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Visibility of The Church in the Wake of COVID-19: The Case of the Anglican Church of Kenya

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The COVID-19 crisis has presented the Church with an immense challenge and the ACK now finds herself in a liminal space concerning her visibility, a place of transition from where she must open herself up to a paradigm shift.

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Visibility of The Church in the Wake of COVID-19: The Case of the Anglican Church of Kenya
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The coronavirus has exposed and exacerbated deep ecclesiastical problems in the identity and witness of the church. Measures to mitigate the pandemic have pushed our church, the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), further into the shadows. For safety reasons, we have had to abstain from physical contact and public gathering and we are, therefore, not able to hear God’s word read or preached, and to receive the sacrament, in the way that we are used to. It has been unsettling.

The Church’s identity is fundamental to her visibility and, therefore, witness. The Church’s visibility is the most powerful message the world can receive, a message the world can trust because it shows the presence of God in our world. This visibility encourages and motivates the world to view the Church’s attributes as a reflection of the God she represents. Tied to the Church of England, the ACK shares the identity of a diverse “fellowship of one visible society whose members are bound together by the ties of a common faith, common sacraments, and a common ministry”, as the bishops attending the Lambeth Conference of 1920 envisioned. This has crystalised into the Anglican way of following Jesus in the world in the “fulness of Christian life, truth and witness”.

The ACK is an integral part of the Anglican Communion, which binds her to the order and doctrine of the Anglican Church. But her context is different, demanding, therefore, a unique response to best enhance our visibility. Until the emergence of this global pandemic, we have had little motivation to rethink and adjust our visibility in context.

Our moment of crisis confronts us with the question of whether our present ways can sufficiently guide us. Some consider the pandemic transient. They estimate the duration it will last, and ponder what we shall find on the other side. They will do everything in order to maintain our common life within our norms, allowing for as little disruption as possible. It is however clear that this crisis is monumental in scale, and will force radical shifts in our society.

In a recent article, the Malawi academic, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, makes a disturbing prediction of the grim future we face. He cites Mr Richard Kozul-Wright, the Director of the Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies at UNCTAD, who noted that, “There’s a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares which are very serious and concerning . . . the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging than the one that is likely to take place over the course of the year”.

Peering into tomorrow’s world from the depths of crisis, can the ACK seize the moment and readjust to better her visibility?

The epistemologist and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, calls scientific revolution a paradigm shift. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn describes science as a process characterised by pre-paradigmatic, normal and revolutionary patterns emerging from the interactions of its component scientists, what we would call a complex adaptability system. According to Kuhn, a scientific revolution occurs when scientists encounter anomalies in the prevailing paradigm which they cannot resolve within their scientific framework. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not only the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all the implications which come with it. Kuhn acknowledges anomalies within all paradigms, but maintains that scientists accommodate them as acceptable levels of error. Kuhn notes that when enough or significant anomalies accrue against a current paradigm, this throws the scientific discipline into crisis. It is during such a crisis that fresh ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tested. A new paradigm is thus established, gaining its own new adherents and sparking an intellectual “battle” between the followers of this new paradigm and the adherents of the old.

Problems posed by the pandemic: the prevailing Anglican paradigm 

The ACK Constitution of 2002 describes the church’s order of faith at length in Article III—On Doctrine and Worship. There are 14 provisions under this article that define the ACK’s position on following Christ. It is explicit from Article III(5) that the ACK Order of Faith aligns to that of the Anglican Churches worldwide.

The Church further accepts the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 which outlines the Anglican essentials for a reunited Christian Church. The text of the Articles affirms the following: the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as “containing all things necessary to salvation”, and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith; the Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith; the two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself—Baptism and the Supper of the Lord—ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s Words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him and The Historic-Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

These affirmations, together with other teachings, laws and liturgical practices approved in this province and by those others that we are in fellowship with, can, in Kuhnian terms, be regarded as the ACK’s paradigm. For at the core of Kuhn’s thought is the notion that “paradigms,” are scientific theories or worldviews unique enough to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity, and open-ended enough to leave many problems for the practitioners in the group to resolve. The ACK’s liturgical worldview and practice, draws from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), and Our Modern Services (OMS), translated in several languages.

Anglicans believe that the Church is the visible body of Christ on earth. She manifests this notion in Christians gathering together—in such a gathering is Christ present—and speaking his word, read out,  and/or expounded. Christ is present in the sacraments that link Christians mysteriously to him, and in the clergy as they administer sacraments, absolution and blessings.

Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have gathered together to bless, break and share bread and to bless and share a cup of wine in obedience to the Lord’s command, given on the night before He died, to “do this in remembrance of me”. The Eucharist is what catholic Christians understand to be the most doxological act they can perform when they gather for “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (BCP:14 and also 2002 OMS:55). To hold such a service, there should be communicants other than the minister at every celebration of Holy Communion.  From the time of Thomas Cranmer, mainstream Anglicanism has insisted that we celebrate the communion service as a community, with no fewer than two people. The Rubrics at the end of the Book of Common Prayer, Communion Office, declare that “there shall be no celebration of the Lord’s Supper except there be a convenient number to communicate”, which it defines to be “three at the least” in a parish.

We anchor the importance of the Eucharist  in the church’s law. Along with Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, is a “Sacrament ordained of Christ”  and “a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death”. For instance, the Canons of the Church of England teach the importance and centrality of the Eucharist. Canon B14 requires the celebration of the Holy Communion in at least one church in every benefice on all Sundays and principal Feast days, and on Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday. Canon B15 teaches that it is the duty of all the confirmed to receive the Holy Communion regularly, and especially at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

Over time, many factors contributed to a general decline in the celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday well into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Morning Prayer became the common service of worship on the Lord’s Day. ACK, a plant of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) which was more an evangelical low church, did not place the Eucharist as high in practice as the gathering of Christians in worship. There are Anglicans who gather for corporate prayer without the Eucharist. According to Richard Hooker, Christians assembled for corporate prayer, take part in communion with Christ himself, “joined . . . to that visible, mystical body which is his Church”. Hooker understands the corporate prayer of Christians as having a spiritual significance far greater than the sum of the individual prayers of the individual members of the body. He had very much in mind the assembly of faithful Christians gathered for the Daily Office. However, the Holy Eucharist is gaining precedence over Morning prayer, communion-wide, as the principal act of worship on Sunday.

What Kuhn argues of Science, that “rigorous and rigid” preparation is what helps to ensure that the received beliefs are fixed in the student’s mind, can be said of this paradigm influencing our understanding of when the Church gathers to worship, share the word and the sacrament. For scientists, Kuhn asserts, go to great pains to defend the assumption that scientists know what the world is like. And that “normal science” will often suppress novelties which undermine its foundations. Research is, therefore, not about discovering the unknown, but a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.

How churches responded to COVID-19 restrictions 

The COVID-19 crisis has presented us with an immense challenge to this paradigm. The civil authorities stopped the physical gathering of Christians in churches, and ecclesial authorities endorsed this. In response, the churches adjusted to the order in a variety of ways to maintain visibility and witness.

Many churches switched to online service on internet platforms. Some turned to radio and TV services. In doing this they continued preaching the word of God and shared prayers. Others, who were outside the digital and mass media orbit turned to household and family worship sessions. Home alone, people are sustained in the theological assurance of Christ’s presence in our time of need. So, in such moments of crisis, people who wanted to draw closer to God, found connections through mass media and online platforms. They heard the word preached but had a challenge in celebrating the Eucharist. The sacraments are material, personal encounters; they do not exist in any other form; the Eucharist cannot be administered electronically. How can the bread and wine on the HD monitor, in a live-streamed mass, make the Eucharist? In invoking the words of the institution, “the Celebrant is to hold . . . or lay a hand upon” the bread and the wine; there is no gray area, and so it is not permissible to consecrate the Eucharist from a distance.

Many parish churches have, therefore, suspended the celebration of Holy Communion until they can meet together in person again. With this, has ceased the practice of public baptism for the duration of the restrictions that have been placed upon the Church.

The spiritual sacrament is an option that other churches have taken. We administer spiritual communion when a person desires to receive the sacrament, but cannot eat the bread and drink the wine. The celebrant assures this person that they have received all the benefits of communion, even though the person has not received the sacrament by mouth (BCP:457). This enables the spiritual reception, by observing a celebration of the Eucharist that is at the heart of the sacrament, even if physical partaking is not possible.

For others, the option of looking on was not workable. So, the parish congregation was informed when the Holy Communion would be celebrated in the priest’s home. Members of the congregation were provided with the programme and readings for the service and were invited to pray and read scriptures so that the service would take place within some kind of extended communal act of worship in that parish, and not as a private act of devotion.

In other communities, priests administered “drive-by communion”, where individuals drove through picking up the emblems of communion and driving away after the service. This presented a public health concern and further distorted the essential link between a communal celebration and the culmination of that celebration in the reception of the Eucharistic bread and wine.

