Dreams amidst despair

Published on 06 July 2023 Go back to The ACU Review
Photo of young artist playing the guitar in his bedroom

Why the view of education as something solely in service of a capitalist economy harks backwards to colonial ideals.

By Peter Kimani, Aga Khan University in East Africa, Kenya

I decided I’d become a writer at the audacious age of 16. I had never met one, save for the mugshots of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o on the blurbs of their foundational texts, Things Fall Apart and Weep Not, Child. Their brief bios at the back of the Heinemann editions of those books indicated both authors had served as journalists, so I knew there was a link between novelists and journalists. This was the only ‘career guidance’ I needed to commit to a life of writing.

Upon leaving high school, I discovered my country Kenya did not have a single creative writing school. And the singular journalism institute could only accommodate two or three dozen students from a pool of thousands of applicants. I’ll spare you the details of my writing journey – perhaps because I’m still a work in progress – but I can reflect on the policy and polity misadventures that nearly cast me and my generation down a ruinous path.

In January 1984, as a Class Seven pupil, my classmates and I were notified we’d spend an extra year in school as pioneers of the newly inaugurated 8-4-4 system of education. It meant we’d spend eight years in total in primary school, four in high school and a further four years in university. This replaced the previous system that required seven years of study at primary level followed by four in high school and two more years in higher education (or three for Advanced-level students).

The 8-4-4 system was the brainchild of the Canadian academic Colin B Mackay, and its undergirding philosophy was self-reliance. That sounds like a beautiful formulation, but it didn’t envision producing engineers to harness the oils in the bowels of our continent – we still leave that to the Brits. It was self-reliance at a more basic level: building a mud and wattle hut – without a single nail – as did our forefathers, even though those relics had been erased from the face of our village. Many decades later, I still wonder what those educationists had in mind when they built a traditional hut in the curriculum.

The emphasis on technical skills and job creation was highlighted by the revival of village polytechnics in every hamlet, even though the levels of mechanisation or innovation were pretty modest: all the villages needed were (usually) able-bodied men to hew wood from logs and shaving off using a plane to fashion a seat, table or bed. These skills were further honed in high school, where we devoted the first two years to metal or woodwork. These two subjects were examinable, but one could opt out and focus on alternative subjects like agriculture, accounting or business studies.

Empires built through words

I had no intention of becoming a carpenter, noble as the trade might be if you believe the biblical fable of Joseph the carpenter. My carpentry ended with the production of a coat hanger for class assignment. Neither did I want to go into farming or business. I knew what I wanted and had expressed it for years. I wanted to be a writer for the precise reason that I wanted to narrate stories, real and imagined, about my experience on my inch of earth, just as Ngugi and Achebe had done. It’s an instinct as ancient as man himself, when our ancestors did their cave paintings to document their footprints in the sands of time.

It has been affirming that my modest, juvenile connection with the written word has become a life-long endeavour. Through the years, I have come to understand the power of storytelling: empires are built and sustained through words. And to dismantle one, narratives are similarly invented to dehumanise its inhabitants – the first and natural step before annihilation. We saw that from the colonial writings on Africa; we saw it in the reporting of anticolonial resistance in my country; more recently, we saw it in the Middle East, as Saddam Hussein was pulled out of an underground bunker, like a rodent, before being hanged.

My motivation for narrating these experiences is to assert that it’s no accident that Kenya’s colonial and postcolonial education did not include institutions that could produce writers and historians and linguists. Its sole purpose was to produce a working class for the colonial system and schools were pipelines for the production of teachers and clerks and plumbers and carpenters. Reading the history of Kenya’s segregated education, it’s a safe bet that the emphasis on technical skills was rooted in the colonial thinking of 1930s Kenya, when the Eugenics movement claimed that the mental development of an average African adult was at par with an average eight-year-old European child. Colonial writings on east Africa, from Karen Blixen to Ernest Hemingway, promote this racist tosh.

They were not alone. A commission chaired by an indigenous Kenyan, Simeon Ominde in 1964, just a year after independence, proposed the scrapping of indigenous Kenyan languages as the medium of instruction, in favour of English! Our reverence for the foreign had taken root, even though research has proven that acquisition of knowledge is most effective if delivered in the language used in the environment of the learner. Kenya’s educational system is under review, yet again, and a new invention, the Competency-Based Curriculum, has been introduced. Yet again, the chaos that roiled my youth has been loosened upon our children. Conversations surrounding the new curriculum have been incoherent. I’ll return to this review briefly, but allow me to state that a greater source of despair is the recent rolling back of significant gains made in the past.

Think, for example, of the University of Nairobi in 1968, where the author and academic Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his two colleagues, Taaban lo Liyong and Owuor Anyumba, instituted what’s known as the Nairobi Revolution, which centred oral and African literature – as opposed to British national literature – as the core of the study. Today, however, African literature and languages departments in universities are often downgraded or merged with other arts programmes. Also imperilled are courses in departments such as anthropology or African studies, even though Kenya bears the archaeological ruins where man traces his roots.

