Connect with us

Ideas

Who’s Laughing Now? Satire as a Form of Social Protest

Published

on

Download PDFPrint Article

Those of you who are my age or older might remember when the musician Eric Wainaina came onto the scene in the late nineties with his song “Nchi ya kitu kidogo.” For those of you who might not know the song, it was an attack against corruption in the civil service and a lament about the lack of public social services for ordinary wananchi. The song was a play on Kenyan code words for theft of public resources, namely “chai” (tea) and “kitu kidogo” (something small). In the song, the singer tells a woman, “Ukitaka chai ewe mama, nunua Ketepa (If you want tea, buy Ketepa [a famous local tea brand]), and tells someone else, “Ukitaka chai ewe ndungu, nenda Limuru” (If you want tea, go to Limuru [one of the tea-growing areas in Kenya]). The singer also boldly says to a policeman, “Ukitaka soda ewe inskpekta, burudika na Fanta” (If you want soda, refresh yourself with Fanta).

The song was fun to sing, because of its benga beat, and the fact that its theme was close to Kenyans’ hearts. The rhyming in Kiswahili (mama/Ketepa, ndungu/Limuru, inspekta/Fanta), made the song even more enjoyable. Not surprisingly, while the song was a popular hit among the people, it was not popular among politicians. In 2001, the BBC reported that Eric was almost prevented from performing the song at an event attended by the then vice president George Saitoti, but the public prevailed.

Later, I read an interview in which Eric recounted a true story about the impact of his song. There was a bus with high school students that was stopped on the road by the police, and the students began to sing “Ukitaka soda ewe inspekta, burudika na Fanta.” The police officers were infuriated, and promptly arrested the students who spent the night at the local police station.

Great satire often arises during times of great repression or moral decadence. The satirist is said to be disturbed by the contradictions between ideals and morality, on the one hand, and the reality of political and moral decadence, on the other.

The second funny element of Eric Wainana’s song that I’d like to mention is the comedy group Redykyulass, which performed some pieces in Eric’s album “Sawa Sawa” in which the song “Nchi ya kitu kidogo” appeared. I will never forgot what an impression Redykyulass made on us when it burst onto the scene in the nineties, with comedian Walter “Nyambane” Mongare doing his classical performance of President Daniel arap Moi, with lines like “na hiyo, ni maendeleo” (and this, is development).

Nyambane’s imitation of Moi has remained as fresh as ever. He is so good at parodying Moi that even less than a year ago, the Churchill and Jeff Koinange TV shows in Kenya and even government officials in charge of entertainment for the national celebrations, pulled him out of his posh Nairobi County communication director’s job to perform parodies of Moi, who has been out of power for almost fifteen years.

For me, these opportunities for Nyambane to still perform his Moi routine are interesting, not least because there is now a generation of Kenyans that does not remember, or has not experienced, the significance of Moi in Kenya’s public consciousness. And yet, Nyambane’s parody still has appeal.

Moi has been succeeded by two presidents. During their tenure, we have gone through major pleasant and unpleasant landmarks. We have had post-election violence and a government with a prime minister. We have had a new constitution that has given us counties and devolution, with a president who is still trying to run a tight hold on governors the way his mentor, Moi, held a tight grip on MPs and politicians. Many of the children who were born in the last decade of Moi’s rule are now over twenty. Laughing at a Nyambane routine today is like Americans laughing at Bill Clinton when there’s Donald Trump today, and George W. Bush and Obama in-between.

…while the catharsis of satire can soothe the pain of the audience, it often runs the danger of just providing catharsis without spurring the politicians or society to change their ways.

So why does Nyambane’s Moi routine still have a soft spot in our hearts? Why do we have no memorable equivalent today for Uhuru Kenyatta, for example? The answer to this question is tied to the nature of politics and satire. Before I get to that, I’d just like to go over a few basics about satire.

Basics of satire

Satire is a very delicate genre. What may make people laugh today may not make them laugh tomorrow if the social living conditions have changed. In fact, scholarship avoids discussing satire because the genre is very difficult to pin down.

Satire tells a story as an analogy, and through that analogy, the audience is supposed to understand that the satirist is referring to a particular element in real life. For instance, when all the NASA politicians portrayed on the XYZ show decide in which rooms of the house they will sleep, the analogy becomes a reflection of the intricate agreements that the principals negotiated to come up with a flag bearer. Because of its component of analogy, satire often doesn’t appeal to people outside the community who may not be familiar with the analogy.

Great satire often arises during times of great repression or moral decadence. The satirist is said to be disturbed by the contradictions between ideals and morality, on the one hand, and the reality of political and moral decadence, on the other. The satirist who uses humour to ridicule and criticise society or those in power is holding up a mirror to society to provoke it to change the situation. This means that the satirist must experience a level of indignation and moral impatience with the subject he or she chooses to satirise. We see this especially in Patrick Gathara’s and Godfrey Mwampembwa (better known as Gado)’s cartoons.

By laughing at parodies of Moi, we were able to distance ourselves from the man who had imposed himself on our lives.

Because satire attacks indirectly, the humour provoked by satire provides a way out for both the audience and the artist. When the audience laughs, it experiences relief, otherwise known as catharsis, which gives it a break from the pain of the absurdity of the oppression it deals with in real life. For the artists, satire provides a convenient cover in case they are attacked by the real-life targets of their ridicule. The artist can say to the target: “It was not about you; it was just a story.”

But the escape route that satire provides is a double edged sword; while the catharsis of satire can soothe the pain of the audience, it often runs the danger of just providing catharsis without spurring the politicians or society to change their ways. In other words, people can take refuge in satire to avoid demanding social change. When they laugh, they feel better, but they go straight back into the lion’s den for another bashing before they seek the next shot of relief through satire.

Although satire often does not provoke social change, politicians still fear it. For example, in the case of Ezekiel Mutua’s evident pain about being satirised in his fight to install a censorship bill, we have seen that the political class is definitely uncomfortable about satire. And people in power do have a reason to fear satire, because satire warns people of social rot or impending danger, keeps the people vigilant about those in power, and makes people ask questions. Satire also provides a sense of moral superiority, because those who laugh at satire feel morally superior to the leaders who oppress them.

We need to understand these elements of satire to grasp why the satire about the Moi era (or error) is still quite funny for us older folk.

Why satirising Moi was funny

Moi was our president for 24 years, so he left an indelible mark on an entire generation. More importantly, Moi was omnipresent in Kenyans’ lives. He was on the news every day; every news bulletin began with “Mtukufu, rais Daniel arap Moi, leo ….” (Today President Daniel arap Moi…”). Moi’s inescapable presence in our lives also meant that we had time to master his accent, his famous phrases and his mannerisms. So when Nyambane performed, there was an element of familiarity with the subject, and most of all, a shared communal experience. Nyambane’s routine provided us with an opportunity to reminisce collectively about a difficult period in Kenya’s history. But our laughter was also full sadness for the people who suffered under Moi’s regime.

