I have been fortunate and privileged to attend what are purported to be some of the best schools in Kenya, heck even in the world. In all my 16 years of education, my so-called “International” education, one of the places I have learnt the least about is my own homeland, Kenya and the African continent at large. So this got me thinking more and more about this thing called “school” that occupied such a big chunk of my 18 years on Earth.
Across Africa, IGCSE, the U.S. American curriculum, and the IB are by and large the most popular foreign curriculums. I will not call them international curriculums, because they are first and foremost foreign to us before they are international. If you have the money you don’t take your child to a government school which is understandable as our gov’t schools are not up to par, you wouldn’t even send your child to a school with the government curriculum, you would take them to an international School. But it isn’t just the moneyed, foreign governments give bursaries and scholarships galore to developing countries. Masses upon masses apply for these opportunities. It may be out of the good nature of their hearts but we all know how politics works so there is obviously a hidden agenda there. Because these countries are “successful” we equate anything and everything associated with them with success, so it’s no wonder people flock to apply for these scholarships. We hold foreign education systems in such high regard we forget to see the insidious contexts in which they were created, and the insidious contexts in which they continue to exist and even promoted.
During the colonial period, education systems for Africans were created to serve the needs of the colonialists. Subservient workers who only knew JUST enough to be useful to enrich the Imperialists. Philosophy? Art? Sports? According to the racist justification for colonialism, Africans don’t need such knowledge because
- Their inferior minds won’t get it
- They don’t need it because we only need them to work.
On the other hand, settler schools, for obvious reasons, copied and pasted the education model from their imperial governments. And of course, Africans were conditioned to think that these schools were where you would go to get educated once you “made it” . Just look at the prestige associated with the now “Africanized” former White only schools (Kenya High, State House Girls, Nairobi School etc.) One may say missionary schools such as Alliance were an exception given that they are good and they educated Africans from day one, but the basis on which these schools were founded which as much as it was altruistic was religion. And as we all know but like to forget, religion was just one way to beat the Africanness out of us.
Fast forward 50 years later and our education systems are still relics of our colonial pasts. I mean, do you really think we Africans who hold family and community in such high regard would have before the colonial era deemed it wise to ship our children to boarding schools, far away from the watchful eyes of our parents? That colonial mentality that we Africans should aspire to be “European” continues to perpetuate. Just look at how the 7pm Kiswahili news bulletin is half an hour long and the 9pm English news bulletin is one hour long. Aside from the practical bits of our government schools being riddled with problems, and the government curriculum being woefully flawed, I believe this mentality is also makes foreign curriculums more desirable because context, be it present or historical, is everything.
We like to forget numerous truths that are inconvenient and would make us feel guilty about the decisions we make and where we spend our money. One of these truths is that foreign curriculums were not made for us. It is easy to forget this when we tack the word international to everything that is foreign. Because they were not made for us, they obviously have other goals. Foreign curriculums don’t teach us to be Kenyan, they teach us to be like those from where the curriculum originates. For example, The IGCSE- British and the International Baccalaureate – the West. Obviously you don’t get to know this by reading their brochures, but you do get to know this by understanding context. The vast majority of those who graduate from these foreign curriculums go on to study in Europe and North America, I am not aware of the exact number that comes back but I know it is far less than those that go. Why would they teach us about our culture and history and risk us actually feeling a connection to our homeland? This is yet another manifestation of the colonial policy of beating the Africanness out of us. It is also a manifestation of policies that continue to remind us Africans that we are being let into foreign countries as a favour, through policies that let in JUST enough of us and societies in these countries that make you feel like you will never ever be like them.
We also need to remember that when we learn these foreign curriculums we are learning somebody else’s definitions of who we are. Foreign curriculums don’t acknowledge our local contexts, they are not nuanced, they are not tailor made to our local dynamics. Even those that purport to be fit for Kenya aren’t, because it is that same curriculum being used in Nigeria, Zambia, Vietnam, and Peru, so of course things are lost in transference. A good friend of mine articulated this nicely when she said a reason why it is difficult for us to center on problems back home, the problems that are realest to us is because “For centuries we have been dealing with the white man’s problems, the white man’s history, and the white man’s definition of who we are.” These foreign education systems ensure that we continue seeing ourselves, our history, and even the world not through an African cultural lens but through a western cultural lens.
This reminds me of the days when Matiang’i was education minister (it was only around 2016/2017 but after this lengthy electioneering period it seems like a life time ago) he proclaimed that all international schools should make it mandatory for students to learn Kiswahili and Kenyan history. As far as I am aware, this declaration didn’t come to implementation by the April 2017 deadline, and chances are it won’t. This declaration of his was a step in the right direction in my opinion, but to illustrate the insidious internalised mentality that has possessed this country Kenyan natives were declaring “What competence does Swahili add to someone’s life, we need to learn global langauges” or “If Kenyan history was important then it would be in the curriculum.” Additionally, if we really were serious about this, we would have implemented this with much more vigour, but we didn’t, because we didn’t give a damn. In fact, alot of noise was made about this in the media but we heard little from the international schools that this declaration affected.
