Over the last few years, I have come to understand at least three narratives that some Kenyans use to wish away the contradictions of the Kenyan state. No matter how much such Kenyans are presented with evidence of changing times or with history that gives a different perspective, they will repeat these narratives louder to drown out the other voices.
Behind all these narratives lies an effort to wish away the fragmentation of the people by the Kenyan state. But, more than that, these narratives are protected by the curriculum of the public schools which does not allow the teaching of the arts, and particularly the teaching of history. Kenyans are thus denied the opportunity to develop their intellectual capacity to understand not just the limitations of the Kenya state, but to understand the reality of the world in the 21st century.
These narratives are: Social issues such as crime, truancy and drug abuse afflict young men due to the neglect of the “boy child” (by whom, it is never clear), which in turn is due to advocacy for girls by Western feminists; Tanzania is communist and Kenya is capitalist; more Kenyan students need to study the sciences because that’s what the job market needs.
The boy child
Kenyans use the narrative of the neglect of the boy child to deflect questions that affect mostly poor young men, such as police brutality against men, the flawed masculinity promoted by the Kenyan male elite, and the culture of rape that is not only sexual but also financial, intellectual and environmental. By avoiding such analysis, we evade acknowledging that although Kenyan men dominate property ownership and positions of power, those men belong to a socio-economic minority.
Not dealing with the interaction between gender and class allows us to cling to the hope that manhood can be a ticket for all Kenyan men to gain same access to the wealth and power enjoyed by the ruling class. The reality is, though, that this model of the state cannot accommodate more than a minority with that much wealth and power. But rather than dismantle this exploitation, Kenyans would rather blame girls. Imagine that. We adults are blaming children for our failure to establish an equitable society.
This distraction of Kenyans from the inequality of the state is further integrated with race through Kenyans’ focus on Western feminism. Ironically though, the goal of Western feminism is exactly that: to silence questions about the Eurocentric global system and instead simply negotiate white women’s place in it. And this argument has been made for decades by scholars like Micere Mugo, Oyeronke Oyewumi, Ifi Amadiume and Amina Mama, while men such as Ousmane Sembene and Thomas Sankara have tied women’s freedom to African freedom as a whole. However, Kenyan education is grossly Eurocentric. Many graduate students have never heard of these names, and what many Kenyans know of feminism is what they read from white American evangelicals, whose thoughts are shared every Sunday on many Kenyan pulpits.
The narrative of communist Tanzania vs. capitalist Kenya is equally twisted, especially when one remembers that the Berlin Wall fell twenty-seven years ago and the Soviet Union collapsed twenty-five years ago. However, holding onto this myth serves a purpose: it helps us avoid asking questions about our country’s internal exploitation and poor foreign policy choices. The narrative also comforts a certain superiority complex that is rooted in eurocentrism. We think we’re better than Tanzanians because we’re richer. However, we forget that the “we” who are richer are a minority of Kenyans, all thanks to tribalism, which enables us to “share” in the wealth of the privileged few in our respective ethnic groups. In tribalist thinking, kumeza mate ndiko kula nyama, to swallow saliva is to eat meat.
We can also avoid the reality that Tanzania may have a point in questioning the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that Kenya has enthusiastically signed with the European Union. Already, there are credible voices, like former president Benjamin Mkapa and scholar Horace Campbell, indicating that the EPA will benefit only the flower industry (whose members include colonial settlers), and will take the rest of Kenya to the cleaners. But instead of us asking whether our own government signed the EPA agreement in the interests of the Kenyan people, it is easier to dismiss Tanzania as “communist” and “cold” towards Kenya.
We have also not come to terms with the history of Kenya’s anti-African foreign policy choices since independence. In word, Kenya publicly declared opposition to apartheid, but in deed, Kenya did not support the ANC and was, in fact, trading with apartheid South Africa. Tanzania, on the other hand, was a base for the ANC. A similar thing happened with the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. As Tanzania welcomed Rwandan refugees, Kenya was home to the rich génocidaires (President Juvenal Habyarimana’s wife was one of those who fled to Europe through Kenya). At the height of the killings, Kenya sent a planeload of Tutsi refugees back to Rwanda. What happened to those refugees is anyone’s guess.
Education: Science vs. arts
In the war against the arts, the narrative of science vs. the arts deflects responsibility for a crawling economy from the leaders to the people. If graduates are jobless, the narrative implies, it is because the graduates are studying the wrong subjects in school, not because the greed and stupidity of the Kenyan ruling class has been an obstacle to the economy expanding to accommodate all talents and professions. That is why the truth that medical and engineering graduates are not getting employed, and the few who do find work are not getting paid, has not yet entrenched itself in public conversations about careers in the sciences.
