When a pair of Stanford University graduates set out to establish a Pan African school to train a new generation of African leaders, one of the greatest headaches they had was choosing a principal who would drive the project forward.
Social entrepreneurs Chris Bradford from the US and Ghanaian Fred Swaniker hoped to set up an institution that would attract some of the brightest teenagers from across the continent and train them with the aid of a unique curriculum focusing on African studies, leadership and entrepreneurship.
The idea was to establish a production line for African leaders on a par with Fort Hare college which, in the first half of the last century, drew some of the brightest teenagers on the continent and produced a stellar list of early African nationalists, including South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki, Kenya’s Charles Njonjo and Eliud Mathu, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
The founders knew they had to get the choice of principal, or dean as they titled the position, right. Their headache was solved once the résumé of Christopher Situma Khaemba landed on their desks.
Few Kenyan educationists can boast a CV as impressive as CS Khaemba’s. If you wanted to describe him in one line, you would probably label him the turnaround king of the local education sector.
In 1995, his long stint at Alliance High School, where he was deputy principal, was broken when he was sent to his native Bungoma as principal of Friends School Kamusinga.
He found an institution in a sorry state, having long dropped from its customary position in the top 100 list of best schools in the country.
Discipline had fallen to such low levels that he was astonished to discover students kept weapons in the dormitories.
The administration, he told an interviewer later, had lost the moral authority to impose punishment due to reports of misappropriation of funds, among other issues.
Within three years of taking over, Friends School Kamusinga had shot back up to prominence, ranking 16th overall in national academic performance.
He improved all the other sectors and the school began performing well in the drama festivals and – most gallingly for Alliance High School – it came from nowhere to snatch the national hockey title which Alliance had held for so many years they had considered it theirs by right.
In 1998, the board of governors at Alliance High School had seen enough and recalled Mr Khaemba to take over as principal. In short order, he returned the school to the number one position it had not occupied since 1991.
Along the way, he implemented a number of policies which would eventually be adopted by the Ministry of Education.
In 2001 he banned corporal punishment in the school. Long before free secondary tuition was introduced he decreed that no student would ever be sent away on account of inability to pay school fees.
He instead used his networks and contacts with old boys to raise funds for students and, today, his CV carries the remarkable line that no student has been expelled for failing to raise school fees under his watch.
So what’s his secret? In an interview with Lifestyle last week, Mr Khaemba, who wears his achievements easily and is surprisingly modest offered this summary of his management style.
“I believe in deploying youthful staff, giving them all the support they need and then holding them accountable. At the start of the year I typically ask teachers in charge of various departments, say drama, what budgetary support they need and I make sure they get everything they ask for. The same goes for all the subjects and departments. After that I hold them absolutely accountable. The deal is that after getting all the money the drama team needs and all the resources they will require they must bring back many trophies from the national festival or there will be no funding next year.”
Mr Khaemba says dialogue with students is another key component of his management style.
“The students in an institution are a great resource. I believe in an open door policy and I believe that we should exchange ideas with students and hear their grievances as frequently as possible. I tap a lot into the energy of the youth and benefit from their creativity.”
His approach to enforcing discipline has certainly evolved in the course of his time in the education sector.
In the late 1980s and mid 1990s, Mr Khaemba was known for his ferocious application of the cane to the bottoms of errant students.
A former officer in the Air Force, he brought the unflinching demand for discipline to school that is a feature of the military. This changed at the turn of the millennium.
“In 2000 I reflected a lot on the way we were enforcing discipline at Alliance High School. I specifically remember certain boys were very stressed with the fairly regimented approach we took to discipline issues. We had very little by way of conversations to address underlying causes of indiscipline. Sometimes we never went into finding out why certain boys would be consistently in trouble.
Rely on caning
“I had travelled to many of the best private schools in the world and realised that they did not rely on caning. That, in fact, it was against the law. I thought with the kind of intellect we had in the student population it was possible to have discipline by promoting dialogue. My best years were the last five after we banned corporal punishment. We had a real sense of community and people felt real ownership of the institution.”
Education ministry officials eventually visited Alliance High School and its example fed into the nationwide ban on corporal punishment now in force.
Mr Khaemba took up a different challenge when he accepted the offer to be the first Dean of the African Leadership Academy in South Africa.
The school had attracted top level support with eminent figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Graca Machel agreeing to sit in the board.
Mr Khaemba’s challenge was to take charge of a diverse faculty drawn from across the world and students from 45 countries mainly in Africa.
The educationist took his customary golden touch to ALA. In the first class that matriculated in September 2010, 97 per cent of the students landed full scholarships in some of the best universities in the world, including several who went to Ivy League colleges in America and some of the finest universities in the UK.
KC Rottok, a former student at Alliance High School who now runs The Expatriate magazine in South Africa, says Mr Khaemba’s success at African Leadership Academy was down to a leadership approach that encouraged consensus while emphasising discipline.
Another former student who has a unique insight into Mr Khaemba’s leadership style is music teacher Isaac Shitubi.
Mr Shitubi was a student under Mr Khaemba at Alliance High School, served with him while on teaching practice at Alliance and eventually joined him at Friends School Kamusinga.
“He taught me maths and physics and, as a student, I saw a lot of commitment and devotion in him. By the time he took over at Friends School Kamusinga the institution was in a bad state. He got down to work and became very close to the boys and teachers. He used to say don’t worry about the present. Let’s work hard, focus on discipline, talk to the boys constantly and success will come. Eventually it did. I would say he is a disciplinarian, he is hard working and a very committed person.”
Mr Khaemba is now back in the country to take on a very different challenge to those he has faced in the past.
He has resigned from a post he recently held as the General Manager of the Equity Group Foundation education pillar, where he was in charge of an initiative that offers scholarships to promising young students, and is seeking the Bungoma governor’s post.
So why does he want to be the first elected governor of Bungoma under the new constitution?
He says he is driven by a desire to revive his native county’s fortunes and to offer the skills and contacts he has accumulated over a lifetime to change the state of affairs at home.
“At independence Bungoma was one of the best performing districts. Today, with a poverty index of 53 per cent, it is listed among the poorest counties in Kenya. Bungoma needs a new beginning to stop wallowing in poverty, win back its development success and restore its people’s pride. When the whole of Bumula constituency fails to send a single girl to university we should worry about the future of families. It is not that these girls are incapable. They are smart; Bungoma county is home to Nancy Baraza the Deputy CJ of Kenya. Who is going to replace Nancy at this rate? How did things fall apart in Bungoma?”
Mr Khaemba says the risks that come with entering the political scene are a price worth paying.
“One reason I am in this race is because see the frustration of youth. The sacrifice that goes into educating them and at the end of the day they have no jobs. I am tired of complaining about bad politics. I bring my exposure at both national and international level and want to propose pragmatic solutions across all sectors.”
It is a daunting challenge. But like many of the tasks he handled in his time at school, Mr Khaemba is wading into the mud of politics with his signature calmed assurance and focus which is all too familiar to his students.