We have made some progress in making education available to all Kenyan children. In the years since Free Primary Education was instituted in Kenya, we have seen millions of children get to sit in classrooms. Those millions haven’t included a certain demographic: children with special needs. And, we’re giving them short shrift. To quote Malinda Harrahs Ndinda:
Despite the government’s commitment to free primary school education, implementation of integrated education to the physically disabled children is faced with constraints. These include: lack of clarity of the policy of integration, negative traditional beliefs towards disabilities, the approach of implementing integrated education, low parental participation, lengthy assessment procedures of disabilities, lack of adequate specialist teachers, limited data on disabilities and limited access to education caused by high fees levies, lack of suitable transport services and access to mobility aids and suitable physical environment and amenities
The Kenyan National Survey for Persons with Disabilities (2008) found that 4.6% of Kenyans experience some form of disability. Many children with special needs are denied educational opportunities because of shame, fear, ignorance and a lack of access to resources in their communites. This, coupled with a paucity of spaces in which children with special needs can be educated, makes for a dire situation. I posit a solution, though not necessarily a simple or cheap one: make schools inclusive.
This involves catering to the wide range of needs learners have while educating them all in mainstream schools. Contrast this with our current situation in which children with special needs attend the eponymous special schools. This kills two birds with one stone: it gets us closer to truly attaining the goal of education for all while breaking down prejudicial attitudes. Consider this: what difference would it make, in a world that skews ableist, for all children to be in spaces that view – and treat – all learners equitably?
There are a number of special units across the country, providing support for children in those settings who have special needs. They are a good first step but we’re still a long way from fully integrating schools across the country. It’s 30 years this year since Kilimani Primary School integrated blind children into their classrooms and 13 years since it integrated deaf-blind children. Integrated education doesn’t seem to be an ideal that we, as a country, aspire to, yet it affects all of us.
We didn’t set off to educate people with special needs; it is more an accident of history. Before 1946, Kenya did not have any centres dedicated to people with special needs. Their needs were catered for in the context of their communities. However, at the end of World War II, there was a need to rehabilitate the soldiers who came back with life-changing injuries. When the work was done, it made sense to admit young people; the resources were there already. Why waste them? Yet, in the time since, we have continued to treat special education as a supplementary aspect of education. The biggest indicator is that it was religious and philanthropic bodies that catered for the education of people with special needs, while the state paid teachers and maintained boarding facilities. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the state trained teachers who could lead classrooms of the hearing impaired and so on.
Kenya is a country that is married to the idea of human capital as the basis of education. It follows that a societal attitude that assigns low value to people with special needs would result in a slowness to integrate. If education only makes sense if one will go on to make vast amounts of money and become a consumer, then it comes as no surprise that marginalised people would not figure in the conceptualisation of educational facilities. Consider this from the Special Needs Education Policy Framework 2012 :
Good performance in education, training and research sectors immensely contributes to any country’s national development. Performing education sectors produce appropriate human resource capital that is integral to spurring productivity.
Even in this context, the state makes it an uphill struggle to educated children putting paid its own assertion of the importance of growing human capital. Late funding to special schools has become a perennial issue; every year one reads articles such as this in the paper featuring special school heads enumerating all the ways in which they are in a fix. Which has me thinking: why not integrate schools? Why do we fund schools for children with special needs separately? There are issues with the funding of mainstream schools but, as that article highlights, special schools received their funding after those ones had been funded. Having two funding streams is part of the reason this continues to happen. Inclusive education cuts this out and sends out funding to all children at all schools in one swift fell.
Who will teach these children once they are integrated? This is a major issue as special education qualifications are earned after studies in education, essentially meaning that the average class teacher does not have the wherewithal to deal with a learner with special needs. Consider this: a set-up in which all student teachers have units that result in them acquiring the skills with which to support learners with special needs in their classroom. There might be one who is great at Kenya Sign Language, say, well-suited to work in a classroom with a child who is hard of hearing but skills would not be so few as to merit the extraction of a child from their home environment.
How will we pay for all that this will entail? Education after Early Childhood Education is in the hands of the central government, which increased the donation per student to KES 1,420 from KES 1,020, so it’s not exactly falling over itself to fund education on the whole (see: the recent teacher strikes). But, with a constitution that asserts the equality of all, it may well be a point of public pressure. And what will we need money for at the beginning? Making schools accessible, making resources such as Braille machines, computers and so on available. We will need to review a tax code that sometimes greatly raises the cost of these integral items, and teachers will need to be trained to welcome all learners into their classrooms. And, for as long as we have among us learners with special needs, the resources, financial or otherwise, needed to support their learning process.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. Schools which have integrated or become inclusive thrive; evidence abounds that educating all Kenyan children together is a win for everyone interested in education. A memory stays with me: On the Day of The African Child in 2011, my friends and I go to Kilimani Primary School for a Reading Out Loud event. This sight, this moment: the children reading out loudly and confidently as they touch their sheets of Braille paper. This is inclusive education and this is why we need it: so that every Kenyan child can read out loud, sign and be the very best within the communities in which they come into the world.
Nyambura Mutanyi is a reader who writes about the things that are dear to her: education, politics, literature, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @cmutanyi
by Ngala Chome
According to my national registration document, I ‘come’ from a sub-location called Murimani, in a location called Kayafungo, in a division called Kaloleni, which is in a district called Kilifi.
I have never lived in all these places.
However, in Kenya, home is not necessarily where one lives, where one learns how to speak, to walk, where one meets their earliest and closest friends, where one losses their virginity. This experiential idea of home is not featured in logics of power and administration that are employed by the Kenyan state.
Identity – and where you come from – is instead fixed by administrative percolates that have origins in the colonial state.
In terms of identity, you simply cannot be anything else other than what the state said your father (not your mother) – and his father before him – is or was. No matter where people have actually lived, we have seen their dead bodies being transported, say from Mombasa to Kisumu, together with their earthly belongings, so that unification with soil – in an ancestral meaning – can happen.
In this way, land in Kenya acquires a much more visceral meaning than as a simple economic good.
In Kenya, land proffers identity, and is fundamental to forming dominant ideas about origin and home. Through its materiality, land has over time managed to transform Kenya as a huge block of indigenous homelands.
Where people belong because of ethnicity.
Where ethnicity belongs because it is attached to soil.
It is therefore not only central to people’s strategies of survival, land also forms a blueprint for action and belief. It consists of a mix of material resources and systems of meaning.
Broadly, land in Kenya is part of myths and symbols that help explain people’s place in the world and how they can survive and perhaps prosper within it.
The result is that land has always been central to our country’s politics.
One of the earliest tasks that British colonialists engaged with was to define, so as to rule. Faced by multiple, often shifting and malleable identities, colonial administrators working with Christian missionaries and social anthropologists sought to study, classify, and thus administer, what they understood to be ‘tribes’.
This idea implied that all black Africans were members of one tribe or the other, and that these tribes were ruled by this or by that chief. This, of course, wasn’t the case, but the idea itself became so powerful. More than twenty years before we achieved independence, this idea had impacted on the design and nature of our administrative boundaries, the details of the kipande, and the form of our politics.
