Nzomo’s book details fights with teacher unions as TSC chair, surviving 1998 blast

Lydia Nzomo.

Lydia Nzomo.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Have you ever wondered why there hasn’t been a nationwide teachers’ strike since 2015? A book by former Teachers Service Commission (TSC) Chairperson Lydia Nzomo explains why this might be the case.

Also, did you know that Dr Nzomo was chairing a meeting of 18 people at the Cooperative Bank House on August 7, 1998 when the bomb blast happened? Three of the 18 died as a result of the blast but she was able to return home that evening after being treated in hospital and passing out at least two times.

Those revelations are packaged within 308 pages of Dr Nzomo’s memoir, Staying the Course, that is published by the Kenya Literature Bureau and which will be in major bookshops from tomorrow.

In an interview with Lifestyle, Dr Nzomo said she wrote the book to inspire people across generations (see separate story).

The book also revisits some of the patriarchal rules that female teachers were subjected to before a new code of regulations came into effect in 1976.

“Before 1975, a female teacher in Kenya who became pregnant prior to getting officially married earned herself an interdiction and subsequent suspension,” she writes.

Lydia Nzomo.

Dr Lydia Nzomo.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“So strict was the code that even a newly-wedded female teacher in Kenya who got a baby before nine months were over was also disciplined. While applying for maternity leave, a married female teacher was required to attach a copy of her marriage certificate,” she adds.

She also revisits the times when a married female teacher had to get a formal consent from her husband before a transfer request was granted and when married women did not get a house allowance.

The book sheds light on a variety of issues in the education sector from the time Dr Nzomo, 70, became a secondary school teacher in 1974 to the time she completed her six-year non-renewable term as the TSC chair in November 2020.

Her journey in the education sector began with her posting as a teacher at St Mary’s Egoji, where she was between 1974 and 1977. She was then an examiner with the Kenya National Examinations Council (1976-1981) then joined the TSC where she held various capacities from 1981. From 2004, she was at the Kenya Institute of Education (now the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, KICD). She later returned to the TSC as the chair in December 2014. She was the first woman to chair the commission since its establishment in 1967.

In an interview this week, she told Lifestyle: “I’ve done nothing else in my life except matters education.”

As she tells the story of the education sector, Dr Nzomo weaves in her personal story, painting a picture of the humble and unassuming Meru County village she comes from, being one of 19 children born between her father and his two wives, the socio-cultural realities that shaped her life, her educational journey, her love life, and her family.

She is a mother of three whose husband Samuel Nzomo  — whom she met in 1971 when she was a first year student at the University of Nairobi — died in 2018.

Regarding the absence of teachers’ strikes for seven years, Dr Nzomo says agreements drafted in response to the strikes of January and September 2015 played a big part in this.

She was sworn in as the TSC chair in December 2014 and she barely settled in her new office when the first 2015 strike happened.

“Before 2015, teachers’ strikes – crippling as they can be – had become a common feature in the education sector. Between 2009 and 2015, there was a strike every year. In fact, there were years during that period when teachers downed their tools twice,” she writes.

“A majority of these strikes were organised to take place at the beginning of the school term or when national examinations were just about to start. After every strike, the unions came up with what had become a predictable return-to-work formula,” she adds.

The two strikes of 2015, she says, left stakeholders brainstorming about “the frequency of these strikes in the country along with their undesirable impact on education programmes”.

“It provoked deep thinking at the commission to commence the search for more sustainable approaches to forestalling and, if they broke out, handling labour disputes,” Dr Nzomo writes.

That is the thinking, she says, that created agreements “signed voluntarily by both parties” that stabilised the sector.

“Through these agreements, the hitherto-much-sought-after but absent industrial harmony in the teaching service — which comprehensively addressed the perennial teachers’ strikes — was realised,” she writes.

“Indeed, after the September 2015 strike and up to 2020 when my term came to an end at the TSC, there hadn’t been a single strike. This was a source of great relief,” adds Prof Nzomo.

Her book is, however, silent on the other actions that have played out over the past few years that have been condemned by trade unionists as a ploy to weaken teachers’ unions.

They include stifling remittances, discrimination of teachers based on the unions they subscribe to, and the formation of new unions.

Dr Nzomo, appears to vouch for the place of unions in the country and defends the position of the teachers’ employer.

“A functional trade union is necessary for healthy labour relations,” she writes. “The TSC has never had any intention to de-unionise its employees as is alleged in some quarters. On the contrary, TSC strives to maintain conducive relations with all stakeholders, including teachers’ unions.”

She also lists some of the “inaccurate” depictions of the TSC by some unionists.

“Somehow, the unions appeared to always succeed in portraying the TSC as a very bad employer. To own and control the narrative, the unions sought and got the backing of politicians, religious leaders and the public who shared their position that the (September 2015) strike was justified,” she writes.