The thralls of capitalism

This downgrading of the humanities in universities mirrors the thinking of Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, who has over the years disparaged courses in the humanities as ‘useless’ and of little value to the economy. Hear him: ‘There are over 1,000 students learning sociology and anthropology, but if you look at the requirements of the industry, how many anthropologists or sociologists do we need? We end up with graduates many of whom cannot be placed in a proper job environment… I was a very good student of history myself, but while it is okay for historians to tell us how Vasco da Gama came, went somewhere and discovered this, he died. We need the gentleman or the lady who will fix our sewerage system or electricity when something is wrong.’

Ruto’s postcolonial education still defers to the fallacy of European explorers ‘discovering’ Africa and, as someone who studied botany and zoology instead of the ‘useless’ humanities, education for him must be in service of the capitalist economy. For Ruto, it’s not about the opening of the mind to the virtues of truth and good citizenship, the quest for freedom, nor using the mind to navigate the complexities that life brings.

Since we are storytellers, not politicians, let me tell you a story that puts Ruto’s prognosis to the test. Sometime in 2010, as the Kenyan capital Nairobi’s public cemetery started filling up, the city fathers called for bids from land sellers. Now, the city fathers are rabidly corrupt and once used chalk instead of chlorine to treat the waterworks, jeopardising public health. On the new cemetery land, crafty bureaucrats quickly assembled the paperwork to show an appropriate parcel of land had been identified and procured. All the papers were signed and stamped in the right places by proper professionals who had not studied history or anthropology in college. There was a land valuer, land surveyor, soil expert, environmentalist, lawyer, banker, accountant, and technocrats from the line ministry. That’s a line of eight different professionals. But it appears they all attended the same school as they had learnt how to steal from the public with uniform competence. The land price was inflated about ten times, to retail at $25 million.

But even the dead refused to be silenced: The land proved so rocky, no graves could be dug, while in other patches it had black cotton soils that couldn’t hold down coffins when it rained. What was needed were well-drained red soils. So, the land couldn’t be used for the dead. And the money stolen was never recovered.

I have dwelt on this matter to illustrate that joblessness is not a consequence of ill-training; it’s a product of runaway corruption in my country, with one-third of the national budget haemorrhaging to crooked elements. If they had added humanists to the land-buying panel, the thieving cabal would have been reminded that it’s an abomination to steal from the dead. Or that the spirits of the dead would never give them rest until they join them. I submit, then, that Kenya’s economic problems stem from corruption and that the teaching of the humanities is the only salvation for my country. In fact, creatives in the humanities have invented a term for this class of thieving technocrats: tenderprenuership. It’s a tangle of ‘tender’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ to highlight a hijack of public procurement by private profiteers.

But it’s not all gloom. Two years ago, I participated in an exciting project that centres creative arts in policy development at the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa. The theme for the year: ‘Land governance for safeguarding art, culture, and heritage towards the Africa we want’. It was a sheer marvel to hear the perspectives that filmmakers, painters, musicians, and storytellers brought to the conversation. A short story anthology emerged from some of the writing workshops that I organised –Beans Without Korkor? and other stories: the SDGs as interpreted by young writers from Africa – and is available to read and download for free online.

A sharpened pen

Now let’s return to the ongoing changes in Kenyan education. Nearly 40 years on, I’m still reeling from the childhood trauma of serving as a guinea pig in a project superintended by ill-educated politicos. Last year, I quietly withdrew my 15-year-old son, who also aspires to be a writer, from the Kenyan system and enrolled him in the British ICGSE system. He will be one of the two million students from around the world who will take the exam as private candidates.

This acquiescence to the British curriculum is a matter of deep personal humiliation and a renunciation of a long-held belief that effective education must draw from the tap root of a child’s local environment and culture before branching out to rest of the world. I possibly underrated the impact of 70 years of British occupation of my country in the way we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. We seem unable to exorcise kasumba ya ukoloni (colonial mentality), when segregated educational systems were inaugurated for whites, Indians, and Africans.

That’s not to say my son is bound for the Western hemisphere, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I went to school there and it only fortified my awareness of my continent of birth, sharpening my pen to expose those involved in its past and ongoing subjugation, but also using storytelling to suture its fragments.

Peter Kimani is an award-winning Kenyan author and journalist, and Professor of Practice at Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications in Kenya. He is a Research Associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and its 2023 Mellon Writer-in-Residence. The most recent of his four books, Dance of the Jakaranda, re-imagines the rise and fall of colonialism in Kenya.

Image (top): Artist Anthony Bwire poses in his living room in Nairobi, Kenya, as part of the photography project: ‘Youths in their rooms in Kibera slum’ . Image © ZUMA Press/Alamy.

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