Kenyan artists need to be wary about comedy that purports to fulfil the functions of satire. In fact, the expanded freedoms we earned from the struggles of the nineties have resulted in less sophisticated forms of satire. But does this limited form of satire mean that there is no repression, no exploitation, and no one to mock and ridicule?

As I’ve already indicated, the media contributed to Moi’s notoriety. It was not simply that Moi dominated the news bulletin on VoK (Voice of Kenya, which later became Kenya Broadcasting Corporation or KBC), but also that for most of the time that he was president, we had only one media channel. Unlike my generation, children today have not experienced a time when there was only one broadcast channel that went on air from 4pm to 11 pm during the week, and from 2pm to midnight over the weekends, with a brief shutdown in the afternoon. Moi was in our faces and ears all the time. We not only heard about him, we also sang songs about him like “Tawala Kenya tawala” (“Rule Kenya rule”). By laughing at parodies of Moi, we were able to distance ourselves from the man who had imposed himself on our lives.

Most important of all, making fun of Moi gave us a break from the repression of his regime, which was tangible. When Nyambane performed in the nineties, our laughter was more nervous than it is today. We knew that for having an opinion other than what Moi allowed, people could be assassinated, detained, tortured in the Nyayo House chambers or sent into exile.

One of the victims of that regime included columnist Wahome Mutahi, also known as Whispers, who was picked up from the Nation newspaper’s offices and detained for “whispering too loudly”. Laughing at Moi was a cardinal sin with life and death repercussions. So when we laughed at Redykyulass, or when we sang “Nchi ya kitu kidogo,” we were releasing decades of repression. It was relief, or catharsis, for us. And even now when I watch Redykyulass, I still feel that catharsis. Because the memory of that oppression remains very fresh for me.

Changing times

The Redykyulass model of humour, which even Daniel “Churchill” Ndambuki admits is the model adopted by Kenya’s comedy performances today, arose in specific times that have now radically changed. We now have the Internet and access to literally limitless media. We have a new constitution and more freedoms. We can criticise the president in public, and even to his face, and still go home and eat and drink with our families the same evening. And most of all, we don’t have a president for longer than ten years, so thankfully, we will never be as familiar with another Kenyan president as we were with Moi.

And yet Kenyan satire, for the most part, hasn’t changed. We are still mimicking politicians and the quirkiness of Kenyan society. Thankfully, comedians are now working on using less ethnic stereotypes than they did ten years ago, but there is still too much reliance on ethnic particularities for humour. And today, politicians are no longer as present on the live comedy stage. Even when they do appear, the comedy is based on mere imitation of the political personalities, but without an analogy of real, complex and disturbing socio-political issues.

I must admit that my knowledge of Kenyan comedy is scanty, but I have not seen, for example, good satire on marginalisation or gender discrimination in Kenya. I’m thinking of, for example, a skit on “mansplaining” that was done by Jimmy Kimmel and then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that mocked the condescending attitudes towards women. Kimmel’s enactment of sexism impressively captured the impossible standards that women are subjected to. But that kind of performance requires an intricate understanding of the issues that women face.

“Incredulously, while we cartoonists struggled to bash politicians in the Kanu era, we’ve found criticising today’s political leaders tricky because they always rush to court. It’s a bit like they are the ones who are supposed to be the sole beneficiaries of today’s freedoms. They have discovered that they can sue.”

In the Kenyan context, for example, we do not have enough comic performances that capture intricate social issues that require commentary, partly because dominant public discourses in Kenya reduce artistic skill to raw talent. An exception is the XYZ show, which performed a brilliant skit satirising the racial politics of conservation by presenting a Maasai who settles in the UK to save British wildlife.

Without similar insights into the intricacy of social issues, the comedy that is now dominant in Kenyan entertainment will inevitably equate stupidity with ethnic peculiarities. And the comedy will rarely be satire, because the goal of the performance is simply to entertain and make people laugh, rather than to point out our moral weaknesses or political mistakes.

In other words, Kenyan artists need to be wary about comedy that purports to fulfil the functions of satire. In fact, the expanded freedoms we earned from the struggles of the nineties have resulted in less sophisticated forms of satire. But does this limited form of satire mean that there is no repression, no exploitation, and no one to mock and ridicule?

This question has actually become more prominent in the United States, especially with the election of Donald Trump. The comedy programmes mocking Trump have increased, and now America is experiencing the threat of comedy overthrowing authentic political discussion and engagement. And yet, comedy is part of what got Trump into power in the first place A few years ago, John Oliver thought that the idea of Trump running for president was so ridiculous that he offered to campaign for Trump. The media gave Trump free airtime because he was funny and entertaining. By the time the media and comedians realised what they’d done, Trump was on his way to becoming president.

And in the shock and despair, the American media has raised the amount of comedy on the airwaves. Even respectable channels like CNN have resorted to drama – bantering between the left and the right – as a form of political commentary. The problem is that comedy and melodrama do not engage citizens in authentic political discussions about their country.

For this reason, observers have started to ask whether mimicking and mocking Trump serves the social good any more. A few months ago, Emma Burnell wrote a piece in the British newspaper, The Independent, titled “Traditional political satire is dead – the people, not politicians, should be the butt of our jokes now.” She argued that political satire no longer challenges the establishment. Like in the case of Kenya, mocking politicians no longer has the shock effect it used to. Politicians are now more attentive to the people because they can be fired by the vote. Burnell argues that maybe it’s the people, not their leaders, who need to be mocked.

From Trump to Uhuru to Sonko, politicians tell us that they are the victims of oppression by the media, the international community or the government, and because we used to be the victims of the same, we believe we’re in the same boat as these politicians. But in reality, they’re screwing our hospitals and schools as they seek treatment abroad and send their kids to private schools.

I disagree with Burnell because I believe that satire should be reserved for those in power. Nevertheless, I concede her point that we the people are complicit in the current decay in our countries. But in Kenya, wananchi are complicit in this decay as victims, not as perpetrators. More than that, the fact remains that oppression has not disappeared; it has simply morphed. We have a president who is privatising our health care and education, who is destroying institutions by underfunding them and making professionalism almost impossible, and who is sustaining criminal impunity by subverting judicial processes and by allowing thieves of public funds to run for public office. The national debt has shot through the roof over a project whose value to Kenya is not evident. Surely satire should have something to say about these serious issues.

However, satirising these issues is not so easy because the oppression has become more subtle, even though it is more viscous. Oppression is now embedded in law and policy, while, ironically, politicians speak freedom using the metaphors of the poor. Take, for instance, politician Mike Sonko, who talks as if he is more oppressed than the regular Kenyan, and who takes his fight for the people to the streets through personalised rescue missions, rather than to through the corridors of legislature where he was elected to represent the people’s interests.

