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Why we should fear school-bus syndrome

By XN Iraki | July 14th 2015

In the past, school buses were actually lorries that had been converted into buses and ensured there was cover in case of rain. In my old high school, we had one we christened Concorde. It was an old, green Bedford. I only got a ride in it once to go to the airport to wave goodbye to the Queen of England when she visited Kenya.

Today, schools boast state-of-the-art buses and compete to have the sleekest models on the road. The old Concordes, like the real Concorde, have all but disappeared. The new buses are expensive machines, some going for as much as Sh10 million — yet, the new trend is leasing.

Sudden obsession

Why the sudden obsession with school buses, even for small rural schools, over other priorities?

The school-bus syndrome is a symptom of a society obsessed with showing off. It not just about buses, but also school gates and uniforms. Have you noted that khakis, the great uniforms we wore, are rare in schools? Instead, we have brightly coloured uniformed with chequered patterns.

This is what worries me: our children start competing on who has a better bus, gate or uniform, instead of on substantive issues, like who has the greatest career prospects or who will go to the most prestigious university.

How many schools have a bus but not a fully equipped laboratory?

To be fair to schools, lots of other public institutions are also in the business of showing off. Big cars signify the Government is around, whether the national or county one. I am yet to see a GK or county Vitz. Even churches have not been left behind, with the prosperity theology attracting lots of adherents.

Defining success

Why this sudden dalliance with showing off?

Some blame the media, which shows the ‘brighter’ side of life and not its realities. We define people and their success by what they own and not how they owned it. What type of car do you drive? How big is your house? What do your wear? People cannot see your virtues like honesty or fairness.

Others blame politicians who lead by example in flaunting what they own, often sponsored by taxpayers.

Parents are not blameless either. They are the first influence on children. Do we teach our children the virtues of patience and perils of instant gratification?

Showing off is often a symptom of a deeper problem. Psychologists might see it as a sign of inadequacy — not so different from our obsession with titles. Why would someone use two or three titles at once, like Rev Dr?

This obsession indicates our society is lacking in deep philosophical and cultural grounding. Behind the Hollywood showbiz is an underlying American culture we could not copy in the Constitution. Do Protestant work ethics appear in the CRE syllabus? Behind the Japanese Toyota is Japanese philosophy and culture. Behind Chinese economic growth is Chinese culture and philosophy. Behind the British financial industry is British culture. Ever wondered why Britain still has a Queen?

We are in transition from the traditional order to the new order, which is yet to be defined. This has created a vacuum that materialism has easily filled, leading to the obsession with things and showing off. We are a young nation, unlike China or Britain that have had centuries to entrench their culture and philosophy.

Over 100 years ago, Norwegian é·mi·gré Thorsten Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to explain this phenomenon. His 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, is an interesting read.

To Mr Veblen, conspicuous consumption was more about the affluent. In Kenya today, it has been devolved to the lower classes. A school bus has more show off value to a student whose father has no car. Conspicuous consumption has also created a thriving industry in fake labels, as lower classes try to emulate the affluent.

New preaching

Where do we go from here?

If you look back at your life, most of the good and bad habits you carry to this day, including your views on many issues, were shaped early in life while you were in school. When our children get into conspicuous consumption that early in life, it will be hard to rehabilitate them later in life.

Does this explain why corruption is becoming such a big problem? Few people steal from the public to feed the destitute; it is all about showing off. Buy the best car, the best house and be seen with what society thinks is the most beautiful woman.

Maybe we planted the seeds of our modern social-economic set up early and are reaping the fruits. Some have argued that corruption flowered when the generation shaped by missionaries started retiring. What do you think?

To deal with the school-bus syndrome, we must reform our institutions the same way we came up with a new Constitution to reform our political system.

We need new parenting, new schooling and even new preaching. Such transformation is not for the faint hearted, but the dividends are intergenerational and too good to ignore.

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