The problem is that this narrative against arts education is stuck in the industrial era (yes, the 19th century in the West, not Africa), where the governments and industries expected mass education to produce workers for factories. The world has since moved on to the information age, where the automation of knowledge by computers means that “progress” is determined by access to information. And experts are now talking of a conceptual age where what counts is not only information, but also the ability to use it creatively, otherwise called innovation.
In the war against the arts, the narrative of science vs. the arts deflects responsibility for a crawling economy from the leaders to the people.
The division between arts and sciences is traumatizing, even to the individual learner. I remember our frustration as form five students being forced to choose between sciences and arts. A number of us actually loved mathematics and scored distinctions in O levels, but we were told that if we did mathematics we had to do biology, chemistry or physics, in which we were not interested. Can you imagine what innovations would have come out of my generation had we been allowed to do both arts and science, even at university?
What this means is that the whole science vs. arts narrative is literally useless. And yet, the Jubilee government has entrenched this schism, with the Education Cabinet Secretary and his boss, the Deputy President, attacking arts programmes as irrelevant to the country’s needs. As if that is not bad enough, the proposed new curriculum talks of separating schools into “talent” and “technical” schools.
This country does not need to widen this schism in knowledge but to narrow it, so that our youth learn to combine data and information with creativity, and in so doing, craft solutions at both the macro and micro level. Kenyan students should be able to do mathematics and linguistics, or music and physics, agriculture and fine art, or history of the sciences, if they so wish. But instead of bridging this gap, the government is stuck in the 60s, when it saw science and arts as opposite poles.
Worse, the government is basing this division on the equally archaic idea of the job market that belongs to the days of independence. In those days, the government was so desperate for Africans to fill the posts left behind by colonialists that people were guaranteed jobs even after primary school, and they would rise up the ranks in those careers and then retire. But that era no longer exists. These days, a growing proportion of people are in careers different from the ones for which they were trained, and are likely to have changed jobs at least four times before they retire. The job market is no longer the same. What we need is a critical and creative reflection on what these changing times mean for education.
Dealing with our contradictions
We Kenyans need to stop hiding behind dated narratives of colonial tribalism and the Cold War and develop the guts to confront the good, the bad and the ugly of our history and our national consciousness. We must not shy away from asking ourselves difficult questions about what colonialism actually did to us, how that colonialism is deeply embedded in the current political culture, and how that exploitation is masculinized and transmitted through the education system. We can get the facts about our oppression from science and the social sciences. But we can only face the accompanying dread and implications for social change through the arts.
Experts are now talking of a conceptual age where what counts is not only information, but also the ability to use it creatively, otherwise called innovation.
We also must realize that the reason successive Kenya governments have deliberately discouraged us from learning the arts, and particularly the history of Kenya and of the African continent, is not because they are concerned with development needs. The political class does not want us to understand the reality that we the people are slaving away to enrich a minority.
The schisms that divide Kenyans from each other along ethnicity and gender, or separate Kenyans from their neighbours, or delude us that our professions have no link to our talents, all serve to prevent us from making connections across time, space and cultures. We understand our realities only with a healthy dose of the arts, and we can only craft solutions by weaving our creativity with the tools of science and all the knowledge available to humankind.
We must therefore reject these narratives that fragment the Kenyan psyche along gender, ethnicity, religious and professional lines. Let us choose to uproot patriarchy, misogyny and religious bigotry, to understand our continental history, and to intertwine our artistic skills with our scientific insights. Only then can we, as Thomas Sankara said, dare to invent the future.
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Decoloniality and the Kenyan Academy: A Pipe Dream?
Decoloniality in Kenya may be permitted in Kenyan universities if the Kenya government receives a grant to promote it, or if the British Council or other foreign donor will sponsor a conference on it.
Over a decade ago, I was a fresh graduate, still aflame with post-colonial critiques of empire and eager to implement this consciousness in my new station back home in Kenya. In one of my first assignments as a naïve and enthusiastic administrator, I attended a workshop on implementing the Bologna Process in higher education.
For me, the workshop was odd. We were implementing an openly European framework in Kenya, a country which gained fame for challenging cultural colonialism, thanks to people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and his classic Decolonising the mind. It was surprising to me that this workshop would happen in a country where it has now become standard practice in Kenyan literature to present the great art of our ancestors as a evidence disproving the claims of colonialism. Our students cannot read an African work of art without lamenting the colonial experience. Surely, implementing a European education agenda in 21st century Kenya should raise some hullabaloo. But this Europeanization of our education seemed to raise no eyebrows.