Priests also made personal delivery of the emblems of communion to members in their homes. In these cases, the priest celebrated the Mass on Sunday and consecrated all the bread to be taken to the parishioners. Then the priest (and a few Eucharistic ministers) went to people’s homes (having cleansed their hands and kept the envelopes containing the emblems in brand new ziplock bags to avoid contamination). Depending on the size of the congregation, they applied the method for distributing the sacrament safely to people in their homes on Sundays.

Shocks to ACK practices during COVID-19 

Kuhn maintains that there are anomalies within all paradigms which are considered acceptable levels of error or ignored and not dealt with. The above responses expose the immense anomalies accommodated within the Anglican paradigm. Although they solve the current problem, they provide solutions within the accepted norm with certain inconsistencies.

The most sacred feature of Christian gathering in the presence of Christ is the holy Eucharist, administered by the priest, and in a consecrated space. The Eucharist claims the actual presence of Christ and the reality of blessing when the elements are consumed by a real congregation. One therefore receives sustained spiritual blessings through frequent participation in such a service.

Where physical gathering is not possible, an alternative is foreseen where the parishioners are provided with a liturgy adapted from “Communion under Special Circumstances” (1979 BCP:396-399) to perform at home, as well as a bulletin and the lectionary readings. This is as Justin Martyr describes in his First Apology 65: “And when the presider has given thanks and all the people have assented, those called by us ‘deacons’ give to each one of those present to share the bread and wine and water over which thanks have been given, and they take [them] to those not present”.

Kuhn insists that should significant anomalies accrue against a current paradigm, it would throw the scientific discipline into a state of crisis. Such a crisis would demand retooling. Again, Kuhn explains, “So long as the tools a paradigm supplies continue to prove capable of solving the problems it defines, science moves fastest and penetrates most deeply through confident employment of those tools. The reason is apparent. As in manufacture, so in science —retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it”.

A crisis that locks the sanctuary and separates the clergy from the flock, would dim our visibility and stifle our liturgical life. We need not ask in such moments which is or is not permissible of the sacraments, as observed Rowan Williams; that leads to a dead end. Rather, the question for us sacramental people, he said, was not whether a practice was “right or wrong,” but “how much are we prepared for this or that liturgical action to mean?”

Since sacraments are actions that give new meaning to things, the current questions about the way we worship in this time of radical physical distancing invites the question of our preparedness for a sacramental encounter to have an alternative meaning. We should rather ask: what are we prepared for it to signify?

How shall we gather again after the period of restriction, during which we experienced the virtual church?

The attempts to stay in fellowship opened up an alternative way of gathering—the virtual meeting. Many Christians, who went online or turned to radio and television, now have multiple platforms on which to gather and connect. It will be difficult to restore the pre-coronavirus mode. We have arrived at a liberalised space of worship, where the anonymity of Christians will increase rather than decrease. For the individual Christians will have greater control over what they receive and will shut out what they do not desire.

Churches with a tradition of keeping a list of members that forms the basis for their local churches and denominations will experience difficulty in preventing their members from wandering across the field. We frowned upon moving from one church to another and regarded it as a kind of “sin”. The virtual church now gives Christians the anonymity and freedom to conceal their movements. People will belong to multiple congregations, and most probably become loyal to none.

Will our pastors and priests continue to signify the presence of Christ among us?  Or will Christians maintain their newfound ways of experiencing God encountered during the period of restrictions?

We have up to now had a clergy-dependent way of following Christ. Pastors and priests have played a key role in the lives of Christians beyond religious matters. Their role therefore has remained vital, even in the absence of sacraments, as during the coronavirus crisis. This is because the church gathers around its priest who, besides administering the sacraments, pronounces the blessings, grants absolution of sins and who, through preaching and teaching the word, edifies the flock. There is a sense in which the flock is realising the access they have to God through Christ. Through prayers and listening to God’s word alone, some are developing an increased intimacy with Christ present in their homes. While for others, through their experience of the Daily Office, morning and evening prayers, they have found meaning in the word’s ministry and prayer.

Suppose the restrictions are lifted, will Christians opt for a continued non-physical experience of the sacrament?

Out of the coronavirus crisis emerged acts of personal delivery of communion to members in homes, drive-in communion, and a rekindled spiritual communion. Others have fasted the holy communion since the lockdown. The restrictions were necessary to protect neighbour and self from harm. Is it possible that, facing a prolonged threat and though allowed physical contact, many will prefer non-physical interactions? Taking communion to members’ homes may become the norm and that obviates the need of gathering. Some may become so accustomed to a spiritual communion which they have found exhilarating, that they will allow the sacraments to live up to their purpose as spiritual pointers.

