The British Empire Library

A School In Kenya: Hospital Hill 1949 - 1973

by Joan Karmali

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Mary Edwards who knew the Karmalis when her husband was in the British High Commission in Nairobi in 1984-88. She taught at Kenyatta College between 1972 and 1975 and again (when it had become a university) in the 1980s.
The first non-racial school in Kenya was an attempt to establish "colour blindness" in children who worked and played together, ignoring their various skin colours. Decades later, we can see that it was brave, successful and doomed.

In 1943 when the author (white, English) married fellow student pharmacist John Karmali (brown, Kenyan Ismaili) they thought that "segregation in Kenya was as severe as in South Africa". The settlers would not welcome her. They "clung for dear life", she says, "to the notion that a white skin conferred superiority". But in 1946 she was welcomed into John's family with her baby son. In 1947 they opened a chemist's shop five weeks before their second son was born. Already they knew that educating these brown-skinned boys in white-dominated Nairobi would be a problem.

The many personal and public relationships and tensions which made the school possible also changed its nature. Some of the Karmalis' friends and less friendly acquaintances are quite well-known but appear in an unfamiliar light. Joan was absorbed into the Ismaili community and chaired the board which administered Ismaili schools. Non-Ismailis, including Africans and Europeans, also wanted non-racial education for their children but providing it became an uphill struggle. The first classes were in the Indian High Commissioner's dining room. Then the Karmalis' dining room. The English parents withdrew pupils. In 1949 the Governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, promised to help the Karmalis with their experiment in multi-racial education if it had proved to be successful after two years. They found a site (with difficulty) and a hut to put on it and tackled the problems of funding, accommodation, staff and squatters. They called it the Co-Racial School.

Joan Karmali's account of its triumphs and disasters is sane and perceptive, illustrated by telling observations and anecdotes.

Opposition from the white community to both school and the "mixed marriage" came largely from the "last ditchers" newly arrived from India, "authoritative, assertive and vocal". And others. The Anglican community, some white doctors, the EAWL and other individuals are shown as surprisingly blinkered. They thought mixing the races would lower educational standards. The Board found repeatedly that "negotiations ... seemed to have been delayed" by the Education Department. But in 1952, when Sir Philip Mitchell departed, the multi-racial school was viable and soon it prospered. Government House was sympathetic, LegCo was not. Under a new headmistress, the children were happy. And Europeans and Americans were interested again. So were the journalists who saw such education as a solution to unrest. But in 1957 the Karmalis sent their sons to Gordonstoun, accepting that a multi-racial secondary school was not to be.

I was entertained by the large cast of characters who helped or hindered the enterprise, or, like the visiting film stars, needed John's help with their cameras.

John Karmali realised that when African government came to power, no multi-racial school would get special consideration, despite its long waiting list, nor the space it needed. Accounts of unpleasant, even unethical, proposals about land allocation, staffing and funding and the characters who dealt with them make surprisingly interesting reading. In 1970 the school acquired a swimming pool but its glory days were over. The city council took over teachers' contracts and "could do what it liked with them". Teachers and parents wanted the school to go private. It could not be done. "It was the end of the road." But they had proved what they had set out to prove. In 1973 the school was handed over. "It matters not that all today's pupils are black," says Joan Karmali," they are all children, part of Kenya's future".

British Empire Book
Joan Karmali
Square One Publications
1 899955 49 6