We Don’t Need No Education

Nyambura Mutanyi
29 October ,2013

There’s no need to attend university. The world is a wondrous place awash with myriad opportunities, all one has to do is seek them.

Or is it?

Nairobi’s CBD, for example, feels like every second building houses a university campus. The place is veritably colonized by the campuses of far-flung universities. “It’s a brave new world” we seem to say in this country, and what better way to conquer it than with a degree in hand?

There is, however, a group of young Kenyans that is not going to university despite this expanded choice. They are heading instead to highly technical colleges where they focus intensively on one subject for a year or two. These are not to be confused with our traditional youth polytechnics, which seem to somehow have fallen out of national discourse. These are more like the latter-day manifestations of the computer colleges once popular in the 1990s.

Speaking to these young men and women, they tell stories of long school hours comparable to a return to secondary school. During this time, they pack in the equivalent of a four-year course sometimes in as little as nine months. Their argument is this: ‘I am out to get a qualification or a highly valuable skill, not so much a piece of paper that brands me as having attended one prestigious university or other.’

They are attending such colleges as BIFA (Buruburu Institute of Fine Ats), Nairobits and Shang Tao. They leave these places with a wide array of skills in their chosen field and get into the job market three, sometimes four, years before their university-educated peers. Is this a great alternative to the slog of four years of tertiary education?

There are numerous arguments against the ivory tower. MOOCs (massive open online courses) tell us the internet is the answer. Mention is regularly made of famous people who did not complete university as exemplars of the fact that one doesn’t need to go to university to be rich, famous, or talented. As we speak, we forget that there are people who are passing up university, maybe being overlooked.

Why is that?

It’s important to analyse the place of university in this country. We have moved from a country which had very few graduates in 1990 to one where a degree seems commonplace. Just a generation ago, only the select few were afforded the chance to have this sort of education. Now, more than ever, Kenya is producing more graduates than it knows what to do with.

The question has been asked, more than once, whether it makes sense to push for everyone to have a chance to go to university. Is it an inalienable right or one that lends the graduate some social cachet and not much else? It could be argued that some of the best minds in many fields are resident in universities across the globe. Attending one is a chance to interact with them, to learn, to collaborate. If anything, this is the great appeal of such schools as Harvard or Oxford. Leaders in whichever field are to be found in these institutions,ergo it makes sense to pursue a chance to learn at the feet of masters. There are those that argue that university is chiefly a hub that connects people with varied interests or lends them a chance to explore those interests. Essentially, those people argue, universities are places of serendipity. One never knows what will come of it. For those who elect to pass up the opportunity, what do they miss or gain?  Why would they pass it up, to begin with?

Money is a key factor in the decision-making process. The lack of it, or the desire to make some. University is still a luxury only a few people can afford yet post-secondary skills are essential if one is to acquire a job that pays more than a living wage. These colleges essentially fill a gap that is not being spoken about. They lend young people a chance to improve their lot without breaking the bank. This is a quality that cannot be gainsaid. Even government-sponsored students in Kenyan public universities have to shell out upwards of KSh 40,000 a year to get an education. Grants and bursaries exist but they will generally not cover all the cost. Bearing in mind the fact that most people live on under $2 a day, this is a huge load to shoulder.

It could also be said that this is a knowledge economy. It’s not about the paper you have as much as the skills you possess. If one thinks about it like that, then these focused colleges are the way to go. If one thinks of it through the lens of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, then these young Kenyans are actually better prepared for the world of work than the university graduates in their fields. They leave college well versed in their field and head out to internships or jobs that further enrich them. Moreover, those vaunted MOOCs are a perfect way to gain extra skills on their own time as they work.

Universities lend themselves to a little art, some music, some sport, and some community service. These are however available only to those that actively seek them out. Essentially, some people in university may have the same, maybe fewer, opportunities for enrichment as those who do not attend university. For me, the question is how to reconcile these opportunities with the expediency of a focused college.

One of the things that emerged was a bias among Kenyan employers against those without degrees. While they gladly hire alumni of these colleges, they do so at lower rates, viewing them as cheap (but nonetheless good) labour. This bias coupled with a reticence on the part of many universities to acknowledge the skills these young people possess whenever they apply for degree courses, leaves these students well between a rock and a hard place.