An un-homing process, to create a new home for incoming white settlers, fixed hitherto multiple, often shifting, and notoriously malleable identities. This was achieved through the kipande system and by administrative cartography. Thus, each fixed identity was allocated a home district.
Additionally, for the colonialists, tribe signified Africanness, and Africanness symbolised traditionalism – that which is opposed to modernity and progress.
Swiftly, black Africans, or those who were thought to be black, were un-homed from certain spaces of modernity and civilisation – Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu – and homed in spaces of nativism and culture – the native reserve/district.
Following from this process of purification and un-homing, we have been made to believe, at least since the 1969 census was conducted, that we consist of 42 tribes – pristine, pure and timeless.
These have centrally driven our re-distributive politics, and have fundamentally determined our relationship with the patrimonial state.
Your rights as a citizen are activated by them.
They have since determined recruitment and access to schools, universities, security agencies, parliament, cabinet, harambee and ‘development’, including access to hospitals and medical care.
Hence we have been persistent in vigorously defending these things, including fighting and killing in their name.
Enter the Guest Metaphor
In early 2008, after post-election violence mostly targeted against Kikuyu residents in various parts of the Rift Valley, the government launched Operation rudi nyumbani [return home]. While more than 1,300 had been killed, more than half a million people had been displaced. This state-led exercise, to return people to their homes after either forced eviction or self-imposed exile, failed in considerable proportions.
Most displaced people, who had taken refuge in make-shift satellite camps, were reluctant to return to their homes for fear of attacks from their neighbours. Some had been warned never to return, while others returned only to find that there was nothing left to call home.
On two separate occasions, Maasai leaders, residents and university students had rejected two government plans for re-settling some of these displaced persons in plots of land in Narok.
During the run-up to the 2013 elections, Major (Rtd.) Joseph Nkaisserry, a senior Maasai politician, even warned Kikuyus against fielding their names as candidates for political office in the newly established counties of Narok and Kajiado. These, according to him, were Maasai, not Kikuyu homelands.
On the Rift Valley, Kikuyus were being urged to lie low like envelops, yet again.
Denied politics, citizenship and land, these un-homed people have found themselves inhabiting a similar experience inhabited almost forty-years earlier by their grandparents. In Ol-Kalou, and most settler farms on the Rift Valley, these had come in search for land after their customary lands – in central province districts – had been appropriated by senior government officials and members of the Home Guard, a vigilante force that aided in the defeat of the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s.
Always seen as guests, their status on the Rift Valley has at the very least, consistently been tenuous.
The guest metaphor and the tenuousness it invites, is in Kenya all too pervasive and familiar.
On April 2, 2014, it struck again. More than 6,000 security officers – from the Administration Police, General Service Unit, and the Kenya Air Force, swooped on Eastleigh.
On that day alone, the police arrested 657 people. This did not only follow three blasts in the area, but a state-led narrative that Kenya was facing threats of terrorism from those who had not been invited within our landscape, and given a home – and this quickly became any Somali-looking individual.
People, including the Somali ambassador to Kenya, were randomly arrested, on the streets, in shopping malls, from moving matatus, from their beds, and it didn’t matter what type of identification document one had.
As this progressed, the numbers of the arrested increased, the archetype of the neighbourhoods targeted expanded. The operation, initially dubbed ‘sanitize’ Eastleigh, rapidly graduated into the ‘sanitization’ of Nairobi.
Soon enough, South C, Lang’ata, Kawangware, and Kasarani were raided by the state in search of ‘illegal immigrants’. Police raided houses without search warrants, asking for bribes, looting cell-phones, laptops and jewellery. Heavily pregnant women, as well as women with new-born and very young babies were also arrested – some violently assaulted.
Over the next few weeks after April 2, about 4, 000 people, most of them with ‘ethnic’ Somali origin, had been arrested. About 1, 1136 were screened at a concentration camp set up at the same place (Kasarani Stadium) where the current president whom Kenyan Somalis had overwhelmingly voted for was inaugurated a year earlier. Hundreds were deported to Mogadishu and to Kakuma and Dadaad refugee camps.
Before, Other Kenyans of secure indigenous status had collaborated in general contempt toward Somalis, feeling threatened by their capital and inhabitation of a neighbourhood in Nairobi most cared less about.
And so there was tacit acceptance of the operation from the general public, as if by silent approval, thinking it as necessary, for “peace”, for “securing” our supposedly ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ space – Nairobi.
It is instructive to note that a similar operation was not carried out in the Somali ‘ethnic homelands’ of Kenya: Wajir, Garissa, and Mandera. Similarly, it is important to note that these zones have had the worst kind of terror attacks before and after the Operation that was conducted in Nairobi.
The irony is in the details.
We shall never be a place of “law and order” (whatever that means) so long as we continue to celebrate an idea of ‘home’ constructed to alienate, to un-belong, to un-home. This idea, that we have managed to include in the quotidian, the everyday experience, has always been intimate in most episodes of violence in Kenya’s history, and of making disposable subjects. Otherness is its main framework.
The familiarity of this idea in the everyday is re-worked, for example, whenever I tell someone that I am from Nairobi and the almost immediate, always predictable response is that “no one comes from Nairobi”.
In this way, we have become good students of the colonial experience.
And Kenya, after all, has become one huge block of indigenous homelands, native reserves of blood and culture, where you only belong after you have been boxed into one of them, a rural county, gicagi.
These are the spaces that possess our identities. These are the spaces that activate our Kenyan citizenship.
These are the spaces we have all been trained to call home, without feeling out of place.
Ngala Chome has been published academically and otherwise. He was the 2013-2014 Commonwealth Shared Scholar at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, where he received an MSc in African Studies with distinction. He currently lives in Nairobi where he is experimenting with creative writing, whisky and small-time activism. Follow him on his twitter handle @ngalachome.
Ed: This essay is part of a series of essays on education policy in the country. Find part one here.
The gap between language policy and actual implementation across educational institutions isn’t given the attention it deserves, and children’s learning is taking a toll as a result. If Kenya is committed to building an equitable education system, the current status quo can’t be maintained.
Children are locked out of meaningful educational experiences
When I attended the Nairobi Research Buzz discussion on the release of the Karibu Centre Report which covers research findings about the pioneering use of educational software in early childhood education settings in Kiambu County, the topic of language unexpectedly crept into the conversation. The main bone of contention was the software content which was designed for American children and had not been localised for the Kenyan context, either with regards to accent or to the use of local concepts. The absurdity of submitting very young children who were not yet able to communicate in English to a literacy test in this language was also brought up. But, you might retort, they have to learn English anyway, so why not start teaching them as early as possible?
The argument that “they have to learn English anyway” is frequently thrown around to justify the imposition of an all-English educational environment from the very first year of formal schooling. The trouble is, teaching English as a language cannot be equated with attempting to teach foundational skills such as numeracy and literacy in English when children clearly do not understand the lessons and are unable to actively engage with the material.
Even more preoccupying is the fact that the perception of preschoolers’ learning abilities is reduced to how well they understand English, even when they haven’t had a chance to be exposed to the language to any significant degree. In the Karibu Centre report, some quotes from teachers made it clear that children’s home languages were seen as a learning challenge (“some students are used to mother tongue so it’s hard for them to learn”, p. 25), a challenge that was seemingly left unaddressed.
