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Book Launch: ‘Burning Ambition: Education, Arson, and Learning Justice in Kenya’

Book launch and panel discussion with Dr Elizabeth Cooper (Simon Fraser University), Dr Wandia Njoya (Daystar University) and Dr Hildah Oburu (University of Nairobi), followed by reception.

Attendance (hybrid):

Why do students set their schools on fire?
“A riveting tale of the connection between arson and justice by Kenyan secondary school students. An important tale for our time.” —Kenda Mutongi, author of Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi.

Burning Ambition explores how young people learn to understand and influence the workings of power and justice in their society. Since 2008, hundreds of secondary schools across Kenya have been targeted with fire by their students. Through an in-depth study of Kenyan secondary students’ use of arson, Elizabeth Cooper asks why. With insightful ethnographic analysis, she shows that these young students deploy arson as moral punishment for perceived injustices and arson proves an effective tactic in their politics from below. Drawing from years of research and a rich array of sources, Cooper accounts for how school fires stoke a national conversation about the limited means for ordinary Kenyans, and especially youth, to peacefully influence the governance of their own lives. Further, Cooper argues that Kenyan students’ actions challenge the existing complacency with the globalized agenda of “education for all,” demonstrating that submissive despondency is not the only possible response to the failed promises of education to transform material and social inequalities.

“A fascinating account of the multiple and sometimes perplexing reasons Kenyan students give for burning and seeking to destroy an institution ostensibly designed to help them: the school. A brilliant and gifted writer, Cooper delivers a significant contribution to anthropological studies of politics and development. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the social and political tensions surrounding school violence in Kenya and anywhere”, Amy Stambach, author of Faith in Schools: Religion, Education, and American Evangelicals.


Guest of Honour: Professor Laban Ayiro – Professor Ayiro is the Vice Chancellor of Daystar University and a Professor of Research Methods and Statistics. Over his career, Professor Ayiro has been a chemistry teacher, principal of several high schools, Provincial Director of Education, Deputy Director of Staff Training (Kenya Education Management Institute), Senior Deputy Director for Policy and Planning and Senior Deputy Director for Research and Curriculum Development at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development. He is a Senior Fulbright Scholar and conducted research and teaching at the University of Texas A&M. Professor Ayiro has published extensively on the topics of education, leadership and management, and research methods.

Author: Dr. Elizabeth Cooper – Elizabeth Cooper is the author of the 2022 book Burning Ambition: Education, Arson, and Learning Justice in Kenya. She is a social anthropologist who conducts research concerning children and youth, education, violence, and inequality, with a primary focus to Kenya. Elizabeth is an associate professor in the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Panellist: Dr. Wandia Njoya – Dr. Wandia Njoya is a senior lecturer in Literature and French and former Head of the Department of Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University. She is also a popular social and political commentator, writing and speaking about education and politics in Kenya, with content regularly appearing in The Elephant, her own blog and Twitter feed. Wandia Njoya also produces content on her youtube channel called  Maisha Kazini.

Panellist: Dr. Hildah Oburu – Dr. Hildah Oburu is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nairobi. Her PhD research at Stellenboch University in South Africa and published articles focus on the social representations of school fires in Kenyan schools.

Panellist: Mr. Nelson Havi – Mr. Nelson Havi is a lawyer and past president of the Law Society of Kenya (2020-2022). He has taken on many cases relating to matters of public interest like the objection to the minimum tax, Advisory to President Uhuru Kenyatta to dissolve the 12th Parliament, and transgressions of the Judiciary and the Executive to amend the constitution through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) – which he fought and won. Mr. Havi is currently a petitioner in the court case against the government’s implementation of the competency-based curriculum.

MC: Dr. Fred Nasubo – Dr. Nasubo is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the British Institute in Eastern Africa. His research is on the social-political acceptance of the Shona community who moved to Kenya from Zimbabwe between the 1950s-1960s. He holds PhD in Governance and Regional Integration from the Pan African University of Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences-Yaounde Cameroon, MA (History) and BA (History&Economics), both from Egerton University-Kenya.

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Oct 05 2022


6:00 pm - 8:00 pm

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