As we go forward, we need to consider what it means to be educated. We also need to think about issues of access, the justice of pay and the opportunities for enrichment that we as a country can afford young people, whether or not they attend university.

Lead Us Not To The Test

Nyambura Mutanyi
8 October ,2013

On a Saturday afternoon, I find a friend’s nephew hard at work tackling fifty KCPE Kiswahili questions. This scene is repeated in a number of homes across the country. Most candidates are studying by doing tests. And often very many at a time. What do they and their parents think about this state of affairs?

A lot of things have been said about the 8-4-4 system and whether or not it prepares children adequately for the future. I was looking to find out if the children whose futures we discuss think the system is efficient.  I was also curious about their parents’ thoughts on the same. The picture that emerged was one of trepidation and hope.

My friend’s niece, an outspoken girl in Standard Seven speaks candidly of what she has witnessed in the knowledge that that was going to be her life in under a year

“When I think of KCPE, the first thing I think of is pressure from everyone.” This theme of pressure and one’s future being tied to that single exam was a recurring one from both parents and children.

“If I fail KCPE, it’s like my future is ruined.”

That was a dire pronouncement from a pre-teen but it was phrased in the same way by each person I spoke to. Parents could fathom a path to success for their children whatever their KCPE results but the notion that they’ll be doomed if they ‘fail’ is very alive in the minds of the children.

As 8-4-4 examinations go, children have never had it so easy. Until 2000, they had to sit seven papers. After reforms in that year, children in subsequent years only sit five. While this only represents a decrease of two papers, it was essentially the removal of four subjects: Art & Craft, Music, Home Science and Business Education. While the reforms anticipated a situation where these subjects would be taught but not tested, they quickly disappeared from timetables. The children I spoke to, all born in or after 2000, had never had a day of any of these subjects.

The parents I met said this all had to do with exam taking. “Children are zombies“ the boy’s mother says, “as long as you pass exams and get 400, everyone is fine.  No one cares whether the children can reason or think.”

Examinations in Kenya are a high stakes game.

When 11-13 year olds tell you that they will be doomed if they do not pass KCPE they do not speak in jest. Parents spoke about a system designed to weed out children at each turn. The goal of examinations wasn’t so much evaluation as to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Those adjudged not to be up to scratch are essentially spat out of the system. The rates of transition in Kenya tell a story of a country where very many children fall by the wayside. It is not uncommon to hear of high performers who missed out on their courses or schools of choice because they were impeded from top performance during KCPE or KCSE. A system that negates all the work done over the course of an 8 year period such as primary school and only takes into account the events of three days can hardly be described as fair.

The parents spoke about an ideal situation that allowed for continuous assessment so that a child at Standard Eight had a record spanning 8 years that would be taken into consideration when determining which school they would be assigned to. This would result in a more representative assignment as opposed to a situation where a final push would put a slacker at the top of the pile.

I found that the rates of exam taking are related to the size, cost, and public/private nature of the schools that children attended. Those from private schools spoke of a plethora of exams throughout the year – as six exams in a term. Those from public schools, especially in rural areas, generally did only three a term. One candidate from Khwisero/Kakamega told me that whether or not he and his classmates passed, his teachers were “resigned to their fate” in direct contrast to his privately educated peers whose parents spoke of a huge pressure to make the school attractive by having a successful lot of pupils.

“In their previous school, classes began at 6:00am and ended at 9:00pm and even after  that, they still had to do homework. So from class seven, the student had to become a boarder” said one mother. Lunch, which was about 30 minutes, was filled with rushing to finish lunch time assignments.

What this pressure results in is a situation that resembles drills. Children cycle severally through topics by doing exams. As time progresses, they become expert exam-takers who are also pretty efficient at gaming the system through cheating and other mechanisms. Since the goal is to get high grades and not so much to understand, the means of getting those grades need not be focused on.

“If you’re always doing exams, you don’t have time to study ahead. All you do is revise, you’re always going back” says the girl.

