Celebrating East African Writing!
“I have cleared,” said the young lady I interviewed yesterday for a position in our publishing firm. She spoke reverently – wonder tinged with a self-congratulatory note in her breathy voice. The light of foolish honesty shone from her dark brown eyes. These were no mere words, but the purest expression of relief from a yoke that had long oppressed her. She continued, “Now, I don’t have to read…”
She was not just celebrating the yearned-for end to incessant drilling, to ‘bring back the cane’ teachers, to strikes, boarding school food, Vono mattresses, crowded lecture halls and ‘future leaders’ who’d tried to convert her into a ‘campus wife’. Her relief didn’t just emanate from passing the series of national examinations that so ruthlessly sieve out those ‘unworthy’ of seats in exponentially decreasing numbers of institutions of higher learning; indeed, only rich parents can rescue their ‘unworthy’ from underemployment, unemployment and/or crime without bargaining with St. Peter or the devil.
What the young lady’s relieved mind celebrated was nothing less than the blessed end to all accoutrements of education. To hell with books! No need for further ‘purposeless’ reading. To her the end of formal education equated to a well-deserved, permanent brain holiday.
If she’d been an isolated case, I’d have politely shown her out of the office while shedding a sympathetic tear for parents who’d probably sold a grade cow or three to pay school fees and supplement her HELB loan. But her truth amplified the echo of many I’ve met on my journey of learning to become a writer and publisher.
What many do not know harms them. According to Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, “Exercising your brain is essential if you want to stop it from slowly deteriorating. Our brains need to be stimulated and challenged through ongoing learning in the same way as our bodies need to be kept fit. This will ensure we see off the ravages of time which contribute to the decline of cognitive power. Just as our muscles grow as we exercise them, so do our brains physically strengthen as we learn. Continually refreshing your skills and knowledge is important at every stage and age in life and the benefits that will be seen will last an entire lifetime.” Starving the brain leads to early dementia. In short, reading makes us smarter, and keeps us smarter for longer.
Yet, our education system de-empathises subjects that require subjective, creative interpretation like literature and art, to favour those that lend themselves better to drilling and marking. Newspaper headlines celebrate kids with top scores as though they’d reached the part of the film where this banner flutters across their life’s screen: THE END. But many of these ‘exam crème-de-la-creme’ later join the unemployed hordes. To generate self-employment, they are forced to rely on imagination, creativity, initiative, and resourcefulness – the very skills our education system and ‘I have cleared’ mentality places on the back-burner. No wonder Wamuyu Mahinda who ran the Youth Funds’s Chora Bisna competition was so concerned about the general lack of creativity. Most female applicants presented one of only four basic business ideas –hairdressing salon, trading clothes from Kampala/Dubai, Cyber cafe and kiosk.
Youngsters involved in creative experiments or diligent research and original ideas rarely get a media mention, and if they do, it is usually in a tone that invites condescending giggles rather than practical encouragement – like the young man who built an aeroplane in Eldoret. It as though he were a freak to be ogled at rather than a model to be emulated. No presidential awards for him. What we are really resisting is the unknown that threatens the status quo. How dare he reach so high! Perhaps the truth is that we do not feel deserving of a better life as a nation, and are therefore not willing to make the necessary personal and political investment needed to become smarter contributors to its development.
Most stone-built Kenyan homes are equipped with TV, DVD player, mobile phone, and one lonely cypress-shelf hosting a bible and two ancient books inherited from colonial times. The grander the home, the bigger the toys, the more apparent the paucity of books. In our endless queues in matatus, cars, banks, office receptions, city council halls, we blindly stare at the floor, half-hoping the three flashily dressed young men in the cash-deposit queue would pull out a toy gun (we do not really want to die) and cause excitement. We are a nation accustomed to idle time and, in fact, prefer these regular ‘brain holidays’ to carrying a book which may, inadvertently, feed our imagination, stimulate ideas, invite us to question our beliefs, provide insights and expose the baggage holding us back from living our full potential.
If we made a genuine efforts to read widely, to question ourselves, and reflect on who and how are we are as a people, we’d have to change our society. What a frightening prospect! Contrary to what our leaders and elders lead us to believe, we might learn that we have more in common with people of other tribes and nations. We might perceive the crevices in our marital, parenting and leadership skills. We might have to acknowledge our personal contributions to the election violence in 2008, and the collective failures of the institutions we blindly follow including the media and churches that should have promoted national healing. We cling to what we know, stereotypes and tribal jingoism, as though ignorance can save us, or excuse us from accountability.
Despite a son of our soil producing the first black American president, few have read Barack Obama’s amazing autobiography, Dreams from My Father, from which we might learn how he perceives self knowledge as the bedrock from which springs confidence and courage. To quote his thoughts on the education of black children ‘Just think what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That is what makes a child hungry to learn – the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment.’ To Obama, it is not enough for children to read, but to first read ‘local.’ Despite Wangari Mathai being the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize, few have read her memoir, Unbowed, which traces her unlikely rise from village girl to world leader. Her insatiable appetite for books is a hallmark of her meteoric rise. Our nation’s son and daughter have done us proud on the world stage, surely we should attempt to analyse and learn from their personal journeys. These books should be on our high school literature lists, and in every home.
I read in a recent Newsweek magazine about two schools in South Korea who produce a disproportionate high number of students accepted into ivy-league colleges in America. Most go there for science based degrees, but the secret to their amazing success was reading widely. In three years of high school, they read and discuss up to 53 English books of classic and contemporary literature in addition to all their other classes. It is no surprise that South Korea have built an edifice to books – a city of books with six-story buildings of bookshops and libraries and literary events. No surprise that South Korea is an economic tiger.
