Over the past several months and weeks, there has been a deluge of diagnoses of the 2010s, sometimes accompanied by prognoses for the 2020s. Such retrospectives and reflections, infinitely varied in their sagacity and silliness, are ritualised cognitive efforts by modern societies to make sense of the messy complexities, mind=boggling contradictions, and massive changes of the various historical conjunctures of modernity.
Periodisation is of course central to the historian’s craft and the historical imagination in general. Decades, like centuries and millennia, provide convenient and concentrated packaging of otherwise bewildering events and transformations over the unwieldy flows of time. As historians know all too well, interpretations of the past are as much reconstructions of the past as they are constructions of the present, and projections of anxieties and aspirations for the future.
Thus, they are always provisional, always subject to re-interpretations by future generations imbued with their own perspectives, preoccupations, problems and possibilities. But historical reconstructions go beyond temporal dynamics; they’re conditioned by historical geography, the location of scholars and commentators in specific times and spaces, as well as the epistemic demands of the enterprise of knowledge production in its multifaceted institutional, intellectual, ideological and individual contexts and intersectionalities.
This is another way of saying that my reflections of the last decade reflect my multiple locations and positionings as an African diaspora scholar based in the United States during the first six years of the 2010s and in Kenya during the past four. For me the tens were a turbulent decade characterised by several major trends. Whether or not these trends will prove lasting and determine the unfolding trajectories of the 21st century is anyone’s guess.
As a historian, crystal gazing into the future is not my professional forte. Indeed, the record of predictions by eminent people in academia, business, media, and other forecasting experts such as soothsayers and intelligence agencies, is quite dismal. But the future does not will itself blithely into being; it unfolds from a past that becomes ever clearer with the passage of time.
Some of the developments and events we accord significance now may pale into irrelevance and others that are barely discernible from the noisy clutter of the present may prove more enduring and transformational. Hence the title of the essay: it is a historical draft subject to foreseeable and unforeseen revisions. In my view, the tens were characterised by six key trends: first, tribalism went global; second, they were characterised by democratic recessions and resistance; third, rising economic disequilibrium; fourth, shifting global hierarchies and hegemonies; fifth, emergence of surveillance capitalism; and finally, the rebellion of nature.
Tribalism Goes Global
During the 2010s the specter of tribalism—ethnocultural nationalisms, xenophobic racisms, religious fundamentalisms, and jingoistic populisms—arose from the massive disruptions of technological and socioeconomic change, undergirded by the devastations of the once celebrated sprawl of neo-liberal globalisation that suffocated liberal democracies and the promises of diversity and inclusion in many of the world’s increasingly multicultural societies. Neo-liberal globalisation met its comeuppance in the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that bequeathed to the 2010s widespread economic desolation, deepening inequality, decline of the middle classes, a rising sense of powerlessness and hopelessness among ordinary people, and raging popular distrust of elites and establishments.
The future does not will itself blithely into being; it unfolds from a past that becomes ever clearer with the passage of time
The stock of populist demagogues grew, whereas that of traditional politicians and technocrats fell. As I wrote elsewhere, “Increasingly perceived as corrupt and ineffective to deliver growth and overcome the roaring headwinds of entrenched poverty, unemployment, declining living standards, social instability, unsustainable indebtedness, technological disruptions, and other intractable challenges, liberal democracy retreated as the allure of the fiercely intolerant ideologies of populism, protectionism, and partisanship rose.” Several surveys show that in the 2010s vast majorities around the world expressed growing distrust of elite-led public and private institutions including governments, business, media, and universities, just to mention a few.
Out of the toxic inheritance of the 2000s emerged the intoxicating allure and illusions of intolerant identity politics, which seemed to overwhelm older political affiliations framed around the traditional ideologies of the right and the left. Long prevalent, even if always contested, conceptions and solidarities of nationhood and citizenship valorising difference and inclusion, were increasingly upended by more people embracing the perilous and pernicious comforts of sameness, self-referentiality, and ethnocultural purity. In short, the ascriptive and often aspirational solidarities of class, community, and country gave way to the dangerous essentialist and exclusionary conceits and attachments of culture, creed, and colour.
Identity politics was fueled by the politics of fear and resentment, powerlessness and panic, as well as desperate yearnings for dignity and control of their lives by growing numbers of people. The palpable anxieties and nostalgia for the rapidly vanishing and often imagined certainties of the old normal, arose out of deepening social inequalities and marginalisation of masses of people who, encouraged and emboldened by nativist demagogues and ideologues, increasingly blamed their misfortunes on internal and external “others”.
Minorities and migrants bore the brunt of this aggressive “othering” of political and social opprobrium for the disappearing or frozen opportunities of social mobility. Seizures of moral panic about undesirable migrants and undeserving minorities, often fanned by unscrupulous politicians and bigoted zealots, gripped rich countries in the global North and subregional powers in the emerging economies.
Neo-liberal globalisation met its comeuppance in the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that bequeathed to the 2010s widespread economic desolation
Thus, political tribalism spread in mature and nascent democracies alike, from the world’s largest democracy, India, under Narendra Modi’s virulently Hindu nationalist government that came to power in 2014, to the world’s wealthiest democracy, the United States, under Donald Trump’s unabashedly racist administration that assumed power in 2017, to one of the world’s oldest democracies, Britain, under a succession of Conservative Party prime ministers since 2010, which descended into the imperial and provincial fantasies of Brexit.
Intolerant nationalisms also engulfed many newer democracies as well, from South Africa with its periodic convulsions of xenophobic violence, to Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro’s unflinchingly right-wing regime that won the 2018 elections, to the fragile democracies of Eastern Europe where unapologetically illiberal regimes gained ascendancy championed most loudly by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in power in Hungary since 2010.
Democratic Recessions and Resistance
Clearly, the ascendancy and spread of political tribalism was accompanied by global recessions of democracy. In the euphoria of the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the Third Wave of Democracy that swept the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and an assortment of dictatorships in Asia, Africa, and Latin America seemed unstoppable. Francis Fukuyama, an American scholar, giddily proclaimed the end of history. By the 2010s democratic retreat was evident in its historic heartlands and among the newer democracies, pulverised by the resurgence of reactionary and right-wing populist forces, and growing disillusionment especially among the younger generations with the minimalist, ineffective, and corrupt democracies prevalent in many countries.
