Four years later, laptop project remains questionable

Saturday July 8 2017

By LUIS FRANCESCHI
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It was a chilly morning in Nairobi, and a magnificently planned and executed graduation ceremony was going on.

The sky over the city was heavily clouded. It wasn’t about to rain; this is just how our winter looks.

The procession had begun extremely punctually, at 10am, and by 10:15, the National Anthem was being played. At this ceremony, there was no chief guest and no political speeches.

Strathmore University has built a culture where all guests are chief guests. Parents, students and friends come together to witness the momentous end of a personal journey, and the start of a new era - the professional era.

A graduation is supposed to be the inauguration of a life-long task, a strictly academic act. Graduates, parents, relatives, staff and friends come together to celebrate the crossing of a threshold, a kind of modern initiation rite.

Names were read, “First Class Honours, Ali Ikran, Jaoko Imani, Kirubi Mumbi, Koskei Brenda…” and each name was followed by cheers and ululations. They are the hope of the village, of the town, of the county and the country.

I had the fortune of reading 107 names. These are law graduates from at least seven nationalities. Rich and poor, rural and urban…a potpourri of races, beliefs, values, families and social backgrounds.

One of those 107 new lawyers was a former child soldier. His family was killed when he was kidnapped by a rebel army. He was forced to join the army and stayed with them, fighting for a cause that he did not choose, until he managed to escape and run away to Kenya. He walked for weeks to reach Kakuma Refugee Camp.

In Kakuma, he was spotted by a bighearted teacher. He joined primary school and did exceedingly well. He then travelled to Nairobi and finished secondary school within two years.

He was admitted to Strathmore on a scholarship, granted by a generous human being. This former child soldier, whose future had been stolen by senseless, brutal killings, is today a star employee in one of the most prestigious banks in Africa. This is the transformational power of education.

Education in Kenya can rebuild any lost dream, change losers into winners and beasts into saints. As time went on, I drew back to my phone while other names were being read.

DEEPLY ADDICTED

Some people thought I was deeply addicted to my iPhone. Somebody even joked, “iPhones make people change, it must be the apple, for it also changed Eve.” I laughed, for the truth was quite different.

Two days before, during a seminar, a colleague had inadvertently spilt water on my laptop, which had died. I prayed and tried all medical and technological means, including overnight fans and heavy-duty lamps.

The laptop was dead for three days and three nights, and lo and behold, it resurrected on the third day. It was like a new Easter for my laptop.

I had no computer for three days. I wondered how we used to survive in the old days, with no computers, no Google, no email or no WhatsApp. I had to write my weekly piece, and the deadline had passed.

On that graduation morning, I had to write a fresh piece from my mobile, trying to bring back those ideas that had got watered at my seminar. It was a nightmare.

As names were being read, I kept thinking about the pros and cons of our education system, the viability of the promises made by our main political parties. I got interested in looking at the education agenda of both Jubilee and NASA. Are they different? What are they promising? Are they worth fighting for?

EXTRAVAGANT GIFTS

The past 15 years have seen regimes keen on overhauling the status quo in educational policy and structure. The most notable attempts were made in 2002 under President Kibaki, in 2013 after the failed laptop promise by the Jubilee government, and now, in 2017, by the impressive Matiang’i team.

In the first wave of these processes, the NARC government reformulated the education curriculum, phasing out some subjects and condensing others. The intended effect was the modernisation of the education system. The move also had the consequence of simplifying a wide and strenuous curriculum.

In the second wave of attempted reforms, the Jubilee government rolled out a pilot computer distribution programme to public primary schools, a move which was met with considerable criticism regarding its merit.

Education has been hot on the agenda of NASA and Jubilee in this election. Both parties have been keen to offer extravagant gifts when it comes to the reformulating and reconceptualising Kenya’s education system.

Both parties advocate major curriculum reforms and free secondary education. This is not surprising. Education has always been top of the electioneering agenda. Kenyans are ready to do anything to get education.

VISIBLY UNDERFUNDED

Free primary education was the flagship of the Kibaki administration going into the 2002 elections. The laptops were a major campaign slogan for the Jubilee government in 2013.

If we stand back and consider the general orientation of the Nasa-Jubilee educational debate, we easily realise that the viability of their promises is highly questionable, and that there is no substantive or notable difference in policy perspectives between the two parties.

There is no clear reason why, in a visibly underfunded public education system, with significant infrastructural challenges (for example, the public-school electrification programme targeted to be completed by November 2016 is still incomplete as of now) and an unhealthy teacher-student ratio, it would be imagined that pupils’ most important need was laptops or tablets.

There is, in fact, no meaningful distinction between the promises made by Jubilee or Nasa. Take, for instance, the fact that soon after the Jubilee government promised to roll out free secondary education beginning January of 2018, NASA countered with an even more ambitious promise of delivering the same by September of 2017.

Why would Kenyans fight each other over candidates who are so alike? At least when it comes to education, there is no ‘messiah’, no real difference. Violence would throw us into a relentless race to the bottom.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi