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School beatings draw new scrutiny in Africa

Corporal punishment is far from unusual in many African schools. Recently, this long-accepted tool of classroom discipline has come under fire, in part because of a case in which a teacher was convicted of assault.
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When Kapurunje Uirab, 13, was accused of stealing a classmate's cell phone, his sixth-grade teacher beat him with a heavy metal pipe until he could barely walk. His family took him to a clinic where he was treated for lacerations and sore kidneys, according to medical records.

"It really hurt to move my legs," said Kapurunje, speaking by phone from the distant town of Rundu, where he now attends a different school.

"He had bleeding welts on his back and more on his legs," said his mother, Rita Uirab, 40, a housekeeper. "And his face, it had changed from a boy's face to a serious face of a man. We had to do something."

Corporal punishment was far from unusual at Olof Palme primary school, where most classrooms had a metal pipe, goatskin whip or wooden paddle leaning in one corner. If students got a math problem wrong or arrived late, they could be beaten.

Recently, this long-accepted tool of classroom discipline has come under unprecedented scrutiny, in part because of cases like Kapurunje's, in which the teacher was convicted of assault after the boy's mother filed charges.

Corporal punishment is practiced across much of Africa. And as Kapurunje's case illustrates, tradition remains a powerful force in determining what educators, officials and parents view as the proper way to raise and control children.

In many African societies, authority is rarely questioned, wife-beating is permitted, and women and children have low status. Underpaid teachers with little training -- many of whom were once beaten by colonial schoolmasters -- must handle classrooms with as many as 100 students.

"I wasn't doing anything wrong or that other teachers or parents hadn't done," said Kapurunje's sixth-grade teacher, Aaron Tjatindi, 34. A wiry man with glasses and a neat mustache, he said he only pinched and hit the boy lightly. "There are a lot of teachers who think our professions are no longer safe," he said.

Traditional education
Most African countries have no legislation outlawing corporal punishment of children, and even where it is illegal -- as in Namibia -- it is still common. In Kenya, where it was banned in 2001, a student was partially blinded in 2003 after being beaten on the head. In that case, the family went to court and won a settlement, but such lawsuits remain rare.

Some parents, illiterate and fearful of authority, worry that complaining about an abusive teacher might lead to their child being expelled.

Many educators staunchly defend the tradition. After the case of Kapurunje Uirab was decided against Tjatindi, who was fined one year's salary, worth $8,330, the local teachers' union held protests, saying some beatings were justified. Other teachers' groups have suggested rules that would at least permit them to strike unruly students on the palms.

Children's rights advocates, however, say that the paddle should be outlawed because it reinforces other violent behavior and associates learning with pain. This summer, the U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan, called for a ban on corporal punishment in schools and at home.

David Domba, 15, a classmate of Kapurunje's, said he had been beaten at least three times for not doing his homework. He said he had recently left school for a job and did not want to return.

"The teachers say they punish you so that you become something in your life. But when we get hit, we just get upset and don't want to show our faces," he said. "I hated doing my homework even more after getting beaten. It didn't help me be a better person."

Phil Ya Nangoloh, executive director of the Namibian National Society for Human Rights, said beatings were "part of the African child's everyday life" and that he had been beaten by colonial-era teachers. "These children are Africa's future," he added. "There has to be a better way to prepare them . . . than extreme levels of violence."

Accusations of theft

On a sunny October morning in 2004, the students at Olof Palme assembled around the flagpole in the courtyard, according to teachers and students. The school, named after a slain Swedish prime minister, is the largest in Katutura, a township of 200,000 outside the capital, Windhoek.

Dressed in blue uniforms, the students stood in perfect rows for the daily ritual, they recalled. The teachers, as they did each morning, led the singing of the national anthem, made announcements and ordered disciplinary measures against students who had broken the rules.

On this day, a female student was hysterical over her missing cell phone. In front of the assembly, she accused Kapurunje and his friend Leslie Urikhole, 15, of taking it.

Tjatindi later said he was embarrassed to hear that two of his students were stealing. He had beaten both boys before, but not severely. This time, he said, he lost patience. He called them from the assembly and led them to his classroom while the other students watched.

"I brought the two boys in front of the class and demanded to know if they took the phone," Tjatindi said in an interview, his voice hoarse. "They said they didn't take it. They had to be taught right from wrong."

What happened next is the subject of dispute. Tjatindi said he pinched the boys on the arms and hit them lightly, but he denied in court that he had hurt them. Students in the class said he struck the boys with the pipe for several minutes. Teachers said they noticed both boys limping later that day. Both boys said they were clubbed repeatedly.

"I said nothing and just focused on trying not to cry, because I knew the other kids would laugh if I did," Kapurunje said in the telephone interview. "We didn't take the cell phone. So I thought this truth would be found out soon."

'It felt like fire on my legs'
In school the next day, the girl complained again, saying her parents would beat her if she didn't find the phone.

Tjatindi punished the boys a second time, taking them outside to be whipped. Some of their classmates came out to watch, cringing at the sound.

"In front of everyone, I started to cry," Kapurunje said. "I couldn't stop, because it felt like fire on my legs."

Afterward, both boys went home. When Kapurunje arrived, said his sister Maria, 22, she noticed that his legs were dragging and his back was bent.

