The arrest and release of Boniface Mwangi last week brought about a conversation among Kenyans that is uncomfortable, painful, but absolutely necessary. While Boniface saw in the arrest an opportunity to discuss revolution, for many Kenyans, the whole incident revived old pain, that had been opened again just a week or two before with the arrest of Beatrice Waithera, or Betty wa Shiro, for being a prominent voice in the anti-corruption demonstration that ended in the usual Kenyan way. With the police firing tear gas.
It’s been eleven years since I first heard that the subjects I teach are useless to the market. The impact of that statement took me down an abusive relationship with the market for a few years, during which I tried very hard to please the market. We got guest lectures, a Creatives Academy workshop that trended on twitter and won a BAKE award, three visiting professors, and fairly good job placements for our students. We were visible on social media. But it was never enough. The market still said we didn’t matter.
I eventually decided that I better find out what arts and humanities departments outside Kenya are doing. I found out that they were fighting the same battles as us, and that they had named the monster they were fighting. It was called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the idea that the society works best if every social relationship is treated as an economic transaction. Teachers now don’t teach students; they serve clients.
Through the Higher Education Loans Board, the Kenya government has been lending loans to students for their university education fees, and using predatory, private sector practices to recover the money. Within a year of graduation, students have to repay the loan at 5,000 shillings a month, regardless if they have an income or not. Worse, HELB has partnered with the Credit Information Bureau to share information of defaulters.
For graduates, HELB loans are a trail of tears.
In much of the research on neoliberalism and universities, Western scholars express concern for part time lecturers. They say that the casualization of academic labor means that the number of permanent faculty positions reduces, which in turn affects the quality of research output because part-time lecturers don't have the stability to engage in research. It also has an impact on student mentoring because part time lecturers are paid only to teach.
But what happened in Kenya?
I was in the last year of the education system before 8-4-4. I attended a church primary school, where we still had erratic home science lessons, even though the subject was not examinable. I learned to weave grass and to knit small scarves using thorns as our needles.
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.
Once upon a time, there was a couple, Wazazi Wakenya, who had been saving their earnings to build a home and finally move out of their poorly built rental apartment. They approached an old friend, a building contractor for help. After all, they knew he would tell them the process from when they contract the architect all the way to when the fundis build the house.
The contractor, however, forgot their lifetime of friendship and got greedy. So he said to them; “give me the money, I can design the house, do the quantity survey and engineering, the contracting and hiring of the fundis.”
Wazazi Wakenya asked: “are you sure? Don’t we need to get the architect, and quantity surveyor, and an engineer as part of the team?”
This week, the Nation Media Group held another installment of its Leadership Dialogues, this time focused on the new system of education being launched next year. In the opening minutes of the event clearly designed to build up legitimacy for the new system, anchor Smriti Vidyarthi referenced the common narrative of Kenya’s dysfunctional education system in her first question to KICD CEO Dr Julius Jwan.
“The competency-based system aims to address the weaknesses of the 8-4-4 system.” She stated. And then she asked: “Dr. Jwan, what is the CBC aim to achieve?”
Dr. Jwan replied: “Maybe I would just try to modify that [question] a bit. In working on a curriculum reform, you don’t necessarily start from the weaknesses. It just happens that a time comes when the society has moved on, and the education system has to move on.”
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