There is currently a vast scholarly and popular literature bemoaning and diagnosing the democratic recessions of the 2010s. Democracy indexes show sharp declines in average global scores in dozens of countries. According to a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the scores fell for much of the 2010s. Between 2016 and 2017 they fell in 89 countries, stagnated in 51, and didn’t improve in any region. According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report 2019, 2018 “recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.”
The reversal of the post-Cold War democratic wave has been attributed to several factors. They include the failure of democratic regimes to meet the needs of their populations, rising anger and anxieties about growing inequalities, the corrosive effects of massive technological disruptions and the rise of digital authoritarianism, the revival of global hegemonic rivalries, the hollowing out of democratic institutions and practices, especially protections for migrants and minorities, and the sheer exhaustion from the euphoria of the 1990s. A critical backdrop to the recession of democracy was the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that devastated many economies and reinforced the inability of governments to deliver and safeguard economic prosperity.
But there were some bright spots. In Africa, they included the adoption of a new vibrant constitution in Kenya in 2010 that brought closure to the deadly post-election violence of 2007-2008. In the hotly contested elections of 2017, Kenya distinguished itself by becoming the first African country and the fourth in the world where a presidential election was revoked by the judiciary, which underscored the independence of the judiciary, the growing strength of public institutions, and deepening national commitment to transparency, accountability, and the rule of law, thereby demonstrating that Kenyan democracy was maturing.
Several vicious dictators and notorious kleptocrats met their rendezvous with history, including President Robert Mugabe, the once celebrated hero of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle who descended into an irascible octogenarian autocrat, and was overthrown in November 2017. Next door in South Africa, President Jacob Zumba, whose disastrous reign over the rainbow nation culminated in state capture by corrupt forces, was ousted in February 2018 by the African National Congress, the venerable liberation movement experiencing the proverbial challenges of transitioning into an effective governing party. The decade ended with the opening up of authoritarian Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who assumed office in April 2018 and proceeded to win the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
A critical backdrop to the recession of democracy was the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that devastated many economies
Similar stories of reform, sometimes fragile to be sure, can be told for other world regions. In the United States, the Republican Party’s stranglehold over the three branches of government achieved in the 2016 elections eased when the Democratic Party won the majority of seats in the House of Representatives in 2018 and proceeded to impeach President Trump in December 2019, thereby restoring some faith in the resilience of the American constitutional system.
Further south, in Latin America, reforms, sometimes frail, were registered from Ecuador to Mexico to Cuba, where the Castros finally exited the scene. The decade closed with the ouster of Bolivia’s Evo Morales in December 2019 following protests against voting irregularities in the president’s bid for a fourth term.
In the European parliamentary election of May 2019, the much anticipated and dreaded surge of far-right parties failed to materialise. Despite threats from China, massive and protracted protests erupted in Hong Kong from September to December in 2014 and resumed from June 2019, and continue at the time of writing. The first set of protests were triggered by proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system, and the second by the introduction of a bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal fugitives to China.
In India, fresh from electoral victory in the general elections earlier in the year, the emboldened government of Prime Minister Modi passed a controversial citizenship law on December 11, 2019 allowing citizenship for ostensibly persecuted immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan excluding Muslims. It was met with massive resistance across the country by protesters who saw it as a dangerous homage to Hindu nationalism, and an assault against the country’s 200 million Muslims and its cherished secular constitution.
Clearly, history comprises messy and multifaceted flows of complex and contradictory forces that abjure singular narratives. In short, the much-bemoaned phenomenon of democratic recession was accompanied by reinvigorated struggles for democratic expansion, whose trajectories continue to unfold.
In fact, a year into the 2010s, in 2011, the world was electrified by unprecedented struggles for democracy in North Africa. Often dubbed the Arab Spring, the uprisings and rebellions toppled the region’s sclerotic and kleptocratic dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The firestorm spread to other parts of Africa from Mali to Côte d’Ivoire to Uganda to Malawi, as well as several Arab countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Save for Tunisia, and tepid reforms in some countries, the Arab Spring soon descended into the Arab Winter with the return of a revanchist and ruthless dictatorship in Egypt and outbreak of ferocious civil wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
The decade ended with reignited struggles in Sudan and Algeria that succeeded in ousting the once indomitable dictatorships of Presidents Omar al-Bashir and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, respectively. The varied outcomes of the Arab Spring are to be expected. As reflected in the vast literature that has since emerged, they can be attributed to the varied constellation of internal political, economic, social, and institutional forces, and geopolitical dynamics. The Arab Spring represented the second phase in Africa’s struggles for the “second independence” that began in the 1980s and 1990s. This is a subject l reflected on at length in my 2014 book, The Resurgence of Africa: Domestic, Global, and Diaspora Transformations.
Some scholars and commentators credit the Arab Spring with inspiring protests for democracy and change in some parts of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Whatever the accuracy of such claims, in many parts of the world the decade witnessed the revitalisation of old and new social movements that challenged prevailing configurations of power. In the United States, three movements are worth mentioning: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too. Elsewhere movements against authoritarianism and populism gathered momentum.
The much-bemoaned phenomenon of democratic recession was accompanied by reinvigorated struggles for democratic expansion, whose trajectories continue to unfold
The Occupy Wall Street movement began in September 2011 in New York City. It soon spread to other American cities and cities in several countries including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey. The movement was characterised by occupations, demonstrations, strikes, picketing and social media activism. In the United States, the movement was galvanised under the slogan, “We are the 99%.” The protests were against deepening income and wealth inequality, corporate dominance and lack of accountability, and for relief for rising student debt and the mortgage foreclosure crisis then rocking the US economy, although many in the movement prided themselves in not issuing clear demands.
The movement was met by government crackdowns encompassing heightened surveillance and arrests. In the United States such crackdowns, combined with the limited involvement of minorities and the absence of a clear agenda, led to the movement’s quick demise. But it left a lasting legacy in so far as it thrust issues of rising economic and social inequality and inordinate corporate influence into the public domain and political discourse, as evident in subsequent local and national elections and the rise of the populist wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The changed terms of political and policy debate on inequality and corporate accountability was apparent in many other countries as well, although this did little to dent economic and social inequalities during the rest of the 2010s.
The Black Lives Matter movement also emerged in the United States and spread to other countries with long histories of entrenched anti-black racism and violence, such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It emerged in July 2013 following the acquittal of the vigilante killer of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and was further galvanised in 2014 by police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and Tamil Rice in Cleveland. It soon became a national movement with dozens of chapters across the country that organised protests against the endless killings of African-American men and women, girls and boys by vigilantes and the police. The movement also sought to promote and affirm African-American struggles and empowerment in other walks of life.
