A Discussion with Major Thomas Musyoki, Education Secretary for the Salvation Army's Kenya East Territory

With: Thomas Musyoki Berkley Center Profile

April 21, 2015

Background: The Salvation Army in Kenya plays a prominent role in education, with a special focus on early childhood education and students with disabilities. The Salvation Army, a long established church with members and congregations all around the world, has a large population in Kenya. It has a history of over a century and deep commitment to providing social services. Major Thomas Musyoki, education secretary for the Army’s Kenya East territory, met with Elisabeth Stoddard on April 21, 2015 in Nairobi to discuss the Army’s history in Kenya as well as their widely varied schools. He describes how the Army was one of the first to establish schools for the physically and mentally challenged in all of East Africa. The Army’s role as a school ‘sponsor,’ he argues, guides the spiritual development of a school and its students while also providing an extra layer of oversight to ensure that the school runs properly. He outlines the wide array of challenges that are holding back the education sector and how the Army works to tackle many of these problems in their schools.

What is Salvation Army’s history in Kenya?

In the year 1896, construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway began in Mombasa. Some of the westerners who came to build the railroad belonged to the Salvation Army church. While they were here, they testified to the local population and the church started growing.

By 1921, the international headquarters realized that there was a growing young population of the Army in Kenya, so they sent a commissioner, Alister Smith, to be stationed here in Nairobi. His wife and he convened open-air meetings and witnessed to the Kenyan population.

Between the years of 1923 and 1931, the Army expanded into Uganda and Tanzania and established what we call the East African Territory. For over 60 years, the territory flourished both in a rising population of members, but also by establishing a large network schools.

The Army in Tanzania became its own territory in 1999 followed by Uganda in 2005 due to growth in membership. So, now Kenya was its own territory which, in 2007, had 12 divisions and 15 districts with over 200,000 senior soldiers and 173,905 junior soldiers. We use military terminology in our church as a reflection on founding mission to combat poverty and preach the gospel to save souls. Therefore, our members are known as soldiers, congregations as corps, and pastors as officers.

In 2008, the Army decided to divide Kenya into two different territories. The Kenya West Territory, whose headquarters is in Kakamega, extends from Kisumu all the way to the boarder of Uganda. I work in the Kenya East territory headquarters here in Nairobi. Our territory stretches from Nakuru to the coast.

What kind of education programs do you have in Kenya?


In the Kenya East territory, we have 215 normal schools, seven special schools, 159 early childhood development centers (ECDs), and six vocational schools.

We are currently making ECD a real priority because we know a good start in education is vital to a child’s future. ECD is the foundation. If a child misses the opportunity to attend that level, they are already behind when they begin first grade. We have established many ECD centers but, the challenge is that the need is so great. We need more classes, more teaching materials, and more teachers training for the teachers. Many of Kenya’s ECD teachers are school drop-outs themselves. They lack the skills and training to help the children. There is no national certification test for ECD teachers and no regulation. This is a big problem.

Can you remind me of how Salvation Army education programs fit within the Kenya education system?

According to the constitution, a child cannot enter primary school until they are 7 years old. In big cities, like Nairobi, ECD programs have two levels—baby class and pre-unit. After completion of the pre-unit, the child begins primary school at the Standard 1 level. Primary school is eight years long and at the end, all the children take a national examination which determines what kind of secondary school they qualify for.

The children with the highest scores go to the national schools. These schools are very well-equipped, well-staffed, and well-funded. They offer the best education. Then, we have the county schools, which are also very good. When a child graduates from a national school, they are almost guaranteed admission to a university. The lowest level of secondary schools are the village schools. These are mostly day schools whereas the other, better secondary schools are almost all boarding. But, all the levels are important! Even in the local, small schools, children are much better off than those who do not go to secondary school at all. Any amount of education makes a big difference.

You mentioned that the Army has seven special schools in Kenya East. What kind of special schools are they?

They are all schools for children living with disabilities, mental or physical. We have Thika Primary, Thika High School, and Likoni Primary all which cater to children with visual impairments. We also sponsor Joytown Primary and Secondary Schools for the physically disabled and Njoro Primary School for children with mental disabilities. Especially at the secondary level, but to some extent in primary, we try to enroll normal children as well who are willing to assist the other students.

These special schools actually rank very high nationally, so the normal children who we accept have to be at the top of their class. By integrating the children, we challenge all the children to work together, assist each other, and strive for high marks. For the children with disabilities, it is beneficial for them to make friends and interact with the normal children because it shows them how to live together. When they go off to university or start working, if they have not been around normal people, they tend to feel inferior and they don’t do well. It is very important for them to interact with all types of other students. And, for the normal children, our schools show them how to be helpful, compassionate, and how to appreciate all people.

For children and young adults with disabilities that cannot continue to the secondary level, we have a vocational school called Variety Village. It is a residential school for men and women ages 15 to 25 years old which offers two-year programs in trades such as carpentry, cosmetology, metalworking, leatherworking, sign writing, as well as tailoring and machine knitting.