There are observable movements away from the norms. ACK Christians realise that the sacraments and institutions that support their practice are symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart and deed that could be expressed in other ways. They can encounter Christ through prayer, his word through the Internet and mass media, the non-physical partaking of sacraments, and yet faithfully be in sacred fellowship with the Catholic Apostolic Church of Christ. Will these changes in perspective spark a change in how we practice our faith?

A new awakening 

The forecast is that the social and economic impact of the coronavirus will overwhelm weaker economies with fragile social safety nets. The Kenyan Anglicans faithful will strain to prop up this Church, a Church built with imperial concrete on the shifting sands of poverty. Such a structure, designed for the empire, loaded with dogmas, systems and traditions, incongruent with scriptures, and in desparate need of support and foreign aid, will not stand. Not for long. Besides, ACK does not have the backing of market capitalism and liberal democracy that other western countries of the communion have.

Perhaps the good to come out of this period might be an awakening to the pre-existing conditions of our religious decay. We were not as healthy as we made it to appear. Apart from being a medical condition, COVID-19 is also, and to a greater extent, a social virus which will eviscerate the Anglican Church as we know it today. We will wake up to an unfamiliar world after this pandemic. How shall we mitigate against extinction?

Scientists would not look backward in choosing from among existing theories when searching for alternatives. They seek “the fittest way to practice future science” says Kuhn, and therefore base their decision not on information about previous contributions but on the expected value of their own prospective contribution to a paradigm.

In an enthralling narrative on why civilisations die, Rebecca Costa recounts how when societies reach a cognitive threshold they can’t chart a path from the present to the future. They hit a gridlock. And there they die off. She explains that the fall occurs because problems become too many and complicated for the people of that time and place to solve. Such cognitive overload can happen to any system and may already be happening to the Anglican Church.

Costa gives two signs that point towards breakdown. First, there is a gridlock. Instead of dealing with what everyone can see are major problems, people continue as usual and pass their problems on to the next generation. Then there is a retreat into irrationality, for facts no longer make sense, and people take refuge in religious consolations.

How Judaism endured and survived the atrocities of the Roman empire, is a lesson for us today. The Jews developed a remarkable response to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). Faced with the loss of the entire infrastructure of the Temple, its Priests, and sacrifices, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, Judaism translated the entire system of divine service into the everyday life of ordinary Jews. “In prayer, every Jew became a Priest offering a sacrifice. In repentance, he became a High Priest, atoning for his sins and those of his people. Every synagogue, in Israel or elsewhere, became a fragment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Every table became an altar, every act of charity or hospitality, a kind of sacrifice”, Sacks elaborates. The Jews did not abandon the past.

But they did not cling to it either. They refused to take refuge in irrationality, Sacks observes, but they “thought through the future and created institutions like the synagogue and house of study and school that could be built anywhere and sustain Jewish identity even in the most adverse conditions”. Judaism has always survived, unlike other world civilizations, in one sense because of Divine providence, but Sacks attributes it also to “the foresight of people like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who resisted cognitive breakdown, created solutions today for the problems of tomorrow, who did not seek refuge in the irrational, and who built the Jewish future”.

Our crisis presents us with the incentive to desire a new paradigm, and to invite others to the benefits it proffers. Kuhn describes shifts in paradigm allegiance as a conversion experience driven by the efforts of individual scientists to persuade each other. As Anglicans, we must contemplate worst-case scenarios, plan generations ahead and ask ourselves what we would do, if… What saved the Jewish people, Rabbi Sacks concludes, “was their ability…. never to let go off the rational thought”, and refusing to let their loyalty to the past come in the way of their future, they kept planning for the future.

Towards a new paradigm: priesthood for all believers 

We should make all Confirmed Christians priests, give them authority to serve in the priestly role in church liturgy, sacraments and witness. To incorporate lay Christians into the priesthood will best realise our belief in the priesthood of all believers, a vision the ACK holds for Christians in divine service:

Lay persons form by far the greater part of the body of Christ. They cannot walk worthily in their high calling, unless they realize that they too are sharers in the heavenly high priesthood of Christ, and that this sharing must find expression in holiness, in witness, and in loving service of others (ACK. Const. 2002 Article VI: #7).

The laity are already leading in liturgy. This change should permit them not only to offer prayers but also grant absolution for the confessant, pronounce blessings on God’s people and last rites for the dying. Also, they should administer sacraments of baptism (this is already applicable in an emergency; full communicants other than a priest may baptise—OMS 2002:43) and Eucharist.   

