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When typewriting was an essential skill in civil service

An imperial typewriter of the 1890s used by George Whitehouse to communicate to the Uganda Railway Committee in London, to relay information concerning the progress of the railway, at the gallery of Nairobi Railway Museum. [File, Standard]

The validity of academic credentials has become a hot potato during this political season. The authorities had envisaged a scenario where some enterprising job seekers would try to submit dubious academic certificates and set up various agencies to verify papers obtained from faraway lands.

During the era when education was strictly controlled by the state, the government had a say on who got promoted and administered examinations to test the suitability of junior civil servants hoping for promotions.

On account of this, lower cadre clerical officers were subjected to the Kenya Government Lower Clerical Examination. So serious was this test that hopefuls had to wait for gazettement of the dates and exam centres.

The exam, formerly known as Civil Service Examination for African Clerks, mainly tested the candidates in English, Arithmetic and Typewriting. Two years before Kenya became independent, one such test was announced where all eligible civil servants were to congregate in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nyeri, Nakuru and Kisumu only.

To avoid leakage, the exam papers and materials were strictly kept under lock and key by the head of department supervising the candidates. Outsiders working in non-governmental offices could also be considered for the examination, but only upon payment of a Sh2 examination fees.

The departmental heads in government were so influential in career progression, they had powers to set special exams and administer them to their juniors and communicate the scores to their superiors in Nairobi.

Typewriting skills were so valued even if a clerical officer passed English and Arithmetic but flopped typing they could never hope of being promoted until they re-sat the examination and certified the examiners of their speed and proficiency in form and content.

More than six decades later, the manual typewriter has been replaced, first by the desktop computer, then by a laptop, and finally by a touch-screen mobile phone, which, with appropriate application, has transformed their owners into writing gurus.

Typewriting has been tossed into the technological dustbin and in these days where the competency-based curriculum has transformed nearly every parent into a computer wizard in taking photos and printing and cyber cafés have taken the placer typing schools.

Although the government is still one of the biggest employers, clerical jobs are not as coveted as they were decades ago, although at times the few available slots nowadays attract thousands of degree and diploma holders.

If the acting Director of Education in 1961, S. Judson, were to walk into any government office today, he would be amazed to see top civil servants typing their own memos from desktops without ever attending a typing school.