A focus on exams is a two-sided thing. While the children of Shanghai and Hong Kong are subject to the rote learning that is engendered by constant examinations, they score some of the highest marks in global evaluations of literacy and numeracy. On the other hand, several states in the US have shifted their focus to examinations yet the country continues to produce middling results at each turn. How then do we give our children relevant skills while testing them effectively? While the issues of relevance and the place of examinations was discussed at length, those are topics for another day.

While many things were put forth as the panacea to our national obsession with examinations, two stood out: Continuous assessment and the place of County governments.

Continuous assessment came up more than once when I spoke to parents. Changes affect children differently and that is especially true in a country like ours where life is always in flux. Children who were in Standard Seven in certain areas of the republic, for example, found themselves in IDP camps at around KCPE time the next year. Did the results they eventually received reflect their true capabilities? Probably not. This is just one situation where continuous assessment would have been invaluable. Of course that raises the issue of harmonised record keeping and the role of the state in ensuring that examinations are administered regularly and at a certain standard as children lead up to the national examination. While papers such as KCPE and KCSE would be weighted differently, it would be ideal for children’s results over the years to also be brought to bear.

The other possibility that emerged was examination reform (as part of a larger theme of education reform) at the county level. The parents I spoke to mentioned the focus on exams at a national level being replicated on a smaller scale at the county level. They posited that a county education system that enabled the exams taken by children across time ought to be brought to bear on the national system and would be of benefit to the children and their parents. Most felt that the status quo would have no space for reform and wondered what it would take to change this situation.

While I would not call the examination system broken, it says a lot about us and our focus on ephemera; be they examinations or elections. There is need for a review of examination policy on a national as well as county level. This may prove to be what we need to be able to craft policy that is gentler on both parents and their children. Maybe the future holds more than trepidation at the prospect of examinations.

Forget your privileged self for a while

Nyambura Mutanyi
17 September ,2013

I recently wrote a blog post about my experience using a menstrual cup that spurred interesting conversations. They highlighted myriad cultural, economic, and social matters that rarely come to the fore in conversation. They opened dialogue about women’s bodies, access to sanitary services, and what it means to take these things for granted.

The conversations on Twitter and Facebook that drew my attention centered round the notion of a product that requires a steady supply of water and soap. This is a question I had been asked when first I spoke of this product on Facebook. I realized, much to my consternation, I had not replied to that concern. Such is the way in which we only see or hear what we approve of. To wit, the matter of water and soap was an issue that I had not even thought to speak about in my post because it had not occurred to me at all. It evidenced the echo chamber of privilege it is so easy to fall into. Even when the hold one has on privilege is tenuous at best.

Like many developing countries, Kenya has issues of access to water. Videos like this are premised on fact. An aquifer has recently been found in the arid north and has been hailed as being historic relative to the usage trends in the republic. This is while so many of us forget that our current consumption is much lower than it should be because so many people have little or no access to water. And we still haven’t dealt with the issue of access to clean water which is a global issue.In Kenya, ‘feminine hygiene’ is no small matter. The education of girls is compromised by the absenteeism occasioned by their menstrual period. Even though girls continue to do well in school by some measures they could still do much better after puberty if a natural process wasn’t such a hurdle. This is a matter that has been highlighted in the past but the very nature of privilege includes lip service to those things that affect The Other.

There was once a time when sanitary towels were taxed in Kenya ; the thinking behind that fact eludes me. I imagine that it never crossed the mind of legislators, the tax authorities and so many other people not to tax these goods. It may be that a parliament that is dominated by men cannot fathom the consequences of tax on such essentials. For me, it also speaks to the privilege it is so easy to fall into. When one does not think that KSh 80 for a packet of sanitary towels is too much, one is clearly not reading from the same page as the vast majority of women and girls in this republic. It bears reminding that even after the tax was repealed, stories still abound of girls selling their bodies in order to be able to purchase basic things such as sanitary pads.