The movement drew its inspiration from, but sought to transcend, the agendas, tactics, and structures of older civil rights and other social movements in the United States. In its guiding principles and ambitions, it sought to embrace enduring Pan-Africanist aspirations. Befitting the times, it actively incorporated social media activism. In fact, it drew its name from the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Predictably, despite overwhelming support in the black community and sizable segments of the white community, the movement was met with dismissive racist rhetoric trumpeting “All Lives Matter”, “Blue Lives Matter”, and “White Lives Matter.”
The movement proceeded to flex its political muscles during the 2016 presidential primaries and elections. A country that had entered the 2010s basking in the fantasies of a post-racial dispensation—with the 2008 election of its first black President, the suave and cosmopolitan Barack Obama—was rudely awakened to the racist backlash of Trump’s election in 2016. The election of an avowed bigot, boisterous buffoon, and incorrigible liar, which brought white supremacy out of the American closet, amplified the fierce urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement’s antiracist crusade.
The juxtaposition of democratic recessions, resistance and renewal is equally evident when it comes to the Me Too movement, which also first emerged as a hashtag, following sexual harassment and assault accusations against the Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, in October 2017. Legions of famous celebrities, including Kenya’s renowned Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o, revealed their dreadful encounters with Weinstein, and many other women were emboldened to expose their own sexual predators. Before long, the hashtag #MeToo gained global currency and mushroomed into a movement for women’s social justice and empowerment in pursuit of the persistent dreams of generations of feminists.
The Me Too movement pushed for changes in national legislation and policies on sexual harassment and assault. As it grew and became more transnational, it broadened its demands and was translated into local languages, idioms and struggles against widely prevalent gender-based violence, eliminating gender inequalities, and raising women’s representation in employment, business, media, educational institutions, government agencies and public life. In other contexts, the movement championed the emancipation of marginalised communities.
Out of that movement, and the already well-established women’s movements around the world, poured voluminous studies and data on the appallingly high levels of sexual violence and femicide in virtually every country. Femicide manifested itself in the deliberate killing of women and girls through intimate partner violence, torture and misogynist murders, honour and dowry-related killings, deaths resulting from genital mutilation, as well as killings of women due to accusations of sorcery and witchcraft, as a “weapon of war” in armed conflicts, and by criminal gangs, drug dealers and human traffickers, not to mention killings of women and girls because of their aboriginal and indigenous status, and their sexual orientation and gender identity.
There was also femicide associated with female infanticide and gender-based sex selection feticide. According to a report by the United Nations, in some of the most affected countries including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Montenegro, Albania, Vietnam and Pakistan, gender ratios at birth ranged from 109.9 to 117.6 boys per every 100 girls. Another UN report, Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World (for which I served as one of the editors) shows that by the early 2000s there were already tens of millions of missing women in Asia—led by India and China—thanks to misguided reproductive health policies and deeply entrenched patriarchal cultures. The demographic chickens of these misguided policies and cultures came home to roost in the 2010s.
The Me Too movement helped raise global awareness and reinforced age-old struggles against sexual harassment, assault and killings and for women’s empowerment. Examples include widespread protests in 2015 and 2016 against gender-based violence in Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil, the massive women’s march in Washington in January 2017 to protest the election of a renowned misogynist to the White House, the women’s strike against femicide in Israel in December 2018, recurrent protests against the rape epidemic in India and South Africa, protests against a contentious anti-rape law in nine Japanese cities in June 2019, and demonstrations in November 2019 in France, which has one of the highest domestic abuse murder rates in Europe.
In short, the women’s movement continued to make progress in the treacherous and turbulent terrain of the 2010s. One indicator is women’s representation in parliament. Even in the United States, often an international laggard, women won a record number of seats in the 2018 Congressional elections (102 seats out of 435, i.e., 23.4%), the highest ever, but below the world average. Similarly, in the 2019 British elections a record 220 female Members of Parliament were elected (out of 650 seats, i.e., 33.8%).
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, by February 2019, women comprised 24.5% of parliamentarians (both houses combined—24.6% for single or lower house and 24.3% for upper house). In terms of regional averages, the Americas led with 30.6%, followed by Europe (29.4%), sub-Saharan Africa (24.0%), Asia (19.7%), Pacific (19.4%), and the Middle East and North Africa were at the bottom (16.8%). In terms of individual countries, the top dozen were Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico, Sweden, Grenada, Namibia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, South Africa, Senegal and Finland, in that order.
Beyond the Hustle and Towards a New Philosophy for Agriculture
As the city turns hostile and Kenyans fearful of suffering hunger flee to the rural areas, COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to eliminate the colonial mentality that views the rural countryside as the segregated homeland of a silenced underclass and to renew the rural-urban relationship as a mutually beneficial support system.
“A Global Food Crisis Looms”, headlined the New York Times in April 2020, drawing attention to the millions of vulnerable populations around the world facing hunger exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Kenya, “We fear hunger more than corona’’ is now a common refrain among the urban poor who earn a living in the informal sector. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed deep structural and policy fault lines in Kenya’s food systems.
In the 2019 Global Hunger Index, Kenya ranked 86 out of 117, a position categorised as serious. But long before COVID-19, Kenyans have endured hunger and famine attributed to climatic factors, the rising cost of basic food commodities and a fractured food distribution system. In Nairobi, where 60 per cent of the population lives in informal settlements, rising prices of basic foodstuffs have reduced millions to a hand-to-mouth existence.
After a three-month restriction of movement out of Nairobi was lifted, a number of my cousins and friends told me that they were headed straight to their rural homes to set up food security bases. Among the urban middle class for some of whom it had formerly been a side gig, agriculture has now evolved into the main hustle and as Dauti Kahura has reported, they can now be found parked by the roadside, selling fresh produce from the boots of their cars.
The government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has turned a health crisis into a security and corruption problem that is putting the most vulnerable at risk. In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, Kenya’s political soap opera goes on uninterrupted as the media focus remains locked on the rivalries of the wealthy 1 per cent.
Under these circumstances, to escape the city is a matter of pragmatism as writer Alexander Ikawah observed in a recent article. Inhabitants of African cities have one foot firmly planted in a rural village somewhere, ready to seek refuge at “home” if the city turns hostile. And so, as the labour market struggles and industries shed jobs, many Kenyans have fled Nairobi as a temporary measure, retreating to the security of the rural areas where ancestral land provides a buffer against hunger and guarantees the basics of living and rent-free shelter.
