It was in school that I learned how to polish shoes. One day, our teacher told us to bring shoes from home, and the next day we were taught how to wipe the shoes, put polish with one brush and shine the shoes with another brush.
When I was in Standard 5 or 6, our primary school was building new classrooms, and we were told that the new classrooms were for Standard 8 and 9. It is only when we left the Standard 6’s who were not going to do exams the following year, that I first became aware of 8-4-4.
I also remember especially the inequality. It still haunts me to this day. In our primary school, we all wore shoes. In the neighboring schools, they didn’t. When I got my CPE results, I remember the feeling of seeing my classmates poor scores and knowing they wouldn’t go on with high school. Those days, there was no dancing or singing when students passed exams. I was congratulated for my good results by a few people, but I still hated it. We just drifted apart from my classmates.
I’ve hated examinations since then, and I hate them even more with each passing year as the shrill of celebration of results gets louder.
But most of all, I remember the contempt for the first 8-4-4. From the staff rooms to the university, teachers and lecturers thought that students could click nothing and were nothing. The system wasn’t bad, nor was the content irrelevant, or that they simply didn’t understand. The problem was with them: that they were unfortunate to be in 8-4-4. Any time a young person made a mistake, an older person would say with a dismissive sneer: "nkt, but what do you expect from these 8-4-4's?"
In a sense, there was an empathy my year shared with the first 8-4-4 group. We were the people who had no siblings to mentor, and they were the people with no siblings to mentor them. I hated that ambiguity, and sometimes I blame it for our cluelessness as a generation. I am convinced that the people currently messing up this nation are my age mates.
We have no generational roots. We are always trying to prove that we do, and so we do whatever colonial nonsense the older generation tells us to do. For us, we now have a neoliberal language for it. We call it “benchmarking.”
As far as I can tell, the idea of changing the education system was mooted some time before 2012 by the same generation that sneered at 8-4-4s. My strong sense is that it was rooted in the madharau that older people who went through the A level system had, and still have, for people who went through 8-4-4.
At the heart of that madharau, I suspect, are two things. One is the colonial snobbery of our older siblings who were taught by white missionaries and so, they generally thought that their education was better. The second is Uthamakism which regarded everything Moi did with a contemptuous sneer, waiting for him to leave office so that they return to the glorious age of the original muthamaki.
To these people, 8-4-4 represents the bastardizing of education, especially because under Moi, 8-4-4 was not just about the content in the classroom. It was about the ethnic diversification of the schools through the quota system. At the time, I believed the conversations in the middle-class circles that admission of students from marginalized areas, aka areas further from the railway line, was a degradation of education. Now, I think that schooling with Kenyans from different areas of the country was the best thing that happened in my education.
I am not nostalgic for what Moi did. In principle, it was important to diversify the schools. However, diversifying the students should not have been an end in itself. Ending elitism and inequality should be the end goal. Unfortunately, Moi did not see that far. His fundamental mistake was his neoliberal misconception that the route to ending inequality was to diversify the elite, rather than destroy the elite through expanding access to good education. So now Kenya has an elite with different ethnic species of hyenas, but they are still all hyenas.
Also, failing to break the elitism meant that the Mount Kenya elite equated fighting autocracy with fighting against Moi. So once the Kibaki government came into power, Kikuyu elites started trying to reverse everything that Moi did, including 8-4-4. It didn’t matter what that reversal would mean to us who went through the transition. What mattered is that we went back to the days of the A level system. Not because A level offers anything new, but because it is not Moi's.
Those trips to Kabarak mean nothing. The madharau is intact.
And let me explain where I'm coming from.
Under 8-4-4, all students were, in principle, supposed to learn all subjects. There was no choosing between humanities, arts and sciences. So in the ideal, 8-4-4 was a truly liberal arts system. Kids were supposed to do everything from sewing to carpentry to agriculture to music to physics. However, the Moi government did not deal with the devil in the room: examinations and the ethnic inequality.
Because examinations were a way of sifting the elite, people still needed exams to decide the lucky 3% who would join the elite. And so the liberal arts system turned into a nightmare. Kids were burdened with too many subjects. And because the economy was not expanding, and the public schools were deteriorating due to austerity, yet the population was growing, the stakes for passing exams got higher.