Regarding the 1998 bomb blast, at that time Dr Nzomo had been asked to stand in for the TSC secretary, Mr Benjamin Sogomo, who was out of Nairobi.

“Being his deputy, he’d asked me to chair the meeting. It was the first time I would be presiding over such a meeting,” she recalls.

The meeting was to run from 10am to 1pm and she arrived early to prepare. As it went on, the unexpected happened.

“By 11am or thereabouts, one of the officers cracked a joke while contributing to a matter arising from the minutes of the previous meeting. Everyone burst into laughter. But this light moment was interrupted by a very loud bang,” she writes.

The meeting was being held at the fourth floor of Cooperative Bank House. A louder blast was heard shortly afterwards, and everything was pandemonium from then on.

“Momentarily, I became aware of myself buried in dust and rubble. Then I passed out. When I came to my senses again, I was lying on my face, weighed down. I was alone, pinned to the ground by objects. I tried to lift my hand. Realising I could move, I slowly disentangled myself, extricating my body from the bloody mess I was trapped under,” Dr Nzomo narrates.

She had been driven to work by her son Ken, who was based in town. When he heard about the blast, Ken rushed to the scene and manoeuvred through the chaos to reach the 17th floor of Cooperative Bank House. That is where his mother’s office was. He couldn’t find her.

Dr Nzomo’s husband also learnt of the blast and went on a mission to look for her. He visited hospitals and even morgues in his search, to no avail.

Unknown to them, Dr Nzomo had managed to be ferried to Nairobi Hospital with cuts all over her body. It was 15 years later, she writes, that she knew the Good Samaritan who ferried her confused self to hospital.

“At that point (while in hospital), I had not talked to my husband or any other member of the family. They must have been anxious and restless. Mobile phones weren’t in too many hands at the time. I didn’t have one. Luckily, I didn’t sustain critical injuries, which meant I wasn’t going to be admitted. But the cuts, and especially one on my left leg, kept oozing blood,” she narrates.

She passed out at around 1pm and when she regained her senses at around 4pm, the cuts she had sustained had been stitched. As she left for home, she met her son Ken standing at the door.

“His face lit up with joy and relief. He drove me home himself as we relived the horrors of that Black Friday,” she writes.

She further narrates: “The blast killed 13 TSC employees, three of whom were with me in the meeting room on that fateful day. As an organisation, we had the responsibility of helping with funeral arrangements, including offering psychosocial support to relatives of the deceased. In addition, 559 members of staff had been seriously injured, including very senior officers in the top echelons of the TSC management.”

The aftermath of the blast, she writes, created a great need for psycho-social support among TSC staff and that inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in counselling.

In the book, Dr Nzomo also discusses the origins of the competency-based curriculum (CBC), lists some of the transformations she started while at the helm of TSC —including fast-tracking the processing of pension for retired teachers — and also shares photos of some of her key milestones.

She tells the story of TSC moving from renting buildings to constructing its own offices in Upper Hill. She also weighs in on a number of issues, among them the attempts by the education ministry to meddle into the affairs of the commission.

“These attempts started manifesting around 2013 and have since persisted. In particular, the ministry desires the role of appointing the heads of institutions, a responsibility of TSC. However, the ministry needs to rethink this move, considering that the core business in any learning institution is teaching and learning,” she writes.

She also calls for the creation of more day secondary schools as recommended by the Kamunge Report of 1988.

“This will increase access to secondary education and reduce cost at both the household and national levels. This strategy in implementing the CBC, which I incubated while at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, is worth exploring to actualise the transition from primary to lower secondary school,” she writes.

Dr Nzomo also notes that she was the first girl in her village to go to school. Those were the days when a test for readiness to start school entailed being able to touch your left ear with your right hand over your head or vice versa.

She admits that she failed that ear-touching interview but the teacher who was “assessing” her was impressed by her ability to count her fingers in the local dialect. With that, her father — who she says was the first person in his village to go to school but didn’t go far due to health challenges — ensured that she was enrolled at Miathene Primary School.

She was excited to be in the khaki uniform, though her going to school alienated her from some of her agemates.

The book also relays the paradise that was going to university in the formative years of independent Kenya: lavish food served, free laundry services, generous allowances for students, among others.

Early readers of Staying the Course have described the book as incisive.

“She (uses) a clear and illustrious simplistic language full of humour and excellent examples,” writes Prof George King’oriah in the book’s foreword.

Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu also has a foreword message, and so is TSC’s chief executive Nancy Macharia.

“While at the commission, Dr Nzomo’s formidable leadership skills enabled the organisation to amicably negotiate the then hot and cold relationships with trade unions,” writes Dr Macharia.

“It is an inspiring story that will go a long way in encouraging more young women to dream, pursue the dreams and achieve them in order to change the world positively,” writes Governor Ngilu.

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