In one of the dramatic scenes of the film The Gods must be Crazy, a white woman accompanies Nixau Toma, the native main character, to the jungle. One day, she finds Nixau using a crude tool, made of one of the finest diamonds, to crack nuts. Knowing its worth, she hastily requests Nixau to give her the stone and runs away with it, leaving behind her mirror.
Nixau and his fellow village mates did not know the value of the diamond they were using to split wood and crack nuts. That’s precisely how we deal with the about 700 professors we have in Kenya. We don’t know their worth and as a result, they die as we keep setting (elusive) goals and visions — a flagrant chasing after the wind.
If we knew the treasure we have in our university professors, we would sell all that we have and buy the gem. But we won’t. In this country, we reward politics more than academics; but I won’t adulterate my article with recent political selfishness in which Parliament proposes to award former MPs heavy pension perquisites.
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It was John F Kennedy who said the progress of a nation could not be swifter than its education because the human mind is the fundamental resource that society has. There is also an Igbo proverb that says a person who does not know where the rain began to beat them can’t tell where they dried their body.
I won’t attempt the scary account of what it takes to be a professor. The easiest to collate is how long it takes to be one. After an average of four years of a bachelor's degree, three years of a master's and from three to eight years of a doctorate, the journey to becoming a professor begins.
One must teach at the university level for three years to qualify to be a senior lecturer, and then three years to be an assistant professor and another three years to be a professor. All these must be laced up with teaching, supervision of postgraduate students to completion, attracting research funds, research undertakings and exorbitant publishing, among other indicators.
Promotion to any professorship also depends on a combination of lobbying and advocacy, and sometimes politics at the university. After going through all this, the predicament of a professor starts right at his backyard — the university. Their worthiness is poured out like alabaster oil.
The normative roles of universities are teaching, research and community service through consultancy and outreach, and are embodied in our professors. So, the best way to tap into their resourceful knowledge and experience is to create an environment conducive for them to mentor postgraduate students and young PhD faculty into research, discipline and professionalism.
However, we banish our professors to lecture halls to teach forevermore. That’s where the rain started beating us! So, where did our body dry up? Not yet! I won’t fiddle with non-recognition and work-related burnout that distorts their world view, or frustration and depression that might frequent their lives. Neither will I probe the time wasted on moonlighting as they try to augment their livelihoods to catch up financially with their colleagues who pursued other career paths.
I will restate John F Kennedy's squabble with 21st century "modern cynics and sceptics [who] see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those whom they entrust the care of their plumbing”. I won’t be ashamed to state that to our professors, we entrust the future of our civilisation, but that future is mummified in graveyards.
Things are different elsewhere, though. In the US and Europe, professors are empowered to provide solutions to the problems buffeting society. For example, the world is now reeling under Covid-19; they are better placed to provide medical and attendant solutions for containment of the pandemic through research.
The knowledge and experience in our professors should be tapped for policy formation and tackling social challenges like poverty, bad governance, food security and other hurdles targeted by the sustainable development goals. However, in Kenya, professors are not seen as critical players in nation building away from the lecture halls — their remuneration is not admirable, in addition to other hygiene factors.
Our progress as a country will remain slow as long as we continue to ignore our professors.
Dr Ndonye is a political economist of media and communication