In my public engagements on the competency-based curriculum (CBC), I was constantly surprised that the arguments promoting the new education system were fundamentally racist and socially hierarchical. Some of the justifications of CBC that were unmistakably colonial were: we must reform education in line with what employers want, which was similar to colonial times when schools were for training Africans who would work in the colonial government; academic learning is beyond the “talent” of many Kenyans, which aligns with the view of imperial administrators like Lord Lugard that literary education ruins the African mind; technical learning is more suitable for most Kenyans, a proposition which colonialists justified with claims that the African brain stops growing at teenage and can therefore not grasp complex ideas; Kenyan children are doing badly in the education system because Kenyan adults do not subscribe to “nuclear family values”. This rhetoric was similar to the racist attitudes of the 1970s about black American families and absentee fathers, and colonial attitudes about African families.
Such reactionary views have been repeated to me in the media, in my classes and at my speaking invitations. At one event hosted by middle class parents, I was asked how parents can prepare their children for the gig economy. The parents were clearly not aware what “gig economy” means.
More perplexing was that pointing to these problems did not seem to embarrass the defenders of the system. They simply kept explaining their points as if they had not heard me. On the rare occasion when someone would actually respond to what I was saying, they would reply that I am bringing up irrelevant issues.
Even more remarkable was the fatalism of the middle class. On several occasions, audiences have told me that they have no choice but to accept the new education system because the proclaimed changes to the economy – gig jobs and digitization – are inevitable and so Kenyans have no choice but to accept the new education system.
As is typical of most Africans, the framework I ran to for interpretation of these responses was the decolonization framework expounded on by thinkers such as Frantz Fanon. I would read the contradictions I was witnessing as a problem of the native bourgeoisie who had placed Western education on a pedestal and were more interested in replacing the colonizer than in decolonizing.
However, something about that framework felt impotent. The few Kenyans who dared to address the issue would tell me that we cannot keep blaming our problems on the colonizers. In a country that does not teach the proper history of colonialism, many Kenyans are not quite sure about the dynamics of colonialism. For them, colonialism is in the distant past, and to refer to that past is to engage in a blame game.
That meant that referring to coloniality – the colonial logic of Kenya’s institutions – would sound just as hollow (unless, of course, one promised the listener that knowledge of coloniality would earn them a scholarship in a foreign university).
Perhaps the weirdest contradiction is that many Kenyan intellectuals who support racist colonial policies do so in the name of decolonization. This contradiction is maintained by a simplistic assumption that affirming African cultures necessarily means opposing colonialism. That is why, even with such a racist rubric for Kenya’s new education system, Kenyan scholars are publishing articles on including vernacular language and indigenous knowledges in the curriculum.
How then do we tackle decolonization when its primary advocates are also praising colonial structures and logics of power?
For years, I have been reflecting on the possibility that maybe conservativism – of Edmund Burke, the Tories and the Republicans – may help in better understanding and naming the contradiction we are seeing in Kenya, and especially in education. My thoughts received a boost from listening to Corey Robin, author of the bestseller The Reactionary Mind on conservative thought. I then searched for articles related to black conservatism, and found brilliant essays on black conservatism in the US by Cornell West, and in South Africa by Siphiwe Dube.
This essay therefore reflects on why conservativism may help in reading the compliance of educated Kenyans with colonial logics of the state.
According to Robin, the central tenet of conservatism is the defence of social hierarchy, which was made necessary by the huge crisis of confidence in Britain caused by the French revolution. Conservatism promises stability in the midst of social upheavals that are either the normal cycle of life or, mostly, the fruit of violent power structures. The downside of this apparent stability is that the people who are oppressed have to keep to the place assigned to them in the lower echelons of society. That is why, Robin argues, conservativism is very keen on the control of personal space. Women must always keep their heads down for men, and blacks and other subalterns must diminish themselves by kowtowing to whites, and especially white men. This subordination is justified as the will of God.
With blacks relegated to a subordinate position, it seems odd that Africans who acknowledge being beneficiaries of freedom struggles would be committed to defending the status quo. In his introduction to an edited volume on black conservatism, Peter Eisenstadt explains this contradiction. He argues that conservativism eschews social consciousness and dwells on individual achievement as the source of success, and so black conservatives (I include continental African conservatives here) prefer to focus on how they individually “merit” social rewards for their “hard” work. Underlying this faith in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is the belief that Western institutions are intrinsically objective and fair, and that racism and injustice are an external, not an intrinsic trait of Western institutions.