However, I do give credit where it is due. Firstly, one afternoon a friend and I were perusing the text book section at TBC (do this if you are bored at a mall, you’ll have a good laugh seeing the nonsense that we are indoctrinating our children …more on this in future). I was curious as to what was in the History and Government syllabus for high school, and was pleased to see all aspects of Kenyan history at the very least mentioned in the table of contents. The accuracy, bias, and comprehensiveness is up for debate as I didn’t go as far as to assess all of this, but at the very least things were mentioned.
Secondly, I felt that the IB, the system of education which I did, did a fair job in providing an opportunity for schools to tailor their curriculums to local contexts. For instance at Higher Level History, you can specialise on a continent and learn aspects of it’s history in depth. Or you could choose case studies for an internal assessment that were relevant to you and where you came from (in numerous other subjects as well). On the other hand, All the political thinkers we studied in m Political Thought class during my IB Diploma years, were westerners, and were dead white men, apart from one woman. You cannot tell me that in the whole history of the world, there is not a single political philosopher that is not from the West.
This is not to say that I did not value my education. I did. I valued the relationships I built, the skills I gained, the knowledge I am now applying. Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to write this and run this blog without the education that I had. I am trying to make sense of the nuances of this education that I obtained, and this is one of many nuances. It is just that I’ve never truly understood it until I lived outside of it. Nevertheless, Being the proud pan Africanist that I am, during my time in Germany I found myself raising my hand and making what we were learning relevant to my cultural and geographical context, something my education taught me to do.
To those who will start pointing to exceptions, don’t worry, I gotchu. As with any generalisations there are exceptions (that’s why it’s called a generalisation -some people still refuse to understand that). The Africa Leadership Academy is one school that I admire on paper (I say this because I only know it, on paper, the reality on the ground may be different) because it does offer the British A Level curriculum, but has transformed it to focus on African entrepreneurship and leadership, and cultivating homegrown solutions to African problems. They also require their students to sign a contract requiring them to return to work on the African continent within 10 years or risk forfeiting their scholarship. I’d just point out that the fact that such an Afro centric school even has to include that in their contract speaks volumes about the kind of world we live in. A world and a society that tells us that educated Africans are better placed abroad than in the very place that raised them. It also doesn’t help that the perennial issues that plague our country don’t look like they are going to be solved anytime soon, and it is sad that those with the expertise to be of service who want to help become frustrated by our corrupted systems and go abroad.
To the what’s-your-solutionists (whom I very much dislike) I am very much aware that the moneyed of Kenya and Africa find themselves with few alternatives to local education systems. Our governments have up to now proven that they are incapable of giving a decent (read: high quality) education to all citizens even though it is a right, so those with money seek alternatives and those alternatives are a living embodiment of African oppression. Kama kawaida, the common mwananchi suffers because those with the means (read: knowledge) escape the problems that plague our country and therefore remove any possibility of actually fixing this nation. I am no expert, but I do know that this issue can’t be solved by government alone. It will take more than just a capable education CS, and an executive that truly cares about the children of this country. We need an overhaul of our own mentality and that involves each and every one of us. We have to understand that we need an education system that is made by us so that it works for us. We are running away to foreign solutions because we think they are better, when in reality, down the line they only perpetuate a system where we Kenyans, we Africans, are ultimately the losers. A system of global inequality perpetuated by years and years of oppression and only serves the moneyed and those in power (who tend to be the same people anyways) for the poor remain poor. This applies not just to education, but to pretty much anything we do in this country. Have you ever wondered why mPesa is so successful? It’s a Kenyan solution to a Kenyan problem, and we need more of those. Fixing our education system will not be easy nor will it be fast, in the process many of the issues I’ve raised will continue to exist. It will be decades before results will begin to show therefore It will be frustrating because we Kenyans like instant results for projects we spend alot of money on. Look at how obsessed we are with new roads and railway lines. Fixing our education will involve tough and painful decisions that may very well change the fabric of our society, and we must be ready and willing to make those decisions. Everyone deserves the highest quality education, and for that, it needs to be free. Education is priceless, but the price tag is hefty.
Bringing my ramblings on education to a close…. My education didn’t teach me much about Kenya and about Africa. It did however teach me the skills to realise the flaws in something that I took as a given, and in turn helped me see some fundamental flaws in the way things operate in the motherland. Don’t get me wrong, the last thing I want to do is to deny the possibility of being hopeful for the future. I know there will be the detractors saying “why are you being so negative” or words to that effect, but as with any change that needs to happen we need to acknowledge that there is a problem. We also need to believe that we can change things, no matter how dire the situation may be. Anything less and we would merely be letting the now internalised feeling of a hopeless Africa get the better of us. Now, I think I could write an entire book on this but this is it for now.