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RECOLONISING THE MIND: How the Kenyan and Ugandan revolutions were hijacked

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Failed Revolution

In her subtly seminal work of fiction Dust, the novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owour names “silence” as Kenya’s third official language, after English and Kiswahili.

Kenya today is a challenging place to live in, especially if you are young, very old, female, and not rich, which is just about everybody.

The country is currently in the grip on an election cycle. This suggests that change is on the way. Or is it?

This article should be about who is saying what to the electorate, and what their chances are.

But, given the grim economic realities for those called “the poor” in Kenya, it would seem that Kenyan elections since the return of multipartyism have been about not who is in the running, but who is not present. More about what is not being said, than who said what. Somebody seems absent from the party.

What happened to the Kenyan revolution?

In just one succinct paragraph written in Kwani 02, Andia Kisia, eschewing the de-personal that data-reciting brings to the matter of “development, tells us the meaning of poverty in Kenya, and the need for change:

What does it really mean to say that a people are not yet ready for a revolution? A revolution implies change to the status quo and the status quo in Kenya, as in any so-called developing country, is a sorry one indeed: it is poverty of the most life- destroying kind, a situation maintained and defended by a small wealthy and avaricious class. Open any development economics text, and Kenya always merits a mention as one of the countries with the largest disparities between rich and poor. The poor know this not as an interesting fact in a textbook, but as their daily reality: as the ignorance of daily meals, as the death of children from the most innocuous ailments, from medieval life expectancy rates. It seems unforgivably arrogant to say that these people do not want to see the substance of their lives change for the better, that they are not ready for that change. So what does it mean to say that Africans in general, or Kenyans in particular, are not ready for revolution? (p. 311)

Into the breach has sauntered a whole cast of hugely colourful characters, whose activities generate plenty of sound. Given how increasingly lethal electoral politics have become here, perhaps it is better not to name names or point to examples. But we can all think of at least two.

The antic-laden political drama rolling out this election season seems to see nothing of the concerns Andia Kisia describes, and takes place against the meta-narrative of the Odinga/Kenyatta sometimes friendly, sometimes acrimonious almost Lebanese-style feud in which the son of a former Vice President is going to run against the son – now President – of the President to that Vice President.

All our yesterdays

To hear, or rather, to have heard Kenya’s literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong’o tell it, Kenya once was on the brink of a socialist upheaval that was to sweep away the entire basis of post-colonial Kenyan society, and even excavate its settler colonial roots.

This perspective took root among more than a few intellectuals, and many youth, particularly students. It gave rise to heated discourse in the media and led to public demonstrations. The authorities reacted. Riots and other disturbances were dealt with physically. Interestingly, however, there was also an engagement at the level of ideas, in however circumspect a style executed. Ngugi, in particular, acquired a couple of nemeses in the media and academia that seemed to devote much of their energy to tracking and deconstructing his various arguments.

At a more exalted, shall we say, level, even the Kenyan presidency was moved to weigh in. This basically became an extension of the Cold War debates about the best or better ways to organise society. As such, the philosophical dimension of the matter was often brought in.

People were individuals, not “cogs in a machine”, one would hear the president assert at some national function.

That was back in the very late 1970s.

Today is a different picture, to say the least. We certainly don’t hear many –if any – national figures tussling with tenets of Enlightenment thinking.

How did mainstream Kenyan politics move from talk for and against revolution to what we see now? Or more accurately, why is there such a persistent silence around this question, to the point that it never even seems to get asked?

There is a memory hole. One can trace the evolution of radical thinkers such as Ngugi from the days of the December 12 Movement, right up to a certain point, then everything seems to go dark. Why?

A promising beginning

One key factor in Ngugi’s global appeal was the way in which he wove the Kenyan story into the fabric of wider and older struggles for social justice, if not outright revolution.

To South American intellectuals, his analyses of the meaning and impact of settler colonist culture resonated strongly with their own centuries of Portuguese and Spanish settler presences.

He must easily be the first, and possibly only, English language-rooted African writer I have come across who could reference and cite a whole host of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking South American writers and thinkers at will, and even draw parallels with them.

To African diaspora thinkers in the Caribbean, the United States and Europe, especially England, his specific focus on the linguistic and ethnic workings of anti-African racism struck a similar chord.

This did present problems. To match his narrative with theirs, he had to present Kenya as one country.

The 500-year Iberian dominance of South America had produced a political culture that expressed itself in Iberian languages, and framed its vision from within what was considered the most advanced stages of all the European thinking birthed by the Enlightenment: Marxism. A certain homogeneity of direction emerged there. Even Catholic priests in the region espoused a “liberation theology” rooted in Marxist ideology.

Other strands existed. The one of particular significance would be the voices of the indigenous people still present in the South American continent. Sometimes small, often marginalized, these varied communities somehow managed to get through a nearly complete genocide, with memories and critically, language, somewhat intact.

It was Ngugi’s on-the-ground activism that cemented this global reputation. His writing, fiction first, then a series of accompanying essays bedded in some form of critical theory, had given life to his ideas. The fiction often located itself in the politico-cultural experience Ngugi’s own Kikuyu people underwent during the late colonial period in Kenya, and just after, particularly, the impact the eight-year war waged against freedom fighters had on him as a young man from a family caught up in the conflict.

He began by applying his thinking to his place of work, the University of Nairobi. What he did can now be seen as a template for even the “decolonize education” movement in South Africa today. Three things happened: the Department of English Literature became the Department of Literature; the course content began to reach systematically far beyond the original staple of European/English classics; and Ngugi became a marked man.

His next major initiative was the Community Theatre initiative, through a couple of productions featuring peasant folk (a process that began to cement in his mind the question of language: In what language had struggle been taking place? What was to be the language of the new revolution?)

In insisting on the development of a literature in (in his case) Gikuyu, he spoke the language of indigenousness while advancing the politics of the progressive imagining of the European-planted states. With the historical ignoring of the surviving Native Americans in South America, all revolutions could comfortably converse in Spanish or Portuguese. In Africa, the natives, and their languages, sit in the mainstream. So, while the aforementioned homogeneity of language and, therefore possibly also, thought, could comfortably emerge among South American revolutionaries, Africa was to be a different matter. This was a contradiction waiting for explanation, and one that Ngugi’s intellectual critics (state-sponsored or not) seized upon: was he proposing a revolutionary Tower of Babel, or would certain languages acquire a preeminence in the lexicon of revolution?

Nevertheless, such was the giant who landed among the Black and African diaspora of London in the early 1980s. A writer, a teacher, an activist, former political prisoner, and exile.

Modesty on the part of many Kenyan activists in London at the time often leads them to downplay the significance of their presence – with Ngugi at its centre – among the people they went on to work with. Modesty, maybe, or perhaps as a way of drawing a veil on the journey of Kenyan politics from that point, to this, where citizens killed one another, and where poverty and destitution remain national characteristics.

The template for the exile part of their movement seems to have been the long- established anti-apartheid movement, kicking off with the formation of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya.

This I suppose, was a good start. And it seems a decision was made that what the movement did not otherwise have in order to build support in Europe, it was going to have to create. The mining of the anti-colonial, anti-settler narrative was a logical place to start. South Africa had settlers, so had Kenya.

Don’t get me wrong; it must have taken a special kind of courage to decide to take on any Kenyan regime during the Cold War. Many an otherwise safe middle class career was being sacrificed by becoming associated with rebellion; they were taking on one of the (then) better organised police states on the continent, with an unbroken praxis in the matter of breaking rebels, reaching back into the 1950s; they were also standing up to a regime that in the dynamic of the global US vs. USSR confrontation, was seen by Western interests as a critical bulwark.

This was not small thing to be doing.

Exile dementia

I was in a position to observe how Ngugi, and the cluster of well-entrenched black activist networks that received him, went on to unfurl the public face of Kenyan resistance to the Daniel arap Moi regime and to imperialism among the diaspora.

It was also an exercise in comparisons. As a diaspora activist on Uganda issues, I was keen to see where our concerns may intersect, and what each learned from similar experiences.

Three things emerged quite distinctly.