Eventually, I could no longer ignore this elephant in the room. So I asked: why are we implementing a process without discussing where it came from and what problem it was addressing in its context?
I have now learned that such questions are not to be asked in Kenyan universities, which is the point I will emphasize later. For the moment, I will repeat the answer I was given: if the Bologna Process improved higher education in Europe, it will do the same for us in Kenya.
At that time, I was too academically shy to interrogate that answer. It did not occur to me to research whether it is true that the Bologna process delivered the spectacular results in Europe that we were being promised, or even to find out the reactions of European faculty and students to the process. In retrospect, I now understand why I could not interrogate that answer.
To be a young academic in Kenya gives you a fairly strong inferiority complex. Rather than acquire humility of knowing that there is so much to learn, you acquire a shame of knowing. Worse, you fear asking questions because the answer you get sometimes suggests that you are arrogant, which is usually expressed as an accusation that you think only you have a PhD. So I accepted the answer I got.
Imagine my surprise to later discover that there was a political economy around the Bologna Process. The short version of it is that the Bologna Process was an effort by the European Union to fight back against the US and UK efforts to monopolize the higher education “market” with Ivy League and Oxbridge universities. Bologna Process was continental Europe’s way of commercializing itself at home, and in Africa, setting European universities as the standards against which African universities benchmarked themselves.
Within continental Europe, students demonstrated against this standardization at protests called “Bologna burns.” Faculty pointed at the neoliberal and corporate agenda of the Bologna Process. In African continental platforms like CODESRIA, African scholars raised questions about the political motives of the Bologna Process and pointed out that African universities would complacently implement the process largely because Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) had rendered universities vulnerable to external interference.
But in Kenya, land of Decolonizing the Mind? We academics quietly implemented it without raising questions.
Anti-colonial resistance in the Kenyan academy is more about reputation than about reality. The Kenyan academy is conservative as a whole, despite its rhetoric of opposing colonialism and affirming African culture. It appears that the global resonance of the Mau Mau and the persecution of faculty and students by successive Kenya governments have made the world see more anti-colonial resistance in the Kenyan academy than exists in reality. As a result, the Kenyan academy remains stuck in a gap between the rhetoric of decolonizing on one hand, and on the other, the reality of coloniality and of the university as an agent of coloniality.
Even I, a Kenyan, was still mesmerized by our anti-colonial reputation when I naively asked why we were implementing the Bologna Process. It is only after ten years of never getting direct answers to my questions about the Kenyan obsession with global “standards,” “competitiveness” and benchmarking,” that I slowly accepted that there is a fundamental dissonance in the Kenyan scholarly consciousness.
This reality, in a nutshell, is why the current discussions of decoloniality may not take root in the Kenyan academy.
That is not to say that the concept of decoloniality is irrelevant. My Bologna Process experience is proof that coloniality of power is very much entrenched in Kenya. Policy travel in education has made Kenyan education bureaucrats, many of whom are academics and professors, adopt and implement Euro-centric policies in Kenya’s schooling system. Meanwhile, the policy makers frown upon and run away from questions about the policies themselves.
This brutal reality has hit home for me with my public engagement on the competency based curriculum. The Ministry of Education policy makers have refused to answer questions on the imperial and commercial interests behind the competency curriculum. Worse, some of the supporting documentation they have filed in court cases, to which I have had access, openly demonstrate the racial bias of the foreign promoters of competency, especially in the United States.
As if that is not absurd enough, Kenyan scholars of education seem unperturbed by this overt imperial control of Kenyan schooling. A search on Google Scholar for Kenyan studies on CBC shows that few, if any, carry out an actual philosophical or political critique of the school system and of the international actors behind it. More absurd, the concern of some of the scholars is with the indigenous content in what is basically a recolonizing curriculum.
The insights from decoloniality studies cannot be more urgent in Kenya. Decoloniality would help us distinguish between maintaining an anti-colonial rhetoric and reinforcing colonial logics of power. It would enable us to understand that even African cultures can be weaponized for colonial agendas. It would help us detect and explain the inertia and decline of Kenyan universities.
But here’s why it will be difficult for decoloniality discourse to take root in Kenya.
As an approach, discussion of decoloniality requires certain institutional conditions. One is our ability to be political. To be political, as Lewis Gordon says in several of his works, is to go beyond oneself. One must be willing to ask about implications for people beyond the self, for time beyond the present, for space beyond the here. Second, one must have a fairly robust knowledge of national and international history. Third, one must be willing to accept their own implication in the colonial project.
