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Is Kenya going through a winter of discontent? Let's watch out

By XN Iraki | Published Sun, July 22nd 2018 at 00:00, Updated July 23rd 2018 at 12:00 GMT +3
An aerial view of the coastline of Greenland in winter. Notice the icebergs. What will come after our winter of discontent?

In summary

  • As we pursue Vision 2030 or Big 4, we must address discontented youths or citizenry
  • Rarely said in public is that an increase in wages could easily lead to inflation, which some policymakers think is a worse evil than unemployment

The winter of discontent refers to the period from 1978-1979 characterised by industrial action, or better strikes after the British Labour government of James Callaghan capped wages to tame inflation.

The term was originally borrowed from celebrated British poet William Shakespeare. High school students in Kenya once read his Romeo and Juliet. Noted how our weather has been unusually cold or wintery this year?

We have had our winter of discontent with doctors, lecturers and teachers striking. In the UK even those who bury the dead went on strike.

Our current winter of discontent is not about wages but students burning their dormitories or planning to. Curiously, the street battles between the police and university students are rare nowadays. Why should much younger and more vulnerable youngsters burn dormitories?

The wave of school burnings and strikes usually takes place in second term ostensibly when it’s cold and wintery. Some regions of the country recorded 3 to 4 degrees Celsius; they are competing with your refrigerator. But discontent in our secondary schools should be more than cold. What is causing it? Why now? Who should lose sleep over it? What are the economic consequences of this discontent?

Don’t we say where there is smoke there is fire? The smoke has always been there but we seem to act only when we see fire? Let us stop semantic somersaults and address the discontent in our schools. Is there a solution or that will become the new normal?

There is discontent throughout the entire system from primary to university but in varying degrees. The kids in primary school are too young to openly display their discontent. They do that through parents or nannies. Secondary schools or better high schools have the critical mass to organise strikes or other evils, aided by the mobile phones and the relentless search for heroism which is short supply in Kenya. Politicians take all the heroism and publicity. What is causing this discontent?

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Overcrowding in schools could be one factor. With rising transition to high school from primary, lots of schools were expanded, some to 7 or 8 streams. What is the optimal size of a school? Could it be the reason they burn dormitories and rarely classrooms!

In our days we only burnt books after exams, the academic bonfire. I did not burn mine and recently discovered I studied set theory and base 2 in class 5. Base 2 (we are used to base 10) is the foundation of computer science. Later, new maths was discontinued; I submit Kenya could have become a silicon savannah much earlier.

Beyond overcrowding, it has been suggested by one private school owner that better living in our homes has made kids hate school. Home has Wifi, TV, hot water, choice of food and freedom to sleep and wake up when you want. Apparently, sleep has gained new priority among the younger generation.

Some have suggested the discontent was caused by World Cup, students wanted to go home to watch it. While that is stretching the truth, it can’t be entirely false. 

The discontent has other causes starting from the “death of childhood.”  Children are now treated like adults and may have reciprocated by behaving like them. They are not to be disciplined though most Kenyans confess some form of religion.

It is called modernism. While we consult no one in siring a kid, once born everyone gets interested, not always for good reasons. You lose freedom to rear kids once they are born.

This death of freedom to rear kids has led to the discontent in our schools. The parents and teachers are constrained by law on how to rear kids which is an art, not a science. Soon there will be a law on how to fall in love.

Given the law, well-publicized cases of teacher in court for disciplining children, teachers watch from a distance. Who wants to lose a job when his or her kids are in school? The ministry of Education after banning corporal punishment, courtesy of human rights advocates, gave teachers no alternative or worse alternatives like counselling, better-called appeasement.

Fining parents after students destroy property might be calculated to force parents to discipline their kids. That seems not to be working. We have brought in the police. A recent announcement by DCI that certificate of conduct will in future include behaviour in school was a clear indicator that indiscipline or is it discontent has entered a new phase.