First, an antipathy towards engaged debate. This was evidenced in an inability to address the question mentioned already, which was legitimate in itself, but also became a reliable propaganda tool for the Moi regime due to the revolutionaries’ unwillingness to address it.

Specifically: what was the 1951-1958 conflict in Kenya? Was it a war for Kenyan independence? Was it a civil war among the Kikuyu nation between those “in”, and those “out” of colonial favour? Was it a Kikuyu cultural uprising for the reclamation of their land? Would parsing such distinctions matter anyway?

This came out strongly in the way the Kenya Liberation story was presented. As an early activity, a broad group of pan-Africanist youth, from places as far flung as the Caribbean, Ghana, Senegal and, of course Kenya, staged Ngugi and Micere Mugo’s play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.

Something remained with me from that time.

One particular passage in the staging (and I cannot recall whether it was part of the original text or not) had the actor explain how “the white man came to Kenya and promoted divisions among the people by teaching them that ‘You are Girama, and you Samburu, and you Kamba…’, or words close to that. The point being made was that Kenyans were one people, and that if they stood together as one nation, victory was assured.

But this, and other lines like it, would then be followed by enthusiastic bursts of singing of songs someone had clearly researched well from the era of the Mau Mau uprising, just about all of which were in Gikuyu, not surprisingly.

So (the ahistoricity aside) another question came to mind: was the struggle about liberating a pre-existing nation called Kenya, or about creating one through such a struggle?

But where there was such an aversion to debate, no answers seemed available.

Second, there was a fascination with things military, and particularly the associated secretiveness. Statements like “armed struggle is the highest expression of a peoples’ culture” were often made, but not quite explained. This also expressed itself in an unwillingness to clinically describe and analyse the Mau Mau war with anything like the vigour it would be presented in drama. Outstanding questions like:

How did the war end? Did the insurgents win? If so, why is there still a need for “liberation”? If not, why did the fighting stop?

Third, a woeful naivety about how people managed to remain in State Houses in our region. I recall expressions of genuine surprise among some of these comrades, as well as among the “vague leftists” of the Abdul Rahman Babu variety, about the way the then government of Julius Nyerere had returned to the Moi government the Kenya Air Force officers who had fled to Tanzania after their abortive 1981 coup attempt.

After his efficient inveigling, then swallowing up, of the Zanzibar revolution at the Americans’ behest in the early 1960s, any attentive observer of our region should have known where President Nyerere stood on Empire questions once the chips were really down. And if you get into the business of organising rebellion against a Western-backed regime, you would be well-advised to become a very attentive observer.

For revolutions, failures of theory lead to failures of practice. And bouts of brisk physical activity can often be used to cover up those gaps, or deflect scrutiny from them.

This was the opportunity and circumstance created by the roughly one-year period (1985-1986) during which the National Resistance Army morphed from a rebel organisation into the internationally recognised government of Uganda.

During the greatly under-reported proceedings of the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, a number of interesting puzzle-pieces came to light that certainly help explain a few things about the sudden disappearance of a whole revolutionary movement.

There had emerged a certain mesmerisation, to put it very mildly, at least among the Mwakenya activists I knew, with the NRA, and its ascension to power.

No less than three Kenyan resistance groups received material support in military training and information from the early NRA regime. To ask what happened next, is to stand at the mouth of the memory hole.

Contradictions and their silences

Nowhere does this seem to come through in the politics of the NRA assuming power in Uganda. And nobody seemed less willing to see the NRA for what is was than many among the movers and shakers of the Kenyan resistance.

This led to complications for us in the exile discourse spaces that exile politics caused us to share, as well as raised serious questions about the Kenyan resistance’s actual commitment to human rights, democracy and, in a few cases, simple logic.

Of course, nothing was usually said explicitly in public spaces – that would only encourage a debate – but it was clear that the crop of Kenyan resisters we knew were in awe of the NRM, and clearly lacked an intellectual or political interest in any analysis before that.

The starkest, and in a way worrying, example I saw of this was the sight of one prominent exile activist literally dancing with joy at a remark made by the then very new President Yoweri Museveni who had come to make his first address to the large UK Ugandan community at the Commonwealth Institute headquarters in 1987. This person is now a prominent political personality in Kenya.

The remark itself had been a hackneyed rehash of Kwame Nkrumah’s “we are pro-Africa” declaration of non-alignment. On being asked by a member of the largely star-struck gathering if NRA was “pro-East, or pro-West”, the president had responded, “We are pro-Uganda”. The audience applauded, and the Kenyan danced.

There was more to come.

How come they were happy to defend the then NRA practice of open-air queue voting while condemning the Moi regime when it sought to implement the exact same practice during Kenya elections?

Why did they condemn the Moi-KANU regime as a one-party state, while ignoring the NRA’s 1986 Legal Notice No. 1 that banned all other political party activity?

Why was the near-permanent presence of British soldiers in Kenya a thing to be condemned, while nothing was to be said of the accreditation of the British military attaché to the UK Nairobi embassy, as “advisor” to the NRA delegation at the 1985 Nairobi Peace Talks?

If the NRA was indeed an anti-imperialist organisation, then how should we explain the generous praise heaped upon it by the UK media? Or were they accepting the idea that the UK media were not tied to the task of promoting British interests? If so, what had happened to all the critical theory about race, and representation, and about the media space as a battleground over hidden and open narratives? When the African mind was being “colonised”, did the Western media play no role in this? Is it, in other words, to now be taken as “neutral”?

There were never answers given to these questions, only silence and dismissals. This thinking seemed to stem from an earlier failure to address intellectual contradictions.

The practical effect for anyone else fishing in the same waters was to find oneself permanently doubted by the leaders of black diaspora organisations, and a few white socialist ones as well. “If you are interested in the Ugandan revolution”, they would ask, “why don’t you simply go and join hands with the revolutionaries that have just taken power, instead of trying to fight them?”

Why should they believe your words against a whole, ANC-type organisation peopled by the cream of the Kenyan Left intellectuals?

It became important, therefore, to settle the question of black diaspora views of the emerging and triumphant NRA. And the first step to this would have been to settle the matter with the go-to voice on matters East African in the UK: the Kenyan anti-Moi resistance.

This was not possible, as they showed no inclination towards a principled political stand. I vividly recall one experience where one of their senior cadres, who also worked in a senior post at the good old Africa Centre, simply blocked the proposal that activist groups from the Uganda exile community also participate in the holding of the upcoming Africa Day celebrations, which were to focus on Uganda that year. Instead, an agenda of the festivities to be led by the (now (NRA/NRM-run) Ugandan embassy in the UK was very rudely imposed on the organising committee.

Get it clearly: a political refugee was defending the right of a sitting government to lock other political refugees out of a discourse regarding their own country.

But here’s the thing. The tragedy was not so much that the Kenyan revolution sold the myth of an NRA “liberation” to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora; it was that they also sold the same myth to themselves. My submission is that the subsequent strategic decisions made on the basis of that miscalculation led eventually to the absence of a viable “Left” voice, or even a simple legacy, in Kenyan politics today. Hence the endless Bonfire of the Vanities, aka, election time.

Footnotes to a lingering silence

However, a few years prior to that, I had had my own experience, while I was still active in London. I chance encountered the same prominent member of the anti-Moi resistance, right on the steps of the Africa Centre.

His tune, to which he was not dancing, had changed significantly. Having just come back from a trip to Uganda, he gave me a wholly unexpected response to my polite query as to how his trip had gone.

He had not one kind word to say about the entire NRA project or its leaders. His rant was long and excoriating, as well as very accurate.

This, coming from the same person I had witnessed pirouette with joy at a Ugandan presidential witticism, stunned me into silence. What could possibly have happened?

This is where the silence begins.

I will not speculate. I know of only two things. One, I read in a newspaper, of the Ugandan government’s decision to remove a certain key figure of the Kenyan armed resistance from Ugandan soil to Sweden. This was in the early 1990s.

I read also of a development years later when a small article and photograph showed members of what was being called the February Eighth Revolutionary Army (FERA) being repatriated back to Kenya after standing down, having been isolated in training camps in Uganda for nearly a decade.

It is back to the Kenya War of Independence riddle: How did Uganda’s relationship with the Kenyan revolution end, and for what reasons?

