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Teenage tragedy in December: Two Kenyan pupils commit suicide over failed exams

It's New Year's Eve 2011 and the year 2012 is barely four hours away. The end of the year is, for many, an opportunity to take time and reflect on the various memorable events of the year gone by and make plans for the coming year.

In Kenya, the month of December is traditionally a holiday season marked with lots of festivities, starting with our independence day celebrations on 12 December (Jamhuri Day) followed by Christmas and Boxing Day, culminating in various celebrations, concerts and church services around the country to usher in the New Year. Schools and universities are closed, and many businesses take a two-week break to allow employees some well-needed time off to rest, relax and bond with their families.

December is, however, also a time of nail-biting anxiety for many final-year primary school pupils as the results of their end-year national school leaving examinations, the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), are traditionally released by the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC) and announced by the Education Minister in the last week of December.

And while it's all smiles and jubilation for those pupils who sail through their KCPE exams with flying colours, failing to make the grade often spells doom and marks the end of the road for many pupils, as getting a good KCPE grade opens the door to secondary school admission which is the intermediary stage of the long journey towards university education, the cherished dream of many Kenyan pupils and their parents which holds the promise of a good job and secure future.

The 2011 KCPE results were released earlier this week on Wednesday 28 December. According to the KNEC, out of the total 776,214 candidates who sat for the KCPE this year, just under half (48.26%) attained 250 marks and above (the cut-off pass mark out of a possible 500 marks) and only 5,806 (0.75%) scored over 400 marks. Two candidates -- a boy and a girl -- tied to take the top positions with 442 marks each.

When one considers that an average of 30% of KCPE candidates each year fail to secure a place in secondary school, and the proportion seems to be increasing year on year, it becomes clear that the competition to excel in KCPE is pretty high, so much so that cases of exam cheating have become increasingly rampant with each passing year. This year, some 8000 candidates (about 1.5%) had their results cancelled as a result of cheating and other irregularities. And the exam cheats are getting more and more 'creative'... this year one candidate was caught with answers to the multiple-choice questions written on one of the slippers (flip-flops) he had worn into the exam room!

Yes, it would appear that for many, passing the KCPE is a matter of life and death. Sadly, this proved to be the case for two Kenyan teenage girls who did not perform as well as they had expected to in this year's KCPE exam... they committed suicide soon after they got their KCPE results from school!! Both girls are reported to have expressed disappointment over their low marks -- Mercy Chebet, 14, from Kericho County got 145 marks while Sylvia Wanjiku, also 14, from Kathiani got 303 marks. In Sylvia's case, though 303 marks was technically a 'pass', she had expected to score no less than 400 marks.

As we ponder these tragic incidents, it becomes clear that the time is nigh for us as Kenyans to rethink our attitudes towards the meaning of success when it comes to academics. Students are under too much pressure, not just to pass exams but to excel. The all-or-nothing attitude is part of the reason why exam cheating and leaking of exam questions is turning slowly into a cartel involving not just pupils but their parents, teachers and exam invigilators!

It's high time for our primary school pupils to be appropriately counselled to know that there is more to life than passing exams, and failing KCPE should not mark the end of the road.

So while many Kenyans are at this time in an exuberant and celebratory mood with family and friends, for the families of Mercy Chebet and Sylvia Wanjiku, the entry into the New Year 2012 will be accompanied by a weighty shadow of sadness, emptiness and the pain of loss... lost hopes, lost dreams, lost potential.

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