All these conditions do not exist in Kenya. Kenya is a very conservative country, in the political sense of the word. By its very essence, conservativism denies the political. Conservativism explicitly discourages discussions of power and sociality in institutional and daily conversation. The question I asked about why we were implementing a foreign education policy was a political one because it was a question beyond myself. It was a question about the institution, society and international community.
The only questions we Kenyans are allowed to ask are about the personal. We Kenyans are not allowed to think socially and globally. Hence one will often hear Kenyans silencing one another with responses such as “speak for yourself,” or “that does not apply to everybody.” Similarly, the answer I got was that the Bologna Process would work for me as an administrator faithfully implementing it, and maybe for the institution, but it remained silent on the larger society.
On the question of history, it goes without saying that Kenya does not teach its history, either in the syllabus or in popular arts. The competency curriculum, for example, has reduced history to citizenship, which means that there is an intention to limit Kenyan children’s knowledge of history to legitimizing the state. For the few Kenyans who escape the war against humanities by the Kenya government and private sector, and who specialize in the arts and humanities in the university, we are preoccupied with protecting our jobs as we are accused of teaching subjects which have “no market.” With such a weak public grasp of history, a decoloniality conversation in Kenyan academic circles becomes difficult.
The third issue, of personal implication of academics in the colonial project, is probably the most difficult to tackle. Because of the de-socializing and de-politicizing rhetoric of what Keguro Macharia calls Kenya’s political vernacular, Kenyans find it psychologically difficult to deal with contradictions, and deflect them with the conservative moral rhetoric of blame. If one points out the colonial threads in a particular policy, a Kenyan academic will typically respond with statements such as “let’s not blame one another,” “we need to be positive so that it works,” or “let’s not politicize issues,” or “let’s not take this personally.” It is inevitable that the social and political conversation which decoloniality demands will be difficult for us when we operate in an atmosphere where cannot have conversations beyond the self and morality.
Decoloniality in Kenya may be permitted in Kenyan universities if the Kenya government receives a grant to promote it, or if the British Council or other foreign donor will sponsor a conference on it. And it will likely hover around the old, conservative slogan of “let’s go back to our cultures” which, as Terry Ranger wrote, was a slogan from the colonial government itself.
For the decoloniality discourse to take root in Kenya, we need to deepen our knowledge and teaching of history. We cannot have a conversation about history when we do not know it. We need to overtly confront the conservative Kenyan political vernacular. We must refuse the small space of blame that makes us constantly apologize for possibly treading on people’s feelings and sounding like we are assigning personal guilt. We must refuse to be policed by demands for verified facts and data as a condition for having a social conversation.
But that work is easier said than done. Kenyan academics who take this journey should know that challenging these discursive barriers will, most likely, come at an emotional and professional cost. We should not be surprised by accusations of being negative and confrontational, or by being isolated and lonely within our institutions. I know several Kenyan academics who are suffering painful psychic injuries after being isolated for daring to do this work. But we can survive and thrive if we deliberately search for solidarity among individual academics across the country and the world who are having that conversation.
This article was first published in Wandia Njoya’s blog.
Re-imagining the African University
In relation to their knowledge production, African universities should acknowledge the importance of producing research in support of development, while retaining their liberal education focus, he advises.
If they are not to be condemned to irrelevance, universities in Africa must strengthen their research and teaching and adopt a proactive stance in responding to the institutional and developmental demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
This is according to Paul Zeleza, the former the vice-chancellor of the United States International University-Africa, and at present the North Star distinguished professor and associate provost at Case Western Reserve University, a private institution in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States.
“Universities have a crucial role to play in pushing governments and the private sector to ensure that Africa has agency in the 4IR [Fourth Industrial Revolution] and, accordingly, derives significant benefits,” says Zeleza, giving warning that the continent may otherwise be “left behind or unduly exploited, as was the experience during the previous three industrial revolutions”.
“Instead of being what Kenyan pan-Africanist thinker Ali Mazrui used to describe as ‘pawns’ in the global system, Africans must become 4IR players,” he urges, citing the need for the continent to acquire sufficient high-performance computing capacity to undertake the complex data analytics and processing of big data sets that are required as part of the 4IR.
In the absence of such high-performance computing, Zeleza says, the continent will be indebted to external data processing and storage firms and “will not even receive the trinkets it was once paid [under colonialism] for its raw materials”.