In an interview with Kimani wa Wanjiru a few years ago, the cartoonist Paul Kelemba, popularly known as Maddo, captured the irony of the powerful claiming the position of the oppressed and explaind its direct implication for satirists. Despite the increased liberties, said Kelemba, satirising is actually more difficult today for Kenyan artists than it was during Moi’s days. “Incredulously, while we cartoonists struggled to bash politicians in the Kanu era, we’ve found criticising today’s political leaders tricky because they always rush to court. It’s a bit like they are the ones who are supposed to be the sole beneficiaries of today’s freedoms. They have discovered that they can sue.”

Maddo highlights an interesting phenomenon of this neoliberal era: the politicians have now become the oppressed fighting for freedom. They join us on the streets, they come to hospitals to pay for the treatment of our wounds caused by the government, they intervene in distress, and they complain that the government is oppressing them. From Trump to Uhuru to Sonko, politicians tell us that they are the victims of oppression by the media, the international community or the government, and because we used to be the victims of the same, we believe we’re in the same boat as these politicians. But in reality, they’re screwing our hospitals and schools as they seek treatment abroad and send their kids to private schools.

Another example is that of the current reforms in education, which are so problematic. Until recently, the education cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i could do no wrong because of his yet-to-be-explained purge of cheating in national examinations. It is, therefore, very difficult for Kenyans to complain about the education reforms, and it does not help that every time he speaks, he seems to be enforcing efficiency in the education system. However, listening to him, it’s very difficult to notice that actually, the cabinet secretary does not say much that is substantial. For instance, at the launch of the piloting of the new school curriculum, he used all the necessary buzz words about supporting schools and holding consultations on the reforms, but in fact, he never got to actually spell out what the reforms were. It is very difficult to point out these gaps without having to deal with accusations of being so “negative” and of refusing to support a hardworking minister. But in the midst of my struggles to explain why the reforms must be opposed, Gado, in a single cartoon, explained everything I had been trying to say.

It is clear that oppression has not reduced; it is simply wrapped in a new garment. This reality suggests that we must change the way we satirise. We can no longer rely on just mimicking politicians. So in these changing times, how can we satirise? How do we make fun of policy, or expose political wolves in sheepskin? How do we: 1) warn the people; 2) keep the people always vigilant against those in power; 3) make people ask questions; and 4) give people a sense of encouragement? These are the questions that satirists today have a difficult job answering, especially because they can no longer answer these questions in the same way that Nyambane did.

Avatar
By

Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political and commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Continue Reading

Ideas

Eating Our Own Flesh: Corruption as a Form of Cannibalism

Corruption in Africa is not simply an act of giving or receiving a bribe; it is a form of “primitive accumulation” or “accumulation by dispossession” that hollows out institutions and causes much misery.

Published

on

Eating Our Own Flesh: Corruption as a Form of Cannibalism
Download PDFPrint Article

Corruption is a political vernacular in Kenya today, as Keguro Macharia once described it. In public discourse, corruption is described as something both pervasive and cunning. You get a sense of this in some of the metaphors that we use to describe it: “cartels fight back” or corruption is a “virus” or a “cancer” that has taken over the country’s body politic. The metaphor of cancer is a particularly intriguing one, as it simultaneously renders corruption as invisible, powerful and biological.

The effect of this metaphorising of corruption is that it makes the phenomenon difficult to conceptualise concretely. It has suffered an unfortunate definitional flattening, a slippage which this article will attempt to address. We need the definition of corruption put back into sharp focus so that its contours, its peaks and troughs, are clearly accentuated. Only then can we begin to figure out a way through this moral morass.

First, the misconceptions. What is corruption? Is it that young girl in Machakos praying that her brother, a police constable, will finally be deployed to a route rich enough in opportunities for extortion so that she can finally finish her course at the University of Nairobi? She has already lost a year. Is this girl, or her brother, corrupt?

Is corruption the kickbacks that a state employee extracts from suppliers to supplement his income, which has been stretched to breaking point by a clan of dependents? What about paying extra to bump your loved one up a surgery waiting list at a public hospital?

Or is corruption something more formally executed, using laws, imprests and tenders? Is it the transfer of taxes to private use to fund a legislator’s trip to get cancer treatment abroad — over and above his taxpayer-funded premium health insurance scheme? Or is it the transfer of strategic national resources, like oil blocks, mining licences and public utilities, into private hands?

What makes one describe a traffic police officer taking a Sh50 bribe from a matatu driver as corruption but the collusion by state officers to incur public debt at the scale of an entire country’s GDP as macro-economic management? And what makes the transfer of government trustee land into foreign private hands “Foreign Direct Investment”, while the same transaction by a native is termed as a “land grab” i.e. corruption?

Is it the scale of the land in question, such that acquiring 100,000 hectares is an “investment” but ten hectares is a “land grab”? Or does it have something to do with power, where the passport of a (former) imperial power paves the way for the individual holding the said passport signalling to local elites that this is the master’s son and we better make room for him or else prepare for violent expropriation and/or occupation?

Where is the line? What are the criteria? Who decides? Better yet, who should decide?

Let us turn to some linguistic definitions.

Corruption is archaically and simply defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a state of decay or putrefaction”. But today’s use of the term has redefined this term and given it a completely different meaning, just like other modern-day terms that are used primarily in their conceptual rather than linguistic meaning, including Terrorism, Extremist, Human Rights, Black, White, etc.

So, what is corruption in its politically loaded sense? Yasmin Dawood, in her classic paper “Classifying Corruption”, captures it as follows:

“Scholars have categorized various kinds of corruption. Thomas Burke has distinguished three kinds of corruption: quid pro quo, monetary influence, and distortion. Zephyr Teachout has identified five categories: criminal bribery, inequality, drowned voices, a dispirited public, and a lack of integrity. Deborah Hellman has described three principal kinds of corruption: corruption as the deformation of judgement, corruption as the distortion of influence, and corruption as the sale of favours.”

Clearly, corruption is a loaded term that can be unpacked extensively. But the single and most broadly used definition of corruption is articulated by Jakob Svensson as follows: “The misuse of public office for private gain.”

Most of the literature available on corruption engages the problem from the level of its outcomes – in other words, on its results, i.e.  “private gain”. But there seems to be little effort at trying to analyse the root causes.

Given the widespread nature of corruption, and given that it has no definitive social differentiators like class, income, education level or geographical region, it follows that the possible causes are either intrinsic (related to the nature of man or woman) or systemic (attributable to the prevailing socio-political and economic environment).

The intrinsic motivation can be explained in a general sense by human beings’ deeply instinctive proclivity to possess. In short: greed. That is simple enough.

But looking at all the scholarly definitions of corruption, what we witness in Africa defies any of those classifications completely.

Nigeria’s Sani Abacha did not benignly “misuse public office for private gain”; he swept the treasury coffers clean. He decimated the public office. Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002, Daniel arap Moi, and his coterie of ministers did not “quid pro quo, influence or distort”; they ingested entire institutions.

The same goes for the successive administrations of Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta. Their voracious troops of army ants have left no tree standing, literally. No tree in the forest was considered too sacred to spare. Their appetite is unlimited.