Preschool teachers’ ideas about language transmission in the school system are not the issue here: these ideas are accepted as common sense and, given the treatment Kenyan students are subjected to during their school careers, it is a wonder to behold when anyone ends up with a positive attitude towards their mother tongue as a possible medium of instruction. However, these ideas need to be earnestly critiqued so that young children aren’t locked out of meaningful educational experiences due to persistent prejudice.
Clear policy…with no effect on the ground
The case for mother tongue instruction in the early years of education is very strong, and has been well-documented for at least 20 years. Children who are taught in a language they understand show significant improvement in their overall performance, including in second language proficiency, as compared to their peers who learn in an unfamiliar language from the beginning of their schooling. Thus the myth that English has to be introduced as early as possible as the medium of instruction so that children develop expert proficiency does not stand to scrutiny. This strategy is actually counterproductive, especially considering that the benefits of mother tongue education extend far beyond performance on academic tests to include improved self-confidence, increased classroom participation and a more harmonious integration of school with home-based education. To put it in a nutshell, young children need to be taught in a language they understand if we want them to learn effectively, and this in turn has a positive effect on their acquisition of other languages such as English.
Kenyan policy makers have officially sanctioned the need for a three-language model since 1976, but considering the lack of concrete effort to implement this ambitious language policy, you would be forgiven if you believed that Kenya had no such legislation. The 2006 Early Childhood Education service standard guidelines clearly defines a language policy framework:
The language of the catchment area shall be used in all ECD centres with gradual introduction of other languages. (p. 15)
The language of catchment area (mother tongue) shall be used in all ECD centres for communication and instruction, with gradual introduction of English and Kiswahili. (p. 16)
This orientation was reiterated in the 2010 Constitution through the provision of language rights and, more explicitly, in the 2012 policy framework for education. Despite all these policy papers pointing in the same general direction, examples of concrete manifestations of these intentions are still scarce today. So far, the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) in collaboration with Bible Translation & Literacy has produced literacy materials in about 20 Kenyan languages, with ongoing mother-tongue education pilots in Digo-, Orma- and Pokomo-speaking areas. The dearth of literacy materials and other types of publications in nearly half of Kenyan languages poses great challenges, compounded by the fact that most teachers are not yet trained to teach in their mother tongue, since it is often assumed that merely speaking the language suffices.
Besides these very real, material constraints barring the road to mother tongue instruction in ECD, no serious thought seems to have been given to the details of how Kiswahili and English would be progressively introduced, nor to the case of families moving from one county to another where the language of instruction might be different.
This situation is due to a constellation of factors: lack of funding for the development of learning materials in all Kenyan languages, lack of teacher training in the area of mother tongue instruction, fierce resistance from parents, and sometimes education professionals themselves who view local languages as inadequate for educational purposes.
Devolution is an opportunity
With the recent devolution of early childhood education to county governments arises an opportunity for decision-makers to take a fresh look at the stalled language-in-education policy implementation. If this policy was to be implemented by the counties, new niches would open for linguists, education content creators, translators, editors and trainers specialising in Kenyan languages, although this outcome is quite unlikely given the chronic shortage of funding in the education sector.
Granted, the current language-in-education policy is ambitious and will be costly if fully implemented – it implies developing age-appropriate learning materials in various subjects, as well as training ECD teachers to use languages other than English as the primary medium of instruction. But what we need to realise is that maintaining the status quo comes at the cost of equity, since children who are exposed to English in their daily lives outside of school are given a considerable advantage in that they get to learn in a familiar language. Learning in one’s own language – or at the very least a language one is moderately competent in (say Kiswahili) – should no longer be a privilege but a right, as language issues are deeply enmeshed with the quality of the education received by learners.
Laila Le Guen is a translator and editor based in Nairobi. She is a member of the Ed10 Consortium, a civil society organisation currently involved in the public consultation on curriculum reform. She is particularly interested in the intersection of language, education and technology in the Kenyan context
“You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, others that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world. Nor were we without people who magnified real dangers with fictitious horrors. Some announced that one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned; lies, but they found believers. It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death.”
I have long been a reader of the Roman civilization’s documented history, and in a recent examination of the letters of Pliny the Younger’s description of the destruction of Pompeii by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, I could not help but be reminded of the daily Kenyan struggle, displayed in a rather extreme fashion by the flooding in Nairobi on major roads and in neighbourhoods. Only that the destruction of Pompeii happened in 79 AD, while the flooding of Nairobi happens in 2016 AD. And, that one happened at a time when there was little that could be done to predict such a disaster and save lives, while the other happens at a time when flooding continues to be caused by rains we know are coming meeting infrastructure we continue to build poorly. Only that one is a natural disaster, while the other is man-made.
The images of flooded roads stay with me, as I remember the six storey building that collapsed in Huruma due to these rains, constructed in ways that defied logic. The collapse killed at least 45 people, with 55 still missing. It is described as an accident, but how was the building constructed and inhabited without the knowledge of relevant authorities, such as the county government, the National Construction Authority (NCA) and the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA)? It is easier to believe that the authorities were complicit, as shown by the existence of an audit report drafted in 2015 that recommended that residents of structurally unsound buildings be evacuated and the buildings classified as dangerous, which has yet to be acted upon. This was no accident.
As I sit with these thoughts, I am met online by images of police brutality meted out against protestors who are demanding for an overhaul of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in solidarity with Raila Odinga and the other CORD principals. This is what we are up against should we have the courage to question our government, or any of its agencies – a boot to our heads and necks.
Yet what is baffling to me is that we continue to think of these moments as glitches; flaws in the system that runs Kenya, as opposed to proof that it is working exactly how it was designed – to keep the majority poor, hungry and desperate, never with enough time to realize that their dignity is inherent; that they are deserving of rights; that it has never been about tribe, but about class and power, and that ultimately, the power was always theirs to use and give. We continue to sacrifice our nation’s most vulnerable at the altar of corruption and anyhowness, and we can only get away with it for so long.
Unlike Pompeii, this is no wrath of the gods (a common way to explain things we cannot understand, to this day, is to attribute them to gods). This is our very own disastrous masterpiece. This is a state whose leaders and powerful people elect daily to take the path of a weak/failing state, where they do not deliver goods and services. Where we have been on the brink of civil war (the Molo clashes, the 2007/08 post-election violence) but still, we do not implement the recommendations of the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). We remain very angry, and very violent, as shown by the police. Where institutions destroy, as opposed to support, political freedom, and where the path to economic prosperity is unclear to many. Where there is no control of the environmental public good(s), and medical services, water, electricity are a joke.
We continue to have signs that we are not globally competitive (increasing our chances of failure) such as restrictions on the free flow of information, the subjugation of women, the inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure, having the extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization, domination by a restrictive religion, a low valuation of education, and low prestige assigned to work. All these can be changed/reversed.
States do not just fail. People, sometimes an individual, and many times a group of people, fail the state, leading to its collapse. World over, we call these peoples our leaders, more so in Kenya. But a weak/failing state does not necessarily spell doom if there is political will to fix it. It usually begins by providing security to the people, and moving on from there. Our government needs to make sure Kenyans feel safe, especially from/with it, for us to move from here. But are they ready to do the work? Are we?