I asked a Kenyan writer, who had been tweeting a running commentary on new Moi-era Nyayo House revelations by former Mwakenya activists who had survived the torture chambers, if any information was coming out from them about how and why their relationship with the Uganda “revolutionaries” ended up? After promising to check and get back to me, I have not heard from her since on the matter. Has she too lapsed into the Kenyan language of silence?

I have lived with this issue for over thirty years, it turns out. I had to become knowledgeable about it because of the extent to which it was damaging our own political work. Now, I want to stop.

Reflecting on it a few years ago for an essay, I had emailed a response to someone I had known to be in the anti-Moi resistance regarding mail he had sent to me about some recent outrageous behaviour by his former friends now running Uganda. Basically, I asked if he was willing to accept his share of the blame in selling this outfit to the global Left, and what the hell had happened to him anyway, to disappear just like that?

 “Many factors, global, local and internal to our movements ensured that we failed,” he wrote back.  “Lack of discipline, knowledge, greed, dictatorship, sexual violence, lack of proper organisational accountability and so much else.  Many young Kenyans perished because of what I think we can call ‘left bourgeois apathy’ and a lack of real political commitment.  (Bourgeois envy of the rich was the driver of the ‘revolution’ and once achieved then the revolution for them had arrived).  Thereafter, people must continue to justify their existence so they must continue shouting to at least assuage their ‘left consciousness’.”

 There can be no doubt that conventional Kenyan politics, like the structure of the Kenya economy itself, cannot provide solutions to the deep-seated structural problems that Ngugi wa Thiong’o so ably began to describe and analyse over 40 years ago.

 It is as if time has opted to stand still where the critical issues, like land reclamation, war reparations and workers’ rights, are concerned.

And there can be no doubt that if nothing useful is done, things will only get worse.

If there ever was a need for clarity of discourse, perhaps it is now, and if there was ever a place in need of it, perhaps it is Kenya. Instead, the country remains swamped in the politics of personality and inconsequence, and the very name “MwaKenya”, ends up reduced to a schoolyard slang for exam cheat-notes. An apt tribute, perhaps, to an organisation with too many leaders with a penchant for subterfuge and cutting intellectual corners.

Meanwhile, the last time I checked, a progressive diaspora space known as the Third World Book Press remains listed as the Uganda Chicago Consulate’s contact point for the Ugandan Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

Thanks, comrades.

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Mr Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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EAST OF UHURU HIGHWAY: Inside Nairobi’s most iconic (and much-maligned) neighbourhoods

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EAST OF UHURU HIGHWAY: Inside Nairobi’s most iconic (and much-maligned) neighbourhoods

Ismael Kulubi is a 66-years-old radio production guru with a scintillating voice that is still in great demand even after retirement. Advertising executives in need of an experienced voice hire him to do radio promos. By all measurable standards, Ismail has had a fulfilling career – he is a widely travelled man who has enjoyed life’s successes as a professional media man.

But his advertising and media professional friends have been always been puzzled by Ismael. With all the riches he made over the years and his ascribed social status, Ismael has lived all his life in Eastlands area, the eastern part of Nairobi that every Eastlander seeks to run away from at the slightest hint of money and success.

Eastlands: “No pretensions here”

A practicing Muslim, Ismael grew up in Majengo, the sprawling slum sandwiched between the famous Kamukunji Grounds and Eastleigh, the inner-city neighbourhood that is often referred to as “Little Mogadishu” Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived. Women living there were believed to be sex workers who met the sexual needs of the black immigrant labourers employed in Nairobi who were not allowed to bring their families to the city.

After every Friday afternoon prayers, which he religiously observes at Jamia Mosque in central Nairobi, Ismael heads straight to Majengo in his gleaming beige metallic Mercedes Benz, something he has done for many years. His vintage German engineering marvel is still a spectacle to be behold among the ghetto dwellers. But Ismael is considered one of them and his posh car parked outside on Majengo’s main street is as safe as the Kenyan currency locked at the Central Bank building’s underground vaults in Nairobi city centre.

Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived.

“Majengo has the best pilau you can find anywhere in Nairobi,” Ismael tells me matter-of- factly. Every Friday afternoon, his hot pilau, specially catered to his culinary tastes, awaits him. “Majengo made me and it is a place that gives me immense joy, helps me stay firmly grounded and connects me with the people.” For Ismael, the Friday afternoon sumptuous meal served on large dishes called sinia is a social affair: He has his usual group who he eats with that ranges anywhere from five to ten people.

At one time, Ismael earned a salary that was commensurate with what is paid to top executives of blue chip companies. But that never stopped him from driving from the Karen and Lavington suburbs, where his offices used to be, to enjoy a meal cooked in the ramshackle kitchens and restaurants of Majengo. “Good food is a social engagement, it is not so much about how much money you spend on it,” says Ismael. And he can spend a lot. On any given Friday afternoon, Ismael can spend an upward of Ksh5000, depending on the number of people he is eating with. They will eat from the same sinia with their hands, seated on the floor. “There are no pretensions here, we eat together the way we eat in our respective houses,” says Ismael.

As they eat, Ismael’s Mercedes Benz will be attended to by between three to five young men who give it a clean shine like no other. This is another ritual in Majengo. “My car is never washed anywhere else – the boys know it, they have cleaned it for many years, it is like going to the same barber for many years. You do not want to change him because he has learned the nooks and crannies of your bumpy head.” The young men know that every Friday, some good money will come their way. “Ismael ni boy wetu… yuko chonjo…ua anatucheki kitu poa,” (Ismael is our man…he’s cool and pays us real well), say the young men.

After the sumptuous meal, drowned by the freshest of unadulterated juice, Ismael does not leave Kije (Majengo’s popular name). He has his spot outside where he sits with other men to chew gomba (also known as khat or miraa) that is specially delivered to him by his supplier of many years. He will then chew gombahandas and veve are variants of the same thing – accompanied by copious amounts of black coffee throughout the evening, after which he will drive back home to his house in Buru Buru estate.

“People who live in the so-called leafy suburbs have ghettoised Eastlands,” quips Ismael. “They live in a make-believe world that has blinded them to real-life happenings outside their presumed safe cocoons. They think Eastlands is one huge criminal world. You can imagine what they think of my hood Kije: we are all sons of harlots. That young people here neither have ambitions nor dreams. They are so wrong.” Ismael, whose long dead parents came from Saba Saba location in Maragua, Muranga County, says, “In Kije, the people are real, they have what it takes to live comfortably and decently and they are as informed with local and global current news as the Kenyans of Karen and Lavington.”

If you fly over Majengo slum, you would be amazed by the satellite TV dishes that adorn iron sheet rooftops. Inside some of these mud-plastered houses are some of the latest and funkiest hi-fi equipment and exotic furniture that one can only imagine in a Kileleshwa high- rise flat or in Loresho’s leafy suburbs. These dishes beam news outlets from such channels as Al Jazeera TV, BBC, CNN and France 24 English TV.

I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area.

“If you entered some of the houses here in Kije, you would literally be taken aback,” says Ismael. “There are houses that have 42-inch smart cable TV and Persian Bukhara rags and Turkish carpets that can only be a dream for many of the pretenders to middle class tastes. You know those houses where you have to remove your shoes to enter?” Many of these items are imported from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Yemen.

The traditional suspicion about Eastlands as an area where “dreams are made” and once those dreams are actualised you flee from the area to go and live those dreams elsewhere is a long-held stereotype that persists to date. Indeed some of the Nairobians who started life in the Eastlands estates, dingy or otherwise, comprise a big chunk of the most successful Kenyans who now live on the west side of the city’s spatial suburbs. Their pastime is nostalgically recounting how they are wasee wa mtaa (estate mates). Yet many, having bought into the Eastlands narrative themselves, are publicly embarrassed to be associated with the area.

My recent encounter with a high school chum of many years convinced me that the Eastlands narrative is not fading away in a hurry. Steve Ngotho, who has lived in Pretoria, South Africa, for a long time was in town recently. When he gave me a shout, we met at a restaurant in central Nairobi. After the usual pleasantries, Ngotho, who I had always known to shoot straight, asked where I lived…nowadays. “I live in Buru Buru,” I told him. “Ah, you mean you still live in Eastlands?” he asked. What he really meant was: What in God’s name would you still be doing in Eastlands?

