“Our best boys go on to Alliance. In work, they do very well indeed, but in all the ways I care most about they do badly. They seem to me to become insufferably conceited, unctuously pious, selfish, slack at everything except books and examinations. Year by year, the best boys go; the rot sets in and they disintegrate. They lose all love of Maseno, which stands for different things” – Edward Carey Francis (while principal at Maseno)
Why is it such a big deal for some of us to keep track of the dates and times? Today, for instance, marks eight years since we finished the last paper in KCSE 2007. It was Computer Studies Paper 2 – Practical. It was about Afya Medical Centre’s hospital management system. Actually, you can view the archived question here.
Eight years is a long time you know. The kid who was finishing class one on November 16, 2007, just finished his or her KCPE exam last week. Anyone who got a kid on this date will celebrate the kid’s 8th birthday today. I mean, a lot can happen in a span of 8 years.
Eight years ago, social media network popular amongst us were Graduates.com and Hi5.com. Facebook was almost unheard of. I mean, it was there, but not as popular and friendly as it is today. In fact, it is Gimose, a classmate, who had emigrated from Kenya to the US, who enlightened me about Facebook over a Hi5 chat. He’s the one who also invited me to sign up for Hi5 on November 7, 2006.
Of special interest is how fast technology has evolved. While we were toiling on Afya Medical Centre’s Management System, we used a bit of Microsoft Access 2003 and a bit of Visual Basic. I can’t recall the version. The computers had either Pentium II or Pentium IV processors. They. Were. Slow. And the viruses that ruled the day were lethal. Those are the comps that used to roar to life. Literally. Power and data cables would appear and disappear in a whim. One day you have a complete computer running and the next day you have a computer screaming for the RAM chip to be installed. Or with a cracked monitor. The long and short of it: The computers were tired.
We also used floppy disks. Yes, the 1.44 MB floppy disks. I still have one at home, but it does not work. Where would I even use it today? The first time I came across a floppy disk was sometime in 2000, while using a computer at our neighbour’s place. The Leley’s were ahead of our time. They had a home desktop in their home. I would ask Joan’s mum if I could use MS Paint or MS PowerPoint to make flashy presentations. The keyboard had a bit of German characters. It must have been bought in Germany.
The next time I worked with a computer was when my sister and I joined boarding school where computer studies were taught. That was in 2001. Here we learned to type using Mavis Beacon. We learnt how to make PowerPoint presentations, make colourful texts using text effects and clip art. We did calculations using Microsoft Excel and did a bit of databases using Access. On some days, we used to have classes where Mr Kariuki, the computer teacher would give us the freedom to choose computer disks with games. Some liked Bible stories, others liked musicals and I liked Encarta Encyclopaedia. I read it like it would be tested in KCPE. I was in Class Six. I knew and learnt a lot from this resource.
We also were taught how to use MS-DOS in doing some tasks. You know those dark screens where you type instructions and things just happen?
In class 7, we were taught programming using BASIC. We did a lot with that simple tool. The next time I came across this programming tool was in 3rd year in campus. It was senseless to use this tool for programming at this point.
All this time, we saved our work in floppy disks. The 3.5-inch 1.44MB floppy disks. SONY. Imation. IBM. And other funny ones. And there were computers that would use the 5.25-inch floppy disks. Leaving any of these near any magnetic thing, including a radio would spell disaster.
Actually, we only called them floppy disks in the exams. In conversations, they were simply diskettes. If she doesn’t know what a diskette is or how it looks like, she’s too young for you.
Then we joined high school. That was in 2004.
UPPER LABS VS LOWER LABS
Here, there were two computer labs. The Upper Computer Labs and the Lower Computer Labs. These were run by the teachers in the computer department and the prefects in the relatively new IT department led by a serious-looking Michael Sanda. The upper labs were bigger and were used by the juniors. The lower labs were much smaller and were strictly reserved for the form four students doing computer studies. Some form threes would sneak into these lower labs.
The geeky fellows of the day included one Michael Bullut who works as a system administrator today. There was also Michael Sanda, the IT Captain of the day.
These guys used to code away the whole night especially around mocks or in third term, during the KCSE period. Some would get extended times to code in Pascal language or some would use C. We’d see them walk past us with packets of the IBM 1.44MB floppy disks, looking sleepy or deep in thought on how they could translate the flowcharts into lines of code that could work.
