NAIROBI: The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) will soon pick new literature set books for secondary schools.
Among issues that such choices are intended to address is nationhood, arguably one of the most difficult tasks a post-independent state must confront in its initial years. There is no avoiding the issue of bringing together our different people. What is painfully harrowing about it in Kenya is that we seem stuck in that ‘initial’ period over half a century after independence.
Perhaps it happens because the institute charged with the responsibility of cobbling up, sieving, and refining a syllabus that reconciles Kenyans regularly flops. Nowhere is the incompetence more glaring than in the divisive secrecy which accompanies our secondary schools set book selection process.
It must alarm us how some of the darkest tribal poison in Kenya today is invariably uttered from lips of fairly young politicians.
Yes, even students shock you by their lack of awareness of the country’s political history. They exhibit ethnic anxieties worse than the strain that haunted Kenya immediately after independence.
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There may be other reasons why it happens. Even so, the realistic observer will point a finger at mis-education, particularly the kind of literature books that such ethnic jingoes interacted with during their days in school. If so, then the set books are innocent.
FAILED TO DELIVER
The guilty are those who select them, together with everybody else who all along felt idle enough to defend what even a slightly lazier child than some officers at the Ministry of Education would be reluctant to.
It would be right to observe that the performance of KICD is not just wanting.
The institute has flatly failed to deliver on Kenyans’ aspirations with regard to literature as a path to national coexistence. Its selection model has been stuck in the past.
We have in the past written several times about the trend in Kenya’s set books selection for literature in English. I repeat it here for clarity. The KICD has changed secondary school literature set books eight times since 1989 (around the time 8.4.4 took effect).
Kenyan students have successively read the following compulsory novels: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy, Margaret Ogola’s The River and The Source, Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, Marjorie Oludhe’s Coming to Birth, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between (currently examinable).
The compulsory plays have been: Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, John Ruganda’s The Burdens, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Francis Imbuga’s Aminata, Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (currently examinable).
Perhaps nothing is more known about KICD than the witch doctor-like secrecy in which it operates. But a University of Nairobi scholar (Nyachae Michira) once peeped inside and glimpsed at what the KICD’s selection framework looks for in a book: “relevance of the content, style and creative use of language, regional and cultural balance, examinability, and availability of a text” (January 26th, 2013).
It is a model that the enthusiastic Communications Officer at the Ministry of Education did not characteristically come out to contest (a rule the interesting officer isn’t very famous for disobeying). So the scholar’s findings must have been right.
If the set book selection model stays, then KICD should be accused of being unfaithful to its own framework. Their choices show every kind of cultural and ethnic bias.
Even more fundamentally, you will have realised that Kenyans have never read a compulsory text by a female African author outside Kenya because it’s a deficient framework which says nothing about gender parity – needless to say that in Kenya, it’s only Margaret Ogola whose one book has been selected twice. KICD operates on a devilish model which sets Kenyan peoples against one another.
In 26 years, KICD has disseminated the cultures and histories of only three of Kenya’s over 42 communities through compulsory set books: Kikuyu (Ngugi wa Thiong’o), Luhyia (Francis Imbuga), and Luo (Margaret Ogola, and Marjorie Oludhe). Not only that, but Ogola’s The River and The Source has been repeated.
As for The River Between, it occasionally rattles me how easy it is for a young Kikuyu to replace ‘the coloniser’ with ‘the other tribe’, not to mention the misleading linearity of the “struggle” for Kenya’s independence. Yes, the novel must have been powerfully relevant sometime in the past. Today though, that novel would be shocked at how quickly our sad beggars are slapped and yanked from the streets when that same ‘West’ comes to pay a casual visit.
The narrow philosophy behind the set books selection model has ensured that books by Achebe, Ruganda, and Shakespeare have also been repeated. That’s difficult to take, for people who appreciate how the world we live in sags under the weight of literary gems, specifically from Latin America, a region whose history isn’t very different from Kenya’s.
We live in times when Africa grapples with integrating its one billion people. But out of the over 54 countries which constitute the continent, the literature syllabus has taught Kenyans about the cultures and histories of only three countries (Nigeria: Achebe and Amadi); South Africa (Peter Abrahams), and Uganda (John Ruganda).
You talk of a certain ‘global village’, but out of over 200 countries in the world, we ‘know’ the literatures of only 7 countries (Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, England, Norway, Germany, and Russia – in 26 solid years).
I would understand if you told me that part of KICD’s dilemma has been how to deal with cowardly authors who do not want to confront their people with the truth.
Yvonne Owuor, for instance, who is highly unlikely to observe to any young Luo, that some of the biggest beer dens in Kisumu are owned by politicians, when elsewhere in Thika politicians tirelessly teach their people how to pull together through co-operatives; and hare-hearted Binyavanga who would rather sprint away in panic than tell any Kikuyu lad that six solid years separate a Mau Mau photograph (1957) and the actual raising of Kenya’s independence flag (1963).
But the reason KICD’s set books choice revolves around only three communities isn’t because there aren’t writers from the other Kenyan communities.
Probably it is due to corruption, and very dark ethnic thinking which has hollowed out the heads of the same people who are supposed to help a country recover from anxieties which run back 50 years ago.
Exceptionally forward-looking Kenyan authors exist, and they write in very powerful ways about the country’s historical circumstances. Indeed they regularly win national literary prizes in Kenya. Their only national sin, however, is that these committed authors come from minority communities, so KICD will never pick their invaluable books as compulsory set texts.
Such shocking injustices look ordinary and normal only because we live in a country that probably gave up on the fight against ethnicity.