This is part of what drew me to the menstrual cup. It represented, for me, a break for girls and women from the cycle of purchases, cost, use and abuse. It seemed to me a way for female persons to be liberated from bodily functions so that they can aspire to greater things. If anything, the fact that the cup was designed with Kenya in mind and was piloted in Kibera was part of its attraction. What I did not think about as I read the user information was this: if one has to rinse it out so often, boil it at the end of one’s period and wash one’s hands at every turn, how is this possible in a slum with water issues? Even away from slums, how would girls across a largely rural country be able to get all the water they would need while affording them the dignity of privacy?

The main advantage of the cup, therefore, was the freedom women and girls would obtain if they used one. This was until I called a few chemists to ask how much it costs: a princely KSh 1,800. When I shared this price with a few friends, they seemed unfazed yet when one considers the people it would help most (girls without a significant, if any, disposable income), one immediately realises how prohibitive it is. Just to give context, some of the cheaper brands of sanitary towels in the market cost KSh 45 for 10. This cup costs 40 times that. Granted, it is a once-in-a-decade purchase & disadvantaged girls get it at a subsidised price but price is no small barrier to advancement.

When I saw a tweet about how the cup was intended for urban girls, not girls in a village; it brought home the privileges one takes for granted and those that people assume about others. When I wrote the post, the attendant assumption was that every person who read or shared the post would be able to learn from my experience because their lives were similar to, if not better than, mine. It did not cross my mind to ask, “What about the girl for whom all the washing would make use an uphill struggle?”. It did not even occur to me to mention its price. The tweet, on the other hand, was based on the assumption that urban girls have easy access to water while those in rural areas do not. Anyone who has been to any informal settlement in any major urban area will know that there are a lot of urban girls there; and access to water is a serious issue.

This article is about privilege, the things we take for granted, the questions we never think to ask ourselves. It’s about the ways in which we get comfortable in our niches and forget how small our group is until we are jolted into awareness, as I was. Or as so many people who think of themselves as ‘middle class’ were when milk prices rose; forgetting this fact that a person on Twitter highlighted:


This is a call for thought, for criticism of our positions, for an examination of the assumptions we deem true.

An Alternative View Of Our Legal System

Nyambura Mutanyi
30 July ,2013

It’s not often that one finds a system that closely parallels the society one lives in. Every so often, however, an element of one’s environment seems to be a microcosm of something greater. The thing I perceive to be an organic representation of Kenyans and the constitution is this:


Google and Equity Bank partnered to create a system that allows for cashless commuter transactions. Their intention was to make the commuting experience easier. A lot of time is wasted on Nairobi’s public service vehicles (PSVs) as people search for coins to provide change. The basic premise was this: if more and more Nairobians (for now) load their cards with cash, everyone wins.

This is where the parallels begin. The Kenyan constitution, endeavours to paint a picture of what we reckon to be our values, hopes and aspirations. It places institutions in a context that does not exist but which it anticipates will come to pass. So does BebaPay; it places the Kenyan commuter and the conductor that serves him/her in an idyllic context.

The assumption that all parties are enthused about the arrangement in place is a huge part of these parallels. When a BebaPay agent at the bus stop speaks about the card, one gets the impression that it represents a win-win situation. Just as one would imagine that great laws would be a boon for both citizenry and those in power. The holder of a BebaPay card has no need for the change machinations of yore; the conductor only need carry a reader, not a bag full of coins. The citizen need only follow the law and both s/he and the state can function well.

As with so many systems, people have not been factored into the equation-heir motivations, ambitions, and rationality or lack thereof. Power manifests itself in myriad ways. Here are a two ways in which it mirrors these little cards.

The search for an opportunity to abuse power

I have spoken to more than one BebaPay card holder. The phenomenon of the conductor who holds on to one’s card a bit longer than they need to emerges. Their hope is simple, and it is this: If you are fidgety enough about your card disappearing among the coins, route changes and random characters that work with the conductor, you will happily part with cash to keep it safe. If this happens more than once, a few people leave their cards at home and revert to cash.

I understand the desire on the conductors’ part to dissuade the use of a cashless method. There’s less for them to skim off, to pay the myriad cartels on each route, and so on. This blog post features a man speaking plainly about which routes to choose if one intends to avoid cartels. These papers also explore the interplay between the law, cartels, and the business of transport in Kenya. It is also plain to see how this mirrors the Kenyan relationship to the law. One is hard pressed to find a Kenyan who has not encountered the civil servant who uses their post to ensure that following the law requires so many hoops that even the best-intentioned people will agree to their abuse of power to be done with the interaction.