In the years that followed, the school got connected to the internet. It was so slow that I wonder how patient we were back then. In 2005 and 2006, Mr Khaemba visited the United States especially the top universities. I remember he came back preaching the gospel of YouTube. He called our class to the Carey Francis Memorial Lecture Theatre (CF) and gave us the story of YouTube and how it would revolutionize the world. He challenged us to be innovative and to be like the youthful founders of the YouTube tool.
He even went on to bring Timothy Muriithi Kirimania, an IT genius who worked at the Pentagon at the time to come and give us a talk. You should hear Timothy’s story from being a herds boy in either Nanyuki or Laikipia and his rise to one of the most respectable people in IT world.
Sometimes, listening to some of these old boys talk makes you more miserable than motivated. They would rather have stayed in their offices than come right after mocks, just before mocks, to mock us with their motivational talks. It often felt like the ‘advices’ given by rich men on How to Make your first million and none of them works for you.
All this time, I paid little to no attention to hard-core computing due to the limited computer resources. The good computers were either hoarded by someone who would put a BIOS-level password or they just messed with the settings, making it difficult for anyone but themselves to use the computers. Once I a while, Sodi aka CSK would tell us of computers donated by Computer for Schools Kenya (CSK oops CFSK) but they were either taken up by the computer department or something mysterious just used to happen to the new computers.
For some time now, there used to be a program called MIT-AITI programme. In full, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s African Internet Technology Initiative. The program covered three institutions in Africa – Achimota High School in Ghana, Strathmore College (now Strathmore University) in Kenya and finally Alliance High School in Kenya. One of the brains behind the MIT-AITI program was Martin Mbaya, an old boy of Alliance High School who attended MIT. The program was started in the year 2000 and it was held annually in these institutions. In 2004, this program ran between June 7th and June 19th 2004. We were in the middle of our form one life.
Guys would sign up for this program, where they would be taught how to make applications, including the popular, boring yet fundamental “Hello World” application. In the process, the students who took part in this program would interact with the MIT students who were the program instructors. They would be taught Java, complete with instruction manuals. The program would culminate with the students programming a simple game. I paid no attention to all these. However, I used to borrow the instruction manuals and I would enjoy these things that they were taught.
During the MIT-AITI program, the upper labs would be out of bounds from 4 pm until 5.40 pm or 6 pm. Both teachers and students would be taught. Mr Mwanga, Mr Kidi and Ms Kageliza would then teach some of us the little Java they knew. Of course, Mr Mwanga would tell us of his old computer that would take ages to boot. He’d then laugh at this joke. And we’d laugh at the fact that he laughs at his jokes all the time.
These are the same teachers who would punish you for standing next to a beeping UPS machine without turning it off. Victor was such a victim, made to kneel.
It is during these sessions when some of us, like Victor Wainaina and myself came face to face, one on one with laptops. These were rare pieces of equipment back then. And yeah, those who wished to be part of the program were jealous of those who had the opportunity to be part of the program.
In 2005, we took part in an online computer programme linking different schools in different parts of the world. It was essentially a social networking program for high school students in a country in Europe – Was it Ireland? Anyway, we were given usernames. Mine was Samarium. Later I learnt that Samarium is actually an element found on the periodic table. We’d go to the computer labs after preps at 8.45 pm until 9.25 pm, skiving the inter house activities such as dances or music. I have tried remembering the name of this program but I can’t seem to recall. Anyone?
[UPDATE] I have been reminded by Dennis that the name of the programme was Speak Out! Young People’s Commission for Africa (YPCA). It was organized by Plan UK in 2005 ahead of the July 2005 G8 Summit. YPCA was a program that linked 52 schools in the United Kingdom and Africa so as to generate discussion among the youth in these countries: 25 schools were in the UK and the 27 others were in Africa. Kenya was represented by Alliance High School, Alliance Girls High School, Kanyawanga High School, Maseno School and Starehe Boys Centre and School. the issues ranged from HIV/AIDS, wars and conflicts, child labour to poverty, debt and traditions and religious beliefs.