In a parallel move, African universities should also make every effort to improve their research and pedagogic functions, seeking to support domestic development while also boosting their standing and the quality of their contributions at international level, he advises.
“The issue of relevance is a complex one,” Zeleza says. “It comes from the university’s anchoring in its society but that should not exclude being global … because, whether we like it or not, higher education is global.”
Indeed, he urges, “it is important that African universities do not surrender the global to others”.
Indigenisation vs internationalisation
“We also have to be global,” he says. “An appropriate balance has to be struck between indigenisation and internationalisation.”
However, Zeleza notes, higher education institutions on the continent are, at present, generally failing to make their mark globally, which is creating institutional harm in terms of their access to resources, students and staff.
For example, he says, Africa has yet to acknowledge the importance of research, including on critical issues such as climate change and health, in its funding priorities.
“A report produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in June 2021 indicated that the continent’s expenditure on research and development, which includes the universities, was very low at about 0.5% of GDP, compared with a global average of about 1.9%.
“Meanwhile, its share of total global research and development expenditure was about 1%, with most of this taking place in South Africa and North Africa, indicating the dire conditions for research elsewhere on the continent.”
Pedagogy at global standard
Zeleza also notes that, while African universities should be providing pedagogy at a global standard, “this is not [their] current reputation in general, as is illustrated by the relatively low number of international students at higher education institutions on the continent”.
“In addition, and notwithstanding the justified criticism of the international university rankings, African universities fare poorly on these tables,” Zeleza says. “In the Times Higher Education rankings for 2021, only 60 of the 1,500 ranked institutions were from Africa.
“Whatever the misgivings about the rankings, they are used as a marketing tool and, in this way, influence the flows of students, faculty staff and resources.”
In this regard, Zeleza cites a preference among the Kenyan elite for sending their children to universities abroad as an example of the depths to which the reputations of many African universities have sunk.
It is a dynamic that he is keen to see reversed, particularly given what he describes as the inappropriate and often damaging nature of the education offered to African students at universities in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.
“I used to see a lot of young students from Africa undertaking undergraduate studies in the United States and it was clear these kids were lost at a personal level and intellectually,” he says.
“They were not being developed in ways that were good for them. They were forced to deal with being treated as second- or third-class because of race issues; and they were not being equipped with any knowledge about their own countries, their own societies.”
However, African universities can reverse what Zeleza describes as their decline and reclaim their relevance by adopting greater agency and a more strategic approach in relation to their key functions, including their pedagogy and research, and their public-service and technological innovation roles.
The importance of research
In relation to their knowledge production, African universities should acknowledge the importance of producing research in support of development, while retaining their liberal education focus, he advises.
“Whatever particular questions the research is trying to answer, it should broadly seek to address fundamental social and community issues, as these are articulated in national, regional and global plans.
“The generation of knowledge for social impact is something that I think our universities should always have in front of them.”
In this respect, Zeleza is encouraged by the production of a new table for assessing the performance of higher education institutions according to their social impact – that is, in relation to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which is now being produced as part of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
“This produces quite different results from those produced by the traditional ranking methodology,” he says. “So, for example, these new rankings have recently listed Australasian universities at the top rather than your Oxfords or Harvards.”
In fulfilling their public service and engagement function, Zeleza stresses the importance of African universities trying to be intentional in building critical strategic and transformational relationships with multiple stakeholders, including the government; the private sector; intergovernmental institutions; community bodies; and philanthropic organisations.
“Universities have to engage their governments, partly in their role as major funders but also in order to provide the kind of research that can be translated into policy,” he says.
While advocating the establishment of mutually beneficial triple-helix arrangements among public- and private-sector partners and universities, he also urges higher education institutions to insist on a greater role in shaping international and continental initiatives.
For example, citing an ambitious African Development Bank programme to provide up to 50 million young Africans with digital skills that can make them employable, he notes the disproportionate influence of external consultants, who can typically hail from the Global North.
The problem, he says, is that African universities are then asked to bid to participate in the implementation of these schemes “but without having been involved in crafting the vision or the agenda for the initiative in the first place”.
Funding of universities
This also brings into sharp focus the ever-pressing matter of university funding. Zeleza advises university leaders to place a greater focus on seeking funding from African philanthropic organisations and high net-worth individuals.
“The data indicates that higher education is not a priority for giving among this group,” he says. This is quite contrary to experience in other parts of the world and among leading universities, such as Harvard and Princeton.
“So, the challenge for African universities as part of their mission of engaging society is to approach and cultivate these individuals in a strategic way.”