Nothing was/is too big or too small, not the strategic grain reserve, not the sports kitties (one of the few remaining routes out of poverty), not even programmes like the Youth Fund, the National Youth Service or Kazi kwa Vijana. (As a resident of Eastlands I can attest that these programmes had a direct impact on the ground, with all the associated positive results of wealth redistribution e.g. drastic drops in crime, increase in economic activity, rise in optimism.)

None of this is corruption, not by a mile. It is institutional cannibalism.

Given that it is our own, our best and brightest sons and daughters who are cannibalising our own institutions, I will go further and describe it as a socio-pathological condition that I am calling autosarcophagy – an amalgam in Greek of “eating one’s own flesh.”

This makes it a sociological condition. Why have we failed to evolve from a primitive agrarian society? It is obvious from observation that the trappings of civilization were quickly pasted upon us and this is perhaps why irrespective of our level of education, we struggle to perceive institutions. A native administrator perceives the institutional resources through a primitive instinctive lens rather than through an evolved intellectual lens. Given that the focal point is instinctive, the reaction becomes an irresistible urge to consume or possess this honeycomb, as instincts cannot perceive a discarnate boundary such as that of person, institution and/or system.

Therefore, as these officers sit across from the institution’s treasury, in the same way they sit across from the season’s grain harvest in the granary on their farm, they cannot help but raid it. If their signature can transfer funds from the institution’s bank account in the same way their signature facilitates transfer from their personal accounts, then what possibly makes the institution’s bank account different i.e. not a personal bank account?

Granted, there is scholarly consensus that Homo Economicus (the latest and arguably the most wicked of all the evolutionary stages of mankind), is a sociopath, whose folly was preciently captured by Jonathan Swift in his 1729 satirical article suggesting that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.

Still, the existence of this disorder in the West should be no consolation because Homo Economicus in Western society commits his genocide and fetal cannibalism in the villages of the people of the East and Global South. But African Homo Economicus commits filial cannibalism. How else would we term indenturing our own children as chattel by taking out high interest loans and sovereign bonds on their futures and then diverting those funds into private accounts, or accepting payments to dump nuclear and toxic waste in our backyards?

As for the second systemic cause? Capitalism.

The unstoppable march toward absolute implementation of this pernicious socio-political and economic order portends nothing but misery for humanity. The uncritical application of its core doctrinal pillar that calls for individual freedom of ownership ultimately results in what Marx called “primitive accumulation” and more recently translated by Prof. David Harvey as “accumulation by dispossession”.

In our context, this manifests as the transfer of collective (public) wealth into the hands of private, well-connected owners through privatisation of public resources like water, energy, minerals and public infrastructure, including healthcare and utilities, and the transfer of individual citizens’ wealth into the same private hands through usury, taxes and inflation.

Essentially, this creates a society where the only way one can get bread and water to feed one’s child is by taking the bread and water of someone else’s child. This may be the reason why there is little investment in understanding the root cause analysis of the problem of corruption — it would reveal the witch’s cloven hoof. It is the nature of the beast. It is capitalism.

And as the population increases and the walls around the public’s resources continue to be erected and extended, the masses’ incomes and wealth continue to be systematically harvested through quantitative easing (printing fiat), bonds (usury) and taxes, and then consolidated and transferred to the top through the global banking and financial system. It results in a fight at the bottom that grows ever more vicious, manifesting itself in perpetual war, slavery, dehumanising poverty and misery.

The only way to halt this accelerating bottomless spiral downward is to reject Man as Sovereign, end capitalism and establish a system that will nurture the (collective) Man using divine provision (natural resources), and protecting private property and wealth creation from expropriation by taxation, usury and inflation.

Simply, change the system.

Continue Reading

Ideas

Keep It in the Family: A Case for Homeschooling in Kenya

Many parents who choose homeschooling seek to be directly and consistently involved in moulding their children’s character throughout their formal education on the basis of the conviction that with good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.

Published

on

Keep It in the Family: A Case for Homeschooling in Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

While most Kenyans associate formal education with institutional schooling, a significant number of their compatriots have opted for homeschooling. Homeschooling is not a specific curriculum, but rather the implementation of a curriculum by the parents themselves and/or their own directly chosen delegates. With the dominance of institutional schooling, many now view homeschooling as part of alternative education.

Several Kenyan families have homeschooled their children from the early 1990s using a variety of curricula, including 8-4-4, I.G.C.S.E., and Accelerated Christian Education. A number of Kenyan children have completed their high school education through homeschooling and have been admitted to universities inside and outside Kenya, and several are already employed, while others have ventured into entrepreneurship.

The Constitution of Kenya recognises the right of the child to education. Article 43 (1) (f) lists education as one of the fundamental rights of every person. Furthermore, Article 53 (1) (b) states that every child has the right to free and compulsory basic education. Nevertheless, neither of the articles limits education to the school environment.

However, Homeschooling Kenyan parents have expressed concern over provisions in the Basic Education Act 2013 that presume education can only be attained through institutionalised schools. For example, Article 28 of the Act, titled “Right of Child to Free and Compulsory Education”, states that “The Cabinet Secretary shall implement the right of every child to free and compulsory basic education” (Article 28(1)), but the tenor of the Act is that such education can only happen in the context of an institutional school.

The homeschooling community in Kenya is already feeling the effects of the Basic Education Act 2013 limiting education to the school environment. The Daily Nation carried a story on the 18th February this year, about the arrest of Silas Shikwekwe Were in Malaba, later arraigned in a Butali court in Kakamega County for allegedly abdicating his duty to enroll his children in school. Mr. Were and Mr. Onesmus Mboya Orinda filed Constitutional petition No. 236/19 at the High Court, Milimani Law Courts, asking the court to recognise home schooling as a legal and viable alternative method of according children in Kenya their right to education. They argue in their petition that the provisions of the Basic Education Act 2013 requiring a parent to enroll a child to an institution of learning limits the scope of what education is. They aver that sections of the Basic Education Act 2013 infringe on the rights of parents to determine the forum and manner in which their children will be educated. During the first mention of the Constitutional Petition on 25th June 2019, the courtroom was packed with homeschooling parents.

A number of considerations have led some Kenyan parents to choose homeschooling over institutional schooling.

A short history of schools

Schools have been a part of human societies for thousands of years. Among some of the peoples of Africa, the age groups system used to pass on knowledge, skills and attitudes to the young adults. It entailed a degree of deliberate, formal passing on of knowledge, skills and attitudes in a manner reminiscent of a contemporary school. There were schools in the ancient societies of Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Rome. The Byzantine Empire had an established school system until the fall of the Empire in 1453 C.E. In Muslim societies, mosques combined both religious observances and learning activities, but by the 9th century, the madrassa arose as a separate institution from the mosque. In Western Europe, a number of cathedral schools were founded during the Early Middle Ages in order to teach future clergy and administrators. Mandatory school attendance became common in parts of Europe during the 18th century, with the aim of increasing the literacy of the masses.