Curriculum reform is a hot button topic in any part of the world but the stakes are particularly high in Kenya, where the 8-4-4 system has been so consistently criticised since its implementation. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics – known as STEM subjects – have been identified as a priority and take up a large chunk of the debate. However, viewing education solely through the lens of STEM introduces a number of dangerous blindspots.
Scientific thought is produced by social beings
While it’s evident that well-trained STEM specialists are needed for Kenya’s economic development and that education could be tailored to respond to this pressing need, a strong push towards STEM education might not achieve all that it is expected to. In a society where the image of the scientist is of someone who outsmarted everyone in school and has an uncanny ability to understand mathematics, the temptation is strong to view STEM professionals as special beings removed from social issues, operating in the ethereal world of hard facts and figures. The shocking truth is that science is in fact made by scientists, who are human beings like you and me. As such, they navigate a socio-cultural environment where tribalism, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other unsavoury -isms and -phobias exist, no matter the profession one happens to practice.
The study of science and technology trains the mind in a certain way of understanding the world, of interacting with data and solving problems. It’s such an incredibly valuable method to have at one’s disposal that one might be tempted to extend it to every sphere of life. Unfortunately, being a responsible member of society requires an analysis of a broader spectrum of experiences that do not easily find an answer in science and technology taken in isolation. This is because we live in a society that has a history, traditions, norms and belief systems that affect us individually and collectively.
Social sciences and the arts have developed approaches to questions such as: how do we combat prejudice and discrimination in the workplace? How do we think beyond our own circumstances to include people whose experiences we will never fully understand? How do we build a better society for all? These are questions we are all confronted with daily by virtue of living alongside other human beings who can never be summed up by a mathematical model.
This line of thinking takes us all the way back to the fundamental issue implicitly addressed in every educational endeavour, that is the vision we have for young people. Do we see them as future cogs in a big economic system or do we consider them as full human beings in need of guidance to find their place in a complex society? It looks like the former model often goes unquestioned because it is seen as the more pragmatic of the two, the more realistic, or even the only we can afford to pursue.
I would argue that the kind of education we find desirable tells a lot more about our political leanings than about what the economy ‘demands’. Thinking that technology is a neutral force in the world reveals not the absence of a political stance but a vision of society that wilfully ignores structural injustice.
Thus, curriculum design implies choices and ideological orientations that may not always be explicit. It is about sorting out between values and coming to a compromise about what knowledge is deemed valuable enough to be passed on at a national level. Every part of the educational experience – what subjects are taught, the content of lessons, how students are examined, etc – is a site where power relations are at play. A national education system focused mainly on building a strong STEM foundation sounds appealing in the short term and intuitively makes economic sense. It’s also a domain of knowledge that’s reassuring for it seemingly provides clear-cut, universal answers to important questions. So, let’s cover our bases, the rest will come later, right? Except that encouraging STEM to the detriment of other equally worthy subjects of interest can have deleterious unintended effects. For instance, the strict division of young people into discrete arbitrary categories (scientist / arts-oriented) creates a mindset of limitation instead of potential and ends up devaluing non-STEM talents.
Reevaluating our approach to STEM
For formal education to be a transformative experience it needs to be in touch with contradictory strands of knowledge, a perspective known as contrapuntal analysis, thus defined by Harry Garuba in an opinion piece on the changes needed following the #RhodesMustFall protests in South Africa:
Contrapuntal analysis takes into account the perspectives of both the colonised and the coloniser, their interwoven histories, their discursive entanglements – without necessarily harmonising them or attending to one while erasing the other.
Transforming the curriculum involves contrapuntal thinking at every level; it needs a contrapuntal pedagogy that brings the knowledge of the marginalised to bear on our teaching. A transformed curriculum is one that encourages contrapuntal thinking and pedagogy.
If we accept harmonious society-building as a goal of education, we need to understand how science and scientists fit into the society. This work must be chiefly done by scientists, with input from specialists of other disciplines. Doing this requires asking the right questions and adopting thinking strategies such as contrapuntal analysis, which brings to bear all the messiness of the human condition. For instance, have you ever researched what mathematics and philosophy looked like before Western-style schooling was introduced in what is now Kenya? If not, we’re working under the assumption that these disciplines were created by Westerners and that Kenyans are condemned to constantly playing catch-up to externally received forms of knowledge. This sounds like a destructive worldview to pass on to younger generations. I believe school could be the place where one receives guidance on how to examine these issues without necessarily providing ready-made answers.
By any means, encouraging young people to study STEM subjects and giving them the means to succeed in this field should remain a critical part of the current curriculum reform. However, the process should be informed by a broader view of education, one that does not take for granted a vision of STEM-focused education as the highway to economic development.
Laila Le Guen is a translator and editor based in Nairobi. She is a member of the Ed10 Consortium, a civil society organisation currently involved in the public consultation on curriculum reform. She is particularly interested in the intersection of language, education and technology in the Kenyan context.
Two weeks ago in Bungoma County, twenty girls from Chelebei Secondary Schoolgirls in Mt Elgon were confirmed pregnant after a routine check by the school when they returned from the December holidays.
Their deputy principal, David Emachar, blamed the girls’ parents for not closely monitoring their children’s activities and whereabouts during the holidays, saying “we have tried our best through guidance and counselling sessions and it is unfortunate that such still occur. We ask the parents to come and support our efforts by monitoring the children’s movements.”
Parents, on the other hand, blamed the school for letting the girls down. They felt that since they were busy working hard so as to fend for their families, the school should have taken a more active role in preventing this occurrence. This shows how these poor girls’ lives are affected by the intersection of multiple problems, such as poverty (which leaves their parents unable to spend as much time as they would like monitoring their children), lack of reproductive health education (our legislators continue to hold back the Reproductive Health Bill from becoming law, yet it would ensure children such as these at least understand their bodies, that chances of them being taken advantage of by adults are reduced, and that when disasters such as this one occur, they can receive the best care), and perhaps worst of all, being a girl child in Kenya and having to face sexism from every possible source in their lives.
One of the residents interviewed said that these girls typically had to walk long distances to and from school, and they get waylaid by boys from neighbouring schools and areas. Many parties agreed that such cases would be fewer if the schools had dormitories. The deputy principal added “We are shocked by this incident, it has proved to be very much expensive to us because we are forced to offer guiding and counseling sessions and also inviting different speakers to talk to them so that they can accept their status and carry on with their education.” As if it is a burden to offer sex education and/or guidance and counselling to these girls. This feels like victim blaming at its worst.
What we have here is a failure to recognize this for what it is: sexual abuse of minors. The fact that the girls have to be kept at school to be safe from other (male) members of their societies is saddening. That the onus is on them, as children, to be “guided and counselled” out of having sex with boys/men from their societies, as opposed to strongly warning these boys/men against statutorily raping these girls (if they are minors, which they likely are, they cannot consent, and this automatically makes it statutory rape as opposed to sex), is even more so.
