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From centuries past to the present, Kenya is a big lab

By XN Iraki | August 31st 2021
Student in a lab coat and protective wear [Courtesy]

Kenya is well known for its natural beauty, long distance running, the cradle of mankind and some paradox - it is one of the few countries where rain forests and deserts coexist.

It is a country where sports unite us, where we study about early man when we know so little about modern man. We do not know why crime of passion is so common today, but we can explain how and what Zinjanthropus ate.

Kenya is known for something else; as a giant laboratory. Since the dawn of civilisation we have served as a global laboratory, either knowingly or unknowingly.

We imported Bantus, Cushites and Nilotes and we did an unintentional experiment, to see if they could thrive. They did. Later, Arabs came to test if they could thrive. They did and became part of the mosaic that makes the Kenyan nation.

The Chinese came around 1418 and left, it is not clear why they did not settle. Portuguese followed in 1498 but the experiment failed after 200 years. They did not bother to learn about local cultures. They left behind nothing except Fort Jesus and the name Mesa.

The Britons started their experiment about 200 years after the Portuguese left. They did not succeed, leaving after 68 years. But they were more successful than the Portuguese, learning about local cultures and chronicling them. Read Louis Leakey’s three-volume “History of Southern Kikuyu”?

They experimented with agriculture. Remember Delamere and Egerton?

Their success was based on another less talked about reason; many of the Britons came from the upper class. The houses they built, their titles and where they schooled, Oxbridge and Eton tell it all.

The British experiment failed because it was too successful. They were bold enough to take our grandfathers to fight for the empire, opening their eyes to the myth of invincibility of the white man.

After independence, we continued with experiments. We highlight some of the outstanding ones since the lowering of the British flag.

One is on the political front. We experimented with one party, multiparties, coalitions and now, it seems, no party. We have not got our politics right, going by the failed BBI. Yet this is one area we need to get right, political experiments are risky and hold progress hostage.

The second experiment is in education. We had the A-level system, then 8-4-4 and now CBC. Our neighbours Tanzania and Uganda still keep A-level but Rwanda has something very close to CBC.

Like in politics, we have not found the right education system. Yet what matters is not the years and their permutations but the content. With all the criticism, I know 8-4-4 graduates who have excelled at Harvard or MIT. Is CBC the last part of the experiment? 

In economics, we have tried facing east with China as a major trading, foreign aid and debt partner. We had tried liberalising the economy after years of controlled prices. More recently, we even tried stimulating the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic. We tried to stop economic experiments through Vision 2030 and its child, Big Four Agenda.

There have been experiments in other sectors but they are not that noticeable. Remember matatus carrying full capacity and reopening of schools during Covid-19 pandemic? Women inheriting land? Doing away with mixed secondary schools? Cohabitation? Add to the list.

Academic researchers long noted that Kenya is a big lab and have won Nobel prizes based on studies done here. Elinor Ostrom and Michael Kremer, two economic Nobel laureates, did part of their research in Kenya. The latter used experimentation to test if giving teachers incentives improved performance in exams. 

The Covid-19 vaccine was also tested in Kenya.

We must add that the country has had a relatively good research infrastructure espoused by research institutes. Examples include the International Livestock Research Institute, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, Kenya Forestry Research Institute, Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute, Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis and Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Is it good to be a giant laboratory? Yes, as long as we benefit from knowledge gained. If we can improve our politics, education, agriculture, our economy and our welfare using these experiments, I support them.

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