"I asked him . . . 'Why are you walking all wobbly?' " she recalled. "Then I looked at his back, and I was shocked. I made him lie down."

That night, said his mother, Rita, Kapurunje cried out in his sleep, "Please don't hit me!" After her employer urged her to get help, she took the boy to a clinic, where his injuries were photographed. In the pictures, later used as evidence, his legs and back were covered with thick red welts.

"I hated being beaten like that," Kapurunje said from Rundu. "The teacher never listened to us when we said we didn't steal. He just hit us."

Later, it emerged that the girl had lost her phone and was afraid to admit it.

'No more violence'
Julia Hangula, the principal of Olof Palme, is a lively, petite woman of 45 with frosted gray hair. She once lived in New York and is addicted to "Oprah." She thinks of herself as modern and says she opposes "teaching with the rod."

But during five "painful" hours of testimony in Kapurunje's case before the High Court of Namibia, she said, she admitted that she knew some teachers were practicing corporal punishment. Both embarrassed and enraged by the public controversy, she called a staff meeting.

"We are no longer hitting at this school," Hangula said she told the teachers. "We must find other ways to punish the students." The next morning, she warned students that they would still be punished if they misbehaved -- by having to clean the school grounds or weed the garden.

At first, Hangula said, some teachers grumbled in protest and walked out of staff meetings. She started a training program on alternative punishments. She said she also saw the case as a chance to appeal to female teachers, who had long complained about domestic violence.

"Just because our mothers were beaten does not mean that we have to be," she said. "Let's do things differently. You can think of it as all under one theme: no more violence. It's a good change for the country itself."

But other educators said it would be difficult to change practices and attitudes that had long been entrenched throughout regional school systems.

Hilda Haindongo, a teacher in Windhoek, said some of her colleagues felt they had a reason to practice corporal punishment. "In our day, we were beaten and it was cruel, but the children listened," she said. "They were afraid not to."

Rudolph A. Kamburona, 52, a retired educator and former legislator from Katutura, said many teachers were forced to endure beatings by colonial schoolmasters and are simply passing on a tradition of strictness. "It's a hard reform to make, because the older generation believes that today's children are spoiled," he said.

Kamburona, who once taught Tjatindi, said the teacher was not a bad man. But he added that he was not surprised by what happened, "because I beat him in my class, just like the white teachers beat me. They would say, 'You must learn by the leather strap.' "

Where are the parents?
One group missing from the corporal punishment debate has been parents. The families of Katutura are working-class poor -- housemaids, ranch hands, cement mixers at construction sites. Many are afraid to question school authorities or are embarrassed to expose their own illiteracy.

In her 20 years as an educator, Hangula said, she has rarely met with a parent. Even when she requested meetings to discuss a student's problems, she said, the parents rarely attended.

"The parents worry that they can't read well enough" to help with homework, Hangula said. "This adds to the discipline problem. The teacher is in full responsibility to enforce rules with the child. There isn't a history or culture here of involving the parents."

Rita Uirab, whose children all attended Olof Palme, said she had always been afraid to visit and had never made a complaint until Kapurunje's beating.

"I never went to the school because I didn't want to disturb the teachers," she said. "None of the parents go. We don't feel it's our right."

In a new effort to reach out to parents, Hangula recently began hosting free adult literacy classes in the evenings. Already, more than 50 parents have attended.

"It's a start to talking more and hitting less," she said.

Poorer than ever

On a warm afternoon last month, Rita Uirab reached home exhausted from work and dropped into a chair. During the trial in Windhoek, the house cleaner with a third-grade education had waged a historic battle. She had given interviews on radio and television. But today, she was just an overworked mother who missed her son.

When Kapurunje's case hit the news, she said, neighbors accused the family of trying to milk the school system for money. But months later, she still has not seen any settlement money. She is also poorer than ever because she had to send the boy away. She cries easily, but she can afford to call him only once a week.

"She really loves Kapurunje," said her son Ulric, 19, putting his hand on her shoulder. The three younger children still attend Olof Palme, but they hate having to see the teacher who beat their brother.

Rita Uirab said Kapurunje was an easygoing, amusing boy who did chores for her but also liked to dance, listen to music, play soccer and do funny impressions of local personalities.

Last fall, she said, she was having an especially difficult time. Her husband, sick with AIDS, moved out of the house; her mother was always drunk. Kapurunje's humor helped ease the pain.

"He was sweet," she said. "He made me laugh, even when I was feeling bad."

But after the beating, Kapurunje's personality changed, she said. He woke up in the night; he stopped eating; he didn't make jokes anymore. The change made her both sad and angry, and it emboldened her to take legal action against the school.

"Some people may call me a troublemaker," she said. "But even if I never see the money, I don't regret doing this."

Since the trial, she said, Kapurunje has been under treatment for depression but has decided he wants to be a lawyer. "He can fight with words," his mother said, smiling at his photo. "That makes me proud."

Later in the day, Kapurunje's friend Leslie Urikhole came by to visit. Leslie was not beaten as hard as Kapurunje, and his parents did not pursue the case. Instead, they told him to try to stay out of the teacher's way.

He said he was trying to avoid trouble but still had problems with a classmate who smirked at him during the beating. He said he dreads school now.

"Sometimes I want to drop out," Leslie said, staring at the floor. "When I see the teacher now, I want to beat him back, harder."