When tragedy strikes a university campus, the vibrant wall-hanging of academic life is torn to shreds, leaving a haunting reminder of our vulnerabilities, and the fragile nature of existence.
In the hallowed walls of academia, where students chase dreams, ambition and knowledge, is a harsh reality – the pain of losing a fellow comrade.
In the depths of the higher education territory, where growth, learning and youthful “invincibility” are the norm, the truth of the fragility of life can be devastating.
The emotional shockwaves that ripple through lecture halls, messes, tuckshops, hostels and communal spaces, are profound. It leaves an indelible mark on the university fraternity.
On September 9, 2023, 18-year-old Mercy Jerono – a first-year Daystar University student pursuing a nursing course – was found dead at a hostel. The body had a stab wound.
Jerono had been a Daystar University student for only four days.
“She reported to school on September 4. The hostel my daughter’s body was found in is not the one I paid for,” Jerono’s father, only identified as Mr Kanda, said.
“I paid for a different hostel and she died in another. This hostel does not even have security cameras. We would have used that to identify her killer or killers.”
Sadly, Jerono’s story is one in a growing long list.
Her future, brimming with promise, was tragically cut short within the very confines of where she was to shape it. The postmortem, conducted days later, showed that the fatal wound was 13 centimetres deep.
There are reports of student deaths through crime, suicide, police shootings, accidents or even sickness every month.
These deaths, many say, can be avoided if university administrators listen to students and provide necessary services like guidance and counselling.
In April, a Murang’a University of Technology third-year student pursuing a degree in tourism died mysteriously.
A memo from Murang’a University of Technology Dean of Students, Asige Chavumilu, said the student – identified as Nyawira – was found dead at her house on April 18, 2023.
The body was reportedly found by a girl who was from a lecture. There were allegations of suicide.
Further at Chuka University, a 23-year-old student reportedly killed himself at his girlfriend’s rental house in Kangaru village, Embu County, in June, 2023.
On March 20, 2023, a master’s degree student at Kenyatta University was found dead hours after leaving for a date with a man. Colleagues identified the student as June Jerop.
The 2019 case of Moi University student, Ivy Wangechi, is still fresh in the minds of many.
The individual who used an axe to kill her was promptly arrested. Naftali Kinuthia confessed to homicide detectives, saying it was a case of love gone sour. Apparently, he was remorseful.
In the wake of these deaths, students, at times hold protest marches in and outside their institutions, demanding answers.
Unfortunately, these cries too often fall on deaf ears.
Administrators rarely tolerate “dissent”. Suspensions or heavy fines follow, with the institutions being shut “indefinitely”.
Even with the pursuit of knowledge and skills, the sanctity of life must never be ignored.
In January this year, a Technical University of Mombasa student died, apparently of suicide.
The body of 24-year-old Gregory Mutinda, was found lying on the floor of his room with a syringe and some unidentified powder nearby.
Fellow students reported seeing a kitchen knife and bloodstained clothes at the scene.
According to the police officers, the young man’s body had one deep knife wound. The body was taken to the mortuary, with police promising to look into the matter. Months later, the university community is still waiting for the outcome of the investigations.
The unresolved deaths cast a long and unsettling shadow on the university campuses and deep into the heart of every student.
Emotional scars run deep, with the absence of answers and the “moving on” as if nothing happened, intensifying the pain.
In March, Maseno University students protested the killing of William Mayange, a third-year student, who was shot during the anti-government demonstrations called by the opposition Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition.
Mayange was hit in the neck and died on arrival at Coptic Hospital in Kisumu County. No arrests have been made even as authorities promised to investigate the death.
Early this year, a law student at the University of Nairobi was found dead in her room in Parklands Campus. Blood was oozing from Teresia Wawira Ndwiga’s nose when her body was found on February 12.
The news of the death of a Chuka University third-year student in August shocked students, employees and the nearby community. The death came to light when a social media user named Godfrey, shared it on his timeline. The deceased, Faith Biyaki, was to begin her fourth and final year the following month.
Biyaki was pursuing a degree in Economics and Statistics.
The most unfortunate bit of the incident was the sharing of her body’s image on social media. It went viral.
Phone calls from classmates
The pain of losing a friend or loved one at university is unbearable, as Mohammed Hassan, a former Mount Kenya University student narrates.
“It happened in 2018, but I am still pained. It is like an anchor, weighing me down emotionally. My friend had just died. He left a void that has not been filled to date,” Hassan tells Higher Education.
Once in a while, he blames himself for what happened.
“I am haunted and end up asking myself many questions. Did I miss anything? Were there signs? Didn’t I notice his cries for help?” he says.
“The guilt and regret gnaw my soul, and I often find myself lost in a sea of ‘what-ifs’: What if I had known his inner turmoil? Suppose I had reached out to him a little more? The haunting spectre of missed opportunities to make a difference in his life hits my conscience. They say time heals, but the scars of losing a friend run very deep.”
He adds that one cannot brace himself for the emotional turmoil that comes after losing a friend.
Geoffrey Gichana, his close friend, killed himself some years ago. The two studied the same course.
“The news hit me badly. There is always the thought of the possibility of one dying but suicide is never on anyone’s mind. Whatever happened still haunts me,” he says.
The phone calls from classmates, their voices trembling as they conveyed the heart-breaking news, have never left Gichana.
“I couldn’t find the strength to attend his funeral. I was an emotional wreck. My friend had once attempted to kill himself. I still wonder if I could have done something to stop that. I don’t like talking about it,” he adds.
Media have reported at least 21 similar cases this year alone.
Dr Ferdinard Okwaro, a social cultural anthropologist at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, says addressing challenges faced by students during the transition from high school to university or college, requires a multifaceted approach involving the universities themselves, educators, families and the community in general.
“The change from the controlled environment of secondary school to the new-found freedom and responsibilities of university life can be overwhelming for some students,” Dr Okwaro says.
“Universities need to have orientation programmes that focus on mental health awareness, stress management and coping strategies. These programmes can equip the new students with skills needed to navigate the academic and social challenges they are about to encounter.”
Dr Okwaro says universities need to prioritise creating strong support systems for students.
These systems include accessible counselling services, mentorship programmes and peer support networks.
“Encouraging students to seek help when they’re struggling and providing a safe space to discuss their concerns can make a significant difference in their lives,” the expert says.
“The pressure to excel academically can be immense. It is important to promote a healthy approach to education. Universities should have flexible grading systems, offer academic assistance schemes and encourage a growth mindset rather than a focus solely on academic grades.”
Peer and societal pressures, which can compound a student’s stress, are also part of the multifaceted approach.
Dr Okwaro believes institutions of higher learning should cultivate a culture of acceptance, diversity and inclusion.
“Emphasising the importance of mental and emotional well-being over external expectations can also be beneficial,” he says.
The approach should promote a culture of acceptance, diversity and inclusion as this reduces pressure.
“Universities need to emphasise the importance of well-being over external expectations,” he says.
Substance abuse is a concern, and universities must have robust policies in place to address it.
He says education on the risks of drug use, access to addiction support services and a zero-tolerance approach to drug-related issues can help mitigate the problem.
He stresses the importance of recognising distress signs early and taking proactive measures.
Dr Okwaro believes faculty and staff should receive training on identifying students who may be struggling and connect them with key resources.
“It’s important to recognise signs of distress early and intervene,” Dr Okwaro says.
“Universities should provide clear academic guidance and support to help students progress through their courses. Advising and mentoring programmes can help learners make informed decisions about their academic paths.”
Additional reporting by Indiazi Agade