An almost innate need to circumvent the system

One of the unspoken rules of the BebaPay system is that the failure of the conductor (in a branded PSV) to have a reader lets a passenger travel free. Some conductors will work round a reader that no longer works (because it is dead, broken and so on) by getting cards read by conductors on other PSVs. Most, however, will do something I thought was strange until I pondered the issue in light of Kenyan society:

They will ask for less fare; sometimes as much as 50% less. As long as one hands over cash.

Now, one would imagine Kenyans would resist these overtures. However, the card is designed to be a debit card. Because they get no discount for using it, some Kenyans will pay up. After all, they continue to hold the funds in their cards and get a discount on their fare. Together, the passenger and the conductor work to circumvent the system. Both of them come out on top but it disenfranchises the PSV’s owner (who takes a pay cut) and passengers who would follow the rules as the next two or three interactions of that sort leads them to ditch the card.

Contrast this with state services that have a well-laid out flow of events. Go to a Kenyan public hospital, for example, and observe this. One needs to fill certain forms, go to certain windows and so on to get served. However, there is generally the character who, once paid, will ensure that the transition from one stage from another is seamless. Meanwhile, those who are following the rules are following the rules wait interminably and not without a lot of misery.

For people to work round a straightforward system in this way, there must be two willing parties. As with BebaPay cards, those who can afford to check out of the system will do so. Unlike the card, which is just a transport solution, sometimes the interaction of the citizenry and the state is a matter of life and death. If those who can circumvent the system do so, there will be little for those who obey the rules and cannot afford the alternatives. Not much good can come of this, I imagine.

Something has been happening in Nairobi. Some buses have turned into BebaPay card only buses. What this means is that only a bearer should board. Kenyans are well aware of the sentiment that rules are for breaking. They will regularly get into these exclusive PSVs. However, it provides an opportunity for people to sign up for cards, to try them out, to be immersed in the experience. The intention on the part of the bus owners is to make their operations as cashless as possible especially in light of the spate of carjacking that has been witnessed of late. The challenge for commuters is to sign up and conductors are charged with the task of acting as stewards.

Something is happening in Kenya. People continue to abuse power, to circumvent the public system, to abandon it in favour of private options. Some public institutions, however, are waking up to the reality of these circumstances and transforming them. I shall use Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) as an example of this.

For years, KNH was a morass of inefficiency. In some ways, it could still be much better. However, changes in administration and the utilisation of technology have resulted in a situation where the average patient’s experience is quite seamless. Working within the framework in place, a visit to KNH will result in good treatment conditions at a fair price and within reasonable time.

As with BebaPay, the state and its legal frameworks have some way to go. As with nation building everywhere, all parties strive towards a better expression of their ideals. Maybe if we think of life and the things we do as a microcosm of what we are as a society, we may become more engaged in the things that affect us and make us who we are. Amazing, beautiful, contradictory, determined to be more.

The State of Kenyan Education

Nyambura Mutanyi
2 July ,2013

Kenyan children are expectantly waiting for their laptops. Children across the republic sit for dinner and look askance at the parents who voted in a government that promised them laptops. This (looking forward to laptops) is, for me, symptomatic of what ails Kenyan education.

An obsession with technology as the be-all and end-all. Show me a person who does not think that the laptop scheme is brilliant and I’ll show you five people baying for their blood. Technology will not solve all of our issues. It will not solve the rates of literacy, the rates of transition, and the number of children who are done with primary school but only have skills commensurate to those expected of children halfway through that stage of school.

Most children in Kenya attend a public school. These children are nameless and faceless; unimportant people just like their parents. They go to public hospitals when they are sick, go to public universities when they are successful, and they seek public funds to get ahead. It is these children who are getting a raw deal and technology will not cure their ailment.

