The Sound of Grief Caro Rolando, Nation Media Group

It’s the most painful sound I have ever heard.

A shriek suffused with horror. A wail drenched in grief. A scream saturated in disbelief.

It’s the sound of a mother seeing her daughter’s charred, lifeless body for the first time. A body that once held the hopes and dreams of a 14-year-old. A body lost to the fire at Moi Girls Secondary School that claimed the lives of nine other students and injured more than 50.

I stood outside the mortuary, paralyzed. And I wasn’t alone. Dozens of other journalists stood next to me – stoically shifting their weight from foot to foot, awkwardly altering their glances towards the ground, quietly wiping tears from their cheeks.

It was September 5, 2017 – just days after the fire – and Daily Nation had sent me to the Chiromo Funeral Parlour to report on DNA testing that would be conducted to match the bodies of the fire victims with their loved ones.

I had worked as a journalist in Canada for several years before accepting the AKFC fellowship at Nation Media Group in Kenya. But I had never been assigned to cover a tragedy; much less one of these proportions.

To call it “sobering” would be an understatement. Reporting on the Moi Girls inferno deeply impacted my understanding of the education system in Kenya, and fundamentally challenged my views on journalistic ethics.

Chiromo funeral home, Nairobi, Kenya.

That day at the mortuary, time slowed down as a grieving man walked towards my colleagues and me.

The tears on his face did not detract from the indignation in his eyes.

Extending his index finger as if it were a gavel, he approached the horde of journalists and pointed, lips quivering. “Are you enjoying yourselves? Is it fun documenting our pain?”

I looked down at the ground. Silence enveloped the horde. What could we say? Of course this wasn’t fun. It was traumatic. It was excruciating. It was triggering.

But we all knew what he was really saying. And he was right.

As much as journalists hate to admit it, media is an industry. News outlets must literally sell their stories. Editors want content that evokes emotion – and they’re not shy about it. “We need photos of people grieving,” I heard an editor say. “Get close-ups of crying mothers,” a photographer was instructed. “Talk to the parents,” I was told.

I found this approach to storytelling problematic, and I talked about it with some of my colleagues.

“This is a horrible tragedy. But we’re just doing our job,” one colleague said. Others nodded in agreement. “It’s our duty as journalists to document this, so that the public understands the impact of these fires.”

But there were some who also felt uneasy. “I’m a mother,” a fellow journalist told me. “If I can barely stand to be here, I cannot imagine what it’s like for them.”

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the grieving man. How dystopian must it feel to have a camera crew documenting your worst nightmare. How suffocating must it be to be deluged with questions every time you leave your house. How invasive must it feel to have your daughter’s stolen life on national display. How can one begin to comprehend the need for media coverage in such an intimate, delicate time?

No report – no matter how Pulitzer-worthy – could ever bring this man’s daughter back.

I wondered:

How could I, as an ethical human being, justify my presence at the funeral home that day?


Were there ways in which I could shed light on this story beyond images and quotes from grieving parents?

As the weeks went on, I was assigned other stories at Daily Nation. I reported on a strike by Uber drivers, wrote features about young Kenyan entrepreneurs, and covered art exhibits around Nairobi.

But the Moi Girls School tragedy would not leave my mind.

So I started researching it on my own time.

And what I learned gave me even more impetus to tell this story from a different angle.

As it turns out, the fire at Moi Girls Secondary is not the first school fire to have happened in Kenya. Far from it.

In 1998, 26 students died in a fire at Bombolulu Girls' Secondary School. In 2001, a fire at Kyanguli Secondary School resulted in the deaths of 63 students. In 2012, eight girls were killed in a fire at Asumbi Girls Boarding Primary School. The list goes on – in fact, between June and July 2016, over 100 schools in Kenya were set on fire. Many of these fires were allegedly started by students themselves

“What’s behind this epidemic of school fires?” I wondered. “Are images of grieving parents simply becoming a normalized part of the news cycle?”

I was obviously not the first person to ask myself these questions.

Hundreds of other journalists, government representatives, families and teachers have wondered the same.

Unsurprisingly, there was – and is – no single answer. As I poured over news articles, government reports, social media feeds and blog posts, it became clear that numerous causes are at play.

For one, it seems that a number of fires happen prior to national examinations that determine the academic fate of primary and secondary school students. Reporters and education reform activists have suggested that some students may view an emergency – such as a fire – as the only way to delay exams.

Current and former students have also spoken out about other reasons behind student discontentment that could lead to fires: overcrowding in dorm rooms, poor sanitation, water shortages, lack of adequate visitation time with family members, and not enough food.

What surprised me most throughout the course of my research was the way in which the mental health of students – particularly those suspected of arson – was portrayed in the media.

Shortly after the Moi Girls School fire, Kenyan media outlets began running headlines such as "Suicidal girl set Moi Girls school on fire" and "Ciru Muriuki trashes empathy for Moi Girls' arsonist."

Some articles described the suspected arsonist as “satanic” or a “devil worshiper.” Some simply said she lacked discipline. Others would attribute her actions to her wealthy roots, alleging that she wanted attention and looked down upon the school.

But none of these articles would go into depth about how the living conditions at Moi Girls School – and the education system – could contribute to, or trigger, poor mental health among students, particularly if and when there is no psychological assistance available to students in most schools.

So I decided to explore the story from that perspective. I produced an audio feature, in which I interviewed Wabi Sherie, an alumna of Moi Girls and asked her what living conditions had been like at the school. I asked her how mental health issues were discussed or understood in her school. And I asked her what could be done to create better educational spaces for students. I also interviewed Dr. Gladys Mwiti – a psychologist and proponent of in-school psychological support.

You can listen to the audio feature on the Daily Nation website.

I’m back in Canada now, and I still can’t stop thinking about this story. The report I produced was just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many related issues: funding for education, the public school system, the legal system, and more.

I am compelled to continue investigating the Moi Girls School fire in the next year, and am in the midst of applying to journalism grants in order to do so.

I want to do justice to this story. For the sake of the grieving father at the mortuary. For the sake of them all.

Caro Rolando was part of the 2017-2018 cohort of the International Youth Fellowship Program. She participated in the media stream of the program and was placed at Nation Media Group in Kenya.

Since 1989, Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) has been helping to develop young Canadian leaders in the field of international development through its International Youth Fellowship Program.

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