Formal schools become widespread only during the past two centuries. With the advent of the Western Scientific Revolution, certain fields of knowledge became highly specialised, making it significantly more difficult for parents to help their children to master them. The rise of factories during the Industrial Revolution led to the need for mass formal schooling to inculcate requisite habits in the workforce – punctuality, adherence to instructions, among others.

Education is the primary responsibility of parents, not schools

The word “education” comes from the Latin word ēducātiō, which literally means “breeding”, “bringing up”, or “rearing”, all of which are primarily associated with parents rather than with schools. Indeed, theorists of education frequently define education as the deliberate, planned equipping of the young with knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable them to participate effectively in the life of society. Again, such equipping is primarily the responsibility of parents, not schools. For most of human history, parents have been in charge of their children’s education. Their homes served as spaces for imparting social values and etiquette and particular trades. Families were known for certain trades. The presence of English surnames such as Tailor, Cook, Baker, and Smith partly explains this naming practice.

Formal schools become widespread only during the past two centuries. With the advent of the Western Scientific Revolution, certain fields of knowledge became highly specialised, making it significantly more difficult for parents to help their children to master them.

Despite the rise of universal compulsory education through schools, the responsibility of providing education primarily rests with parents as part of their wider responsibility to provide for their children. Parents who take their children to school are delegating rather than abdicating this responsibility, and this is evident in the practice of schools regularly meeting parents to brief them on their children’s progress. As such, parents who choose homeschooling are simply choosing to discharge their responsibility directly rather than delegating it to the schools.

Direct and consistent parental involvement in moulding character

In Philosophy and Education in Africa, R.J. Njoroge and G.A. Bennaars point out the four dimensions of education: the cognitive dimension entails the acquisition of knowledge; the normative dimension has to do with the inculcation of values; the procedural/creative dimension involves the approach or methodology through which the knowledge and values are acquired; the social/dialogical dimension entails the fact that education is an interactive process within human groups rather than in solitude.

The rise of factories during the Industrial Revolution led to the need for mass formal schooling to inculcate requisite habits in the workforce – punctuality, adherence to instructions, among others

Regrettably, in our day, many think that education (formal education) is exclusively geared to equipping students with knowledge (the cognitive dimension). It is no wonder we have so many highly skilled people whose ethical orientation is grievously wanting. Many parents who choose homeschooling seek to be directly and consistently involved in moulding their children’s character throughout their formal education on the basis of the conviction that with good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.

There is consensus among theorists and practitioners of education that the ideal model of education is one in which the child gets maximum personalised attention in order to take care of his or her uniqueness. Harvard’s educational psychology Prof. Howard Gardner pointed out that human beings have multiple intelligences (“learning styles”), and that each of us uses one or two of them to learn most effectively. Following Gardner’s approach, the US-based Institute of Learning Styles Research has identified seven learning styles, highlighting the various ways in which different people learn most effectively using their five senses.

The seven learning styles are print (looking at printed or written text), aural (listening), visual (looking at depictions such as pictures and graphs, haptic (touch or grasp), interactive (verbalisation), kinesthetic (whole-body movement), and olfactory (smell and taste). Schools typically focus on the three competencies referred to in Western tradition as “the 3Rs” – reading, writing and reckoning (calculating), and mainly approach learning from a verbal and logical perspective, thereby largely neglecting people whose learning styles cannot cope with this approach.

By the very nature of the size of a typical family, a home-schooled child gets much better personalised attention than a child in a typical institutional Kenyan public school where one teacher attends to tens of pupils in one lesson. When Kenya’s National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government introduced Free Primary Education in Kenya in early 2003: the number of pupils rose dramatically, but the number of teachers, classrooms and other facilities by and large remained unchanged. The quality of learning was significantly compromised. Some short-staffed schools had to ran shifts to accommodate the pupils. By and large, the school system moves the pupils from class to class regardless of how much they have actually learnt; and the few who are required to repeat a year for extremely poor performance suffer the humiliation of doing so among their peers.

The dire implications of a grossly unhealthy teacher-to-pupil ratio quickly showed. From 2009, Uwezo initiative implemented large-scale household surveys to assess the actual basic literary and numeracy competencies of school-aged children across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, culminating in annual reports. A July 2013 newspaper headline on one of those reports declared: “Over 50 Per Cent of Class 8 Pupils can Barely Read – Report”. The article stated “The report by Uwezo Kenya also reveals that over 50 out of 100 children in Classes Four and Five can’t comprehend stories written for class two pupils.” In its Sixth Annual Report covering the year 2015, Uwezo observed, “Assessments across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have highlighted the learning crisis since 2010. The key observation has been that budgets and other inputs to learning have been increasing steadily, but learning outcomes have remained essentially stagnant.”

Personalised attention is critical for exceptionally gifted children and for children with disabilities. Exceptionally gifted children who master concepts and skills grow bored when subjected to the average pace of learning: they might be able to complete the tasks assigned for one year in three months. Requiring them to sit in school and learn at the pace of the average child is torturous mass production, not education.

Children with disabilities often need special, even specialised attention to learn effectively. The Kenyan public school system is grossly ill-equipped to provide education for children with autism, so parents of autistic children have to equip adequately for the task of schooling. The class size at Thika School for the Blind where I went to school was fifteen rather than the prescribed forty in a typical public school. In certain subjects such as maths, geography and biology where teachers rely heavily on chalkboards and other visual teaching aids, children with visual disabilities would be left behind unless there was a resource teacher to offer extra support. At Thika, the teacher spent considerable time with each student helping them to appreciate maps, diagrams, graphs and maths formula. The parents of children with different disabilities ought to have the liberty to home-school them if they are able and willing to do so. Indeed, such liberty would affirm the right of children with disabilities to high-quality education in line with Articles27 and 54 of the Constitution.

History offers a number of cases of exceptionally gifted children who performed very poorly in school because the school system could not cater for their learning disabilities. People with dyslexia (reading and writing difficulties) or dyscalculia (difficulties with maths) are cases in point. English scientist Michael Faraday was a person with dyslexia, and yet through personal study he made numerous ground-breaking discoveries and inventions, including electromagnetic rotary devices that were fundamental to the development of electric motor technology used to generate electrical power. Albert Einstein had difficulty in school due to dyslexia, and his achievements can be attributed to his ability to teach himself. Some of the other famous Western scientists with dyslexia include Alexander Bell, Galileo Galilei and Thomas Edison.

A friend of mine confessed that he could not read at all by Standard 3; his first attempt at the then Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) exam at a Nairobi Eastlands primary school yielded dismal results. His mother then took him to a high-cost primary school to re-do the CPE and he excelled: today he is a university lecturer in pure Maths – the most abstract branch of mathematics.