There are innumerable children walking to school on horrible roads each day. Getting to a place where they study al fresco (without the luxury of the knowledge of such fancy terms) and sometimes going hungry. I want to talk about education for these children, about the technology they need; not the one people in air-conditioned offices think they need.

The children of Kenya need good teachers. Teachers who are smart, knowledgeable, interested in the course matter, teachers who are curious and who want to be in the classroom. The strike is a sure sign that our teachers do not tick some of those boxes. I do not go in for suffering. I think it is an ugly colour for anyone to wear and I do not believe there to be dignity in it. I know that Kenyan teachers are suffering, are living on a wage that would shame this country if we possessed a sense of shame. I believe that a raw deal for teachers is an even worse one for children.  Because their terms are so dismal, they no longer want to be in the classroom. A pay rise would make a big difference to the lives of the children they teach. The exchequer has shown that it has money. What it seems to have an issue with is holding up its end of an old bargain. A bargain that after all the time it has been ignored, now represents the bare minimum of basic need and human dignity.

Children need a smart teacher. One who can think up new, exciting ways to teach the same old subject matter and who has the tools to do that. The government grants each school KSh 1,020 per annum to cater for one child. Even a cursory glance at that amount is enough to give one a sense of just how little that amount is. I speak from personal experience; one that some foreigners I have spoken to are hard pressed to understand. This 1,020 is supposed to cater for stationery, text books, exercise books; the bare essentials. Realistically, that leaves little in the way of funds for story books, for craft supplies, for sport equipment. Even the smartest teacher has little to work with. Sadly, your average Kenyan teacher isn’t terribly imaginative. This is a great misfortune for the nation’s children.

Children need a knowledgeable teacher. A mathematics teacher who can do more than add 1 to 2, a science teacher who can dissect the most complex concept and make the class own it. A teacher who, to speak as the youth do, ‘knows their stuff’. For a variety of reasons (pay, terms, chances of advancement, societal expectations) no young person with any self-regard wants to be a teacher. Yet there are teachers being churned out by teachers colleges every day. Who are these young people?

There is no other way to say this: they are the runts of their academic lot. Take a look at the entry requirements for the colleges producing teachers and weep. The vast majority of Kenyan children; the ones whose schools receive a measly 1,020 a year because they are nameless, faceless, nothing but statistics, are being taught by young people who do not grasp the subject matter. Have you scored a C or a D in your KCSE? Worry not, you can still be a primary school teacher! What this means is that there are mathematics teachers in this country whose KCSE mathematics grade was nothing to write home about. Somehow, this very person is expected to prepare a young soul for high school and the tech-reliant world ahead. It beggars the imagination.

One will notice that I started this essay by talking about technology and haven’t spoken ill of it, or said anything whichever way. Technology, or its absence, is not what makes for a great education. People make a difference. People who are equipped with skills, with knowledge, people who are motivated, driven to succeed and to bring out the best in their charges.

Do not be fooled. This obsession with technology is a worldwide sensation. It is easier to buy gadgets than to fix a human resource problem. I do not believe that there is a perfect country that we can use as a model but I shall reference Finland for the purpose of elucidating my point.

Finland demands a Masters degree of its primary school teachers. Not because an MA or MSc makes you smarter but because it shows a certain dedication to one’s subject and also, invariably, some smarts. It looks out for all its children; rich, poor, able, disabled, whatever their race, seeking to ensure that each child has a fighting chance at success.

I speak only shortly of the Finnish example because it requires an essay of its own to unpack. I speak of it to highlight its focus: people. In a first world country with access to all manner of technology, the focus continues to be on people. This, without a doubt, is the secret behind its high ranking in numerous measures of academic performance. Finland currently ranks first in a new global league produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit for Pearson and has consistently been among countries measured to have the best educational standards in the world.

We need to re-calibrate what is important in Kenyan education; we need to put children and their tutors first. Let us get the smartest students from college and university interested in sharing their knowledge with children in public school classrooms. It will mean changing everything we have come to think of the teaching profession with regards to training, pay, respect and importance. We need to make more funds available for schools so that the learning experience is enriched. We need to do all this now, because lives are at stake and these actions will be the first step towards preparing our children for a world bursting with possibilities.