A day before restriction of movement was lifted, my cousin Oluoch sent me a message telling me of his plans to go back home to the village to start work on the shamba. Oluoch is a father of four children who has stopped hedging his bets on things returning to “normal”. He got me thinking about my own small rural farm 7,000 kms away as I cycled along a straight, narrow road cutting through farmland in the Dutch municipality of Amstelveen, 10 kilometres south of Amsterdam.
Sheep and diary cows grazed on pasture as ducks swam in a canal in the early summer sunshine. I stopped to take a picture of this idyllic scene and sent it to my cousin Oluoch who promptly replied, “Ondiek, we have to learn how to farm like the Dutch. This is the future”.
As small-scale, part-time farmers who had inherited family land in our rural homes, we had believed we would be the generation that would adopt modern farming techniques, our motivation for commercial agriculture driven by the promise of high yields and maximum profit, just like the Dutch, we imagined.
The Netherlands is a flat country of green fields stretching far off into the distance, subdivided by water canals and fences in a symmetrical pattern. From the air, the land resembles a huge chessboard. The country has one of the world’s most efficient agricultural and food production systems and is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural produce after the United States, whose landmass is 237 times the size of the Netherlands. In 2019, Dutch exports of agricultural products were worth 94.5 billion Euros.
The Netherlands is also a world leader in potato production, export and processing. The potato yield per hectare on the average Kenyan farm is approximately 6 to 7 tonnes with large-scale farms averaging 10 to 14 tonnes according to the National Potato Council of Kenya. The yield per hectare on the average farm in the Netherlands is 40 tonnes.
The success of agricultural productivity in the Netherlands is buttressed by science and innovative solutions developed by institutions such as the Wageningen University, one of the world’s top agricultural institutes. Here a brain trust is pioneering the thinking to meet the challenge of feeding a global population expected to exceed 9.7 billion by 2050.
The story of the Netherlands agricultural revolution can be traced back to 1888 with the formation of the Heidemaatschappij, the Association for Wasteland Redevelopment that introduced the reclamation and cultivation of wastelands by improving the soil quality of vast areas of heath. The Heidemaatschappij laid the foundation for a new culture of farming, based on generating high yields from fallow and neglected land and the input of new knowledge and skills. Land consolidation became a matter of industry policy, combining fragmented pieces of land and taming idle land around the country for agricultural exploitation. The winter famine of 1944-45 that followed the end of the Second World War and led to the death from starvation of 20,000 people, created the motivation to find a lasting solution to food insecurity. The result is the grand design of the country’s landscape with geometric precision and infrastructural support, roads and water, and the move from small, mixed agriculture farms to the consolidated mono-cropped large farms that define contemporary Dutch agriculture.
The major cost of the green revolution has been the disappearance of nature as the practice of monocultures has led to a visible decline in animal and plant biodiversity. In a series on nature curated by Amsterdam’s De Correspondent, writer Jan Van Poppel investigates the Dutch policy on nature, which he describes as little more than putting a fence around a patch of green and building on the rest of the country.
The natural environment in the Netherlands is almost entirely lost, and what appears to be natural is in reality an elaborate environmental design, a kind of colonialisation of the natural world. As an example, the Amsterdamse Bos, a forest that sits between Amsterdam and Amstelveen that measures over 1,000 hectares (equivalent to the size of Karura Forest in Nairobi) is man-made. All the trees were planted in the 1930s as part of a work-relief programme.
The Netherlands is now proactively dealing with the negative consequences of agriculture monocultures, applying a stringent pesticide policy, cutting down on nitrogen emissions from livestock operations and facing up to the problem of ground water pollution.
In 2019, the Dutch government put forward a proposal to limit nitrogen emissions that had hit crisis levels by reducing livestock-holding farms, triggering national protests by farmers who mobilised to defend livelihoods that were threatened by the new environmental pollution rules. They used tractors to cause traffic jams and occupied public spaces to give voice to their plight and counter the stereotypes that single out farmers as environmental polluters; the agricultural sector is the second leading cause of environmental pollution after the transport sector.
As an amateur farmer who arrived in the Netherlands brimming with the ambition to learn the best practices I grapple with this contradiction. While the Netherlands is without doubt a leader in efficient agriculture, the focus on volume, efficiency and profit has produced negative consequences that can no longer be ignored. This is the model many small-scale farmers in Kenya aspire to but I am no longer a true believer in intensive agriculture as a model for small-scale farms.
Small-scale farming in Kenya accounts for 75 per cent of the total agricultural output and meets 70 per cent of the national food demand, so I know I am part of an important constituency. The challenge of my generation, those with access to land under 3 ha in size, is to craft a new farming philosophy that is built on progressive ideas through investigation, dialogue and exposure to alternative sources of knowledge grounded in the African experience. We need more philosophers and fewer technical experts to redefine what we call sustainable farming. Africa’s own knowledge systems and philosophy in agriculture are held in the memory of a generation that is dying out and dismissed as backward. Yet my grandmother’s practices resonate with those of emerging natural farming systems around the world that espouse new ideas grounded in the environmental, social and historical realities of the non-western world.
In the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer and philosopher from southern Japan, I encounter farming concepts of my childhood rural experience, farming techniques that used no machinery, no chemicals, involved little weeding and that are now back in vogue, in particular in the permaculture concept that advocates for the harmonious integration of the environment and the people.
Where land is valued as a collective resource that sustains a community, its conservation and sustainability become sacred, as opposed to being merely the source of perpetual extraction of profits. Organisations such as Survival International are involved in advocating for the human and territorial rights of indigenous communities that are under attack from the international barons of the conservation industry who are destroying their cultures and forcefully removing them from territories that they have inhabited and conserved for generations. Scientists studying forest systems have only in recent decades come to acknowledge the role of long-forgotten generations of indigenous communities of the pre-Columbian era and their positive impact on the Amazon forest. The role of forest conservation and reforestation to mitigate climate change is mainstream knowledge in Kenya today as a result of concerted mass awareness campaigns but trees are just one aspect in an elaborate ecological system.
So, as custodians of the land, what becomes our mission? To be socially engaged and philosophically grounded, my farming decisions must consider the long-term consequences of the choices I make.
The principle of sustainability guides the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. This involves thinking beyond consumption-oriented values that are dictated by our industrial economies to evolve a deep ecological philosophy that challenges the toxic ideas of dominance, colonialisation, exploitation and extraction where nature is viewed purely as a resource repository to be conquered and dominated.