Ngotho grew up in the western side of Nairobi, the general area that is west of Uhuru Highway. Uhuru Highway is the trunk road that cuts across the city centre and links the city to the highways that lead to Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the port city of Mombasa.

I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area. Ngotho, you can bet, is not the only former Nairobian to still harbour the “Eastlands narrative” (even when he lives abroad) – a place for people with failed ambitions and aspirations, where dreams did not take off.

The Eastlands narrative has its roots in the colonial era when some “African” areas were associated with congestion and crime. Hence, Eastlands to date is viewed as a place that does not have the attraction and aura of suburban “posh living”. For Eastlanders, the “leafy suburbs” imply breezy air, lots of jacaranda and pine trees, bungalows and maisonettes with compounds and open spaces that can only be found across Uhuru Highway.

Dr. Mosley Owino, a consultant dentist, likes to remind me that East London, where he trained as a dental surgeon, has many of the same characteristics and reputation as the Eastlands area of Nairobi: It is a place riven with deep poverty and overcrowding and which is not immune from the social problems that afflict such areas – the existence of rival gangs, loafers, social misfits and petty and hardcore criminals.

Buru Buru: “Like a suburban British hood”

Buru Buru estate, where Ismael bought his house in the 1980s, is one of the iconic estates that sometimes still salvages the Eastlands reputation, even as the estate itself, which has five phases, struggles against ghettoisation. Largely built in the 1970s, with the last phase five completed in 1982, Buru Buru was the estate where newly graduated architects, accountants, lawyers, physicians, quantity surveyors, among other graduates, aspired to live and start out because it captured their upward mobility aspirational lifestyle, its Eastlands location notwithstanding.

Construction magnate John Mburu has lived in Buru Buru ever since he graduated from the University of Nairobi in the early 1990s. With a yearly turnover of hundreds of millions of shillings, Mburu’s friends in the industry cannot understand why he still lives in the same house he started out in. A shilling billionaire, Mburu says Buru Buru is a suitable place to live in – it does not have the wannabe pretentious suburban lifestyle like many of the new estates that have come up: “It still retains decent, respectable and habitable estate characteristics that represents the lifestyles of people who have progressively grown their incomes.”

Buru Buru is among most famous suburban estates in East and Central Africa. When I first went to Tanzania, a quarter of a century ago, my newly acquired Tanzanian friends would ask me which part of Nairobi I came from. “Ule mtaa ambao unaishi mawaziri na wakuu wa serekali, unaufahamu?” (Do you know the estate that Kenyan ministers and top civil servants live in?) It was amusing to learn that my Tanzanians friends considered Buru Buru to be such a posh estate that only elite government people lived there.

“Buru Buru is very much like a British suburban hood,” says Stacy Wanjiku, who lived and studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), University of London. “Even the way people park outside their houses on the roadside is so British.” Wanjiku, who herself lives in Buru Buru, says the picket fencing may have long gone, but Buru Buru still retain its stand-out character with its shopping centres and it semi-detached architectural design uniformity.

Woodley and Kimathi: Civil servant estates

The estate that comes closer to once being a residential area for senior government civil servants is Woodley, which is located in the south-east of Nairobi, adjacent to Moi Nairobi Girls on Joseph Kang’ethe Road. Woodley is a fashionable estate made of a mixture of high-rise flats and bungalow houses with huge compounds and while it was not largely inhabited by cabinet ministers – at least certainly not in the 1980s – for some reason, Woodley was the residence of the senior-most Luo civil servants.

Alex Oduor, who lives in the estate, which is owned by Nairobi County, tells me that Woodley has all the trappings of a proper middle class neighbourhood: his house is in a safe secluded area, has a big compound for kids to romp about and to host a barbeque and is big enough to entertain guests and host visiting relatives from rural areas. Oduor himself lives in the three-bedroomed house once owned by Washington Okumu, the humongous jolly professor who brokered peace between Nelson Mandela of the African National Party (ANC) and Gatsha Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1990s.

The estate closest in resemblance to Woodley in terms of design and layout is Kimathi estate in Eastlands. It is ensconced between Bahati and Jerusalem estates. Built in the early 1970s, Kimathi is your archetypal middle class neighbourhood that has a family ring to it: an “enclosed” estate with modest houses and little compounds. Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya, kept a house there for the longest time. Up to 1974, he represented Bahati constituency which Kimathi estate was a part of. Hudson Mwangi, a businessman who has lived in Kimathi estate for many years, says the estate is unpretentious and allows him to operate “below the radar”, without attracting too much attention from the prying eyes of gossipers and nosy people.

Kilimani and Kileleshwa: “Lonely jungles”

The estates that were truly classical middle class neighbourhoods were the adjoining suburban areas of Kileleshwa and Kilimani located in the west of Nairobi. They were your conventional neighbourhoods for senior civil servants from 1963 to early 2000s. “But today, these areas have become concrete jungles; the high-rise flats that are coming up daily have completely erased the beautiful memory of the semi-detached bungalow and maisonette residential houses that adorned the area,” says print journalist Oyunga Pala, who grew up in the Kilimani area. “In the days that I grew up in Kilimani, the area was attractive and scenic, the houses had huge compounds for children to safely play and run around in, and the neighbourhood had lots of trees and kaiyaba (Kei apple) fences.”

The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts. Lilian Rice, a British national who lives in one of these flats, told me there is a “fake friendliness” among flat mates living in Kileleshwa. “Every time I visit my friend and workmate in Donholm in Eastlands, I notice the stark differences: the place is bubbly and full of life. The children are running helter-skelter, playing football or hide-and-seek. The neighbours pop in (unannounced) to share a funny anecdote or to enjoy a cup of tea together… I tell you the camaraderie is real and unpretentious.”

Rice says that the corner kiosks and green grocery vibandas (sheds) of Donholm really enchant her. “They serve as meeting points for people to banter and chat.” Rice concludes that Kileleshwa is “a lonely jungle” and Eastlands, with all its “dirt and disorder”, has “variety and vivacity.”

The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts.

This variety of life was best captured for me by Rhoda Mbaya, who was brought up in an old Kileleshwa neighbourhood. When their father, a senior civil servant, died suddenly, the family had to move out of their five-bedroomed government house and relocate to Uthiru, a peri-urban and semi-rural area on the outskirts of Nairobi, 12km west of the city centre, in a place called 87. “Of course, it was at first traumatising, but we quickly adjusted,” said Rhoda. “The thing about living in the old Kileleshwa was that we led a secluded and shielded life, so when we had to move to Uthiru, it was obviously a scale-down, but we soon realised that Uthiru had its own advantages.”

Used to a subsidised life all her life, Rhoda was gratified to find that Uthiru had a cheaper and affordable lifestyle that was commensurate with her middle class tastes and which did not compromise her family’s social upward mobility. Her five siblings still rent out a five-bedroomed bungalow there, which is much more affordable than a house around the Kileleshwa/Kilimani “posh” areas.

“The vegetables are fresh and cheap, we get the milk straight from the cow, fresh and unskimmed and kienyeji (indigenous) chicken and eggs. The crux of the matter is that you can’t have your cake and eat it,” said Rhoda. “Uthiru is teeming with people, we weren’t used to that, but yet again, the people are cosmopolitan, friendly and hospitable…but you know what? We discovered mutura (a sausage-like delicacy made out of stuffed offal) and pork. Uthiru has the best pork place in town.”

The rapid gentrifications of the city’s better known neighbourhoods, says Oyunga, are robbing the city of its iconic suburbs and traditional beautiful look. Kilimani’s expanding gentrification is already encountering opposition. The Kilimani Residents Association is up in arms against Cytonn Investment Company, a real estate private equity firm that intends to mobilise funds and put up a multi-storeyed building in the area.