YPCA had six phases. The UK schools were to learn about Africa, then the two sides of the divide would exchange information, identify issues and develop ideas. Thereafter, the participants were to collaborate and collate before ‘Looking to the future’. We would interact using a website platform called Gemini Plus (www.gemin-i.org), that linked all these schools. I can’t tell how effective it was.
In form 3, we selected our optional courses. Some of us selected computer studies. I had no clue how it would turn out after a two-year hiatus from interest in learning about computing. I also chose Geography. That combination of Computer Studies PLUS Geography was considered a lethal one. Both were intense in terms of content. Actually, Geography was expansive and Computer Studies was intensive. It was the tough guys who used to choose this combo, or so we thought.
We did the programming flowcharts. These things made no sense at all. Neither did the programming loops. Yes, these don’t make sense now. Basically, these are the most boring topics in computer programming. Yet essential. You should thank God that you didn’t have to immerse yourself in all these.
In form three, we were chosen to be prefects. I was in the second bunch, as we called it. We were chosen on Thursday 5th October, 2006, just before we went on half-term on the weekend of 14 October 2006. New form three prefects, the successful lifters, were almost always announced on Thursdays.
In form four, we received the KCSE practical exam question. Afya Medical Centre Management System. We had seen the previous class wrestle with Babati Urban Council Revenue Collection System. Of course, we had to start from the boring stuff – the flowcharts and the algorithms. Boring stuff that make you look stupid.
Anyway, Wangila’s user interface for the Afya Medical Centre system was the bomb. We all salivated whenever we looked at it. Mokaya would restart his project every time. Dennis Mwaura’s codes would make your lines of code look so stupid that they’d transform into bugs that would give you nightmares. Nyongesa’s database relationships would make more sense than yours. Many-to-many, one-to-many, one-to-one database relationships would work on paper but develop serious flaws when you run the code. One time you’d even be tempted to steal Gisemba’s project workbook with all those meticulous flowcharts and database structures.
Lastly, but not least, we had to develop the manuals. This was the most boring stuff ever. It felt like how Shiku here tells me to edit my own work. Boring. Boring. Boring. But necessary. Table of contents gave us hell on earth. A carpenter would make a better table than we would make a table of contents.
Back in 2007, the computer viruses that plagued computers were from the devil himself. Some viruses would make your PC rave and rage like a truck going uphill. Then the comp would restart with a black screen requesting you to press F1 or F12. And nothing happens. All the blood, sweat and tears gone. Gone. None of the supervisors would listen to hogwash about how the computer crashed. The viruses would wipe clean the 1.44 MB floppy.
“JUST JOIN A CRE CLASS”
I was lucky to have made an acquaintance with one Kasee Mbao. The guy was in form two. He had a 256 MB Sahara flash disk which he allowed me to use. There were few USB flash disks at the time. In fact, I have been reminded that they were banned from the computer labs at one point in time.
Back to Afya. Yes, we used to call the project “Afya”. Afya was the nightmare that would make you write a letter to your high school girlfriend across the valley asking her to intervene with the heavens for your breakthrough. Sometimes you’d even consider asking her to pray and fast just for these things to make sense. Sorrows may last all the night but joy comes in the morning.
Where have you reached with Afya? I have started all over again. Why? You know mocks are around the corner!? Yeah, I know. Have you seen Wangila’s program run? Nope. Why? That thing is doing everything you tell it to do. Are we in the same class? But Denis Mwaura has started his all over again. Thank God, tuko wengi. We are many… If Denno has started all over, then I am good. Na comps ya Mokaya ili-crash.
That’s when you know where and how you will rank when the roll is called up yonder. Denis was and still is one of the sharpest and most sophisticated minds from our class. No wonder he went to Harvard. He was pals with one Martin Nyaga, a geeky, reserved fellow with a knack of reading Harry Potter books while talking about computer games. Denis is the only person most of us remember for always ready some bulky, voluminous books at the senior library. In our last gathering, it was discussed, agreed and minuted that nobody else was ever seen reading those massive, unabridged books except for Denis. These two would read non-academic, non-844, non-examinable and other non-somethings before, during and after mocks and KCSE exams.