Nature is the life source and, beyond the concept of mere conservation, an eco-pedagogy is needed to transmit culturally relevant forms of knowledge. There are ideas out there—such as Arnes Næss‘ Deep Ecology, Bill Mollison’s Permaculture, Masanobu Fukuoka’s, One Straw Revolution, the Slow Food movement—that all share a philosophy and a set of principles that place humanity and its connection to nature at the core of enlightened agriculture.
Chinese artist, activist and filmmaker Ou Ning—whose work titled, The Bishan Commune: How to start your own utopia explores ideas for an alternative community in rural China—has become a leading voice in the new rural reconstruction movement at the forefront of reimagining rural-urban relations. The power of narrative is what artists and thinkers use to weave alternate realities to help societies reimagine the holistic value of small-scale farming and eliminate the colonial mentality that views the rural countryside as the segregated homeland of a silenced underclass. The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for artists to lead a call for a return to the countryside and to renew the rural-urban relationship as a mutually beneficial support system. Philosophers have to deepen their thinking on the fundamental root causes of food insecurity and re-imagine new systems by returning to basic values and practises.
For a generation undermined by the immorality of policy makers and the political leadership’s bankruptcy of ideas, this global crisis is an opportunity to meet the challenge of truly achieving food sovereignty and to resist the allure of the industrial model as the only one suitable for the development of small-scale agriculture.
Cutting the Hand That Feeds: The Plight of Smallholder Farmers in Kenya
Small-scale farming accounts for roughly 75 per cent of the total agricultural output in Kenya. The future of food security in the country, therefore, lies in safeguarding small-scale farmers. However, Kenya’s agricultural policies are focused on cash crops and industrial agriculture. This has led to the food crisis we face today.
In the pre-colonial days of the early 1900s, Africans predominantly farmed finger millet, sorghum, pearl millet, amaranth, jute mallow, spider plant, and lablab, among other indigenous crops. The farms were so rich in biodiversity that food production thrived. This subsistence nature of farming saw crops being transferred from farm to plate.
In the western Nyanza belt, for instance, ugali was brown (a mixture of sorghum and millet) and often accompanied by indigenous vegetables, such as elisaka (spider flower), omurere (jute), and chimboka (amaranth). During bountiful days, farmers thronged the local food markets to sell off their surplus produce. Food was diverse, high in nutrients, locally grown, and locally available.
In contrast, most farms in Africa today have morphed into monoculture (cultivation of one type of crop) farms. In Kenya, maize is the most dominant food crop on most farms. Cash crops, such as tea, cotton, and coffee introduced by the colonial enterprise, still dominate most farms, and food markets mostly sell kales (sukuma wiki), spinach, maize, and cabbage. Consequently, meals in most households have shifted to either white processed ugali and sukuma wiki or beef and chapati or rice. Food is now processed, low in nutrients and 14% of it is imported.
The diversity present in farmers’ fields has continually declined and the threats to diversity are on the rise. Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66 per cent of total crop production in 2014.
Such has been the evolution of food systems that farmers intuitively gravitate towards producing what has a ready market as opposed to what is nutritious and indigenous. Cash crops have replaced heritage foods that fed people for generations sprawling back to the dawn of human life.
Cash cropping: A profit-driven paradigm
Mass cash cropping (popularised by industrial agriculture) has done more harm than good to smallholder farmers. Fertile lands in the Kenyan highlands are occupied by multinational tea corporations, such as James Finlays and Unilever Tea. These corporations pocket high profits at the expense of Kenyan smallholder tea farmers, who constantly grapple with low prices for this produce and remain mired in poverty. Meanwhile, tea pickers work and live under destitute conditions and some suffer from sexual harassment.
Whereas the proponents of cash crop farming might argue that this type of farming has placed farmers on the global market (thereby increasing their chances of earning an income, which could, in turn, address food insecurity) health, economic and social concerns have assumed a secondary place to profits.
Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66 per cent of total crop production in 2014.
The development history of cash crops in Africa over the last few decades, however, shows that cash crops have produced minimal cash. In the previous three decades, real income from cash crops has declined. African shares in world markets of most commodities have worsened, and most African countries have been sinking deeper and deeper into debt.
The cash crop monopoly has led to the inhumane exploitation of smallholder farmers. This system has consistently oppressed farmers economically and socially through land grabbing, repressive seed laws, and dependency on multinational corporations for farm inputs. Farmers can no longer save and share seeds from the current harvest to plant the next season, as these seeds are patented by multinational seed corporations and protected by intellectual property laws. In Tanzania, farmers risk a prison sentence of at least 12 years or a fine of over €205,300, or both, if they sell and share seeds, including their own farmer-bred seeds, that are not certified. Smallholder farmers now have to buy the seeds, chemical pesticides, and fertilisers each planting season. They have increasingly found themselves at the short end of the stick in this profit-driven paradigm.
This dependency has tied farmers to crippling debt that has sunk the farmers deeper into cyclic poverty. In India, many farmers have committed suicide on account of spiralling debt. In Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, 60,000 farmers committed suicide in 2007 because of debt, repeated crop failures, and the inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation.
Growing cash crops for export has taken more productive land from local food production. Resources that would otherwise have utility in local food production have been channelled into producing agricultural export crops. Consequently, smallholder farmers have converted marginal land with little agricultural productivity for local consumption.
Cultivating cash crops on lands traditionally meant for food crops has a significant impact on the food security of a community or nation. Conversion from subsistence farming to market-oriented agriculture, and shifting from the cultivation of traditional food crops to cash crops through the commercialisation of agriculture have led to an increase in malnutrition and food insecurity in most African countries. In Kenya, for instance, in 2008, an estimated 1.3 million people in rural areas and between 3.5 million and 4 million in urban areas were food insecure. This is despite Kenya exporting more than 3 billion dollars in food crops in 2010.
Cultivation of cash crops has also led to the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, which have harmed our bees and soil and aquatic organisms, and left our water bodies choking with pollution. The need for more land for cash crop cultivation has led to massive deforestation, which has further degraded soils and increased water scarcity. According to the Ndung’u land report, from 1963 to 2003, 11,000 acres of forested land in Kenya was excised off to create the Nyayo Tea zones. In 1988, Transmara Forest Reserve lost 937.7 hectares to Kiptagich Tea Estates.