Eastleigh: “Where dreams are incubated”

Gentrification in Nairobi has not been confined to the western side of the city. The Somali people’s influx in Eastleigh has led to a rapid and haphazard gentrification of the area. High- rise buildings have risen: some magnificent, some ugly and an eyesore. The buildings are both commercial and residential. A couple of years ago, a former powerful cabinet minister was persuaded to visit Eastleigh – a place he himself had confessed he had not visited for “donkey years”. The minister was astounded beyond belief when he found the area was home to two- and three-star hotels, complete with deluxe suites for accommodation and a la carte three-course menus.

Amid Eastleigh’s chaos, confusion, grime, mounting garbage, open sewers and systemic failure of services, there are Somali residents who live like Arab sheikhs in some of the most crowded and ugly flats. When Abdulrahman let me into his house on the top floor of a flat facing Pumwani Maternity Hospital, I was taken aback by the apparent affluence: The large sitting room was bedecked with jewelry and Arabian Nights-like ornaments, an imported sofa and a thick Afghanistan carpet. His prayer room was a wall-to-wall carpet affair. His expensive cutlery was like that of an emir. It was only after I came out of the house that I realised that indeed I was in the shambolic Eastleigh neighbourhood. Inside Abdulrahman’s house, it felt like I was in an affluent flat somewhere in Qatar or Yemen.

One of the areas that has been under perpetual threat of gentrification is Eastlands itself. The vast estates of Bahati, Hamza-Makadara, Jericho, (Lumumba and Ofafa) Jerusalem, Kaloleni, Makongeni, Maringo, Mbotela and Uhuru that make up the “real” greater Eastlands area and whose fame has rested on council houses belonging to the now defunct Nairobi City Council, are being targeted by “private developers” who have been marking them for a long time to bring them down in the name of constructing “better” and more spacious accommodation for the residents.

“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies”

It is true that many of these houses could be past their building life cycle. Their average lifespan is 60 years – Maringo estate was built in 1958, for example.The Kaloleni “bungalows” were built in the 1940s. During the 1960s, this was one of the poshest African quarters. Jericho Lumumba was built in 1962, a year before Kenya got its independence from the British. A beautiful, well-designed and laid-out estate, with ample open spaces for recreation, it still retains its shine despite obvious neglect that includes peeling paintwork that no one remembers when it was last undertaken, uncollected garbage, dilapidated plumbing and open sewers.

Peter Mugo, who is a resident here, allowed me into his “humble abode” for a cup of African tea that has the milk, tea leaves and sugar all boiled together. Mugo’s humble abode is a two-roomed affair but the house is nonetheless as middle class as they come: it has all the gadgets and trappings of modern urban living. He has the latest Samsung smart TV, Sony Hi-Fi music system complete with woofers, stylish settees and an expensive carpet to boot. “My subsidised rent allows me to save enough money to send my kids to quality private schools,” Mugo told me. His youngest 10-year-old son is busy with his play-station, while his second born daughter is on her laptop googling her school homework on the Wi-Fi that her dad has installed in the house.

“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies,” says Victor Ochieng. Before moving to the west of Nairobi, Victor lived in Donholm for several years. “I used Jogoo Road (the trunk road that runs through the major Eastlands estates). All the time I lived in Doni I can tell you the traffic snarl-ups on Jogoo Road used to give me incessant headaches. Doni was also not an easy estate to live in: if it’s not water shortages, its garbage strewn all over. And when it rains, it floods. That was enough stress for me.”

Still, after moving to the west side of Nairobi, he now appreciates that people in Eastlands at least live within their means. “There’s a lot of flush money in places like Kileleshwa and the majority of lifestyles are sustained by credit cards. In essence, people here live beyond their means, all in the name of maintaining class and status.”

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8-4-4 AND ITS AFTERMATH: Is the new CBC system a solution to Kenya’s education crisis?

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8-4-4 AND ITS AFTERMATH: Is the new CBC system a solution to Kenya’s education crisis?

In early 2005, I went to see Geoffrey Griffin, the director of Starehe Boys Centre, just before he died in June of that same year. We discussed many things, among them the 8-4-4 education system. “The fact of the matter is that there is intrinsically nothing wrong with the 8-4-4 system,” Griffin told me then. By the time of his death, he had overseen the system at the centre for 20 years. “The 8-4-4 students that Starehe has produced since its inception in 1985 are just as good and as vigorous as the students of the previous (7-4-2-3) system,” said Griffin, who explained that the system was based on a Canadian model of education. Even though the 8-4-4 system was supplanted onto a tested system, his students had excelled in it academically and even assumed professional jobs – locally and abroad – in which they had also excelled. “The system had fitted just well,” said Griffin.

Griffin, who maintained an annual tradition of taking a select number of Starehe students to study in universities abroad, said he had continued with this tradition. even with the onset of the 8-4-4 system. “In the beginning, I closely monitored their progress because I was interested in finding out how they were fairing compared to their predecessors, who had gone through the previous system and who I had been always confident they would have no problems pursuing further studies in top universities abroad,” said Griffin. “I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that my 8-4-4-students coped well and still stood out.” Throughout his leadership at Starehe, Griffin sent scores of his students to Ivy League universities in the United States and the Russell Group of universities in the United Kingdom.

“The 7-4-2-3 system was good because it separated the wheat from the chaff from early on and allowed students to identify their specialisation. It also helped them to gradually mature as students as they developed and gained analytical and comprehensive skills.”

We spoke during an entire afternoon in his office and by the time I was leaving the school I gathered that even though Griffin had embraced the 8-4-4 system wholeheartedly, he was nostalgic about his beloved 7-4-2-3 system. “The 7-4-2-3 system was good because it separated the wheat from the chaff from early on and allowed students to identify their specialisation. It also helped them to gradually mature as students as they developed and gained analytical and comprehensive skills.” Had it been his choice, it is unlikely he would have changed the system he had been used to. “In considering the merits and demerits of the 8-4-4 system,” said Griffin, as he rounded up our discussion, “you must always remember that the system began because of politics.”

Exactly two years ago, on April 3, 2016, former President Daniel arap Moi was presiding over a thanksgiving day at Sunshine Secondary School in Langata, Nairobi, one of the high schools started by him. The school’s prize giving day gave him the platform he needed to tell off the government’s impending plans to do away with the 8-4-4 education system. Moi said the system had served Kenyans well and had proved itself as an education system whose students had gone on to doing well in both local and international universities. “The students brought up under the 8-4-4 are excelling…who’s that telling us that we got it wrong?” Moi asked the parents rhetorically.

Five years earlier, on August 1, 2011, while presiding over an Anglican Church of Kenya fund-raising event in Voi, Taita-Taveta County, Moi cautioned the government against scrapping the 8-4-4 system. He told the churchgoers that 8-4-4 was the best education system so far that had served Kenyans well, and therefore, there was no “urgent need” to change it. Every time Moi has smelt a whiff of change in the 8-4-4 system, he has always vehemently and vociferously opposed the idea. It has become his personal crusade.

Beneath Moi’s vigorous protection of the 8-4-4 system is a political decision that nobody dares to talk about openly. The educationists and education specialists I have spoken to over the years have always, in private, agreed that the 8-4-4 system was more of a reaction to a prevailing political situation and less an answer to a seemingly “faltering” education system that needed to be fixed.

The 8-4-4 education system was ostensibly started with the sole intention of making education in Kenya more amenable to vocational training. Then, as now, the government of the day did not prepare and train the teachers (the core implementers) in the system adequately. Hence, the 8-4-4 system never really achieved it primary objective – that of producing and training more technical-oriented graduates.

In his defence of the 8-4-4 system, Moi no longer speaks of these (noble) intentions. He invariably talks of how the system has (remained) competitive to the extent that 8-4-4 system students are “accepted by even the best universities” worldwide. The technical/vocational training that Moi had said would prepare the students to be self-driven and self-sufficient is no longer talked about – because it has always been non-existent.

Beneath Moi’s vigorous protection of the 8-4-4 system is a political decision that nobody dares to talk about openly. The educationists and education specialists I have spoken to over the years have always, in private, agreed that the 8-4-4 system was more of a reaction to a prevailing political situation, and less an answer to a seemingly “faltering” education system that needed to be fixed.