Women must always keep their heads down for men, and blacks and other subalterns must minimize themselves by kowtowing in the presence of whites, and especially white men.
All these views are entrenched through Christianity, especially of the neo-Pentecostal kind. As Dube says in his article on black conservatism in South Africa, neo-Pentecostalism comforts this individualist view of wealth by preaching that wealth is a reward from God for one’s individual faithfulness. In Kenya, Christianity de-racializes the racist discourse on African families and preaches that Africans are suffering due to lack of morality and failure to adhere to the “nuclear family values”. Kenyans inevitably have an affinity for “Jeremiads”, where they blame social problems on the stupidity of Kenyans or the failure of Kenyans to adhere to Christian family or cultural values, a rhetoric that was affirmed by King Kaka’s hit song “Wajinga nyinyi.”
Like conservatives, Kenyans see sexual and physical violence against women and children as the cause of structural and social malaise, rather than as the symptoms of it. The work of the media, the church and the schooling system is to divert attention from the highly aggressive and violent Kenyan politics and society to the mediocre and highly individualizing narratives of toxic men, the neglect of the “boy child”, single motherhood and absent fathers, while liberal feminists talk of toxic men and patriarchy as an African cultural phenomenon, rather than as a political one.
This camaraderie between conservativism and Christianity explains why the Kenyan middle class has accepted the new education system despite its overtly racist tropes. Having been fed on the James Dobson-style “Focus on the Family” programmes for decades, the rhetoric of parental involvement in justifying CBC was particularly appealing. Middle class parents were jazzed by singing and by making sandwiches with their kids for assessment by teachers, and relegated questions about parents with fewer resources to the discourse of pity for the poor and philanthropic interventions.
More troubling, though, is that much of the Kenyan middle class fundamentally believes that not all Kenyans are human beings, created equal. If this proposition were to be put to them in this way, they would categorically deny it because they would recognize that the same idea is applied to them by Europe. However, in true Western hypocritical style, their proclamations of human equality and African dignity are contradicted by their acceptance of highly discriminatory policies in education, conservation and extra-judicial killings.
Insight into African collaboration with colonialism is not unique. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon spoke of the native bourgeoisie who may rant against colonialism by guilt-tripping the West for not adhering to the values it proclaims, but simultaneously fail to recognize that Europe loves to sing of humanity while violating that very humanity. He explained that the loyalty of colonized intellectuals to Western values is maintained by the Western abstraction of values from lived reality, which presents Western values as “eternal despite all the errors attributable to man”.
Lewis Gordon, an existential philosopher who draws heavily on Fanon’s work, says that this abstraction essentially elevates human beings of European descent to the status of gods. How else can one’s own values be distant from humanity, other than if the source of those values is greater than human beings, and therefore a god? Indeed, Gordon has often pointed out that God in the Western mind is defined by the same theodician idea – that God must be exonerated from evil and the existence of evil must be wholly blamed on human beings. If then, the European is God, Africans have no choice but to bow their heads and keep slaving in the capitalist system until Europe deems us fit to be human.
This idea that Western values are perfect and that Africans have to gain their place in that system is similar to the assimilationist views of black conservative thought. As Eisenstadt puts it, black conservatives believe that blacks can make it in Western institutions if they work hard enough, and eventually Western institutions will recognize the contradictions and abandon racism on their own.
If then, the European is God, Africans have no choice but to bow their heads and keep slaving in the capitalist system until Europe deems us fit to be human.
Fanon and Gordon are just two of the thousands of intellectuals who have expressed concern about the enigma of black and African intellectual collaborators within racist capitalism. Why consider adding black conservatism as a framework of intellectual analysis?
My reason is simple: conservatism allows us to see this collaboration of the black bourgeoisie as not only intellectual but also as fundamentally POLITICAL. In other words, conservatism will give us a framework within which to look at black collaboration with colonialism as a political choice with institutional support from Western empire, rather than as an intellectual or moral flaw. Calls for cultural exorcism by Fanon, or voluntary class suicide by Amilcar Cabral, or cultural nationalism by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, have had little political impact, because Kenyan intellectuals read these discourses as a call for individual honour and self-sacrifice, rather than as a political project. In fact, the cultural nationalism project in Kenya has failed spectacularly, because imperialist dispossession of land and the depoliticization of Kenyans are now being done in the name of respecting indigenous cultures, and often with the support of Kenyan academics claiming to affirm African cultures.