Just this week, it was reported that five school girls in Migori County had been impregnated by boda boda drivers. One of the pregnant girls, who is only 14 years old, said that since she was under the care of her relative (who is a boda boda driver), she had no choice but to follow him to the sugar plantation every afternoon. Many of the girls wanted to drop out due to being ridiculed by their fellow students, and other villagers. This shows the culture of victim blaming we have perfected in Kenya. It also shows that these people are desensitized, do not consider what happened as rape (most times, these girls have no power in these situations), and somehow think of these girls as adults as opposed to children who deserve to be taken care of by everyone in their community.
The 2015 National Adolescent and Youth preliminary report found that teachers and boda boda drivers were mostly to blame for early pregnancy cases, which then result in school drop-outs and early marriages. Other reasons include unsafe sexual behaviour, drug abuse, poverty and parental negligence.
The survey that informed the report found that teenage pregnancies are linked to level of education, with a majority (36%) of teenage mothers aged between 15 and 19 (either mothers or pregnant with their first child) having only completed primary school. 33% had no education at all, 19% had not even completed primary school, and only 12% had completed secondary school. This is a vicious cycle that ensures that this continues to happen, because these women are likely to raise these children in poverty, and girls coming from such homes will likely fall prey to the same kind of sexual abuse their mothers did.
Lack of reproductive health education was pointed out as a key reason for these pregnancies, alongside lack of community engagement. The report says that “Teenage mothers face a greater risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth. The young mothers are prone to abort, which can also lead to death. They are also likely to suffer from poor mental and general health, considering the stress they undergo.”
It is time we stopped lying to ourselves using anecdotes that the girl child in Kenya is well off, or as some would say, “being prioritized in favour of the boy child,” who does not face challenges of the same magnitude. One key to ending the cycle of poverty in Kenya is putting an end to the perpetuation of sexual abuse against young girls, ensuring they receive a good education and have a shot at bettering their lives, and the lives of those around them.
As Barack Obama said, “They are issues of right or wrong in any culture. But they are also issues of success and failure. Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximise their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports centre: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”
by Kahira Ngige
“…one such concept is that of “urban metabolism”, which refers to the metabolic processes by which cities transform raw materials, energy and water into the built environment, human biomass and waste. The adoption of this concept has fostered new imaginations of what the city is and how material and immaterial flows – through infrastructure, through different economies – mediate the production and reproduction of the city, both as a biophysical and socio-economic entity…”
The control of biological processes has governed the theory and practice of modern town planning since at least the 19th century. We call the output of this thinking the Hygienic City. Modernity is the antithesis of metabolism – it does not allow for failure or disruption or reinvention. The city is predictable. Raw materials flow in – capital flows out.
In reading the city we look for instances of troubling – at how the linear process of modernity is subverted by biological super-systems. To do so we look at sites such as Dandora and Kibera – the City Apocalyptic. Monstrosity begins to creep into the urban imagination and spatial notions such as scale, mass and size are inadequate in contemplating the ecological implications of these mutations.
They cannot be read quantitatively but as specters of past mistakes or, as one may be tempted to call them, imminent doom. At the same time we must be careful not to analyze these manifestations through hygienist principals of what cities should be (or rather how the detritus of city function should be offset and hidden by a spatial logic). Instead, we look at instances of adaptation and alternative scenarios – the dumpsite as gold mine, the proto-formal recycling and upcycling processes, the cottage industries that feed off these monstrosities.
Examining the human subject within this city of constant change and decay, we wonder about the limits of the body in surviving this landscape. For this we have public health records to turn to. Looking at incidences of mental diseases, respiratory ailments and mortality rates. The “host” city rebels.
The more important question is, how does the body interface with this urban environment that is often hostile? This symbiosis of bio-mechanical systems, city governance and control, and ecological catastrophe present itself in highly unusual ways. The diseased body is the epitome and the output of the metabolic city.
While the city’s failure is largely recognized by all, the scale of catastrophe is masked in a kind of coded double speak. The State for all intents and purposes views failure as temporal – existing in the now rather than in some idealized future. I therefore critique Utopias like Konza City that reject metabolic process and historic precedent.
In both modernity and State Utopias we find that the human subject is a being to be perfected, controlled and bred. In the Nairobi of the mid-20th century, racial stratification was coded in the everyday narrative of technological progress. In utopias of the future, class distinction is celebrated above all else.
This brings us to the issue of marginality –how the limitations of state power create the grey zones where the urban boundary meets nowhere. These are the graveyards of past mistakes and radioactive truths. Sites of new housing for the poor rooted out of slums and ghettos (the products of monstrosity) are in themselves curious in biological role and economic function.
The ecology of the city, whether in the sewer network, parks, forests or the in-between spaces is a microcosm of the city. It’s a living, breathing organ underneath the tarmac, railroads and glass towers. Embedded within this ecology are veins of optic fiber and copper – our nervous system – the system of technological control. This complexity mirrors the body and is in a way, symbiotic. Technological advances and ecological catastrophes demand a new reading of the contemporary city.
In thinking about complexity we use the “cyborg” as a metaphor of the abstract organic and inorganic processes that constitute the Urban. In thinking about the relationships between city, subject and ecology we begin to table a discourse that exists in reality and in the abstract world of imagination. Meshing the language and syntax of metabolism with the techno-capitalist jargon creates a scenario of limitless potential seeing as the city is made up of the sum of all these interactions and more.
The intermixing of the corporeal body and the hybrid technological innovations that are the extensions of our biological selves creates an environment of hyper-awareness. The cyborg metaphor is therefore the critical lens through which complexity; virtuality and technology intersect with notions of self, the governed, and increasingly, the politics of the governed.
Rounding off this idea of metabolism in relation to the city and the body we come to the realization that the multiplicity of city life is a reflection of the extended identity if the body. Our “real” selves and our various virtual, cyber and genetically manipulated “selves” operate under complex systems of control and feedback –this is the urban system. The grey contact zones of bare life and marginality therefore operate on a level of absolute precariousness.
The antithesis to this prevailing logic is the nature of human self-organization and the replication of support systems and networks in the absence of state control and provision. Thus, parallel systems of food production and the dissemination of illegal water connections coupled with the use of mobile devices to undertake financial transactions at all levels is a fusion of this thing we call “informality” with the highly structured apparatus of a technically advanced financial system. The marginalized, reduced to a life of mere existence, find ways to feed off the system.
In looking at metabolism we reject formal distinctions of the colonial city, with its roots in phrenology, eugenics and medical practice. In reading disruption in the city we look for moments of chaos and the chaotic whole.
The ignorance of history (especially the Colonial) and specific cultural practices renders the state sanctioned claim to modernity hollow. In relation to the city and the body, or more specifically, the subject and the covert system of control, we begin to outline the demarcations of state led amnesia.
Reading the city becomes an exercise in unpacking our lives.
Kahira Ngige is an urban planner living and working in London.
Corruption scandals have become a “fact of life” for many Kenyans, who have come to regard them as just another facet of Kenyan life, alongside high taxes, poor service delivery, our “cult of personality” approach to politics and religion, and the misfortunes occasioned to us by terrorism. These burdens seem to be ours for the long haul, and we seem to have accepted them, albeit half-heartedly. It is tiresome to watch or listen to the news; even being on Twitter at a time when one was not prepared for shock or disappointment can derail one’s entire day. A useful activity (for me) has been to see if these scandals follow any particular pattern. Indeed, they do.