I know of several parents with university degrees who have chosen to stay at home to provide their children with quality education. I am acquainted with a parent who holds a Masters degree in educational Psychology who has chosen to provide homeschooling for her children instead of pursuing a career in the schools or colleges. Some parents would give up pursuing their careers to home-school their children to shield them from the associated dangers of institutional day and boarding schools. It is evident that the home-schooled children of such parents enjoy certain advantages over their counterparts in institutional schools.

The commute to school is associated with several challenges. Day schooling children are exposed to undesirable social elements and dangers in their daily commute. Those parents determined to find quality schooling for their children beyond the limits of a neighbourhood, get up as early as 4:30 a.m. to prepare children to board buses at 5:30 a.m. to schools on the other side of town, in a continuous dawn to dusk routine.

Boarding schools come with their own set of social challenges such as unhealthy competition and bullying that have lasting effects on many young lives.

Home-schools as private schools

The culture of private schools is entrenched in Kenya. The children of prominent Public officials attend private schools rather than public ones. Private schools have better educational facilities, better teacher-to-pupil ratios, leading to better performance in public examinations.

Economic realities and high tuition fees prevent many parents from the privilege of private schools but rarely considered is the option of responding with privately tutored high-quality schooling at home. Home-schooled children register as private candidates for public exams, and some of them have done exceptionally well.

There is really no essential difference between private schooling and homeschooling: both models of learning are a move away from public schools. Denying a section of society the right to educate children at home is discriminatory contrary to Article 27 of the Constitution of Kenya.

Parents with highly mobile careers that require them to relocate frequently find changing schools almost always a traumatic experience for children, as they must make new friends, and adapt to the new physical environment and new teachers. This challenge is greater in situations where children are frequently moved from one cultural context with its education system to another with a different education system. If one of the parents in a family going through this kind of experience is available to home-school the children, the homeschooling experience provides a point of stability for the children which significantly mitigates the trauma.

Parents of home-schooled children form networks that facilitate regular joint activities among their children: they visit places such as museums, factories, universities, go boat-rowing, and attend music concerts. They enroll their children in various activities outside their homes such as football, swimming, and music lessons. In addition, there are joint annual events for various homeschooling communities.

Contrary to the belief that the school environment is the best for learning social skills, it often inculcates unhealthy competition rather than co-operation. The idea that all children progress intellectually at roughly the same pace is ingrained in the thinking of the school system, and yet it necessarily works against the need to cater for the children’s individual differences. Pupils are often contented to come out top of their class irrespective of the fact that any class will have a top student however low the quality of learning. An emphasis on coming out top in class easily encourages contentment with mediocrity rather than the pursuit of excellence. Schools function in a specific social context, and is a reflection of that context.

Thus with the increasing erosion of social values, schools are now places where children learn some grossly anti-social habits such as violence and substance abuse.

Homeschooling and social class

Members of the Kenyan middle class are more likely to be inclined to homeschooling: this is mainly due to the fact that they are likely to appreciate educational theory and practice. Middle-class parents are likely to afford the availability of one parent devoted to homeschooling their children. Parents in low-income brackets cannot live off the salary of one spouse. Nevertheless, homeschooling is not the exclusive province of the middle class and the wealthy.

Most homeschooling parents use officially sanctioned curricula. Some of the curricula used in home-schools require that parents get training before embarking on using them. Homeschooling parents also benefit from the resources of homeschooling organisations outside Kenya, including Global Home Education Exchange, Home School Legal Defense Association, and National Home Education Research Institute.

Kenyan universities typically assess students for admission using the results of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results whether a candidate sits for the exam in a public school, private school, or is privately registered as would typically be the case for Home-schooling candidates. For those home-schooled students going through other curricula, the Kenya National Examinations Council has a system of interpreting results to indicate their 8-4-4 equivalents, thereby enabling universities to make informed decisions about admissions.

For overseas education, various clusters of universities use a variety of entry tests to assess students who have gone through different education systems to determine whether or not they have the requisite skills (such as language profficiency, comprehension, reasoning, and basic maths) to handle university work. American universities rely on tests such as the SAT set by The College Board to assess applicants for undergraduate courses, and the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) for applicants to post-graduate courses.

There is no evidence that children who have gone through Home-schooling are disadvantaged in comparison with those who have attended institutional schools. The U.S.-based National Home Education Research Institute, score the home-educated 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests (the public school average is the 50th percentile; scores range from 1 to 99). Home-schooled students typically score above average on the standardised tests such as SAT. The measured conclusion of the Institute is: “It is possible that Home-schooling causes the positive traits reported above. However, the research designs to date do not conclusively ‘prove’ that Home-schooling causes these things. At the same time, there is no empirical evidence that Home-schooling causes negative things compared to institutional schooling.”

I first met a home-schooled child in the mid-1990s. She was the daughter of friends of mine and also neighbours in Nairobi’s Buruburu Estate. At the age of five, she was already confident and articulate. This began to dispel my doubts about Home-schooling. About ten years ago, I was requested to help look at some research papers written by some home-schooled high school finalists using a different curriculum from 8-4-4. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that unlike their counterparts in the 8-4-4 system, they were considerably well acquainted with library research and writing: they intelligently cited various books and articles using footnotes, and meticulously laid out their lists of references in a manner reminiscent of what is expected of first-year university students in Kenya! I have also had an opportunity to facilitate a “Thinking Skills” course for five home-schooled high school students, and was impressed by their confidence, clarity of thought and expression, and keenness to learn.

In view of my reflections, parents who are willing and able to provide personalised education for their children at home, often at great sacrifice to themselves, ought not to be denied the right to do so. The Home-schooling community is not lobbying for the abolition of schools: it appreciates that not everyone can home-school because some are ill-equipped for the task, while others are obligated to work to provide for their families. Nonetheless, society is enriched by diversity, including diversity in approaches to formal education. What we must all ensure is that whether through institutional schooling or Home-schooling, the child gets the knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable him or her to contribute positively to the holistic development of both himself or herself and society.

Continue Reading

Ideas

The Dark Side of Digitisation and the Dangers of Algorithmic Decision-Making

As we hand over decision-making regarding social issues to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by the profit incentive, but we are also handing over moral and ethical questions to the corporate world, argues ABEBA BIRHANE

Published

on

The Dark Side of Digitisation and the Dangers of Algorithmic Decision-Making
Download PDFPrint Article

The second annual CyFyAfrica 2019, the Conference on Technology, Innovation, and Society, took place in Tangier, Morocco, 7 – 9 June 2019. It was a vibrant, diverse and dynamic gathering where various policy makers, United Nations delegates, ministers, governments, diplomats, media, tech corporations, and academics from over 65 nations, mostly African and Asian countries, attended.

The conference unapologetically stated that its central aim was to bring forth the continent’s voices to the table in the global discourse. The president’s opening message emphasised that Africa’s youth need to be put at the front and centre of African concerns as the continent increasingly relies on technology for its social, educational, health, economic and financial issues. At the heart of the conference was the need to provide a platform to the voice of young people across the continent. And this was rightly so. It needs no argument that Africans across the continent need to play a central role in determining crucial technological questions and answers not only for their continent but also far beyond.

