NAIROBI, KENYA: European memory in African landscape is the enduring legacy of neo-colonialism. Fifty years on,
By Eunice Kamaara
It was not until I was in my fourth year at the University of Nairobi that I learnt the word ‘school’ is also a ‘verb’, thanks to my academic mentor, Prof Jesse Mugambi. Of course there were no digital dictionaries as are now available even on kambambe phones.
Used as a verb, the word ‘school’ relates to animals – especially horses. It refers to the action of training animals towards a desired goal. To school a horse is to train within a designated place by making it jump up and down or move round in circles, among other gymnastics, towards desired behaviours. You now understand why the British came up with schools in Kenya and why schools had to be segregated for different races. As far as the British were concerned, different races required exposure to different gymnastics towards different ends.
For Africans, schooling was more or less like that of a horse. Tragically, fifty years after political independence, we continue to remain in the same position. How else can we explain educational development in Kenya from Kamunge (1964) to Kamunge (2008/09)? What has been the impact (lack of) of various education commissions through Independence?
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But mine is not to critique the various education reforms that we have had since Independence – education experts like Peter C. Otiato Ojiambo and Elijah Don Bonyo have done this effectively. All I wish to do is to merely scratch the surface with a critical appreciation of the education that I, a child of independent Kenya, have received over the last 50 years.
The School of hard knocks
A word on informal education, perhaps an antithesis to schooling suffices. For by the time some teacher was asking me to put my hand over my head and touch my ear to determine if I qualified for formal primary education, I already had had six years of education in the school of hard knocks, thanks to my family, with my mother as the head teacher. By six, I had learnt how to walk, talk, play, pray and work. I will tell you three (number three is the symbol of stability in many traditional African worldviews) of the most important lessons that I had already learnt.
Lesson one: One can effectively till a piece of land, enrich it with organic manure, plant the best seed in the best way possible at the right time of the year, watch the seeds sprout and grow into healthy beautiful plants, and yet, a few weeks later, find nothing to harvest. Thus, when we had done all that is humanly possible to ensure a good harvest, the head-teacher would appeal to the Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnipotent One to give us a good harvest.
Lesson two: Emphasised the power of the human mind over matter. I had learnt that the most important human being in any person’s life is the self. So, attitude of self is everything. Indeed, if you think you can, you can, and if you think you can’t, I am afraid you are right.
Lesson Three: When you sow bean seeds, you can never harvest maize, only beans. Therefore, when you do good, you do it to yourself and similarly, when you do evil you do it to yourself.
These lessons were buttressed by the many stories (all with moral lessons) that my grandmother shared with us in her hut after supper to while the night away. Sadly, the evening stories had to give way to formal education - we needed to sleep early in order wake up early for school every other weekday.
These three lessons continue to guide my life since and nothing in formal education, not even in Higher Education, has overridden them. What a pity that I have no certificate to show for this.
So I got into class one. Throughout Lower Primary we took three subjects only: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. In class one, we spent every half day (Monday to Friday) in school singing the alphabet in mother tongue: “a e i ? o u ?”, counting 1 to 10 and basically learning how to hold a pencil.
In class two, we added a consonant to sing: “ba be bi b? bo bu b? and started simple additions of 1+ 1= 2. In class three, we added yet another consonant: “cwa and cwe. We also did simple subtraction.
It is only in class three that we started learning how to write our names. Additionally, we learnt simple multiplication and division. I cherish these years of primary education especially for teaching me how to write in my mother tongue. This affirmed my identity.
We did not learn English until Upper Primary - class five to seven.
With primary education, I had made a step backward in losing time with my grandmother and her moral lessons but I had made a step forward in gaining literacy.
In secondary school, we had to speak in English throughout.
I don’t remember what I learnt through the four years except lessons on the History of America like on the American War of Independence (1775-1782). During a stint on sabbatical leave in America much later, I applied this knowledge to understand why the Americans refer to the trunk rather than the boot and gas rather than petrol. But tragically, I know little about the Mau Mau even though I belong to the first independent generation. Through secondary education, I made a step forward and a step backward.
Anyway, I was good at cramming what we were taught through high school and so I passed and got my Kenya Certificate of Education. I moved on to Advanced (‘A’) level (Form Five and Six). My combination was Geography, Christian Religious Education (CRE) and Literature.
In Geography, we learnt a lot but what I remember most is the Geography of Europe: The great River Rhine, the five great lakes and the Alps. When I first visited Switzerland in the early 1990s, I recognised the Swiss Alps as if I had lived around them all my life. How could I forget when the Alps were on the top cover of our Geography textbook? But I am not sure that I can recognise Mt. Kenya when I see it.
In spite of my study of geography at an advanced level, many are the times when I feel totally unschooled. Like this time when my hosts in Europe gave me some map, pointed at the position of a building and told me to meet her in her office room the following morning. I was completely lost in spite of my many certificates including one suggesting that I am a doctorate holder!
In CRE, we studied the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament and its application to contemporary times. We did Social Ethics also. Both subjects rekindled my grandmother’s stories thus a step forward. But I was told that Christianity is a European religion, which was a major step backward. I have since learnt that Christianity is not only a traditional African religion, but also that it was in African within the first centuries of its foundation. In fact, the first School of Christian Theology ever, the Catechetical School of Alexandria was in Africa. It is in this School that some of the Church doctrines that we continue to cherish were developed.
My best subject was Literature. This subject literally ‘opened’ up my mind. Up to this point in my education, written work was gospel truth. As we studied the River Between and Things Fall Apart in secondary school, I thought Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe (RIP) were mythical. But my A level teachers told us that they are not mythical and more important, they can be criticised. We did oral literature too which again rekindled memories of my grandmother’s stories. I remember lessons that buttressed what my mother and grandmother had taught me in God’s Bits of Wood, Petals of Blood, Muntu (African Literature), as well as from Fathers and Sons (Russian literature).
Then I joined the University of Nairobi and Professor Fr. Joseph Donders (RIP) initiated us into philosophical thinking. I remember his classes with a lot of nostalgia. But I can say for certain that these professors added no new lessons in my life except to buttress what my mother, had taught me over my first six years of life. But in three years time, I got another certificate – a Bachelor of Arts degree.
So I joined Moi University for my postgraduate work. I merely built on my mother’s and grandmother’s stories to acquire more certificates and become a Professor of African Christian Ethics. In this, I profess gender re-construction for holistic development with an appreciation of the need for strategic planning and action in spite of human limitations, and with emphasis on the importance of self-esteem, confidence and positive attitude. The school of hard knocks continues to inspire my continuing education.
So here I am, having made a full circle from the three lessons to the three lessons. It would seem that the lessons.