Agricultural commercialisation has led to monocropping. This introduction of new and similar crops into farmers’ fields has drastically altered the diversity of local varieties previously cultivated by farmers. Farm agricultural diversity has been killed under the false assumption that local varieties have low productivity. Ownership of diverse indigenous seed varieties has shifted from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations. The farmer no longer controls and owns the seeds he grows. New patented varieties, often marketed as high yielding varieties, require smallholder farmers to purchase the seeds from one supplier, in this case, the multinational corporations.
Growing monocultures on farms only advances the global agenda of globalisation, which is often controlled by global corporations. Monocultures have been proven to displace the biodiversity on farms. The UN International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig Germany, 1996, noted that industrial monocultures in agriculture had replaced 75 per cent of all agro-biodiversity.
Cultivation of cash crops has also led to the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, which have harmed our bees and soil and aquatic organisms, and left our water bodies choking with pollution.
In addition, Western agricultural corporations and governments are now pushing African countries to industrialise their agriculture. Consequently, food crops, such as rice, wheat, and maize, are currently grown as cash crops. These crops currently account for more than 50 per cent of the world’s calorie intake. An indication of the loss of agricultural diversity is the fact that today we have more Kenyans consuming imported maize, wheat, and rice as opposed to millet and sorghum so much so that the former have become the staple foods.
It is this reliance on food and agricultural imports that has seen most Kenyans go to bed on an empty stomach. What’s worse, in the wake of COVID-19, farmers are losing their produce due to lack of markets or are sell it at throwaway prices.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his March address, encouraged traders and farmers to continue with their agricultural activities so that Kenyans can have access to farm produce at all times – a clear indication that smallholder farmers produce the food consumed in the country.
Who feeds Kenya?
A World Bank Report shows that Kenyan agriculture covers small-, medium-, and large-scale farming. Small-scale production represents roughly 75 per cent of the total agricultural output. The report further states that small-scale production further accounts for 70 per cent of the marketed agrarian produce, as opposed to large-scale farming, which accounts for 30 per cent of traded agrarian food and mainly involves growing commercial crops, such as tea, coffee, maize, sugarcane, and wheat.
Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, in his book, Agricultural Land Redistribution: Toward Greater Consensus, makes a similar assessment. He notes that with just 37 per cent of the land, small-scale farms in Kenya produced 73 per cent of agricultural output in 2004.
It is therefore quite evident that small-scale farmers feed Kenyans as they focus on producing food for local and national markets and their own families. In contrast, large-scale farms specialising in cash crops tend to produce commodities and concentrate on export crops, many of which people can’t eat. They also focus mainly on return on investment.
Despite this realisation, there is little evidence of action taken to ensure that these small-scale farmers produce more during this COVID-19 pandemic. To cushion Kenyans against hunger, the Ministry of Agriculture has sought to import 4 million bags of maize to curb the shortage in the country instead of supporting the smallholder farmers who produce 70 per cent of the maize consumed in the country to produce more. This dependence on the international market for food security that prioritises the industrial agriculture paradigm (the frontier of the cash crop monopoly) is the very foundation of the food crisis we are facing today.
This lack of support has led to the reduction in the number of smallholder farmers. Dr. Vandana Shiva, in her book, Who Really Feeds the World, notes that since the introduction of policies of globalisation of agriculture in 1991, farmers have sunk in numbers, from 110 million to 95.8 million – a loss of nearly 15 million farmers, or 2,000 farmers per day.
This reduction in the number of smallholder farmers is a direct result of the loss of their agricultural land. A large number of farming families have less than two hectares to feed themselves and humankind. The acreage available for cultivation is shrinking due to a number of factors, including population pressure, lack of access to land, and rules of corporate globalisation designed to make profits at the expense of smallholder farmers.
A World Bank report shows that between 2008 and 2010, at least 60 million hectares of productive farmland was leased out or sold to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural projects, with more than half of these in Africa. farmlandgrab.org noted that these massive new agribusiness projects were throwing a limitless number of small farmers off their territories.
As though the shrinking land size is not enough of a hurdle, farmers are even locked into debt as multinational corporations sell them costly inputs in the form of patented seeds, fertilizers, and agrochemicals while buying their produce cheaply. Multinational corporations such as Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta, Land O’Lakes, BASF, Yara, PepsiCO, Unilever, and Carrefour are ripping everything off farmers. Consequently, farming has become unviable, and most farmers are leaving their farms for meagre jobs in the urban areas.
A World Bank report shows that between 2008 and 2010, at least 60 million hectares of productive farmland was leased out or sold to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural projects, with more than half of these in Africa.
The future of food security and food safety lies in promoting and safeguarding small-scale farmers. It is time to make farming feasible for the smallholder farmer, given that high input, resource-intensive farming systems have failed to achieve sustainable food and agricultural production.
Contradictory to this, is the decision by the government not to buy maize for its Strategic Food Reserve from local farmers but instead pave way for private sector warehousing. This will lead to no stabilisation of food supply levels and prices within the country during prolonged droughts. This move is likely to exacerbate the levels of food insecurity within the country by increasing the prices of food thus reducing its availability to majority of Kenyans. This is per the Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy 2019 -2020, which purports to boost food security in the country.
What needs to happen
Small-scale farms have already proven that they can produce more diverse foods for households and the market. The Ministry of Agriculture needs to prioritise domestic food production over international exports and increase investment in smallholder farmer-based food production.
The UN Environment Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the UN special rapporteur on the right to food estimate that small farmers produce up to 80 per cent of the food in non-industrialised countries. We need to stop the allocation of land to agribusiness-led ventures and make land accessible to smallholder farmers through appropriate land reforms. Land from the cash crop plantations needs to be handed over to smallholder farmers. Women farmers who produce most of our food have no access to land. We need systems that make it legal for women to own and cultivate land.
We need policies that enable farmers to grow locally, export real surpluses, and import what is not available locally. Policy interventions include stabilising market prices and regulating import controls through taxes to avoid dumping, which threatens local agricultural production.
We need to innovative and create eco-friendly farming systems, such as ecological farming that protects and enhances the natural resource base while raising agricultural productivity. Farming systems should encourage diversity to cope with climatic shocks.
We need farming systems that protect farmers and consumers against the increasing monopoly power of vast, multinational, agro-industrial corporations. We require systems that encourage consumers to purchase food directly from farmers, systems that allow farmers to breed their seeds, save and exchange these seeds amongst each other, systems that will not make smallholder farmers dependent on the excessive use of agrochemicals and fertilisers.