A source leaks to the media/the judiciary/the ombudsman/an external authority some information that is supposed to shake us to the core. For example:
The Judiciary was yesterday jolted by claims that a senior judge received money to influence a case at the highest court in the land… Justice Tunoi is alleged to have received two million dollars (Sh200 million) in order to influence an election petition against Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, filed by election challenger Ferdinand Waititu. (The Standard)
It is now official, the National Youth Service (NYS) lost Sh791 million in a scandal allegedly involving six companies. Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru, under whose docket the NYS is placed, said she received a reply letter from the Director of Criminal Investigations attesting to the fraud following submission of her probe request in June. (The Standard)
Based on the report(s) in question, Kenyan people collectively lose their minds, wondering how public servants can be so corrupt/callous/immoral/brazen, and do not hesitate to express these views on any platform that has a text box and a submit/comment/tweet/send/update button. To witness this phenomenon in action, one only needs to visit the comment section of any newspaper website (especially on the articles that cover such scandals) or have a Twitter or Facebook account. If one is more old school, this can be witnessed on Nipate, Wazua or Mashada, as well as call ins to radio and TV station polls.
This is not to say that the outrage is not valid, or important; it is. Only that we are in a state of permanent outrage, because Kenyans offline and online get worn out screaming themselves hoarse about one corruption scandal to the next, leaving us with little energy to pursue matters to completion and hold corrupt officials accountable as they should be.
At this stage, the accused and those partial to him/her come out to vehemently refute the claims, and make accusations of their own. For example:
Embattled Supreme Court Judge Philip Tunoi on Monday sought to clear his name in the wake of allegations that he received a Sh200 million bribe to influence a ruling in an election petition. In an affidavit filed with a special committee of the Judicial Service Commission, Justice Tunoi said the allegations against him were “fiction” and that they were made by “elements within the Judiciary” who did not wish to disclose their identities. (The Nation)
The embattled Devolution and National Planning Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru has ruled out stepping aside over the National Youth Service scandal. Speaking on Citizen TV on Tuesday night, Ms Waiguru said people do not step aside because they have been told to step aside on the street. “How can they ask me to step aside when I blew the whistle? I’m the one who called CID,” said the CS, adding that just because an organization has been touched by corruption doesn’t mean that its head must resign. She added that all state organs and private companies have in one way or the other been touched by corruption allegations. (The Nation)
It is important to deflect blame to parties that cannot and must not be named that are invested in tarnishing your name because of your good work. You must offer an alternative explanation that boggles any sane mind, and stand by it without breaking into laughter.
The Pretense of Justice
This is the stage at which organs of the state pretend to care about what happened and attempt to “get to the bottom of the matter.” Tribunals/committees/commissions of inquiry are formed, and investigations proceed promising justice to Kenyans for the vast sums of money that have undoubtedly gone missing. For example:
Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) CEO Mumo Matemu has revealed that investigation on various Anglo-Leasing contracts were still on-going. Matemu said the operationalization of the law on Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) would assist the commission to broaden its investigations into the matter. He affirmed that whatever else happens the investigations must not be compromised but instead be brought to a logical conclusion leading to prosecution of the perpetrators. “Investigations are at a critical stage and I cannot discuss particulars without giving hints to the people we are investigating because we know they are good at that because we do not want anyone running faster than us.” (The Standard)
Kenya’s anti-graft agency is on the spot over its handling of the ‘chickengate’ scandal given that it is now more than a year since a London court convicted the British directors who paid out bribes codenamed ‘chicken’ totalling Sh53 million to Kenyan electoral and examination officials. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) is still asking for more time to carry out investigations, yet the Southwark Crown Court in London has already jailed the Smith & Ouzman (S&O) executives who gave out the hefty bribes. (The Business Daily)
At this point, it is important for the people tasked with solving the issue to blame factors beyond their control and ask for more time, hoping (this has proven to be a very successful strategy) that we forget after some time.
The Getting Away With It
After giving many excuses, the people tasked with “getting to the bottom of the matter” ultimately fail, as we have come to expect. Investigations hit a brick wall, there is lack of cooperation/evidence from key parties, or, the people mentioned in the scandal are acquitted in the courts. For example:
Goldenberg architect Kamlesh Pattni on Friday walked out of Milimani Magistrate court a free man after all criminal charges against him were formally terminated. Criminal charges against Pattni were terminated by the Magistrate court following the judgment by High Court that absolved Mr Pattni and his associated firms from the Goldenberg scandal. The case was struck out by Chief Magistrate Waweru Kiarie following Mr Pattni’s application that the court terminates the case in compliance with High Court orders. (The Business Daily)
The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) has cleared former Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Kimemia of allegations that he had allocated himself and his close relatives 31 government vehicles. In a statement, EACC Chief Executive Officer Halakhe Waqo said the commission had recommended that the file containing the charges be closed due to lack of evidence. (The Business Daily)
This is when the parties accused of corruption/terrible behaviour utilize the media and anyone who will give them space to clean up their image and attempt to get back into the public’s good graces. Television appearances are made, especially at prime time, for maximum effect. Newspaper opinion articles written by the accused are published, and hashtag battalions are deployed on the internet to achieve maximum rehabilitation. For example:
Deputy President William Ruto on Tuesday evening used a live television show to defend himself and the government from allegations of corruption and insecurity. Appearing on the “Big Question” on Citizen TV, Mr Ruto accused political detractors of being “jealous” of his political success and insisted the Jubilee government was working to deliver on their manifesto. From the chaos at the anti-corruption commission to the saga of Lang’ata Road Primary School and back to the scandal at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, Mr Ruto maintained the same line of innocence, accusing political opponents of dragging his name and that of the Jubilee administration into the scandals. (The Nation)
The Political Career
At this stage, given the millions worth of free coverage the accused has received from traditional and new media, and given the adage “All publicity is good publicity/there is no such thing as bad publicity”, the parties mentioned are ready to vie for political office, and the worst part is that they usually get elected. For example:
Former Devolution Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru has said she is yet to make a decision on her gubernatorial bid in 2017. Waiguru said she is consulting with experienced politicians who have approached her, businessmen and religious leaders before she clears the air on her said candidature. Speaking after attending a church service in Komarock, Nairobi Sunday, the former CS said her plan is to interact with the youth and women in their communities in order to know their needs and desires before making an informed decision. “Being a governor is a job for the people. So one cannot just wake up one day and decide to run. With the counsel from politicians and other leaders, I will be able to let the people know of the outcome,” she said. (The Standard)
After this, these corrupt persons acquire even more power and become godfathers and mentors to future thieves, creating pipelines for themselves (and their cronies) to continue draining this country of its wealth in exchange of zero work performed. The fact that corruption in Kenya runs on this predictable script is worrisome, and boring, and puts us at a high risk of state collapse due to indifference in some Kenyans, admiration of the corrupt in others, and exasperation in the majority. As Chief Justice Willy Mutunga said, we are living in a bandit economy, it’s about time we changed that.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus Christ tells his followers the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by robbers who strip him and beat him. Both a priest and a Levite (respected members of society from whom a higher moral standard is expected) pass him by without helping. However, a Samaritan (Samaritans were thought of as scum by the Jews, whose worldview the story is intended to challenge) stops and cares for him, taking him to an inn where the Samaritan pays for his care.