Zeleza also embraces the benefits that technology may bring to higher education, although, he says, “universities should avoid adopting a technologist kind of viewpoint in which technology is viewed as a thing and an end in itself”.
“The issue has to be the extent to which universities are enhancing their value proposition in terms of deploying and developing new technologies in support of digital learning, research and scholarship, and public service and engagement.”
In this regard, he advises that “universities must ensure that students are equipped with the appropriate digital skills, [which are] essential to employability”.
“There is also a need to equip students with information literacy so that they can navigate the huge and ever-increasing amount of information that is available, mostly online.”
The new technologies can further be deployed to facilitate competency-based educational practices, personalising learning, and allowing individual students to move at their own pace, Zeleza says.
Meanwhile, the more democratic access to knowledge facilitated by online technology is leading to new pedagogic approaches, he argues, and a change in the role of teaching professionals. “Teachers, lecturers and professors are no longer the fount of all knowledge.
“Increasingly, the teacher’s role is to equip the students with the ability to engage in critical enquiry and critical discourse. Thus, the lecturing method is giving way to a more interactive co-learning process – a kind of coaching relationship.”
Alongside this, Zeleza says, a new curriculum must be developed that can take account of technological development, including through the continuing establishment of new science degree courses but also through promoting a complementary role for some of the arts and humanities.
“The 4IR is not simply about technology in isolation, but also about how it is integrated with, contributes to, and is transformed by creativity,” he says.
“In this regard, I prefer the acronym STEAM, which includes an “A” for arts, to the acronym STEM, which refers only to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
Creating a new African ‘library’
On the question of the role of indigenous knowledge in the African university, Zeleza envisages an increasingly sophisticated approach to indigenous and other systems of knowledge or ‘libraries’ as Congolese French philosopher and historian Valentin-Yves Mudimbe termed them.
“The tendency is to freeze the notion of indigenous knowledge to an imaginary point in our collective history … and, typically, this reference point is that of pre-contact knowledge, meaning before contact with Europe and colonialism,” he says.
However, he explains, this gives rise to a “banal” definition of African knowledge as an oral formation that stands in opposition to written European or colonial knowledge.
There are at least three streams in Africa’s ancient knowledges, which include the Christian library, the Islamic library, and the oral one, “for lack of a better term”. Zeleza argues that African academics and intellectuals need to claim these libraries which have co-existed for more than a millennium on the continent.
The real problem, however, is “the overwhelming nature of the colonial library in terms of its impacts on our political and intellectual economies”, he says.
“We have become so consumed – and rightly so, to some extent – by the colonial library that we have forgotten these other libraries.”
In response, a key mission for the African academy is to create “a new library out of the constellation of the continent’s diverse libraries,” he says, “so that we can provincialise, deconstruct and decolonise formerly centric knowledges and in their place create empowering knowledges that do not limit us to a formulation of our identities that, itself, is part of the Eurocentric episteme”.
This article is based on an interview conducted by Professor Crain Soudien for the ‘The Imprint of Education’ project, which is being implemented by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), South Africa, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. This project, which includes a series of critical engagements with experienced scholars and thought leaders on their reimaginings of higher education in Africa, investigates current and future challenges facing the sector, including best practices and innovations. The transcript has been edited for length and focus by Mark Paterson and Thierry M Luescher and the full interview will be available on the HSRC’s website.
Heckling: Political Fine Art or Mere Intolerance?
Tradition gives the politician the power to talk down to the public. But where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently wrong?
Hakuna! Ongee! Tawe! Gũtirĩ!
The human being is a heckler. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a polished and refined bureaucrat or a rusty hawker in some dark and desolate alley along River Road. The accountant, when home from work and in front of his 40-inch TV, will still heckle and chuckle when he hears a disagreeable comment from a politician. The prize goes to the hawker though, who will attend a meeting and courageously make his feelings known.
The question as to whether heckling is right or wrong falls within the realms of nature. And nature, you’d agree, is complex. Questions of nature have no simple or simplistic answers. Nature scorns soundbites and clichés. And nature is not just about majestic forests, clothed in death-like stillness—or the power and poise of lions as their roar echoes and re-echoes across the rugged expanse of the Mara.
Finally, nature is not just about atoms and electrons.
When correctly comprehended, nature encompasses the metaphysical. It deals with ideas and ideals as well as values and virtues. In antiquity and during the classical periods, natural philosophy was a big scholarly tent under which men studied astronomy and beauty, physics and ethics—all side by side.
This is to show that to study heckling—is to study ethics—and to study nature.