We need to innovative and create eco-friendly farming systems, such as ecological farming that protects and enhances the natural resource base while raising agricultural productivity. Farming systems should encourage diversity to cope with climatic shocks.
These systems promote self-reliance and self-sufficiency, which are key to a future free of hunger, oppression, and starvation.
In the words of Thomas Sankara, “He who feeds you, controls you.” Because food is fundamental for the development of society, and serves the purpose of nourishment alongside enlivening our culture, its producers must be protected and supported.
Let’s Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees
If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society.
After two decades of the neoliberal gutting down of Kenyan universities, Kenya’s president has now gone for universities’ jugular. He has cut off the university as as a route for social advancement among the non-elite class. The slicing of the jugular came with the recent university admissions when the government announced that more than a half of them would be turned into technical programmes and institutions. At first, the government announced this move as a choice of the students themselves, but later on, it became evident that many students were caught by surprise.
Kenyan universities have maintained a semblance of independence from direct patronage by Kenya’s aristocracy. As long as universities have existed in Kenya, and especially after the expansion of university education by Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, a child from a village had a shot in the Kenyan imagination of becoming next in line to the presidency. (For the moment, the integrity of the process is not considered here.) Now that President Uhuru Kenyatta has ditched his deputy, he has got his bureaucratic robots to slice the jugular of Kenya’s schooling system and let it bleed to death.
As is to be expected, the Kenyan media has celebrated the event, thus becoming the conduit for fairly unbelievable stories that clothed Kenya’s feudal politics in the parlance of employment and The Market (as opposed to the regular markets that we all love). Like clockwork, the media published headlines such as “Are degrees no longer hot?”, wrote op-eds justifying technical and vocational education and training (TVET) as a better alternative to a regular university degree, or held town hall meetings that gave a semblance of public participation by fielding questions from youth who had clearly not understood that they are pawns in a system that just does not care about them. This move will not surprise anyone with knowledge of the aristocratic class system in Kenya and the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. It has been a long time coming.
Missionaries, colonial settlers and the colonial state
Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil, dubbing, for example, herbal medicine as “witchcraft,” and all the while shipping indigenous knowledge and crafts to London.
When formal British education was introduced to Kenya, there was tension between the competing interests of the missionaries, the colonial settlers and the colonial state. The missionaries were primarily interested in converts, and so reading was essential to their education. The settlers, however, were interested only in manual labour, and were frustrated that the colonial government was not forcing Africans to work on the huge tracts of land that had been dispossessed from Africans. They were therefore hostile to schooling beyond trade schools, and accepted formal education for Africans only on the promise that the inclusion of Christian religious education would ensure that Africans remained compliant with the colonial interests.
Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil…
It is from the colonial settlers that Kenya inherited the narrative that education would make Africans unable to do manual work (or what today is called “useful” or “relevant to the market”), because all the African would acquire from education is big ideas and a desire for the status of the Europeans. And, from a certain perspective, the settlers were not wrong. In a stratified system such as colonial society, being at the bottom of the hierarchy, as Africans were, meant a cruel life of dispossession, forced labour and taxes. Africans could not be enticed to go to school if there was no carrot in the form of exemption from this oppressive life. And once that door was opened, it would only be a matter of time before Africans demanded, as Frantz Fanon famously said in The Wretched of the Earth, “to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible.”
There was a second element of truth to the settlers’ fears. The settlers were familiar with the fact that even in the belly of the empire, aristocratic education had the effect of paralysing one’s thoughts and sense of reality. In Victorian England, the industrialists complained that aristocratic education from prestigious public schools and Oxbridge had rendered their children incapable of running the companies their parents expected the children to inherit.
The settlers did not need to point to London to see the truth of this: the bulk of the colonial administration was made up of graduates of elite British schools, and even the settlers called their own colonial administration stifling and suffocating. The list of complaints by the British settlers are depressingly similar to the complaints that a Kenyan today would make: the government borrowing loans at high interest rates, failing to address the economic depression, moribund, “dependent on an uninstructed electorate situated 6000 miles away, and characterised by a continuous epidemic of public meetings, which produce much eloquence, heady talk and little practical benefit to the [white settler] community as a whole”.
The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst.
The aristocratic values which the settlers were wary of would return to Kenya in the 1980s when the World Bank proposed to African Vice-Chancellors to eliminate universities, since African countries needed basic education, not higher education. The audacity of the proposal notwithstanding, it is hardly surprising that the university administrators would not comply and phase themselves out of a job. But later, as Ayesha Imam and Amina Mama report in their book chapter, “The role of intellectuals in limiting and expanding academic freedom”, the World Bank got their wish by starving African universities of money and going to the extreme of demanding that purchases of books and journals be first approved by the Bank.
The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).
To see that the complaint of “useless” and elitist graduates has not changed a century later gives us food for thought. But it is not as disturbing as the fact that Kenyan citizens today are strange bedfellows with colonial settlers and British industrialists, sharing the same complaints about the Kenyan ex-colonial state and its aristocratic schooling system. When communities of different geographies, cultures and political inclinations have the same complaint about university graduates, it is time for academics to abandon the old strategy of accusing society of not understanding what university education is for. We need to either concede that society is right, or we explain the truth.
I choose the latter.
Justifying why Kenyans don’t need university education
To explain the mess of the system that is now receiving its last kick from the president, I will address three justifications for the bizarre turn of events in university education:
- People shouldn’t get degrees because there is no employment.
- Degrees make graduates become employment seekers rather than employers.
- Degrees do not give Kenyans skills which are “useful” or “relevant” to The Market, such as entrepreneurial skills for business or technical skills for building infrastructure.
The lack of employment justification
This justification should be fairly easy to explain by pointing out that the availability of employment is an economic, rather than an educational, function. In Kenya, however, this argument routinely falls on deaf ears for psychological and ideological reasons.
Psychologically, tackling the economy is too daunting for simple minds fed on the Anglo-American logic of easy and instant solutions to complex and long-term problems. It would require addressing the political economy, being an active citizen and making certain demands politically.
The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In contrast, blaming schools for unemployment is comforting. The majority of the school population is made up of minors who cannot speak back, and of teachers who are fairly powerless in terms of employment conditions and even the syllabus, especially in these neoliberal times when teaching has been transformed into slavery by managerial and regulatory regimes of accountability.
Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market. Unfortunately, the trade union movement has been too paralysed to come up with an effective counter-argument, and those who are still in permanent employment have failed to establish worker solidarity with their colleagues suffering on gig terms.
