“I don’t know why they are doing this to me? Is it because I am poor? Do they look at me and see that I am nothing?” I don’t understand. I just don’t understand…………………”
I looked into Emmanuel’s eyes as he shared his turmoil. I looked into the brokenness I saw there. The self-doubt, the humiliation he felt and the sadness about his predicament. You see, we were on a mentorship mission with the Palmhouse Foundation , that has this noble cause to provide education opportunities for needy children. The mentoring model includes talking to the high schoolers about their academic performance, social life, school environment and any other matters arising. It was in the context of this conversation that Emmanuel was sharing with me the horror that was bullying in his high school that he had recently joined in form 1.
Emmanuel is from Ukambani area where poverty is rife. But he passed his Std 8 exam because of his learning spirit, willingness to go the extra mile and the kind hand of the teachers who believed in him. By another extension of grace, heard about the scholarships, applied and was taken in at one of the top ranking National Schools in the country. It was all good. It was a dream come true. His entire village escorted him to school on the first day, bursting with pride. He remembers how he bid his mother farewell as she left and promised to work hard and ensure he extricates her and his siblings from the poverty they were languishing in.
As a result of bullying, Emmanuel shared with me that he wanted to quit school. He couldn’t take it anymore. He felt like disappearing from the face of the earth and never facing his tormentors again. Within one term, the bullies at his school had succeeded in destroying his spirit. Gone was the hopeful child, full of enthusiasm and anticipation. Gone was the vision of a bright future and his promise as a ray of hope in the family. In its place was the broken child that sat in front of me.
You see, not only had these bullies succeeded in doing atrocious things as they usually do in boys’ high schools to new entrants to physically torment them. In Emmanuel’s case, they had succeeded in damaging his will. He’d completely turned around from being confident to being a scared, charred and jarred boy, unsure of himself, his background, his abilities and the reason for his existence.
He kept repeating to me that he didn’t understand why these boys were so bad for ‘no reason’, ‘just to be bad’. He was used to people being ‘bad’ at home because they wanted to steal something or because there was a dispute or something gone wrong. This new revelation of people being bad to you just because they wanted to, even if you hadn’t done anything to them was new and strange. He hated it. Hated it enough to want to abandon his dreams and go home.
And that right there is what bullying does to children. It robs them of themselves. Whether bullied when very young in primary school or later in high school, it has devastating effects which often carry on into adulthood. I was thankful that Emmanuel had the courage to bring this up and that we could talk about it. Very often, children may opt to keep quiet and keep the bullying to themselves in the fear that it may get worse, or that the bully may find out that they told and the repercussions of that may excruciating. Some just like Emmanuel may feel that they did something to warrant it, that there was something about them that attracted the bullying or that they are to blame in some way.
As parents, we need to be on the lookout for bullying and its symptoms in order to intervene and arrest the situation as early on as possible. Many people subscribe to the school of thought that bullying is normal and that it is a stage people pass through especially when transitioning into high school. Some parents even recount their own bullying experiences, reassuring their children that it is a normal occurrence. However, when we look at the intention and characteristics of bullying – that is defined as “The use of force, threat or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively dominate others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual” it cannot be normal? Can it really? Behaviour that is intended to cause harm to an innocent other cannot be in any way defined as normal.
Some schools like Emmanuel’s that has had a history of bullying for over the past half a century as a tradition. However, they turn a blind eye to it even if they are aware that it happens. The assumption in these schools is that this is ‘character building’ in some way. Children are very different. They are uniquely fashioned each with their own character and spirit. Each child is special and deserves to live a life full of fulfillment.
One child’s reaction to bullying if in their case makes them more ‘tough’ will not be the reaction of others. And if this activity in any way risks the life of even one child – for the long term consequences of bullying have been linked to mental health problems, depression and in extreme cases suicide – then it should be considered as risky as a child jumping off the roof of the school building to end his life.
It is sad that there is no gazetted law against bullying in schools in Kenya. Much has been said about it and discussions have been had in different forums especially where extreme cases have been reported. It however hasn’t been taken seriously enough to warrant legal address. In a study in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health by Dr. David Ndetei, bullying is such a common place occurrence in high schools and needs urgent and immediate attention.
The onus really is on us parents to rise up against it. To be sensitive enough to provide a safe space for our children to speak to us and then create such a ruckus in the schools where this happens that it stops. If a parents’ body is up in arms about something, (and it is us parents who pay school fee – remember?) the school will HAVE to listen. But our children must first share information that will provide the ammunition to go and do something about it.
Communication with our children is the first step towards resolving the bullying menace. And to have them trust that when they report, you will do something about it to protect them and fight for their rights. So parents, please look out for all the bullying symptoms? The warning signs are listed as: unexplainable injuries; lost or destroyed clothing and personal property; frequent aches and pains not traceable to particular illness; sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations; changes in eating habits including skipping meals or binge eating; difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares; feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem and faking illness .
Regrettably with Emmanuel, the bullying didn’t stop. The practise that had been honed over the years was silently condoned by the school. But we victoriously worked on his spirit. Got him to know and understand that it wasn’t about him. It never was and would never be. And that the despicable actions of others should never triumph over the goodness in him. That his hopes, dreams and ambitions could and would NEVER be sacrificed at the altar of evil. And that right there was the most important part. He went back and with every physical challenge that he suffered, he became emotionally stronger. With every bullying episode, he rose like a phoenix from the ashes, undaunted and determined that they would never break his spirit. And he got through it all – Victorious.
The lesson that arises from his tribulation is how we as parents need to determinedly raise our children to know that they are wonderfully created, and that no matter what physical hardships they may encounter in life, they and only they have dominion over the direction of their thoughts and the positivity of their spirits.