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 arts, and particularly the teaching of history. Kenyans are thus denied the opportunity to develop their intellectual capacity to understand not just the limitations the Kenya state, but to understand the reality of the world in the 21st century.
The narratives are:
2. Tanzania is communist and Kenya is capitalist
3. More Kenyan students need to study the sciences because that’s what the job market needs.
The boy child
Not dealing with the interaction between gender and class allows us to cling to the hope that 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 that 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. May God help us.
We can also avoid the reality that Tanzania may have a point in question the EPA agreement which Kenya has enthusiastically signed with the European Union. Already, there are credible voices, like former president Benjamin Mkapa and from scholar Horace Campbell, indicating that the EPA agreement 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 genocidaires (Habyarimana’s wife was one of those who fled to Europe through Kenya). At the height of the killings, Kenya sent back a plane of Tutsi refugees back to Rwanda. What happened to those refugees is anyone’s guess.
Arts vs. science education
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 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.
The division between arts and science 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 the 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 CS and his boss, the Deputy President, attacking arts programs 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 subject division on an 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 4 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 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 neighbors, 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 and professional lines. Let us choose to uproot patriarchy and misogyny, 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.