The Salvation Army is really the first organization in East Africa to focus on founding schools for children with disabilities. Our school, Thika Primary, was the first school in East Africa for blind children. We are very proud of our schools. They produce wonderful, successful people. In the current government, we have a judge who is albino and she went through the Army schools. There is also a member of Parliament who has a disability and attended our schools. God has blessed them through these schools.

Why has the Salvation Army focused on founding special schools?


I think God used our leaders because he saw a need. For many years, other churches tried to accomplish the same thing, but none have had the long-term growth and success of our schools. It is a deep focus of the Salvation Army.

How does the Salvation Army teach the students how to have a positive relationship with the environment?


One thing that is important to us is producing citizens that promote positive attitudes towards the environment. Kenya is becoming very affected by climate change and if we do not protect the environment, there will be nothing left. We want to teach our students about how to live sustainably so that we make better lives for coming generations.

We have agricultural subjects at both the primary and secondary level and we also have after school clubs that focus on the environment. For instance, the Green Club in our primary schools specializes in teaching the children how to plant trees and care for environment. We also arrange field trips so that the children can see other climates and environments from around the country. If a school is in one of the northern regions that are semi-arid or arid, we organize a field trip to maybe the western region where there are forests or to the coast where they can see the ocean and more tropical environments. These trips are especially important for the young children so they can learn about good practices early before they develop bad habits.

A lot of our schools also have small farms within the school grounds that the students help maintain and harvest. The farm usually has a couple cows, chickens, and a vegetable garden. The products from the farm are then used to make lunch for the children. We teach the students very practical skills like how to milk the cows and harvest the produce. It helps the children have an appreciation for the environment and allows the school to be more self-sustaining.

What are some of the challenges in operating these schools?


Many challenges. One of the major challenges is lack of competent teachers. By this I mean teachers with passion for teaching. If you don’t get such people, you will get teachers who will skip classes, for example. And if they skip classes, they end up not completing the syllabus.

The national exams both after primary and secondary are very closely based on the syllabus of each class. If the teacher has not covered everything, the students will not be successful. Passion is crucially important for our teachers.


Because our schools cater to children with disabilities, not only do teachers have to be passionate, but they also need to have patience, understanding, and love for these children. Sometimes typical teaching strategies do not work with our students. Teachers must be flexible and adapt by listening to the students’ concerns and needs. Some of our teachers have disabilities and have graduated from our schools so they can relate and be very helpful to the children. But, most of our teachers do not have disabilities, so we make sure to train and coach them on how to teach effectively in this unique setting.

Another main challenge is political interference. This can be local or national. Let’s start with the national. If I may give an illustration, the way we operate our schools is through three cornerstones. The government is one of them—under the government you have the teachers.

The government trains the teachers and assigns them to our school. They also pay the teachers and maintain the school. Then, the second stone is the student who comes from the community including their parents. They are the customers of the school. Lastly, we have the sponsor of the school which in this case is the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army owns the school and among the major duties includes all repair and maintenance of the infrastructure.

In Kenya, before independence there was really no public school system. Faith actors, mostly, founded and operated all of the country’s schools. At the time of independence, the new Kenyan government needed to establish a public education system so they asked the churches to turn over their schools to the state. The church would then remain as a ‘sponsor’ of the school. This is how we are sponsors of many of our schools. As a sponsor, we are responsible for the spiritual management of the students and the school community.

Now, there is an NGO called KNUT—Kenya National Union of Teachers. This organization fights for the rights of teachers and periodically pushes the government to raise their salaries and benefits. Sometimes, the government and KNUT end up in a national war over these issues which lead to strikes. Everyone suffers. The kids are ready to learn, but there are no teachers in the classes. The parents get confused and angry because they still have to pay school fees even though there are no classes. Strikes have not been very common this year, but the last two years have been very bad.

Are the teachers successful in getting their raises? What ends the strikes?


The government is very clever. Like last year, the government decided to give the teachers some allowances. They refuse to raise the basics like salaries, but they will give some allowances and bonuses here or there. Sometimes they’ll give minor stipends for housing, travel, or medical. Once the government gives something, the teachers cool down and go back to class. But, after a while, they will start pushing again. It’s a frustrating cycle.

Do ethnic tensions ever manifest themselves in the schools?


In Kenya, we have tribes, and we have clans. Sometimes it happens that there a member of Parliament who is from a particular clan that lives in the community around our schools. This clan then behaves like they are privileged and deserve special treatment because they are from the same community as this member of Parliament. Some are even related to him. Sometimes, they pressure the head teacher and the school administration which can cause a lot of issues. Mainly, they want to control the school and have a lot of input in the administration.