Academic versus creative learning

Fast forward to a dozen years later. It seems to me that both parents and teachers are at a crossroads concerning the 8-4-4 system. In the years since talking to Griffin, 8-4-4 has been beset by massive exam cheating. There is unprecedented corruption in the education sector. Rich parents have been gradually removing and shuffling their children from public and private schools that teach the 8-4-4 system to schools teaching international curricula, convinced that schools offering 8-4-4 are not giving them value for their money. This has been accompanied by a rapid commercialisation of the education sector.

Faith Wambugu’s two children used to attend a private primary school that taught 8-4-4 until a year ago when she transferred them to a private school teaching the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) Cambridge syllabus. “For a while I had been agonising about whether my children should continue with the 8-4-4 system,” Wambugu, who is from Nakuru town, said to me recently. “When I found a suitable school with an internationally tried and tested educational system in Nakuru, I did not look back.” I asked Wambugu why she was dissatisfied with 8-4-4 system. “The system does not build confidence and impart skills to children; it is too focused on book learning and that this is not what I wanted for my children,” said the mother of two, who herself went through the 8-4-4 system.

“I want a system that does not only concentrate on academics, but one that also recognises other talents, such as music and drawing.” She said that the 8-4-4 system is straightjacketed and does not bring out the hidden creative potential that a child might possess.” The introduction of the new Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) system that is to replace 8-4-4 equally does not give her confidence that it is the best system for her children. “I do not have a problem with the CBC system per se, but is the government ready to roll out the system? I was worried my children would be caught up in an experimental project and I was not ready for that.”

As a middle-aged Kenyan Asian woman who has been through the previous GCE public education system told me, “Whereas before one could be sitting in class with your maid’s daughter, today students in schools are all from the same income group, which has created another kind of elitism and racial segregation.”

Although Calisto Ogutu is yet to remove his two children from the 8-4-4 system, he has already identified the school he wants them to attend. “I will be removing my children from the system,” said Ogutu, whose children go a well-regarded public primary school in a rich suburb in Nairobi. “I have had to wait for my children to be interviewed since last year because the waiting list is long.” The private school in Nairobi County that he wants his children to attend teaches the (General Certificate of Education (GCE) system. “I have done my due diligence and I am persuaded that this is the system that will serve my children’s educational needs.”

Ogutu faults the 8-4-4 system’s teachers for having a limited understanding of how to nurture talent and creative minds. “All what these teachers do is bombard the children with bombastic theoretical knowledge that cannot be of any help in the 21st century.” Ogutu said he wanted a school where his daughter will learn art and craft and be encouraged to learn a musical instrument. According to Ogutu, the 8-4-4 system produces students who are boring and cannot think on their own or on their feet. “The 8-4-4 system presumes that one can only succeed in life if one becomes a doctor, an economist or a lawyer. Yet if the quality of current professionals produced by the system in the last 20 years or so is anything to go, we have a long way to go as a country.”

The issue of an academic curriculum versus creative and exploratory learning was starkly brought home to me by Flora Muthoni, who narrated to me the story of her son who used to attend a well-known and expensive private primary school in Nairobi that teaches the 8-4-4 system. “Some time in 2016, I received a report card from my son’s class teacher that made me ponder over it for a long time,” said Muthoni. The report form said in part: “Your son is always doodling and twiddling under the desk when I am teaching. His concentration is poor. If only he could pay attention in class, his marks would improve.”

“That report card was my wake up call,” said Muthoni. “Ordinarily a rash parent would have set upon the son with tough talk about how it is important to pay attention in class when the teacher is in front teaching. But I decided to approach the matter differently.” Muthoni said she sought to find out from her son what interested him most in his life and what he would like to study in school. She found out that her 12-year-old son enjoyed drawing and painting. “I decided to look for a school that would encourage him to tap into his interest in the creative arts. After shopping around and asking colleagues and friends, I found a school that I thought would tackle my son’s ‘doodling and twiddling’ problem.”

The new Nairobi-based international school that teaches the International Baccalaureate (IB) system that Muthoni found for her son was a dream come true. “My son no longer doodles, he draws and paints without being afraid that he will be chastised,” said Muthoni. “I could not believe my eyes when during the school’s open day, my son’s two paintings were exhibited for all parents, teachers and visitors to see.”

Be that as it may, it was the deliberate and systematic neglect of public primary and secondary schools, beginning in the mid-1980s, that led to the rise of the so-called academies and private schools. This “apparent neglect” created a void for “educational private developers” to commercialise education by building “centres of educational excellence and wellsprings of education”. In essence, we created a class of educational entrepreneurs, whose primary motive was profit, all in the name of providing “special and quality education”.

The cumulative net effect of this privatisation of education was the creation of “class education” that dichotomised and segregated schools – an apartheid-like separation that pitted moneyed parents against less-moneyed parents. This is in sharp contrast to the previous system that was more egalitarian and merit-based, and which offered quality education to all, irrespective of financial capabilities and social status. As a middle-aged Kenyan Asian woman who has been through the previous GCE public education system told me, “Whereas before one could be sitting in class with your maid’s daughter, today students in schools are all from the same income group, which has created another kind of elitism and racial segregation.”

The teacher, who has taught the 8-4-4 system for 25 years, said that the government decided to introduce CBC without properly acquainting the teachers with the system beforehand. “It looks like the government is in a hurry to implement the system – for whatever reason.”

As some parents who have had their children go to school in these private schools told me, some of these private schools are over-rated and over-priced for nothing: They neither offer “private” education in its strictest sense nor quality education. It is about the bottom line – they are businesses that have invested in education to reap profits for shareholders.

It is no wonder that some rich parents, after sending their children to expensive private primary schools, will do anything to wean their children off private education to join national public high schools. A paradox, but one that explains the commodification of the education system in Kenya. Public high schools, such as Alliance Boys and Girls Schools (aka Bush Boys and Bush Girls), Kenya High (aka Boma), Lenana Boys (aka Changes), Limuru Girls (aka Chalks), Mangu Boys, Nairobi School (aka Patch), Maseno School (the only national school on the Equator), Moi Girls Eldoret (former Highlands School), Moi Nairobi Girls and Catholic-sponsored schools, such as Loreto Convent Girls, St. Mary’s, Precious Blood, Riruta, Bishop Gatimu Girls School (formerly Ngandu Girls) and Strathmore School remain to date star attractions for parents, who value high schools imbued with a sense of missionary and civic philosophy.

Luis Franceschi, the Dean of the School of Law at Strathmore University in Nairobi, says that over time he has been observing differences in his Bachelors of Law (LLB) students. “I can outright tell which students underwent the 8-4-4 system and those that went through international systems such IB, IGCSE and GCE,” says the Dean. “The students who have gone through international systems are confident, open-minded, better in analytical skills and research methodology. The students who have gone through 8-4-4, even though not lacking in knowledge, tend to be inward-looking and are not adventurous.”

Franceschi’s sentiments are echoed by a University of Nairobi don who says that today’s 8-4-4 system students arrive at the university expecting that their lecturers and professors will provide them with photocopied lecture notes. “They lack the simplest of analytical and conceptual skills. They are not imaginative. It is not them to blame, it is the system that they have been made to go through,” said the university don.

Brian Gitonga, a software engineer working for Google in Dublin, Ireland – one of only two African engineers at the firm (the other is a Nigerian) out of a total work force of 4,000 engineers working at the Google’s headquarters – told me that the 8-4-4 education system does not bring out creativity and imagination in a student, neither does it encourage the student to think outside the box. Recently in Nairobi, partly on home leave and partly to scout for talented Kenyan engineers, Gitonga told me that it was saddening that the graduate engineers he had a chat with “could not even in the widest margin qualify to work for Google”. And it is not because they make for poor engineers (there is a lot to be said about the teaching in the engineering institutions in Kenya, said Gitonga); it is because the graduate engineers have gone through an education system that teaches them to duplicate knowledge and material, instead of encouraging them to be exploratory and innovative.

CBC: What is it and why now?

The nervousness then shown by parents over the pending introduction of the new Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) that is meant to replace the much debated and doubted 8-4-4-system should therefore be seen in the context of parents being conflicted about what is the best system that will address their children’s educational needs in contemporary Kenya’s 21st century needs. To this end, I sought the views of teachers who will be central in ensuring that the new system is properly integrated and correctly implemented.