In the technological race to advance the continent, there are numerous cautionary tales that Africans need to learn from, tales that those involved in the designing, implementing, importing, regulating, and communicating of technology need to be aware of.

The continent stands to benefit from various technological and artificial intelligence (AI) developments. Ethiopian farmers, for example, can benefit from crowd sourced data to forecast and yield better crops. The use of data can help improve services within the healthcare and education sectors. Huge gender inequalities that plague every social, political, economic sphere can be brought to the fore through data. Data that exposes gender disparities in these key positions, for example, renders crucial the need to change societal structures in order to allow women to serve in key positions. Such data also brings general awareness of inequalities, which is central for progressive change.

In the technological race to advance the continent, there are numerous cautionary tales that Africans need to learn from, tales that those involved in the designing, implementing, importing, regulating, and communicating of technology need to be aware of.

Having said that, there already exist countless die-hard technology worshippers, some only too happy to blindly adopt anything data-driven and “AI” without a second thought of the possible unintended consequences, both within and outside the continent. Wherever the topic of technological innovation takes place, what we constantly find is advocates of technology and attempts to digitise every aspect of life, often at any cost.

At the CyFyAfrica 2019 conference, there were plenty of such tech evangelists – those blindly accepting ethically suspect and dangerous practices and applications under the banner of “innovative”, “disruptive” and “game changing” with little, if any, criticism and scepticism. Therefore, given that we have enough tech-worshippers holding the technological future of the continent in their hands, it is important to point out the precautions that need to be taken and the lessons that need to be learned from other parts of the world as the continent races forward in the technological race.

Reinforcing biases and stereotypes  

Just like the Silicon Valley enterprise, the African equivalent of tech start-ups and innovations can be found in every corner of the continent, from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and Cape Town. These innovations include in areas such as banking, finance, healthcare, education, and even “AI for good” initiatives, both by companies and individuals within as well as outside the continent. Understandably, companies, individuals and initiatives want to solve society’s problems and data and AI seem to provide quick solutions. As a result, there is a temptation to fix complex social problems with technology. And this is exactly where problems arise.

In the race of which start-up will build the next smart home system or state-of-the-art mobile banking application, we lose sight of the people behind each data point. The emphasis is on “data” as something that is up for grabs, something that uncontestedly belongs to tech-companies, governments, and the industry sector, completely erasing individual people behind each data point. This erasure of the person behind each data point makes it easy to “manipulate behaviour” or “nudge” users, often towards profitable outcomes for the companies. The rights of the individual, the long-term social impacts of AI systems and the unintended consequences on the most vulnerable are pushed aside, if they ever enter the discussion at all. Be it small start-ups or more established companies that design and implement AI tools, at the top of their agenda is the collection of more data and efficient AI systems and not the welfare of individual people or communities.

Rather, whether explicitly laid out or not, the central point is to analyse, infer, and deduce users’ weaknesses and deficiencies for the benefit of commercial firms. Products, ads, and other commodities can then be pushed to individual “users” as if they exist as an object to be manipulated and nudged towards certain behaviours deemed “correct” or “good” by these companies and developers.

The result is AI systems that alter the social fabric, reinforce societal stereotypes and further disadvantage those already at the bottom of the social hierarchy. UN delegates addressing the issue of online terrorism and counterterrorism measured and exclusively discussed Islamic terrorist groups, despite the fact that white supremacist terrorist groups have carried out more attacks than any other group in recent years. This illustrates an example where socially held stereotypes are reinforced and wielded in the AI tools that are being developed.

Although it is hardly ever made explicit, many of the ethical principles underlying AI rest firmly within utilitarian thinking. Even when knowledge of unfairness and discrimination of certain groups and individual as a result of algorithmic decision-making are brought to the fore, solutions that benefit the majority are sought. For instance, women have been systematically excluded from entering the tech industry, minorities are forced into inhumane treatment , and systematic biases have been embedded in predictive policing systems, to mention but a few. However, although society’s most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by the digitisation of various services, proposed solutions to mitigate unfairness hardly consider such groups as crucial pieces of the solution.

A question of ethics

Machine bias and unfairness is an issue that the rest of the tech world is grappling with. As technological solutions are increasingly devised and applied to social, economic and political issues, the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life also become increasingly evident. The current attempts to develop “ethical AI” and “ethical guidelines”, both within the Western tech industry and the academic sphere, illustrate awareness and attempts to mitigate these problems. The key global players in technology, Microsoft and Google’s DeepMind from the industry sector and Harvard and MIT from the academic sphere are primary examples that illustrate the recognition of the possible catastrophic consequences of AI on society. As a result, ethics boards and curriculums on ethics and AI are being developed.

These approaches to develop, implement and teach responsible and ethical AI take multiple forms, perspectives, and directions and emphasise various aspects. This multiplicity of views and perspectives is not a weakness but rather a desirable strength that is necessary for accommodating a healthy, context-dependent remedy. Insisting on one single framework for various ethical, social and economic issues that arise in various contexts and cultures with the integration of AI is not only unattainable but also advocating a one-size-fits-all style dictatorship.

Machine bias and unfairness is an issue that the rest of the tech world is grappling with. As technological solutions are increasingly devised and applied to social, economic and political issues, the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life also become increasingly evident.

Nonetheless, given the countless technology-related disasters and cautionary tales that the global tech-community is waking up to, there are numerous crucial lessons that African developers, start-ups and policy makers can learn from. The African continent needs not go through its own disastrous cautionary tales to discover the dark side of digitisation and technologisation on every aspect of life.

AI over-hype

AI is not magic; it is a buzz word that gets thrown around so carelessly that it has increasingly become vacuous. What AI refers to is notoriously contested and the term is impossible to define conclusively – and it will remain that way due to the various ways various disciplines define and use it. Artificial intelligence can refer to anything from highly overhyped and deceitful robots to Facebook’s machine learning algorithms that dictate what you see on your News Feed, your “smart” fridge and everything in between. “Smart”, like AI, has increasingly come to mean devices that are connected to other devices and servers with little to no attention being paid to how such hypoconnectivity at the same time creates surveillance systems that deprive individuals of their privacy.

Over-hyped and exaggerated representation of the current state of the field poses a major challenge. Both researchers within the field and the media contribute to this over-hype. The public is often made to believe that we have reached AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) or that we are at risk of killer robots taking over the world, or that Facebook’s algorithms have created their own language forcing Facebook to shut down its project , when none of this is in fact correct.

The robot known as Sophia is another example of AI over-hype and misrepresentation. This robot, which is best described as a machine with some face recognition capabilities and a rudimentary chatbot engine, is falsely described as semi-sentient by its maker. In a nation where women are treated as second class citizens, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has granted this machine citizenship, thereby treating this “female” machine better than its own female citizens. Similarly, neither the Ethiopian government nor the media attempted to pause and reflect on how the robot’s stay in Addis Ababa should be covered. Instead the over-hype and deception were amplified as the robot was treated as some God-like entity.

