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
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".