In less than six months, Kenyans are going to the polls for an election that will usher in a transition. Politicians have many tools and avenues to pass their message across to the populace: a few refined town hall-like meetings, a dash of carefully worded social media messaging through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and live TV interviews, where politicians and their apparatchiks smash phones and bang tables to emphasize their arguments.
Yet the truth is that a political rally remains the theatre of action and the real marketplace of political discourse. In a typical political rally, tradition gives the politician the power and prestige to talk down to the public. They clap and chant and then go home. The (un)settled opinion is that if a citizen does not agree with a politician or with his message, he should just stay away. Heckling, they are told, is immoral, uncouth, even criminal.
However, where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently and invariably wrong? Are there situations when heckling should be tolerated, even encouraged? What is the place of heckling in a free and democratic society? How does the law on heckling intersect and overlap with issues to do with free speech?
To understand anything, it’s important to travel back in time to its roots and origins. Before the 18th century, the word “heckling” as we now understand it meant an entirely different thing. A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp. Heckling involved drawing out the unwanted fibres from the flax so that it would be clean enough to be spun. A heckler therefore was an industrious worker, who, I should imagine, was dignified and respected.
It was not a coincidence that the Scottish town of Dundee, which was home to many heckler-workers, would emerge as the place where heckling was refined and transformed to become the proto-type of the heckling that we now relate to. Heckler-workers would choose one from amongst themselves to read the day’s news to the whole group. In response to politicians’ reported speeches that they deemed absurd or ridiculous, the rest of the heckler-workers would taunt and tease, scorn and sneer.
A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp.
In Scotland, even when the meaning changed with the times, it did not at first involve derisive catcalls, loud jeers, or disruptive boos. Instead, heckling referred to the intense questioning of politicians by the public. The Scottish story tells us that heckling is a legitimate tool that has the potential to improve the democratic tone and texture of a republic. In many other countries, heckling has been a successful device both as a political thermostat (to influence public opinion or government policy) and political thermometer (to reflect public opinion or government policy). Public speeches about the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons, clean fuel, apartheid, and civil rights have, for the same intent, involved some heckling-punctuated protests. This history is important. It shows us that heckling was a socio-political device invented by struggling industrial workers—the class we would call hustlers in Kenya’s current political jargon. Even more curious and exciting is the fact that, as a political device and innovation, it evolved in Scotland, the birthplace of John Stuart Mill, the foremost patriarch and prophet of civil liberty including free speech.
Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers. Nelson Mandela was heckled by Muslim adherents in 2001, when he paid a visit to the Grey Street Mosque in Durban, Kwazulu-Natal, because of his stand on the war on terror and the American military campaign in Afghanistan.
In Kenya, the most enduring story of heckling was President Jomo Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in 1969 where he was met with shouts of “Ndume, Ndume”—the approving chants directed to elevate his then foremost political nemesis Jaramogi. When Kenyatta rose to speak, his unprintable expletives provoked the crowd. Chaos ensued. Police started firing randomly. Official government records put the death toll at 11.
Without being insensitive to the victims of this incident, this figure, in the weighing scale of fatalities—does not answer to the subsequent description of a massacre. Prof. Macharia Munene, in his book Historical Reflections on Kenya, alleges that the term Kisumu massacre evolved due to the push by historians such as William Ochieng and Bethwell Ogot. But that’s a story for another day.
Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers.
As we can see, the cost of heckling was paid in blood and tears. Most recently, thanks to the expanding democratic space, heckling is increasingly tolerated. While on the campaign trail recently, Raila was heckled some places in Meru. William Ruto has also been heckled in parts of the former Western Province.
There are convincing arguments against heckling. One very seductive argument is that heckling limits free speech.
The gold standard for free speech—in Western thought and civilization—is Mill’s Liberty. In this Tour de Force, the student of politics will find perhaps the most elegant arguments in favour of free speech ever penned. Listen to this:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
In issues to do with free speech, Mill argues, numbers mean nothing. The opinion and voice of a solitary man is equal to the voice and opinion of an impressive assembly.
When you silence a person, the cost to knowledge and social progress can be huge. And the person who “loses” is not just the person silenced. The loss is for the whole society, as Mill eloquently posits:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. [Emphasis mine.]
Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler. If you give one the benefit of an uninterrupted speech, you shut down and deny the other. It almost looks like a zero-sum game. You might argue that the meeting has been convened by the politician and therefore is technically the politician’s meeting, and that he should hold the exclusive keys of free speech.
This was William Ruto’s argument when he lost his cool in the face of sustained heckling during a Laikipia tour.