In addition, the facilities for the arts and technical subjects were not available in all schools.
In the end, 8-4-4 had to be whittled down to fewer subjects and the exam obsession got higher. But it was nothing like when Kibaki got into power.
Under Kibaki, uthamakistan started plotting to bring A level back into the system. Under Mutula Kilonzo, the Kibaki government commissioned the Odhiambo report, which was supposed to evaluate how bad 8-4-4 was. The Odhiambo report is an educational embarrassment. It is more about educational management, that is teacher training and school funding. But in the middle of all that neoliberal obsession with saving money, training workers and controlling teachers, they inserted this gem: "this is why we need to replace the education system."
If you've read that and thought "what the heck does one have to do with the other?" my answer is this: precisely. Nothing.
And that is the contradiction that runs through the botched Sessional paper 2012 that never got to parliament, the current curriculum policy, and now the new education system. On Side Bar with Larry Madowo, I kept making this point: KICD is promising that a curriculum and system change can solve problems which the education system alone cannot solve. In other media appearances with Africa Uncensored and even NTV, I asked: why not improve the teaching profession and school infrastructure before changing the system?
The Odhiambo report was opposed by Mutula Kilonzo himself, KNUT’s Wilfred Sossion, teachers and other big names in education. Even in 2012, critics of the proposed system said that the problems of education can be addressed through empowering teachers and providing more resources. But, as we all know, there is no glory for politicians in empowering people. There are no ribbons to cut, and no plaques to unveil.
And few of the people heading this replacement did 8-4-4. They are my age and older. They are coming from a colonial, elitist idea of the best teachers being Europeans, preserving privilege and a return to the uthamaki order of things.
That would explain the Eton-like obsession of this ruling class with where one went to high school. High school is where these barefoot, poor Africans first came from the village into civilization through contact with white people like the Eileen and Francis Welch at Alliance High School, and Patrick Shaw and Geoffrey Griffin at Starehe. Even the Commission of University Education now has us lecturers going to look for our form 4 certificates to legitimize our qualification.
At the release of the KCPE results, KNEC chair Prof Mogoha spent most of his speech saying that he owed his entire career to his time at Starehe, which was then headed by Geoffrey Griffin. A whole professor of medicine and former Vice-Chancellor of the country’s first university feels that those achievements are linked only to his stint in high school under a white headmaster. It is no wonder that a European nursery school teacher, and now a Kenyan businessman of European descent have their footprints in this new education system.
And the kind of elitism they support is back in the new system. Now the Government is saying that children have to choose subjects, not be exposed to all subjects. The elites are talking of people having a “talent” for things other than academics, and the new system will use that idea to basically marginalize kids from schools with poor resources as differently “talented.”
There is no rationale or evidence that supports the need for an expensive education system replacement. The government has never convincingly made the case for it, and educational research contradicts its claims. It is therefore understandable that one would see this system replacement as driven by madharau for the Moi era and nostalgia for the time of the first president when white missionaries were still in a number of schools.
Or, to be more polite, a new system is necessary for the current president to leave a shock in the system that the next generation will keep talking about. After all, how will the president feel presidential unless he has inflicted a wound on the national psyche that we will have to heal from for decades to come?
And we, the rootless generations of the old system and the first years of 8-4-4, have believed that the contempt against us is justified. We are the ones accepting and implementing this change, even though its fundamental philosophy is extremely capitalist and Euro-centric. We have no voice to say “no” to the independence generation who are nostalgic for the Welches, Geoffrey Griffin and Patrick Shaw.
We are used to the madharau. We’ve been living with the madharau since 1985. Now we are passing on this rootlessness to our children and grandchildren. The kids of the new system will go through the agony and rootless we are still going through, and history will repeat itself if we don’t stop this new system now.
We need to start the replacement from scratch. We should do so with the equivalent of a Truth and Justice Commission for education, where we go to the roots of the elitism and colonialism still entrenched in our education, and the racist roots in ideas of “pathways” and talent. We need to reconnect with the African roots that were severed from our education.
I’m tired of living in an “independent” Kenya where the education system is still a colonial nightmare.