In our school days, we were threatened that our names would be entered in a “Black Book”.  I’m yet to meet anyone who ever saw that book. I think it was a mythical book but police (CID) want to make it real.

I fear the ghosts of George Orwell in his book 1984 are hovering around. Will information on student’s behaviour in high school as minors be misused by employers to deny them jobs? How many CEOs were once “crooks” in school? Involving police shows our helplessness with indiscipline.

The discontent has external causes too. Beyond learning, bad manners from adults, we rarely inspire our kids; we feed them unbalanced diet of pessimism.

They see no jobs; they see no future. Seeing no future, they burn the present. Our failure to inspire the next generation, our students is best espoused by growth in the number of Kenya’s newest professionals “motivation speakers“who have made schools their fertile ground. Who inspired us?

Less talked about cause of discontent is idleness. We are paying the price of neglecting sports that keep our kids busy. One of the key characteristics of a good school is sports facilities.

I noted that the secret behind my high school success was games which you participated in even during exams time. Guess where I schooled. How many schools exempt four 4 students from sports to give them time to read?

One of the lessons I learned from my National Youth Service (NYS) pre-university training is that the easiest way to maintain discipline is to keep someone busy. We even watered the flowers while it was raining. My most memorable punishment at NYS is cleaning a tree, with soap and water!

The discontent is our schools is not so different from South Africa during apartheid or Deep South in the USA during the age of segregation. What is perplexing is that our discontent is self-inflicted. Could it be an indicator of deep-seated social economic classes? In both nations, an underclass emerged frozen in time in prospects. We are almost there.

Discontent might also be a policy issue. Do policymakers really understand what happens in our schools? Who came up with the idea of a national school uniform like the police? Why should Alliance High School and Mung’etho High School wear the same uniform?

How do you delocalise teachers in their 50s yet they have invested in their locality economically, in social networks and in own families? Why not start it with new employees?

Sadly, whatever the cause, discontent afflicts the poor or disadvantaged more. Not surprising because they are victims of corruption, joblessness and any dysfunctions of the social-political system. One high school principal told me students are not interested in applying to join university. Ever heard of high-end schools going on strike or burning schools?

The discontent in the UK led to regime change with Margaret Thatcher becoming the first woman prime minister. She changed the British society with deregulation of major industries and labour unions losing their power. 

What will our winter of discontent lead to? It should lead us to soul-searching and identify the strategic drift of our nation. We can’t talk about Vision 2030 or Big 4 when our schools are on fire and when the inheritors of our dreams are discontented.

When will they dream of their own tomorrow? Instead of burning schools, we dreamt of the coming of the golden age with good jobs, spouses, travel and a satisfying life. We even dreamt of an afterlife, when our life is finally over. We can recapture the Kenyan dream.

If we do not act, we risk making school discontent the new normal. Yet, behind the economic growth of China and Asian tigers is the single-mindedness and focus of the youngsters and their discipline. No wonder they excel in sciences and maths.

Koreans, Chinese and Asians take that discipline with them when they immigrate. They are behind the Silicon Valley innovations and are disproportionately represented in Ivy League universities. Needless to say, discontented citizens or students drag down economic growth.

After all, feel good or pessimism are great catalysts of economic growth. Other nations will leave us behind if we make indiscipline the new normal. Maybe it’s time to return to the basics. Bringing up children was not supposed to be a nightmare.

Conspiracy theorists say discontented youth, who hate school, will ensure Kenya remains the global supermarket for goods and services. That sounds more like African-America case in America’s Deep South. All these theorists can’t be intoxicated.

Finally, the indisciplined or discontented high school students will become university students or discontented employees. We can’t romanticize an issue that will make us all discontented. As we pursue Vision 2030 or big 4 we must address discontented youths, or citizenry.

After all, satisfaction with our lives is one of our keys goals irrespective of age or economic status. Why else is behavioural economics winning Nobel Prizes?

—The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi  

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