After two decades of the neoliberal gutting down of the Kenyan university, Kenya’s president has now gone for the university’s jugular. He has cut off the university as the remaining route of social advancement to the elite class which had maintained a semblance of independence from direct patronage of Kenya’s aristocracy.
A few years ago, I noticed an interesting phenomenon in the profile of applicants for language faculty positions. A number of degree holders had studied, especially in the UK, language teaching, rather than linguistics or education. This meant that the interviews revealed gaps in the candidates’ theoretical and technical grasp of either field.
An additional phenomenon, which was more worrying, was that when we asked some about their PhD aspirations, some of the applicants were not interested in pursuing their discipline. Some wanted to go into development and related fields, others into the more attractive degrees like communication. More disturbing among the literature aspirants was that some were not familiar with the latest fiction and other artistic output by Kenyans.
In 2018, at the height of my public engagement on the competency-based curriculum, the concept of homeschooling gained prominence media discussions on education. In a few interviews, journalists asked me if homeschooling was an alternative to CBC and public schooling. I answered from my experience of having taught homeschooled students in my university classrooms in both the US and Kenya, saying that some of the students whom I consider outstanding were homeschooled.
In hindsight, I now see that I was naïve, and that I fell into a trap that I did not know I had fallen into until this week. I understood the trap after I criticized a media report on homeschooling and received an unexpected and persistent backlash from homeschooling parents.
It’s me again. In my last letter, I talked about how our education system destroys the arts by corrupting the meaning of education, work and the arts. And I said that these lies which are perpetuated in the name of education come from the unholy and abusive marriage between education and business (I have said elsewhere that this marriage should be immediately annulled).
In this letter, I’m going to talk about how capitalist business is the prime beneficiary of the terrible state of the arts in Kenya.
Dear Kenyan artist
In my previous letter, I talked about how the arts are a divine calling. The arts make us human, because the arts provide a space for us to be social and individual at the same time. With the arts, we accept what we can’t change and change what we can, while producing something creative and sometimes new.
Let me give an example of what I mean. The rituals we perform when someone we love dies help us accept death as something we all must face. However, we cannot raise our hands and say death is inevitable, because if we do, we would not have reason to live our lives to the fullest. So the arts is where we deal with that contradiction. When Amos and Josh sang “Tutaonana baadaye,” they are singing “we accept your going is inevitable, but until we join you, we must still live our best lives, love with all our hearts.” And from this deep truth, Amos and Josh and King Kaka produced a beautiful song.
That’s what the arts are – beauty that carries deep truth.
Dear Kenyan artist
This is an open letter to all of us Kenyans who do not behave like Jonah who tried to evade his divine calling to preach God’s message in Nineveh.
I know that I speak for many when I say that in Kenya, the arts sector is abusive. To enter it is not for the faint hearted, and few of us come out of it intact. Many of us, myself included, have experienced of depression or panic attacks. A number of us are shot in the neck or are victims of rape. And each time the violence happens, the public winks and says we should have seen it coming. They say that we brought it on ourselves by talking, dressing or thinking differently.
I grew up knowing that in Kenya, it was a crime to ask questions. I was bullied in primary school for my “big mouth.” In high school I was blasted for being like my father. At church I was reprimanded repeatedly for literal blasphemy, and I still am, any time I cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But even as I endured this humiliation, I always knew that the one place to ask questions in Kenya was the university. Yes, I knew that Micere Mugo, ES Atieno Odhiambo, Willy Mutunga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and many others had suffered for exercising intellectual freedom. I knew that university students had been jailed and killed for demanding democracy and authentic education. I knew that police hated students and would beat us at any chance.
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