This is a tale of unexpected compassionate behaviour from quarters of society that we would not traditionally expect it from; a hope inducing narrative that offers an alternative to the predominant narrative at the time (of Samaritans as outcasts/savages); a narrative where life wins over death at a time when the loss of human life was not considered as tragic as it is now; a tale of people power. For me, however, this parable got me thinking of how we could do better for each other as Kenyans to identify and solve our problems ourselves as opposed to counting on our ruling class to do it and getting disappointed time and time again. How we can look past the several artificial barriers we have erected to keep us apart to uphold our humanity. How we can stop languishing in poverty and suffering from/dying because of problems that we can easily solve.
Our crime rate, for example is something that we seem unable to sustainably reduce, seeing as it is subject to the almost cosmic forces of poverty, youth unemployment, peer pressure, substance abuse, among others. Many theses can be written about how we can begin to end poverty, I have written one on this site and my thoughts mostly remain the same. I have also written about youth unemployment, so I’m curious about how substance abuse remains a war item for the Uhuru Kenyatta government, perhaps borrowing from the American war on drugs.
Johann Hari, author of “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”, comes to a breathtakingly obvious solution to the war on drugs: to win it, we have to change ourselves. He cites an experiment known as “Rat Park”, in which rats in cages all alone, provided with cocaine dosed water have nothing else to do other than take drugs. However, the rats at Rat Park, a nice cage where they could live and play together, eat nice food and have a choice between cocaine dosed water and regular water, mostly shunned the drugged water, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the miserable rats did. This explains why 95% of the heroin addicted soldiers returning to the USA from the Vietnam war were able to simply stop taking the drug; their lives improved drastically and they no longer needed it to cope. The opposite of addiction is human connection, he posits, not sobriety.
Compassion as a solution to our crime rate seems rather simplistic, yet it is possibly the best one yet. Exercising compassion would lead to people not greedily hoarding wealth, in Kenya much of it being illegally acquired, thus not increasing the income inequality gap (which leads more people into poverty and a life of crime, in which the hopeless are lost to drug abuse, and in which children lose hope, drop out of school/are unable to continue with their education and become victims of a culture that accepts that they can live on the street and become criminals because it’s either cool, or the only way to survive). Other (simple) solutions of course include street lighting, which has been found to reduce crime rates in various cities across the world by 30% to 40%. This seems simple enough, yet street lighting interventions in Kenyan towns and cities are never really carried out to completion, or at all, leading us to wonder if there is any political will to reduce crime in the first place.
The dropout/attrition rate of Kenyan primary schools remains a huge concern. Even though primary education is essentially free (this is debatable), children continue to drop out before sitting their KCPE examinations. Efforts that have been suggested to reduce this include the “one laptop per child (OLPC)” programme, which seems to have stalled, while a much easier solution lies in front of us. School based deworming has been found to reduce school absenteeism by 25%, and to be cheaper than other methods of increasing school participation. Yet, instead of increasing funding to this initiative, which is currently being done in phases, the focus has largely been on technology based interventions such as the OLPC programme which is far more expensive and seems like it may never take off.
Infant mortality is a problem that plagues the developing world that has a relatively simple solution. Newborn deaths account for 40% of the deaths in children under five, most of these occurring in developing countries. 75% occur within the first week of life, while 25% – 45% occur on the first day. Up to two thirds of these deaths can be prevented through the provision of skilled healthcare at home. This brings to mind Margaret Kenyatta’s Beyond Zero campaign, which aims to provide each county with a mobile clinic with the aim of controlling the spread of HIV, and the promotion of maternal, new born and child health in Kenya. This will bring healthcare closer to homes, and is one of the best healthcare interventions in the past decade. It is surprising, therefore, that such an important intervention is being carried out by the First Lady (albeit in partnership with the government), as opposed to being an official intervention by the Ministry of Health. The money for this campaign is given by well-wishers as opposed to government, which is another travesty.
These are but a few of the problems we have as a country that have well researched, straightforward solutions. The simplicity of some of these solutions and the availability of the research backing them up leads me to conclude that our political/rich class simply do not care to assist us, much like the poor Jew by the roadside; they can’t not be aware of the existence of this information. It is up to us to find a way to make these interventions and assist each other across the barriers we create (such as tribe, race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality and so on) much like the Samaritan did for the Jew. Indeed, we seem to have begun, what with businesspeople in Eastleigh deciding to boycott county levies because of failure to provide basic services, or Mandera Muslims standing up for their non-Muslim counterparts against terrorists as Kenya continues to fight its war on terror. We, the people, are powerful, and we must never forget that.
Where are those songs
my mother and yours
to the whole
vast span of life?
What song was it?
What do you remember?
~ Micere Githae Mugo ‘Where are those Songs’ 1972
I just rinsed my nixtamalized maize out in the sink, and as I did so, I thought about indigenous knowledge, revival of traditions, and decolonisation. I thought back to a meeting of elders from various Kenyan communities that I attended a few weeks back- one of a series intended to enable the revitalisation of culture and traditions.
But first let’s talk about the maize.
Maize has its origin in Latin America: Mexico to be specific, where it was/still is a staple. Many East and Southern African countries have maize as their staple food, at the expense of indigenous and more drought resistant crops such as varieties of sorghum and millet (maize is drought-prone because it has a shallow root system).
It was brought to these parts (and other continents of the world) thanks to the 16th century Spanish conquests of North and South America. But one thing that the Spanish did not carry with them was the indigenous knowledge of how to process maize in order to make it more nutritious. The process is known as nixtamalization. Maize is boiled and left to soak in an alkaline solution that dissolves/weakens the pericarp, and alters the seeds’ chemistry to make amino acids vital B vitamins more available. Nowadays you can use store-bought cal (calcium oxide) to nixtamalize maize, but the traditional process uses ashes mixed with water (which forms potassium hydroxide, hello high school Chemistry).
But in the 16th century, wherever maize went and was adopted as a staple (due to its high calorific value), strange diseases sprouted. Now we know them as pellagra (flaky skin, diarrhea, and dementia) and kwashiorkor (distended belly caused by protein deficiency) but then, they were mysterious illnesses, which often led to death.
Nixtamalization not only makes maize more nutritious, it also enhances its flavour (we all know plain ugali does not have much flavour), and reduces aflatoxin growth. Recently, in fact, Kenyan officials were on a mission in Mexico to learn just how to nixtamalize maize with the possibility of introducing the technology here. Quite importantly too, this process makes it possible to form a dough out of maize, without which tortillas could not be made. So when I decided to experiment in the kitchen and nixtamalize maize the traditional way I had multiple incentives. This post provided a recipe, my mum provided maize from her farm, and other experiments provided ash.
When I told my mum what I was going to do, she mentioned that her mum used to process maize in a similar way for muthoko. We know it as a staple of the Akamba people and its signature is that the maize in the maize-bean mixture is hulled. Today you can get machine hulled maize but I wonder if this is how everyone processed maize then. If so, were there ever any cases of kwashiorkor in Kambaland before posho mills arrived?
