/ 27 August 2008

Schooling for small minds

When two or three Kenyans of the professional classes get together, we often talk about how professional we are. We are very professional, we nod. Our professionals built modern Botswana, we nod. Did you know we send more students to America than any other African country?

Our professionals groan when posted to Uganda, or Tanzania, or South Africa even — these people don’t work; they take long lunches; they don’t save. They eat spicy foods that are bad for the stomach. The colours they wear in Ghana are too dizzying: they do not mark seriousness, all those tailors and waxed fabrics. Did you know many rich Nigerians send their kids to our academies?

Of course the horrible big-picture truth of it all is that we are statistically just as poor and vulnerable as all those poor, colourful people who eat spicy foods and won’t fit in with Deloitte & Touche’s corporate culture. Now, if there is a country that bewilders us, it is that perpetually overheating place called Nigeria, where quantum physicists give up Harvard jobs to start giant churches that attract three million Sunday worshippers, then decide to open up Maximum Mega Worship Centre in Waco, Texas — because rednecks need God too.

To be a Kenyan is to be cursed by a system that pretends to function. There is enough of a school system, a health system, a private sector, good banks and tall buildings for everybody to see them. What nobody tells you is that this splendour is available only to the 5% who make it through the filters.

So bodies are beaten into the right shape for the bottleneck called progress: the last cow is sold for the diploma certificate; people sleep outside the offices of bureaucrats to register; ”cram” academies wake up 11-year-old kids at 4am; mothers buy brain porridge mixes from millers to feed to their aspirational kids (some of these mixes have powdered fish, millet, maize, powdered milk and aloe vera).

School holidays are spent in camps paying teachers vast sums to drum quadratic equations into the fishy-fertilised brains of the young. English composition templates are memorised: make sure you have three wise sayings, four similes, no daffodils please; memorise things like ”as black as my grandmother’s cooking pot”.

Every year, as the national primary school exams are announced, some young child who got 488 out of 500 marks is paraded in front of us all and says: ”I studied 17 hours a day with the help of my parents. I learned 1 400 similes and 48 000 composition templates. My teacher coached us through the exam paper the night before the exam.”

Art and music are no longer in our school curriculum.

For schooling is Kenya’s largest and most effortful industry, even larger than the churches. All this effort is for a few places in four or five very good schools, or four or five very good jobs.

These brain-dead robots we produce are so beaten into submission they run around the city wielding brown envelopes with CVs and letters of introduction and spend excruciating hours in cyber cafés looking for scholarships. Every bit of creative thinking, of bold idea-ing, of do-it-yourselfing is removed.

We have designed a being that makes a good filing clerk; a great book-keeper. We export well-behaved sous-chefs to Dubai. We took the colonial system, which was designed to produce dutiful people who don’t ask questions, and ­perfected it.

What we have now is a system that serves to produce people who simply want the paper certificate to be members. Ideas have no value. Mimicry is God. Vision — that intangible by-product of the wide-reading musical child who always challenged his teachers and who will start some truly innovative company — has been leached away.

In the past few years we have found our high-school education system collapse under the weight of many years of accumulated bullshit. Exams can be bought on the street; but you may still fail, for it is becoming clear to everybody that many exams are not marked. Results are often different from the papers you sat.

Some say they replace final exams with mock results because teachers are unable to mark; or there is confusion when an entire class writes exactly the same ­English composition.

Nobody resigns.

So when more than 300 schools went on the rampage recently, around mock exam time, our Cabinet met and decided that the problem was ”too much democracy” — and the cane was reintroduced.

As usual every Kenyan problem comes down the same thing: perform violence on the body of your citizens so they can pay a personal price for the incompetence of their ministry of education or the incompetence of their xenophobic politicos.

There is one skill we have: we understand how to put our heads down and make small profits from being cynical sycophants and brokers in small deals for big men. We have learned that ideas are dangerous. To innovate is to threaten power.

Our country is an imperium: as we were in colonial days, African bodies at the service of an imperial political class that designs all policy to perpetuate itself.