The greatest tragedy in this country is that we have left politicians and non-educational experts to experiment with our children’s education. “The only people who seem to know about CBC are ministry bureaucrats,” said Ms Achieng. “Who is supposed to be best equipped with CBC knowledge – ministry desk officials or teachers who are out there with pupils?”

“Parents, as well as us teachers, do not understand the new educational system,” says Mercy Mbai, a public high school Chemistry and Biology teacher in Kiambu County. “We are yet to be properly inducted and as it is currently many teachers are groping in the dark. We are learning as we go by.” The teacher, who has taught the 8-4-4 system for 25 years, said that the government decided to introduce CBC without properly acquainting the teachers with the system beforehand. “It looks like the government is in a hurry to implement the system – for whatever reason. Why wouldn’t the government take time to first acquaint the teachers with the new system, since they are the implementers?” Ms Mbai said she was slated to go for training in the CBC system in the coming weeks. “We are being trained on the job, we are learning the ropes as we go along.”

The CBC system, as I vaguely understand it, ought to be a practical and workable educational system, one that is able to tap talents and redirect the students to their special areas of interest, be it academics, creative arts, sports or vocational training. However, it is not clear why this new system was introduced at this particular time, and without much prior consultation with the main stakeholders (head teachers, teachers, parents and students).

“As a teacher who has taught the 8-4-4 system for many years, I have pondered over several questions,” said Ms Mbai. “Why did the government find it fit to change the system? What is wrong with it? If there is something wrong with 8-4-4, have we first tried to rectify the problem? CBC sounds great on paper, but if, as we are being told, it is supposed to identify gifts and talents among the students, do our we have the necessary resources and infrastructure to facilitate the new system?”

The science teacher told me that the country could be rushing into adopting an educational system that might, in the long run, come a cropper. “As a student myself, I went through the 7-4-2-3 educational system. It was an educational system well-suited to most students of our time. Why? Because it allowed students, once they were in secondary school, to select subjects that they enjoyed and that they would eventually peg their future careers on. The system was a good sieve.”

For those who did not go beyond GCE “O” level studies or who did not qualify to go to university, there were tertiary and vocational institutions that could absorb them, said the teacher. These institutions included teacher training colleges for primary and secondary school teachers that awarded certificates and diplomas and technical-oriented institutions, such as the polytechnics and vocational training institutes.

Some of the better known primary teacher training institutions included Thogoto and Shanzu teachers colleges in Kiambu and Mombasa counties. The best science teachers’ colleges were Kagumo and Kenya Science Teachers College (KSTC) in Nyeri and Nairobi counties. Kenya Polytechnic, Mombasa Polytechnic, Eldoret Polytechnic, Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology and Kenya Technical Teachers College trained some of the best middle cadre technical personnel that this country has ever produced. So what happened to these great institutions? “They were all converted to universities,” lamented Ms Mbai.

Victoria Achieng, a primary school teacher of many years, posed the same questions that Ms Mbai is grappling with: Why does the government seem to be in a rush to implement this new system? Have they (the state bureaucrats) told us (parents, teachers and all the people involved in education matters) what precisely is wrong with 8-4-4? Is the infrastructure ready and in place to roll out CBC? Have teachers been properly trained to teach the new curriculum? Do the current crop of teachers have the necessary skills to identify and scout for talent?

Ms Achieng told me that teachers have been “trained” for only three weeks and with that they are expected to fully comprehend the details of what they are supposed to teach. “I will tell you for free that many teachers – and head teachers – do not know, much less understand, what CBC is.”

Can the new system work in Kenya?

The greatest tragedy in this country is that we have left politicians and non-educational experts to experiment with our children’s education. “The only people who seem to know about CBC are ministry bureaucrats,” said Ms Achieng. “Who is supposed to be best equipped with CBC knowledge – ministry desk officials or teachers who are out there with the pupils?”

Ms Achieng said that ministry officials keep on assuring the teachers that they will acquaint them with all the necessary information and skills. “It is as if they are on a trial-and-error policy. Is the government piloting the students?” The teacher was categorical about what she thought about CBC: “It is a system that had been tried elsewhere and worked, no doubt, but it is not the panacea to our current educational crises.”

CBC’s advocates believe that the system will see increased success in many companies’ performance. This is pegged on the fact that CBC is not exam-oriented and, therefore, “students will no longer only be interested in passing exams, but also in nurturing the required skills in their field of specialisation”.

The Competence Based Curriculum (CBC), is an educational model used in countries such as Australia and the Scandinavian countries like Finland. It is supposed to be implemented right from pre-primary level – PP1 to PP2, then progresses to Grade I, II, III, which signals the end of lower primary schooling. Grades IV, V and VI end primary schooling. Primary schooling is followed by three years of senior school that comprise grade VII to Form 1. This is followed by another three years of learning from Form 2 to Form 4, and finally three years of tertiary and higher learning.

According to CBC proponents, the 2-3-3-3-3-3, or for some 2-6-3-3-3 system, is transformational and is supposed to evolve a new educational methodology that taps into the students’ creative juices. The system, its architects opine, will be skills-oriented rather than exam-oriented. Students will able to acquire all-round skills, ranging from sports to academics. The students will be judged on how they display their skills, not on whether they pass exams. They further argues that the system will allow specialisation for students. While at senior secondary, students will go for the subjects they are best suited for. It will allow students to excel because they will only select their areas of interest.

Ministry officials seem convinced that CBC will curtail cheating in national examinations. They argue that since national exams will be scrapped, schools will not be tempted to engage in exam cheating as they will no longer be competing against each other. Proponents of the new system are also convinced that students will now have room to express their talents and abilities. They point to the fact that the current system had totally neglected non-academic subjects, with teachers spending all their valuable time pushing students to cram for exams.

CBC’s advocates believe that the system will see increased success in many companies’ performance. This is pegged on the fact that CBC is not exam-oriented and, therefore, “students will no longer only be interested in passing exams, but also in nurturing the required skills in their field of specialisation”. Here is a summary of what the benefits of CBC are supposed to yield: focus on competencies, flexibility that creates room for specialisation, balanced and fair assessment of excellence, emphasis on education and learning.

We will just have to wait and see if the system will create a new breed of creatives and entrepreneurs who will propel Kenya into the 21st century. Let us hope that like the much-maligned 8-4-4 system, CBC will not be replaced with yet another system because it did not produce the desired results. Kenya, after all, is not Finland, where the government backs its policies with the needed infrastructure, training and budgetary allocations, and where the teacher-student ratio is one where teachers are able to not just spot talent, but nurture it as well.

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BETRAYAL IN THE CITY: Kisumu’s residents grapple with a post-handshake future

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BETRAYAL IN THE CITY: Kisumu’s residents grapple with a post-handshake future

Kisumu city’s landscape, like the bodies of some of its residents, bears the scars of recent political protests and state repression in the aftermath of the August 8 election that was annulled by the Supreme Court and the 26 October “Jubilee election” that was completely ignored by four counties in Kenya’s western region (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya).

The visceral scars are a testimony to a cityscape whose residents are yearning for a total break from the politics of despondency and for a muting or re-writing of its political history, a history that will not be absolved or corrected by the Uhuru Kenyatta–Raila Odinga handshake that took place on March 9, 2018, its bewildering symbolism notwithstanding.

The fact that the city yearns for a fresh start is apparent to David Ndii, the National Super Alliance (NASA)’s economic advisor and strategist, but not to the Raila-led Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) MPs, whose narrow articulation of the Uhuru-Raila rapprochement simply calls for the compensation of life or limb lost during the protests.

Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape

Kisumu yearns for what Ndii refers to as Kenya’s kairos, but whether or not there is a consensus that this is the moment, and whether Kisumu’s scars equally constitute this moment, is debatable.

Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape, especially along the highway road signage. Charcoal black powder from burnt car tyres pepper many intersections on Kisumu’s roads, despite the recent heavy rains. At the Kenya Commercial Bank’s T-junction, where the Jomo Kenyatta Highway and the Oginga Odinga Street meet, angry protestors scratched off Jomo Kenyatta’s name from the road sign. Like the silver surface of an airtime scratch card, this left a dull metallic gray centre on the white metallic arrows where the words Jomo Kenyatta had been.

