “for the children who made it out alive.”

Later, on the other side of the school, another parent sat in a saloon car. She too, had a conversation with God. Except hers was said amid sobs: “Why God?” she asked. “He was my only son. I can’t even identify his body because all you’ve left me is charcoal.”

Walking through the fire-gutted dormitory, indeed, the only items that weren’t burnt to a black crisp were the metal beds and ‘boxes’ as the aluminium trunks used by students in boarding schools are popularly referred to.

“The lights were turned out promptly at 9.30pm as the rules dictate. After 11pm I was woken up and told the school was burning. It was two dorms down. The fire was huge, the smoke suffocating. The door to the dorm was still closed when I got there I guess because of all the people struggling to get it open but uncle (the boarding master) knocked them open and they rushed out, struggling to breathe.

“Except for one; he was on fire. So I soaked a sheet in water and went in to pull him out. We laid him down in the field and tried to keep him from writhing with the pain because his skin was peeling. Then we held up blankets around him to shield him from the cold,” George Njenga recounted while sitting on a hospital bed, still in his school uniform, at the Tigoni District Hospital where he was treated for shock.

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The boy of whom he spoke was admitted, in critical condition, at the Kenyatta National Hospital.

Njenga and the other students who contained the fire, “saved the day,” according to the school board chairman David Gitehi.

But it wasn’t all accolades for the students. There was also anger given Kiambu Women’s Representative Annah Nyokabi’s assertion that a petrol bomb thrown into the dormitory through a window started the fire.

Stephjoy Girls had after all, she argued, attempted to burn down their school only weeks earlier.

It was understandable then, Kiambu Chief Officer Dominic Gicheru argued, that the school’s proprietor lost consciousness and was taken to the Aga Khan Hospital for treatment on witnessing the aftermath of the fire; two boys lying dead, burnt beyond recognition, in her school.

And while it may have been suspected arson, Nyokabi made clear, the school wasn’t blameless.

“I’ve gone round the dorms. There isn’t a single fire extinguisher, the doors are narrow, the windows barred and too high to easily jump out of in case of fire.”

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