I am strange here, they don’t know me.
The mountains breathe the secrets of old,
But I don’t grasp the twists and turns,
The lilts and sighs of their tongue.
Land of my ancestors, you don’t know me,
But will you know me? Will you teach me if I ask you?
Perhaps I need new ears, perhaps new eyes
Maybe a new heart- but I am ready to learn.
~ Wangũi Kamonji
This experiment to me represents knowledge revival in two senses. Reviving my grandmother’s knowledge: she herself couldn’t tell me how she processed maize in this way, being bodily gone from this world; but at least I know that she did. In a second sense, this is knowledge rebirth – using beneficial indigenous knowledge from a different place (Mexico) where I am (Kenya).
This is the kind of knowledge rebirth or revival I became interested in as I travelled in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, and studied Latin America and the Caribbean more broadly. All these being places that have been influenced in some way by the African continent, and places with an indigenous movement that is alive.
After meeting with and interacting with young people doing things in their communities through my travels, I believe that one must first feel rooted somewhere in order to do activist work. My host brother in Brazil says “those ‘You Have Tos’ that people give you can be dangerous. You have to first find and know yourself before you can do this.” He was a practitioner of Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion that has its roots in West African religious traditions. His sister, also an organiser in their neighbourhood, had a similar sense of rootedness and responsibility to her community. In Mexico City, I met a young bright woman, Lupita, who ran a coffee bar in a community centre. She also taught single mothers how to roast coffee through a cooperative she started, all while writing her thesis on indigenous Mexican dancing. The dance is art, prayer and history in movement. She too felt a strong connection to indigenous Mexican traditions, and her other work in the arts was a testament to this.
In the words of Jennings school district superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, ‘This work [of making a difference] is faith-filled work. … Whether you wrap that in Christianity or not.”
I feel like drought cracked earth,
Riven in places, dry, forgotten,
But slowly, the rain clouds gather,
And the drops begin to fall.
One, two… they seep into the cracks,
To quench the thirst
And heal the cracks.
~ Wangũi Kamonji
The meeting of elders I mentioned in the beginning was a similar avenue for indigenous knowledge revival. The African Biodiversity Network (ABN) regularly convenes meetings of community elders and knowledge bearers from a few communities in order to discuss progress on key issues. All items on the agenda have something to do with research into traditional values and practices and how they relate to aspects of environment and cultural sustainability today. The meeting I attended, for example, began with reports on origin stories of the various communities then led into a discussion on traditional values and practices surrounding water.
The discussions were fruitful and beautiful, as such a collection of varied wisdom and knowledge in one place is not easy to come by today (more on this later). Each morning began with traditional prayers to set the tone, and with the elders in traditional clothing, before we set to the day’s conversations. Alongside the elders’ discussions were also the discussions of the Earth Jurisprudence group, convened to consider how natural law and indigenous traditions might be integrated into the world today.
I greatly enjoyed, and was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the meeting. In our world today – urbanized, disconnected, rootless, colonized – it is difficult, if not completely impossible, to find the indigenous knowledge I was exposed to during that week. Even where there is a will, the way is often unclear. One doesn’t know whom to ask, where to go, how to go, how to be told; to sit and learn and discover.
And then there are the majority that either don’t care for that knowledge (viewing it as not-knowledge and backward) or worse, who think of it as witchcraft, if not satanic. I won’t go into the whys of all of that now, but suffice it to say that such space was a welcome breath of fresh air for me. I had been seeking and seeking, but never finding in my own land. The ABN meeting was a small place to find those narratives, stories, songs and dances that used to be. That I had been wanting to hear, and been looking for, but thinking I couldn’t find in Kenya. (Perhaps it is so difficult to find in Kenya because of the previously mentioned misconceptions and prejudices Kenyans hold towards their cultural practices).
“Who will hear the stories that we tell around the fire?”
~ Eric Wainaina ‘Sir, me sir!’ unreleased song
But even such a space with all its positives had some things that made me stop and shake my head. In a word, misogyny. As a disclaimer, I respect that in some traditions in the past and therefore for some elders, the participation of women in particular activities, especially those of a religious or spiritual nature was not practised. But I find it hard to accept that today. Now the meeting was actually out of the ordinary; women were present during morning prayers (done the traditional way facing Nyandarua [Mt Kenya]); although we were asked to stand some distance apart from the men, and wear skirts or dresses. At other instances, however, I was made to feel less than welcome as woman. Such as when a (well educated) colleague asserted that as women, we should know that our place was not at sacred sites of prayer and all we must do is “peep from afar”. Or when others asserted that ‘African traditions’ do not allow women to participate in religious and spiritual activities, presenting this myth as truth. I cannot accept that because I was born a woman, I am to not participate in cultural activities of spiritual import. First, simply because I am a ‘hard-headed’ woman, second because of all that came before.
The situation of my generation is one of removed-ness, of loss and lostness, of apathy, of rootlessness. We talk a lot about decolonising the mind, but if we expect that it is a task to be carried out by men alone, we have already lost.
There are such few who are interested in reviving traditions before they are completely lost to us, and to the future that if the gatekeepers lock out women, simply for being women, it’s a lost cause. This is often what I think of as a dilemma of the spirit versus the letter of traditions. What is more important? For the wisdom of traditions to remain for future generations, or for them to be performed by exactly the same people who performed them for a certain number of years?
I think one of these is a sure recipe for the death of those same traditions. We are quick to forget that culture is formed and re-formed by living people, and is made to suit the times. It is for the people, rather than the people for it (see the Biblical the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath). In my travels I participated in traditions that did not exclude women. On the contrary, they upheld women, at times as the ones to commune with the divine. There were often distinct roles and tasks for men and women, but nonetheless, both participated. This is also present on the continent, in the traditions of the Dagara, of various South African communities and so on (hence why that ‘African traditions do not allow women bla bla bla’ is a myth).
We cannot go back to the past. Simply because we cannot recreate that time, and simultaneously, empty ourselves of all we have known and come to be since then. Adaptation is key here. If cultures do not adapt to changes (while maintaining their spirit), they die out.
A blend of the past and the present to form a future we want is what we need to aim towards. And reviving our traditions and indigenous knowledges is a core way in which we learn from the past to inform our present and future. The downside of our times is that after feeling rootless and searching without clarity on where to go to find such knowledge, you get there and find the gates closed.
But the upside of our times is that through travel and the internet, we can find out things, if not from our own traditions, from the wisdom of other traditions (for example, nixtamalizing maize). Thanks to this I am able to drink at the fount, while I figure out ways to make my own more open to others like me.
I like to take Micere Mugo’s advice to sing in the moment. And hope that it is in the singing now that we remember the songs of old.
This I remember:
Mother always said
sing child sing
make a song
beat out your own rhythms
the rhythms of your life
but make the song soulful
and make life
~ Micere Githae Mugo ‘Where are those Songs’ 1972
Wangũi Kamonji is an independent researcher and Wellesley College graduate of environmental studies and urban studies. She blogs about her encounters in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam.