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To Attend School In Uniform Or in Tatters: Esther Passaris Undertakes To Ban School Uniform

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“If they have no bread, let them eat cake.”

This infamous string of words sealed the fate of one Marie-Antoinette, the queen consort of France during the French Revolution. They procured her a one-way ticket to the gallows, goes the story. She supposedly uttered them in 1789, during one of the famines in France during the reign of her husband, King Louis XVI. But they were not attributed to her until half a century later. Because cake is more expensive than bread, obviously, the anecdote has been cited as an example of Marie-Antoinette’s obliviousness to the plight, conditions, and daily lives of ordinary people.

To be fair to her, the original French phrase that she is supposed to have uttered—“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”—doesn’t exactly translate as “Let them eat cake.” It translates as, well, “Let them eat brioche.” But since brioche is a rich bread made with eggs and butter, almost as luxurious as cake, it doesn’t really change the point of the story, does it?

And so, 235 years post heads rolling in the French Revolution on account of cake, we find ourselves having gone full circle and our elected leaders are now asking desperate Kenyans to “eat cake.” Apparently, no lessons have been learnt.

In the quintessential manifestation of bourgeoisie out-of-touch-with-realities-on-the-ground, Nairobi Woman Representative Esther Muthoni Passaris, OGW, MP, is cluelessly proposing doing away with school uniforms altogether and has personally undertaken to implement a ban. The lawmaker has vowed to table a bill in Parliament that will abolish school uniforms across the country; this after she was “forced” to spend KSh 30,000 on stranded Form One students who had failed to report to school owing to lack of uniform, we’re told. (This comes exactly one week after she proposed KSh 5,000 per head in aid for the victims of the Embakasi explosion, you will recall.)

“How does a child in the slums afford KSh 30,000 for uniform?” she asked. I can only assume that it is meant to be rhetorical. “It’s impossible!” added the legislator. “Greece banned uniforms, American schools don’t wear uniforms, some schools in London don’t wear uniforms, France don’t wear uniforms, and yet students study.”

INTERMISSION: Greece, which happens to be the country of Passaris’s father, raked in a nominal GDP of $242.385 billion in 2023, and registered per capita GDP of $20,192.60 in 2021. In contrast, Kenya’s per capita GDP is projected to rise to $2,611.89 by 2028. America remains the largest economy in the world in 2024, as per their GDP data. According to the (British) Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average salary for a full-time employee in London is £41,866 (KSh 8,448,592.29), higher than the national average of £33,000. France ranks ninth in the top 10 countries by median wealth per person, at $133,137. Apples and oranges, then.

“KSh 30,000 is just ridiculous,” continued Passaris. “I don’t know if it’s the cost of the fabric…We don’t want school uniforms. It’s a British mentality. Military can wear uniforms, army can wear uniforms, school children can wear their home clothes and go to school.” (sic).

To move the conversation forward, Passaris has vowed to table a bill before Parliament that will seek to outlaw uniforms in Kenyan schools. “I’m going to ban school uniforms in Kenya,” she declared. “I’m gonna stop school uniforms in Kenya. These children cannot afford school uniforms, this is a colonial mentality for us to wear uniforms (sic).”

The road to hell, I’m sure you’ve heard, is paved with good intentions. But what Passaris has failed to internalise here is that apart from its practicality, the school uniform doubles as the great equaliser. When school kids are in uniform, they are uniform. One can’t distinguish the rich from the poor, which really is the point. School is for learning, not for dazzling with modelling. Home clothes, on the other hand, can only highlight socio-economic disparity among students, particularly when the poor are exposed to how the rich dress. The resultant feeling(s) of inadequacy and, ultimately, depression, cannot be gainsaid. In his best-selling book ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’, renowned author Stephen King recounts the heartbreaking anecdote of a girl he attended elementary school with.

“Tina went to Durham Elementary School with me,” he writes. “There is a goat in every class, the kid who is always left without a chair in musical chairs, the one who winds up wearing the KICK ME HARD sign, the one who stands at the end of the pecking order. This was Tina. Not because she was stupid (she wasn’t), and not because her family was peculiar (it was) but because she wore the same clothes to school every day.”