Granted, we are wont to view the heckler as the aggressor who wants to take a place belonging to someone else. That, moreover, the people who attend a rally or some other public meeting come purposefully to listen to the speaker and not the heckler.
Well, not quite.
In the Heckler’s Promise, Lee Campbell, argues in his paper that the heckler wants neither to be the official speaker nor silent mute. And that without the heckler, public speaking is not democratic as should answer to the meaning of participative democracy. Campbell also argues that if we muzzle the heckler, there’s no genuine encounter between the politician and the citizen.
Moreover, I tend to view heckling as social release—some form of catharsis—that is absolutely necessary in a living and breathing democracy. For how do you muzzle a citizen and subdue him with fake batons of decency and decorum—when he comes to listen to a member of parliament who has squandered the constituency’s allocations on girlfriends—by telling him to listen passively or to request for an impossible chance to speak? Or how can anyone really fault the crowd for heckling President Moi at the burial of Robert Ouko?
Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler.
You can say that he can register his disapproval through the ballot. And therein lies the problem. The politician has a vote, a voice, and a platform. Yet the voter only has the vote. And we’re not talking about legislation—which the citizen delegates to his legislator—according to the canons of representative democracy. Here, we’re talking about public discourse and/or expression.
You can also argue that the citizen can convene his own meeting. However, who knows him? If he calls a meeting, who will attend?
If we fully grasp the power dynamics between Prince and Pauper, to borrow the title of Mark Twain’s popular novel, then perhaps the heckler should be congratulated—not criticized.
Yet, the truth is that the prince and the pauper are not equal and never will be. Adam Smith, the celebrated classical economist and moral philosopher, even argues that social inequality is good for society. Without it, there cannot be any meaningful progress. Egalitarianism is utopia.
So, we should perhaps admit that a citizen will not have the voice and the platform like the politician. Yet even if the platform is the politician’s, it is wholly against nature to be passive like a pebble; even a stone causes ripples when it is thrown into water.
There can be a compromise: We don’t have absolute rights—even when it comes to the right of free speech or expression. So long as the speaker’s right to speak is not drowned out and completely halted, you have not interfered with his right to free speech. If you heckle him spontaneously or at intervals that do not make speech impossible, you may have just achieved the democratic ideal that the majority should decide—and the minority be heard. This is as it applies to the voice, separate to the vote.
So the point is: you should not heckle with the intention of disrupting—but only to register your displeasure. Otherwise, you’re limiting the speaker’s rights and the rights of others—who came to listen to what the speaker had to say. As celebrated jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes would memorably aver, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
But some might still argue that it’s right to disrupt a meeting. Of course that’s correct—even if it’s illegal! This is because something can be legal but patently unjust and unconscionable. That is the field and sphere of civil disobedience in the tradition of such figures as Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said:
An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
In any case, ideas are like commodities. For instance, if you found someone selling heroin to children, and if you had the strength, would you leave him right there, and go to report the matter to the police? You’d first disrupt the sale. It’s the right thing to do.
By that analogy, if someone is selling poisonous and dangerous ideas, you’d be duty bound to disrupt him or her by any means including heckling. The fundamental element of civil disobedience is that disruption must be civil.
Of course, violence and stone-throwing are acts beyond the pale and which the law and society should condemn.
While heckling is to a large extent acceptable, it can be used by political opponents to disadvantage rivals in the political marketplace. That’s the reason organized heckling is suspicious. However, organized hecklings are not created equal. For instance, I don’t believe that voters should not organize to heckle a politician.
“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
Politicians meet all the time to plan what they’ll tell us. This is organization. There’s nothing wrong if the people organize on how they’ll register their displeasure—provided they do this by themselves. The organized heckling that can’t pass muster is the one where a politician uses money to plan and heckle a rival’s meeting. This is corruption of political discourse which makes the political marketplace artificially un-even.
This treatise would not be complete without mentioning one other important function of heckling in a free and democratic society. Heckling tests the emotional intelligence and wit of a politician. It’s a bad sign for a democracy if a politician is easily rattled by hecklers.
The famous British parliamentarian John Wilkes was on the campaign trail when he met a heckler. This is how it went.
Heckler: Vote for you? I’d sooner vote for the devil.
John Wilkes: What if your friend is not vying?
Everyone, I can imagine, burst into uproarious laughter, while approving Wilkes witty response.
This is one area Deputy President William Ruto should probably work on.
Heckling can be fun, especially if it’s spontaneous. It can actually qualify as an artful form of expressing dissent.
So go and heckle—but don’t disrupt.
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