The discourse of culture, especially, has been the camouflage under which Kenyan intellectuals have promoted conservative politics. We do not notice the conservative ideology in the Kenyan middle class and ruling elites because we assume that all Africans are necessarily opposed to colonialism as a regime of power, when many are simply opposed to the exclusion of Africans from the system rather than to the logic of the system itself. We criticize institutions for failing to institute socially sensitive policies but rarely identify those policies as necessarily protecting a racially informed social hierarchy. I have often argued that Kenyan education scholarship is particularly notorious for perpetuating this dichotomy, writing treatises on the inequality in education as a failure of policy implementation, rather than as an intrinsic character of our schooling system and politics. Moreover, the inequality is so high and life so precarious, that no rational middle class Kenyan would talk badly about the poor because many of us count relatives among the poor. We know, very intimately, that middle class Kenyans are a retrenchment away, or a hospital bill a way, from sinking into poverty.
This camouflage through the discourse of culture points to another fundamental characteristic of conservativism – the avoidance of politics. The Kenyan middle class overtly avoids political conversations, preferring to discuss policy, law and regulation in situations that require political intervention. This bias is in line with Cornell West’s observation that the black conservative is obsessed with “respectability based on merit rather than politics”. From Edmund Burke to Uhuru Kenyatta, the political process is played down through a rhetoric of culture, tradition and stability so as to sabotage political conversations about power and resources. That is why Uhuru Kenyatta hides his political incompetence in his ethnic backyard by making appeals to uphold culture and respect for elders and mothers.
Reading African politicians and bureaucrats as political conservatives would also explain why the public uproar about gender-based violence in Kenya, while claiming to be feminist, is spectacularly apolitical and sometimes ridiculously patriarchal. When there are high profile incidents of violence against women, the uproar celebrates state violence against men and never demands political commitments to address the fact that Kenya is extremely hostile and violent. Violence against children suffers a worse fate, since Kenya does not listen to children anyway.
Political conservatism would also help us see through Kenya’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kenya’s foreign policy has traditionally been that of fence-sitting and supporting the rights of dictators to oppress and kill their people in the name of “sovereignty”. Kenya did not support the black liberation struggles against apartheid, and it supported Sani Abacha until the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa became too embarrassing. Kenya’s tourism industry markets the colonial explorer experience as an attraction. Kenya’s bourgeoisie go to hotels to have English afternoon teas and buy million-shilling tickets to spruce up and watch British royal weddings. In true conservative fashion, the Kenyan ruling class avoids conversations about colonialism and the teaching of that history in schools.
The mention of colonialism in the speech by Kenya’s UN Representative was therefore way out of Kenya’s character. However, the celebration of the speech by mainstream American media simply confirmed that Kenya’s condemnation of the Ukraine invasion was a conservative, pro-American speech rather than an anti-imperialist one.
Kenya’s foreign policy has traditionally been that of fence-sitting and supporting the rights of dictators to oppress and kill their people in the name of “sovereignty”.
Why would liberal media like CNN celebrate what are essentially Republican talking points? My colleague Mordecai Ogada has aptly explained this phenomenon: Euro-Americans are liberal at home but conservative abroad. At home, Western liberals may decry the mistreatment of minorities, but on foreign policy, liberals unite with conservatives in supporting aggression, war and dispossession.
Naming certain politics as conservative does not necessarily mean that Africa adopts the Western conservative-liberal-left view of politics. While this rubric may be helpful in understanding the West and the damage it has wreaked on the planet, even the Western left has been paralyzed in identifying the spiritual and psychological damage of Western empire and its inevitable consequence of racism. What conservatism and racism kill is the spiritual connection with the earth and humanity, and the recognition that human beings are not the only beings in the world and they must negotiate with the universe to survive in it. Scientific applications of socialism deny this spiritual aspect of the Western hollowing out of the soul and aversion to reality.
As Fanon said in his celebratory conclusion to his last book, Europe “has done what it had to do. . . . We have no longer reason to fear it, let us then stop envying it.” We have to repair the damage that Europe has wreaked on the world since it decided to resurrect the Roman Empire from its graveyard. The repair requires understanding the brokenness of the Kenyan elite and middle class as a fundamentally political project, and not as simply an intellectual or moral failure. For now, I’m proposing conservativism as a framework to help us do that intellectual and political work.