Leading scholars in the field, such as Mitchell, emphasise that we are far from “superintelligence”. The current state of AI is marked by crucial limitations, such as the lack of understanding of common sense, which is a crucial element of human understanding. Similarly, Bigham emphasises that in most of the discussion regarding “autonomous” systems (be it robots or speech recognition algorithms), a heavy load of the work is done by humans, often cheap labour – a fact that is put aside as it doesn’t bode well with the AI over-hype narrative.

Over-hype is not only a problem that portrays an unrealistic image of the field, but also one that distracts attention away from the real danger of AI, which is much more invisible, nuanced and gradual than “killer robots”. The simplification and extraction of human experience for capitalist ends, which is then presented as behaviour based “personalisation”, is a banal practice on the surface but one that needs more attention and scrutiny. Similarly, algorithmic predictive models of behaviour that infer habits, behaviours and emotions need to be of concern as most of these inferences reflect strongly held biases and unfairness rather than getting at any in-depth causes or explanations.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when presenting, developing and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that portrays AI as having God-like power. And seeing AI as a tool that we create, control and are responsible for, not as something that exists and develops independent of those that create it. And like any other tool, AI is one that embeds and reflects our inconsistencies, limitations, biases, political and emotional desires.

Technology is never either neutral or objective – it is like a mirror that reflects societal bias, unfairness and injustice. AI tools deployed in various spheres are often presented as objective and value-free. In fact, some automated systems that are put forward in domains, such as hiring and policing, are put forward with the explicit claim that these tools eliminate human bias. Automated systems, after all, apply the same rules to everybody. Such a claim is, in fact, one of the single most erroneous and harmful misconceptions as far as automated systems are concerned.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when presenting, developing and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that portrays AI as having God-like power.

As the Harvard mathematician, Cathy O’Neil [19] explains, “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.” This widespread misconception further prevents individuals from asking questions and demanding explanations. How we see the world and how we choose to represent the world are reflected in the algorithmic models of the world that we build. The tools we build necessarily embed, reflect and perpetuate socially and culturally held stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions. Any classification, clustering or discrimination of human behaviours and characteristics that our AI system produces reflects socially and culturally held stereotypes, not an objective truth.

UN delegates working on online counterterrorism measures but explicitly focusing on Islamic groups despite over 60 percent [20] of mass shootings in 2019 the USA being carried out by white nationalist extremists illustrate a worrying example that stereotypically held views drive what we perceive as a problem and furthermore the type of technology we develop.

Algorithmic decision-making

A robust body of research, as well as countless reports of individual personal experiences, show that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes. These discriminatory outcomes affect individuals and groups that are already on society’s margins, those that are viewed as deviants and outliers – people that refuse to conform to the status quo. Given that the most vulnerable are affected by technology the most, it is important that their voices are central in any design and implementation of any technology that is used on/around them. Their voices need to be prioritised at every step of the way, including in the designing, developing, and implementing of any technology, as well as in policy-making.

As Africa grapples between catching up with the latest technological developments and protecting the consequential harm that technology causes, policy makers, governments and firms that develop and apply various tech to the social sphere need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want and what kind of society technology drives. Protecting and respecting the rights, freedoms and privacy of the very youth that the leaders want to put at the front and centre should be prioritised. This can only happen with guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedom in place.

A robust body of research, as well as countless reports of individual personal experiences, show that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes.

Mining people for data

Invasion of privacy is an issue that is increasingly becoming an issue in every sphere of life, including insurance, banking, health and education services. Various start-ups are emerging from all corners of the continent at an exponential rate to develop the next “cutting edge” app, tool or system; to collect as much data as possible and then infer and deduce “users’” various behaviours and habits.

However, there seems to be little, if any, attention paid to the fact that digitisation and automatisation of such spheres necessarily bring their own, often not immediately visible, problems. In the race to come up with the next new “nudge” mechanism that could be used in insurance or banking, the competition for mining the most data seems the central agenda. These firms take it for granted that such data, which is out there for grabs, automatically belongs to them. The discourse around “data mining” and “data rich continent” shows the extent to which the individual behind each data point remains non-existent. This removing of the individual (individual with fears, emotions, dreams and hopes) behind each data set is symptomatic of how little attention is given to privacy concerns. This discourse on “mining” people for data is reminiscent of the coloniser attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking.

Data is necessarily always about something and never about an abstract entity. The collection, analysis and manipulation of data possibly entails monitoring, tracking and surveilling people. This necessarily impacts them directly or indirectly, whether it is change in their insurance premiums or refusal of services.

AI technologies that are aiding decision-making in the social sphere are developed and implemented by private companies and various start-ups for the most part, whose primary aim is to maximise profits. Protecting individual privacy rights and cultivating a fair society is, therefore, the least of their priorities, especially if such practice gets in the way of “mining”, freely manipulating behaviour and pushing products onto customers. This means that as we hand over decision-making regarding social issues to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives (profit), but we are also handing over moral and ethical questions to the corporate world.

“Digital nudges” – behaviour modifications developed to suit commercial interests – are a prime example. As “nudging” mechanisms become the norm for “correcting” an individual’s behaviour, eating habits or exercise routine, those corporates, private companies and engineers developing automated systems are bestowed with the power to decide what the “correct” behaviour, eating habit or exercise routine is. Questions, such as who is deciding what the “correct” behaviour is and for what purpose, are often completely ignored. In the process, individuals that do not fit the stereotypical image of what a “fit body”, “good health” and “good eating habit” end up being punished, ostracised and pushed further to the margin.

The use of technology within the social sphere often, intentionally or accidentally, focuses on punitive practices, whether it is to predict who will commit the next crime or who would fail to pay their mortgage. Constructive and rehabilitation questions, such as why people commit crimes in the first place or what can be done to rehabilitate and support those who have come out of prison are almost never asked. Technological developments built and applied with the aim of bringing security and order, necessarily bring cruel, discriminatory and inhumane practices to some. The cruel treatment of the Uighurs in China and the unfair disadvantaging of the poor are examples in this regard.

The question of technologisation and digitalisation of the continent is also a question of what kind of society we want to live in. African youth solving their own problems means deciding what we want to amplify and show the rest of the world. It also means not importing the latest state-of-the-art machine learning systems or any other AI tools without questioning what the underlying purpose is, who benefits, and who might be disadvantaged by the application of such tools.

Moreover, African youth playing in the AI field need to create programmes and databases that serve various local communities and which do not blindly import Western AI systems founded upon individualistic and capitalist drives. In a continent where much of the narrative is hindered by negative images, such as migration, drought, and poverty, using AI to solve our problems ourselves means using AI in a way we want to understand who we are and how we want to be understood and perceived – a continent where community values triumph and nobody is left behind.

Continue Reading

Trending