“She was a very peculiar girl who came from a very peculiar family. Her mother wasn’t a religious nut like the mother in Carrie; she was a game nut, a sweepstakes nut who subscribed to magazines for people who entered contests. The girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she’d bought herself. She was a plain-looking country girl, but she’d changed the black skirt and white blouse – which was all anybody had ever seen her in – for a bright-colored checkered blouse with puffed sleeves and a skirt that was fashionable at the time. And everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change the mold.”

The long and short of it is that Tina wore her new clothes every day for the next school year, to the point that her new blouse began to mange at the collar as the armpits caked and yellowed with accumulated sweat, and she ended up taking her own life as a result of constant taunting from the other kids. She also ended up inspiring the titular character in ‘Carrie’, Stephen King’s first novel, published in 1974, and second best-selling of all time. It follows a teenage outcast, Carrie White, who uses telekinesis to exact cold revenge on her high school classmates.

When our elected leaders cannot put two and two together, what value are we deriving from them? Does a member of Parliament need reminding, more so in this economy, that slum children attending school in home clothes is a possibly worse alternative? Esther Passaris would be better advised to champion the cause of making uniforms more affordable across the board, considering that many schools demand a pound of flesh for them, and use them as cash cows and quick money-makers.

This is the real war: streamlining the uniform muddle, not proposing impractical palliatives that serve only to exacerbate an already egregious dilemma. This is what we pay these people to do: to think for us and to sort out our problems, not to buy luxury apartments in Kilimani and stockpile them with nubile playthings. Our MPs, living in privilege (at our very expense!), singularly lack an emotional connection with the plight of Mama Mboga and the local bodaboda guy. That’s a fact across party lines. And then, taking into account that we actually do have boarding schools in our school system, what does this arrangement portend for home clothes? How many kids will be traumatised when their counterparts show up in designer clothes and expensive shoes when all they can afford are knock-off Crocs and CDFs?

But then it cuts both ways. As one social media commentator observed, “Nani amesema something like designers? But still, I studied in a school where when you had Toughees, then you belonged in the Deep State. That already ishaleta hiyo imbalance! Social imbalance is there with or without uniforms!” And that is the stark reality of the world we inhabit. So what to do?

“I remember not going to school because I had no good clothes whenever our teacher asked us to come in home clothes,” observed another user. “Uniforms helped us to hide our poverty.” The truth is, there is little room for variance when kids are in uniform, social status notwithstanding. Indeed, uniforms work best in the interest of the poor.

This dilemma persists into higher learning and re-emerges in later years as peer pressure. How many young women are living in a state of constant anxiety and ultimate depression just from seeing classmates showing up in better wardrobes than they do? This then dovetails with another hot topic of the day, #DeportNigerians aka #StopKillingUs. Most of the girls reportedly ensnared by Airbnb shenanigans are TVET or university students, who likely live with the constant pressure to look good at all costs and live beyond their means. And Airbnb predators provide a ready and open door out of their predicaments.

So what are the good arguments pro and against uniforms? That is where we need to start. Truth served cold says there will always be kids popping up in brand-new uniforms, and then there are those who will always contend with clothes that have seen better days. It is a fact of life. So why should we lie to kids? If we are training them for life, then they better know the truth early. Life is not fair, has never been, and is not about to start being. There will always be the haves and the have-nots. The low-hanging fruit is a simple dress code that is affordable for everyone. But will this solve the problem?

What Esther Passaris has managed to achieve, albeit by accident, is to bring to the fore a topic that has only existed in grumbles and low murmurs in discontented and disgruntled hearts across the country for far too long now, but no one dares speak aloud because the rules are written in stone: to attend school, students must be in uniform. The reality is that uniforms in this country are inaccessible to many, and many schools are taking advantage. And that’s as good a place as any to begin a public discourse.

I listen to Spotify, write short stories, and draw pretty pictures on my MacBook Pro all day.