Across the road, on the walls of the city park’s main building, also known as Od Mikai, the name JARAMOGI, Palimpsest-like, has been superimposed on KENYATTA’s name. Never in Kisumu city’s history have the residents expressed such a strong desire to re-write, mute or erase the Kenyattas from the city’s political history and to obliterate memories of the traumas inflicted by the city’s bloody encounters with state brutality.

Despite the 1969 political tragedies – the annus horribilis in Kisumu’s post- independence history when Argwings Kodhek, the Mau Mau lawyer, died mysteriously in a road accident, when Tom Mboya was shot dead in broad daylight in in Nairobi and when Jomo Kenyatta’s security forces massacred at least 100 unarmed citizens, including children, during the official launch of the Kisumu Hospital (Russia Hospital) – Jomo Kenyatta’s name has always held pride of place in Kisumu’s central business district. The biggest public park and the longest road in Kisumu are named after Kenya’s first president.

Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire.

Further afield, Kisumu city’s market, officially named Jubilee Market, was popularly and hurriedly re-named Orengo Market by protestors in honour of the Luo lawyer and opposition leader James Orengo. Locally known as Chiro Mbero, it’s the market where the Kenyan historian, the late E.S Atieno Odhiambo, tells us the independence-era women traders sang “dine onge Odinga, nyithiwa dine Jomo otho e jela” (without Odinga, Jomo would have died in prison). Protestors scratched the name JUBILEE off the market’s signpost, and in uneven uppercase letters, scribbled the name ORENGO on the signpost’s half-scratched surface.

It seems Kisumu residents want nothing do with the Kenyattas or the type of government they represent. A few months ago, they swore to fight to the last man and woman standing for electoral justice. Angered by the conduct of the August 8 general election, the repeat presidential poll on October 26 and the state-orchestrated violence against civilians, many turned up for successive street protests, shouting in Kiswahili “ua ua…kill…kill” as volleys of teargas canisters were thrown at them by paramilitary or regular police and in defiance of the blood-curdling sounds of bullets that pierced through clouds of teargas.

Undeterred, certainly not by the rising death toll, these unarmed protestors were unflinching, angry, and contemptuous of the Jubilee government’s deadly use of force, shouting “ong’e ringo,” (no relenting) as they courted martyrdom, drawing cold comfort in the fact that their resolve to press for electoral justice was stronger than the government’s resolve to violently quell the unceasing protests. “Ok gi bi nego wa te,” (Kill they will, but they will not kill all of us.) Some of us will live to tell the tales of this war, others will be killed, but all will bequeath the next the generation with a different political world, they shouted.

Then, just when Kisumu residents thought they were done and dusted with the Kenyattas, Raila sued for peace in the name of “national reconciliation and unity”, pulling them out of their absolute resolve to detach themselves from their debilitating history and pushing them right back to the doorsteps of Harambee House, the seat of Kenya’s oppressive state power.

Raila’s handshake with Uhuru has effectively revived Kisumu residents’ cruel memories (memories they had hoped they could erase) of Kenya’s contested and chequered political history, a history that can neither be re-written from below, ORENGO Market style, nor from above, in the style of the famous handshake between the two leaders.

In the street corners of Kisumu, sounds of grand betrayal reverberate. The reverberations feel more like a spirited protest movement rather than the promising beginning of a national dialogue. At Kisumu’s K-city market, a scowl-faced middle-aged woman rhetorically asks, “Kalonzo, Wakamba osetho kodwa didi? Waluhya to….Nyithindo mane otho ne?” (How many time has Kalonzo, Wakamba died with us in this cause? And how about the Luhya…the children or the youth who died for him [Raila]?)

It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.

There is a feeling among Raila’s core constituency that he has betrayed his comrades and their support base for a brotherhood fellowship that is as confounding as it difficult to swallow. The net result has been the gradual disintegration of NASA, the once formidable opposition coalition.

“Wa chung Kanye?” (Where do we stand?), asks the woman at K-City market, as the news of the opposition NASA senator Moses Wetangula’s ouster and his replacement with James Orengo as the minority leader is broadcast in the car stereo next to the washing bay. It is now truly mindboggling to tell what either Raila Odinga or James Orengo now stand for after the handshake. Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire. The handshake has left Raila’s political base utterly confused. It’s a covenant that recalls Thomas Hobbes’ pithy quip: “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

Currently, only David Ndii’s take resonates with the protest scars on Kisumu’s cityscape. The protest crowds want to rake up the past. The ODM MPs’ talk of compensation as opposed to the 12-point gamut of the Uhuru-Raila handshake agreement certainly misses the significance of the marks on Kisumu’s roads signs.

In an interview with Citizen TV, Ndii strenuously and variously suggested that the handshake signaled Kenya’s Kairos – that opportune moment when the tensions and contradictions of Kenya’s neocolonial state, laid bare by the bloody 2007 presidential election, must be resolved. It is an opportunity for Kenyans, on their own or led by Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, to reconstitute the Kenyan nation and its moral underpinnings and to resolve its contradictions: It should be a moment when Kenyans decide whether we want to continue with dictatorship or want to embrace democracy. It should be a moment where we decide to do away with ethnic domination and consider ethnic inclusivity, through cross-party and cross-ethnic dialogues.

Ndii seems to suggests that the handshake signaled the end of ordinary times, times for everyday Kenyan political talk of “development,” “peace,” “unity,” “power-sharing or nusu-mkate”, the stock-in-trade phrases that the state and many reactionary Kenyans bandy around to silence dissent and to dismiss critics as unconstructive and unworthy interlocutors. For Ndii, Kairos is the moment for a markedly different kind of political conversation and action, which could rescue Kenya from its existential threat and ethnic implosion.

This moment underpins the desires of the Kisumu protest crowds, who have become cynical about both ODM and the Jubilee party.

Both the ODM and Jubilee’s disparate talks seem to be rewinding the historical clock, away from Ndii’s kairos, a historical watershed, and back to the Aden Duale–Fred Matiangi’s chronos, ordinary times, when and where evils still pays, and the soul of the men in charge of the government’s coercive powers is unrepentant. It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.

ODM MPs, having smelt state power, now have a spring in their steps as they arrogantly exert their powers within the now wobbly NASA coalition. Orengo, ensconced in his new position as the Senate’s minority chief whip, has now also come to symbolise betrayal. Increasingly, these MPs’ talk seems to be narrowing down people grievances to mostly to one type of injury: physical injury. They are also shifting towards the development/peace talk within the party’s core support base.

Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal.

At a newsstand in Nyalenda, one of Kisumu’s bustling ghettos, a young man quips, “Kalonzo odhi omos Ruto…wan waduaro kwe…wanwiwa ruko…mono jopinje moko keto mwandu gi Kisumu,” (Kalonzo should go and shake Ruto’s hands…we want peace…our penchant for protest discourages others from investing in Kisumu.) It a remarkable shift, a shift that echoes mostly ODM party officials’ and MPs’ views regarding the handshake and which also elevates Raila above his comrades-in-arm, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula and Musalia Mudavadi.

It is a disappointing end to a protracted struggle driven from below by fearless foot soldiers who had put their lives on the line for electoral justice and a Raila presidency. Kenya’s nascent broad-based opposition coalition has suffered a major setback. And the Jubilee Party has scored a major victory, albeit a momentary one.

The Jubilee securocrats believe that the opposition comprises dispensable actors in a liberal democracy, not insurgents who can defeat them through extralegal warfare. Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal. “Baba is always right,” say many, either as a way of expressing unquestioning loyalty to Raila Odinga or granting him the benefit of the doubt that he did not throw the opposition under the bus.

What will the two midwives of the Harambee House deal, Martin Kimani and Paul Mwangi, a counter-insurgent securocat and Raila’s everyday lawyer, respectively, deliver? Will they initiate a process to re-write the tragic history of the neocolonial Kenyan state? Or will they recast recent events as merely a glitch that temporarily halted the country’s relentless pursuit of “development”?

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