Other times, there can be two students from different clans and their grandfathers have a longstanding fight. Their problems then transfer to the children and cause tensions in school. However, now that each generation is becoming more and more educated, these problems are lessening significantly.

What are some of the personal challenges that the students face?


The number one is poverty. Some children end up missing school because their families cannot pay their school fees on time. Primary and secondary public education is technically free in Kenya, but only the tuition is free. Money for books, uniforms, and school supplies all needs to come from the family. Also, we have a great shortage of government teachers in Kenya. Most schools are not given enough teachers from the government so the community is forced to hire supplementary teachers directly. This adds to the fees that families must pay.

Many students also have to walk long distances to go to school. The government is really trying to build new schools to help this problem, but in many areas students still walk 10 kilometers each way to go to school. By the time the student gets home, they are tired and do not have very much time for homework. It very much affects their academic performance.

Lack of parental care and guidance is another issue. Many students end up parenting themselves because their parents work odd hours or they come from a single parent household where their parent has to work very hard to sustain the family. As an example, if the father is a taxi driver, he is often self-employed. The longer he works, the more money he makes so he will overwork himself. Taxis are most needed at night so the father works all night and ends up never seeing his children. It can be very difficult for children.

In terms of all the institutional challenges, what is the Salvation Army doing to help?


The Army chaplains in each of our schools tackle most of these challenges. They act as a bridge between the students, the administration, and the parents. The Army also has representatives on each of the schools’ boards. I personally represent the Army leadership on those boards, but we also have other Army members and pastors who hold board positions. When instances arise within the school, we are able to call the student and the parent in to counsel them in an effort to resolve the problems. Sometimes we have to suspend the student, but then they come back and commit themselves. We make sure to continue looking after the child so they don’t get into trouble again.

Our role on the board is to oversee the school, the management, the teachers, and the students and help poor students through sponsorship.

What is the role of the Salvation Army as a sponsor, and how does the Army relate to the government?


The role of a school sponsor is very clearly outlined in our national constitution. As a sponsor, we are expected to participate in reviewing the syllabus books, and other teachings and make recommendations where necessary. The government calls meetings to facilitate these reviews and invites the sponsors to contribute. We are also part of the school’s board of management. Within the schools, our main role is to give advice on matters regarding spiritual development of the students and the institution as a whole. We also offer some financial and infrastructure support.

By the way, for most of the sponsored schools in Kenya, the land is not owned by the government, it is the property of the sponsor. Moreover, we own the infrastructure meaning that issues of repair and maintenance fall upon the sponsor.

The constitution also gives the sponsor the power to recommend a teacher or administrator be removed if they are not adequately fulfilling their duties. In our schools, we have noticed that once a teacher has been at a school for over 10 years, they tend to lose focus and stop performing well. If we realize that this is happening, we discuss it among the Salvation Army staff and write a letter to the Ministry of Education.

Because as a public school, the government appoints and pays all the teachers, so it is their responsibility to manage them. Usually, above 80 percent of the time, the government honors our recommendation and removes the teacher.

How has the new Education Act of 2014 affected your role as a sponsor in the schools?


We just recently established a new constitution as a country so now the government is trying to implement the new laws; however, new amendments are also being passed. The new education act has essentially reduced the powers and rights of the sponsor. It seems like the government wants to fully manage all the public schools and not have a sponsor anymore. We are a member of a large national organization called the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) and they have filed a case in court to appeal these new sections of the Education Act.

What do you think is the benefit of having the sponsors involved in the school?


The sponsor provides Christian environment. The presence of the sponsor will stop corruption in the schools. Corruption in all forms—the land of the school will be safe, the money will be used well, and staff will be held accountable.

When we notice signs of people trying to be extravagant and misuse the money, we will raise the issue and file a complaint. That’s the role of the sponsor—to make sure that if a million shillings have been allocated for Point A, it doesn’t go anywhere but to Point A. The sponsor is very important in this situation.

Kenya is very religious country. Everyone has a lot of respect and love for the church, whether it is Protestant, Catholic, or Evangelical. Even if the staff and students do not belong to the same denomination as the sponsor of the school, they still have a great respect for the sponsor because we represent the church writ large.

What are the Salvation Army’s goals for its education programs?


Our goals are to make our schools a symbol of excellence in Kenya by which other schools can learn. We want our schools to be child-friendly so that children can’t wait to go to school in the morning. We want to educate a generation of leaders—judges, government officials, businessmen, teachers, doctors—who have sound morals, academic excellence, and can help Kenya grow as a country. It would give me great joy to hear young leaders say, “I went through a Salvation Army school.”

We also want to promote international conscientiousness, and foster positive attitudes towards other countries. Conflict can breed anywhere, either in Kenya, with our neighbors, or at a global level. We want to teach our students to be friendly and loving towards all people. If Kenya did this, the future would be very bright for future generations. Our mission is to develop fully the talent and capacity of all students in Salvation Army. The Salvation Army also maintains Christian values to our schools.

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