We did the mocks. And they mocked us. We got measly marks. So niggardly were these marks that the teachers would add a zero before the actual number just to support it. 04/50 or 09/50. When Mr Mwanga and Mr Kidi were returning papers, the marked papers were crawling, bleeding and reeking of failure. You’d smell the marks off your paper before the paper landed on your hand or desk.So bad were the marks that you’d pity yourself. Ms Kageliza was bad-ass.
Mwalimu, I didn’t understand some of these questions. Barrack, have you considered doing CRE? Why Ms Kageliza? I think you will fit better there if you keep getting these marks. But Mwalimu… It’s not too late to change to CRE where people get 100%. But Mwalimu, it is August already and KCSE is around the… Just go away and think about it.
I thought about it. I even approached Mrs Adem and asked her if I can catch up if I joined her CRE class.
Are you serious? Yes, I am. There’s no need, si you have registered for the exams? Yes, but there’s no hope in Computer Studies. Hang in there…
These were the days when the likes of Wainaina and others would walk to the parade ground at midnight, sit at the podium and cry bitterly at the single digit marks dished out by the teachers domiciled in the computer department office. I would go to the Careers Library and cry alone at 1 am. Then walk down to Arthur House, take a hot shower, wash one shirt for the next day, iron it until it dries. And I would feel liberated from the miseries of being in a computer studies class.
One day I approached Gerald aka Guru, now a medical doctor in Nairobi. This guy was and still is a very clever. He joined us some time in form two and he beat us. But the guy who was CSK’s project was one Herman Sifuna.
To date, I still believe that Herman Sifuna was plucked by Sodi from Maseno School to come and teach us a lesson. The guy joined us somewhere in form three, almost in the middle of the term and he beat all of us. Except like two or three fellows. The rest of us felt stupid. Very stupid. How? Just how?
Boys, said CSK, how do I bring a new guy and he white-washed you all?
We could not explain how this quiet, reserved, lanky fellow from Maseno trumped all of us just. Like. That.
Anyway, Gerald took time to tutor me in these complex things of computing. I was fairly good in theory but I was a mess in converting binaries and hexadecimal and such stuff. I was a lot worse in illustrating instructions using a flowchart. This guy was patient and gave tips on how to best go about answering those questions in a logical manner. By the time we were finalizing the revisions prior to KCSE Computer Studies Paper 1 – Theory, I was guaranteed of full marks in the first question – compulsory question – in section B. This was a testament that group discussions and peer reviews actually worked. That A in computer studies was courtesy of G’s efforts.
After all the papers were done, we were left in school after everybody else left. We had the last chance to make the Computer Paper 2 work out. It’s now or never.
IT’S NOW OR NEVER
Most of us had spent most of the nights prior to November 16, 2007, working hard on the codes and interfaces. Pressing CTRL+S every minute just to ensure that you didn’t lose even a line of code to a virus or a bug. Teamwork had worked after the tonnes of experience.
Catch that error. Generate that report. Get rid of that buggy loop. That database connection works. All these had to be checked and ensure that the system was functional and that it could be deployed in a government clinic someday. We took turns using the computer labs to be evaluated. The examiner would ask you to make the system perform a task that would throw the system into a disarray. Those were the moments that all prayers that have ever worked a miracle in your life would flash in front of you.
16th November, 2007. At the end of the gloomy, rainy and chilly day we finished our studies. Walking out of the upper computer labs punctuated the end of the exams and the end of our stay in AHS. We were the last small batch of class of 2007 to walk out strong, in body, in mind and in character.
At our reunion, we reminisced of the school nurse, whom we called Nchonta Manji and how strict she was. Are you allergic to any medicine? She’d ask. Most of us knew nothing about allergic reactions to medicines until we got here.
As we were reminded by Churchill during our first reunion, this nurse got a job with Clinton Foundation (or one such foundation) and she was replaced by a beauty of a nurse. The new nurse was so beautiful that guys would fall sick as often as possible just to go to the sanatorium’s waiting room and stare into the beauty that she was. An outsider would think that, just by staring at her, one would be healed. Many would walk into classrooms late.
Why are you late? I am from the sanatorium.
Before we knew it, the teachers knew why most of us flocked the sanatorium. Soon, the young, beautiful nurse was transferred. The number of sick folks frequenting the sanatorium dropped drastically. Reasons why this happened, ask Churchill.
Eight years ago. Eight years later, we have found ourselves in different fields.