One of Kenya’s major flaws is to completely misunderstand what colonial rule looked like, and what it meant for education. Our romantic, independence story is that wazungu came to Kenya to take our land, we fought back, and now we rule ourselves. But the truth is, the major interest of the British colonial government was simply the proverbial “wham, bang, thank you ma’am.” The colonialists only wanted to extract resources from Kenya, and leave Africans to the devil.
The colonial government therefore sent to Africa its lowest qualified professionals to run a government on a song, and simply escort British companies extracting resources from here and shipping the resources to Britain. To borrow the phrase of Fanon, Kenya, like the rest of Africa, was simply meant to be a brothel of Europe. Like any transaction in a brothel, European corporates intended to interact with us Africans the minimum possible necessary to achieve the maximum profit possible, with no care for the degradation of the African people and landscape. The British barely invested, or cared to invest, in the colonies. Indeed, the annual colonial reports sent to Britain indicate a frustration of the British civil servants here that they did not have the necessary personnel to implement the capitalists’ wet dreams.
However, the party was spoiled by the white settlers who came, some from South Africa, wanting to create another United States where they could continue a plantation economy, but without the cost of shipping slaves, since the slaves were readily available. Until the 1950s, the settlers clashed with the colonial government on what education was supposed to be. As one can imagine, the settlers did not want Africans educated beyond technical skills, or TVET and CBC in today’s Kenyan parlance, because any thinking and cultural skills would make Africans critical of the status of the settlers here in the first place.
On its part, the colonial government desperately needed some African support staff to carry out its functions, given that London wasn’t sending enough staff. So the colonial government needed Africans trained in basic clerical and accounting skills, which annoyed the settlers who did not want Africans getting any skills near thinking, culture and the arts. The settlers, in fact, wanted more power in politics and more fire power in controlling the natives. Eventually, the colonial government spent its time playing a balancing act between training African cadres and giving in to some of the settlers’ demands, since the settlers did facilitate better extraction for British companies. But in 1952, this gentleman’s agreement became untenable.
The matter was further compounded by the missionary enterprise. The European publics had expressed so much disdain for the church for sleeping with the exploitative elites. Numbers in the European pews were dwindling, and just like their governments, European churches harbored imperial dreams. More converts could be harvested from Africa. But it was difficult to persuade the natives to worship a white god, unless they were drawn to schools and hospitals.
The missionaries presented a further complication to education: they needed Africans to read and be educated in culture and the arts. Reading the Bible, translating it into African languages, and converting Africans to worship a white god and drink tea on saucers, required more than just TVET education. The Africans needed to study literature, history and similar subjects. To calm down the horror of the settlers, and the discomfort of the colonial government, the church would teach only British language, culture and arts. In any case, they said, Africans had no culture to speak of in the first place.
All these plans were still thwarted by Africans. Driven by their own cultures and a human thirst for knowledge, Africans built independent schools, interpreted Christianity to fight for African freedom, and launched military attacks against the British settlers. But what we call a victory of independence, was, in reality, a change of tact for the British. The British government used the Mau Mau insurgency as an opportunity to remove the white settlers who had been a nuisance for extractive companies, having figured that the black settlers trained by the missionaries would be a cheaper option in holding down the natives, as the British corporations continued, full steam ahead, to exploit what they now called the Republic of Kenya.
Forces pulling education apart
In a nutshell, the education system of Kenya has always had four forces pulling in different directions:
- Private sector wants Kenyans to receive the minimal education necessary to run the exploitative capitalist enterprises in Kenya, but not enough education to ask the questions of citizenship, such as sovereignty of the people and economic justice. But in this neoliberal age, the private sector has gotten even greedier – it has figured that it can offer education at a profit, and damn what happens to the Kenyan children. All these ambitions are camouflaged by international aid bodies and NGOs like DFiD.
- The church is still using schools as a church expansion tool, but unlike the missionaries who raised some of the money from Europe, the church has to raise most of its money locally, which means burdening church members with harambees and accepting donations from politicians. Worse, unlike before when missionaries could turn children into forced labor to manage the schools, Kenya’s children are increasingly rioting against the violence and substandard living conditions on which missionaries ran schools.
- The ex-colonial government, like its predecessor, wants to still manage the expectations of private sector rather than the needs of the people. But to give Kenyans a semblance of running education, it has retreated into the corner of regulation, where most of its money and resources are spent on whipping schools into order. That is why the Cabinet Secretaries of Education, especially the incumbent Prof Magoha, are increasingly hard talking and abrasive, while displaying no consciousness of what Education actually is.
- The people of Kenya, like any other society, thirst for education and do what they can to get it. Unfortunately, their lack of civic education has made them blind to the games that international NGOs, our government and its godfathers, are playing with the education system. They therefore suffer in silence in terrible conditions, welcome deceptive solutions from hard-taking education officials, and mourn in confusion as they bury the victims of collapsing false promises.
In a nutshell, Kenya has an incoherent education system. And the more the population increases, the worse things get. More children want to go to school, but without proper urban planning, and with the rabid land appetite of the black settlers, there is no land for schools. And with rabid corruption, and an incompetent government unable to plan, there are not enough schools. Private sector and churches are cashing in by squeezing kids into substandard facilities and calling politicians to fundraise.
The old, colonial boat of education is sinking, and as it does, it is destroying the lives of millions of Kenyan children. However, the ship command in State House and its pilots in Jogoo House are clueless. Kenyan professors are the band on the Titanic that played on as the ship sank. They are the consultants who repackage unworkable Western ideas like competency-based curriculum, ed-tech and regulatory packages like Bologna Process, promising that these will solve our education problems. But the education ship is still sinking in mediocrity and despair, evidenced from children suffering in horrible conditions, all the way to university students forced to wade between cynical and clueless lecturers on one hand, to increasingly bureaucratic institutions celebrating regulations more than education of Kenya’s next generation.
And as the ship sinks deeper, the government spends billions of shillings on implementing a new education system to train more plumbers, billions that could have built new schools. But plumbers can’t fix an outdated, dilapidated ship. We need to dock Kenya’s education system and build another one from scratch. And that will start by getting an education philosophy that is human and that is our very own.