In any case, there is an argument to be made against using educational accomplishment for employment. The reliance of employers on academic certificates is a form of discrimination, since those who are employed will always be those with the resources to get an education. Reliance on academic achievement also makes the school system subsidise employers by sparing them the cost of equipping their employees with the requisite skills.
Any country that has a backbone should tell businesses to shut up and train their own employees at their own cost. But in this era of state capture, that is unlikely to happen.
The education for employment justification
It is important to clarify that employment was never the immediate goal of the British-oriented university education system that Kenya inherited. In Victorian England, university education and admission through the examination system were primarily a tool of assimilation for the rising middle classes into the aristocracy. It was through the university system that members of the middle class gained access to the social and symbolic power of European aristocracy, which remains the source of cultural legitimation in today’s world. In turn, the middle classes were offered an opportunity to become part of the burgeoning British Empire. As a consequence, most of the colonial administrators were graduates of public schools and Oxbridge, and even now, the rising inequality in Britain has been attributed to the fact that this same cohort still dominates British politics and institutions.
Similarly, university education in Kenya was an opportunity to be assimilated into the colonial state. The first university graduates were the children of Chief Koinange, a colonial collaborator. One of his children, Mbiyu, received education from elite schools in three continents: Alliance High School in Kenya, London School of Economics in the UK and Columbia University in the US. He was also a Rhodes scholar at the University of Cambridge. He later became the brother-in-law of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and was in the president’s core cabinet for most of his life in independent Kenya.
Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market.
With the outbreak of the Mau Mau war in the 1950s, and with the rise of the United States as a global power, the British government jacked up the availability of university education to raise a Kikuyu middle class that would provide the civil servants for the colonial state. After independence, the first president saw the university as fulfilling precisely the same role, and as Mwenda Kithinji argues in his brilliant book, The State and the University Experience in East Africa: Colonial Foundations and Postcolonial Transformations in Kenya, the first president had no intention to expand university education since he had the Kikuyu elites that he needed. The second president, a member of a minority ethnic group, then expanded university education in order to widen the Kenyan middle class to include people from other ethnic groups. It is therefore wishful thinking, if not delusion, for Kenyans to believe that the government schooling system was ever about employment. The schools have always been about class status and power.
However, the popular belief in education for employment is understandable, because the expansion of the control of the (ex)colonial state and global capital by the British and Kenyan elite was experienced by ordinary Kenyans as employment.
But almost 60 years after independence, there is no longer a need for the Kenyan elite to provide Kenyans with university education. In the 1960s, when there were not enough British-educated Kenyans to run the civil service, the Kenyan elites were the first generation in their families to go to British schools. . Today, however, there are enough British-educated Kenyans to run the ex-colonial state. The children of the elite are in power, and they also have children and grandchildren whom they want to ascend to power. Moreover, the inequality in Kenya’s education system necessarily means that those who perform well are children of middle-class parents who can afford private school education and can take over the bureaucracy and civil service through patronage, rather than through academic achievement.
The elites of Kenya, whom the current education system serves, have enough of their children and relatives to work in government, and enough of second-generation middle-class children to do their work. With families of a minimum of four wives and dozens of children, the elites have enough personnel.
Moreover, the elites cannot afford an educated Kenyan population outside of government. The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst. The goal of the government education system in Kenya has never been employment. Employment was simply a side effect. And employment seekers were not supposed to be ordinary Kenyans; they were supposed to be the elites entering top government posts through family ties and club networks.
The “useful” and “relevant” skills justification
Given this history of the imperial education system, it is almost laughable that university scholars have sought to justify themselves as providing skills that are useful for graduates in The Market. That said, it is a lie to which I dedicated a significant part of my career, until I realised that studying the arts can never be “marketable” in an anti-human economic and political system.
That aside, the fantasy of making university education appear “relevant” has been a public relations exercise in which even the British academy was engaged in the 19th century after industrialists complained that universities were not training their sons to take over the family industries from their fathers. In fact, John Brown argued in 1970 that the British elite university could not find a strong enough argument to defend the imperial education based on the Roman and Greek classics. However, it won over the industrialists by what he calls “the parlance of advertising” and an “imaginative sales effort”. Rather than argue for university education on its own merit, the universities assimilated the critique about their lack of “practical skills”, and claimed that elite class manners were a skill in and of themselves.
To put it simply, the universities told the business elite that they needed knowledge and habits of aristocrats for them to be “successful”. It was not enough to make money; one had to be sophisticated and convincing, able to talk across cultures and social class.
Before my road to Damascus conversion, I made this same laughable argument myself. Now when I think of it, this defence of university education belongs to the same whatsapp group as the products of business coaches and motivational speakers who promise “soft skills”, like how to speak convincingly, how to make an elevator pitch, how to dress to look presentable, and all other forms of self-improvement for The Market. We academics making those arguments are no different from those who give tutorials on how to have English “afternoon tea the correct way”.
We should do away with universities – as they are now
If universities, as they currently stand, are useful only to the elites, it should come as no surprise that the elites are now destroying them. After all, the universities are theirs.
But rather than fight for universities to remain public institutions in their current form, we the people need to fight for them to become truly public by removing degree programmes and turning them into a space for knowledge and culture. We should break down the walls of admissions and examinations. We should diversify and increase opportunities for people to learn through cultural centres, festivals and public libraries. We should make public engagement, like dialogues under a tree, and visits to what Odero Oruka called “sage philosophers” a part of formal education. For skills training, we could resort to apprenticeships as a way to enter a profession and facilitate peer review as a way to improve services.
Two things must definitely be removed from the university as an institution: 1) certification; and 2) the interference and regulation in university education by the state. Both have reduced university education to a cynical process of gaining papers to access elite status and titles, and of measuring outcomes and indicators like a balance sheet.
Most of all, we must remove the institution of the imperial elite, which is made up of people who gain wealth and power through their manipulation and control of the commons – land, natural resources, labour and knowledge.
Africa may not always have offered degrees, but it has had universities for millennia. We can do away with degrees and retain universities. If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society. Right now, universities are hardly different from members-only clubs for those who survive the hazing ritual of examinations and gain the right to become snobs who undermine democracy and social justice for the rest of their lives.
But to scuttle such fundamental and dynamic reforms to education, the economy and politics, the president has now sacrificed the dreams of an entire generation of Kenyan youth – however contradictory those dreams may be – in order to sustain the exploitative social status of his family and the ruling elite. This situation is not only unjust; it is also untenable.
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