Making all believers priests would more reflect the scriptural ideal of God’s “kingdom of Priests and holy nation” than the present practice. Christians need to realise their calling as in Leviticus (19: 1-2) : “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them, ‘Be holy because I the Lord your God am holy’”. The New Testament affirms all believers in the priesthood of the New Covenant:

You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:5, 9).

The Rabbinic Judaism that emerged out of the devastating tragedy of the loss of the Temple, created a religious and social order that achieved this vision of the people as “a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation”. Their leaders made Priesthood the right and obligation of every Jew. Should we not do the same for Christianity and, more so, for our Anglican Church?

With all believers as priests, their lives will turn into God’s service in society. All believers will be more aware of themselves as the community of the Kingdom of God, now scattered in homes, fragments of the divine sanctuary. Yet in these small shards, the believers gather to encounter God upon whom they wholly depend. And as explained by Niringiye, “the visibility of the community is in its gathering . . . in Jesus’ name”. They will engage in God’s service through prayer. And make sacrifices by acts of charity,  create sacred fellowship by hospitality with every table becoming an altar for offerings unto God. Hence, the community of believers will exist as a divine sign pointing to the reality beyond, at the same time reflecting the glory of Christ in the present. Christians, now priests, would in the vision of Bishop J.E. Lesslie Newbigin, be the instruments through which God carries His will for justice, peace and freedom in the world, and as a foretaste of the presence of the Kingdom.

We must transform institutional church structures into instruments to equip all believers for service. They should be centres for Christian education where we train our children in our faith, giving them the tools to thrive as Christians in the world. Using our church infrastructures as centres for Christian learning would in effect reorient our priests to actualise their role as teachers and instructors of the faith. Equipping believers, through guiding them in understanding the holy texts and doing theology, will stir the development of fresh liturgy and visibility. Christian theology encourages an engaged spirituality, which lives out its theological convictions in social life. An engaged spirituality seeks to be true to the essence of theology, which St Anselm of Canterbury (11th century) defines as fides quaerens intellectum — faith in search of understanding.

What the ACK should discover, is not the proclaiming a timeless universal truth, but the listening to God’s involvement in the stories of the local community. The Church ought to recognise that it is in opening herself up that she will experience a true radical transformation. A true transformation is a gift of listening to the traces of God’s involvement among us, which brings about liberation and thus creates a space for impossible possibilities. And these are the true transformations.

We can achieve for the Anglican Church what the prophets, the sages, and the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages accomplished for Judaism. They realised that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart and deed that could be expressed in other ways. The study of the Torah, once the preserve of the priesthood, became the right and obligation of everyone. Sacks concludes,  not everyone could wear the crown of Priesthood, but everyone could wear the crown of Torah; Judaism transformed to cope with the new contexts the Jewish people found themselves in.

The ACK is in a liminal space concerning her visibility. A space of being in transition. She must open herself to listen and search for God’s involvement in the world. It is by being in conversation and interpreting God’s involvement that she will be in the transition, from an institution founded on truths and established practices, to an open community, vulnerable, and exposed to the impossible possibilities of Christ’s presence, outside traditional places.

We are yet to understand the impact of this pandemic, it may be worse than we are projecting. Should we just contemplate worst-case scenarios? No, we should plan generations ahead, ask ourselves what we would do, if… What saved the Jewish people, Rabbi Sacks concludes, was their ability never to let go off rational thought, and, refusing to let their loyalty to the past get in the way of the future, they kept planning for the future.

If the ACK, and the Anglican Church, adopt this proposal, any future suspension of physical public gathering would not affect her visibility. Christians would continue to hear God’s word read or preached, and to receive the sacrament in another way.This will then be a Church that has opened herself to the paradigm shift.

This article is an abridged version from a journal article published in The Elephant document and archive section.

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Rev. Canon Francis Omondi, is a priest of The Anglican Church of Kenya (1998), serving as an attached clergy in the All Saints Cathedral Diocese, Nairobi. Was made Canon of Kampala Diocese in the Anglican Church of Uganda (2008). He is an Adjunct Lecturer at St. Paul’s University, Limuru, Kenya, and International Director of The Sheepfold Ministries.

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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.

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Beyond the Hustle and Towards a New Philosophy for Agriculture
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“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 NæssDeep 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.

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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.

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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.

Monocropping issues

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.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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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.

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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:

  1. People shouldn’t get degrees because there is no employment.
  2. Degrees make graduates become employment seekers rather than employers.
  3. 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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