The contrast with our Kenyan mentality is as glaring as the contrast between their standard of living and ours. A mentality epitomised by, ‘I have cleared.’
Could there be three dirtier little words in popular Kenyan idiom? Contemptuous little words that vomit on the pursuit of learning, and illustrate, more eloquently than ice does the freezing of water, just how much we, and our education system, are failing to prepare our children for a knowledge based world. Words breathed as mantra even by those who should know better – university graduates, civil servants, corporate types, entrepreneurs and politicians – exposing attitudes that can only be considered mass adherence to a grand conspiracy promoting national foolishness.
I aver that it is a deliberate unspoken policy. To quote James Baldwin in his 1963 essay, A Talk to Teachers, “The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black, this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that sort of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of the society.”
Those of us on the rich side of Kenya’s great social divide know that it is in our best interests to keep the masses ignorant. In fact, our degree of indifference to the indignities they suffer correlates with our interest in keeping them that way. Those who do not know their rights, or how to effectively fight for them, are easier to manipulate. They are easier to fob off with ‘commissions of enquiry’ and crowd-pleasing announcements of cheap unga that fails to materialise. By intimidating them with our own importance (as manifested in our greater knowledge, education, money, hummers), we can pay them less, and fire them at a moment’s notice.
How cynical must our government be to sing the song of Vision 2030 without placing the greatest emphasis on ‘learning’? Hint to those who’ve ‘cleared’ – by learning, I do not mean passing exams except in the greater sense in which all of life is an exam. By government, I include myself. Yes, I’ve colluded with the national conspiracy celebrating ignorance by not screaming to the masses, “The MP’s and Mdosi’s children are reading. They are in schools with well-stocked libraries. They enjoy unlimited computer time. At the dinner table, they listen to daddy pontificating on national issues. Mummy reads to them at night. They travel. Their minds are constantly stretched.”
Books are a great leveler. According to research carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), children from deprived backgrounds performed better in tests than those from more affluent homes if they enjoyed reading books, newspapers and comics in their spare time. The study, which covered 31 countries, found that encouraging children to read for pleasure could compensate for social problems that would usually affect their academic performance. If reading widely were to become Kenya’s national priority for all children from age one and up, the next generation would wipe out poverty in Kenya. If our own middle classes read one book a month, that would become the national norm. If the media made the same concerted effort to promote reading as they did to fight the media bill - if they all ran a high profile weekly debate on a book instead of yet another political programme, if they petitioned leaders to write and talk about books, if they aggressively supported writing workshops and literary festivals, if they donated and encouraged people to donate local books to local school libraries, if they ran high-profile creativity competitions for young inventors, writers, and artists, we’d have to re-invent our nation to become in which intelligent people could live with consciences intact.
The truth is Africa cannot afford ignorance. But the opposite of ignorance is not just the ability to count and spell and pass exams ‘with flying colours’. We need to sieve, analyse, and reflect on information to convert it into applicable knowledge and convert that knowledge into wisdom. More than any other continent in the world, we need to explore and exploit the experiences that others have gone through so as to shorten our developmental learning curve. Those experiences are written in books, and on the internet. The great ‘secret’ is that knowledge is widely accessible and affordable. The Kenya National Library Services have expanded beyond recognition in the last few years. Further, books are relatively inexpensive, and many private and NGO organisations could be tapped into donating or subsidising books.
But the bigger challenge is not one of affordability or access to books. Most people can recite at least five reasons as to why reading is good for them, and indeed why better read people contribute to a better habitat. But we fell for a political story that ran along the lines that only so much learning was necessary to partake of our national cake. We failed to question the agenda of those telling us this story. We failed to ask why the cake remained so small. The Kenyan Elite who ate more than their fair share knew their children could only protect this status if they gained an educational advantage – they promptly sent their children to high-end (GCSE and IB) private schools and colleges abroad. Schools that aggressively encourage reading and analysis.
Of course this rant serves a self interest. I am a writer and publisher, and to be fair, the young lady who had ‘cleared’ was interviewing for a job as an accountant. She could not relate the need for general reading with her career aspirations. I told her that top accountants, and top doctors, are those most creative in applying their knowledge whether to (legally) save a company taxes or to diagnose a disease presenting unexpected symptoms. Top leaders and managers are those who generate the most creative solutions to economic and developmental challenges. All of us are born with the capacity to be creative but few nurture this and some actively depress this gene by starving it. I told her that learning from fiction and biographies tends to happen inadvertently, rather than from specific drilling. In other words, those who read for enjoyment learn as much as if not more than those drilled to pick up specific points, and those who enjoy books are more likely to read all their life. Amongst them will emerge the visionary the Kenya so desperately needs.
As Yvonne Awuor challenges in her essay, ‘Why Read’: “Is it only me feeling this, or are we singularly wounded by boring visions and the death of imagination? Itty, bitty, teensy visions that do not fit into a thimble, not a single original thought, not a daring dream, not one able to gather the soul of all Kenya and announce: “People, I have dream…? I have seen who we are. I have seen that we rule the world with greatness and goodness. And if the Americans sent a man to the moon, in two years time we shall send a Kenyan woman to the depths beneath and beyond the Indian Ocean waves and we shall plant the Kenyan flag there. The text of this mad imagining is embedded in books, in the art of cave walls so many of which are here, it is the internet, it is in what is unspoken within each of our hearts. It is the narrative of the nations we admire, and they have written about themselves, so there are no secrets beyond what each of our imaginations can do with what we have read, what we read. We can read and transcend it. That is the gift of reading.”
My dream is all Kenyans transcend the notion that they have cleared.