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Our Education through my eyes

Sunday January 26 2014

Bitange Ndemo

Bitange Ndemo 

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I started my education in rural Kenya along the Manga Ridge in Kisii District.  The only qualification you needed to join Standard One was to get your hand over the head and touch your ear on the opposite side. 

Here everything including English was taught in Kisii.  Teachers were mostly Standard Eight dropouts and had hardly travelled past Kisii Town.  It was considered a crime if you asked a question in class and some of us got six lashes (this was the standard punishment) on our buttocks for “disturbing” the teacher.

Our classes were built out of mud.  A contraption of wooded frame made for our windows.  Every Friday we carried cow dung to smear the floor and allow the classes to dry up over the weekend.  This was the innovative way to fight against jiggers.  Our classmate Micah had not been lucky before he joined school, at some point he had been infected with jiggers.  If he walked southward, his feet faced east and west.  Teachers and students were not kind to him as they showcased him every moment to show what would happen to us in the event we allowed jiggers on our feet.  We called Micah, Masansa.  The word had no real meaning but it implied his feet were funny.  We psychologically tortured him and destroyed his self-esteem to the extent that one day he tried to take his life by trying to jump over the cliff.  He later quit school.    


As we progressed through the classes, it had become unbearable to continue teaching in vernacular.  All books were in English but the teachers would poorly translate the material to the extent even the kids realized that we were truly out of sync.  We nicknamed all the teachers with protest names.  For example the General Paper teacher, we called him egunia memory (the sack memory) because he used to insist that we memorize everything he said in class.  He lived at a distant Market called Tin’ga and rode his bicycle every morning to Kioge, our school.  By the time he reached school he smelt of sweat and his clothes resembled pieces of sack and hence we called him sack memory.

By the time we were in Standard Seven, most of the pupils could hardly speak English, the language used in the exam.  In bid to get the pupils learn fast the teachers introduced a piece of wood that was passed on to you if you spoke in vernacular.  This piece of wood was called a disk that every evening we named the student that we passed it to.  Virtually every pupil got the disk since we spoke Kisiienglish (Kisii English) as we struggled to learn this foreign language.  If a teacher sent you to get something from one of their colleague, you would say natomua by teacher (been sent by teacher) and there you got the disk which meant in the evening you got three lashes.  Even some teachers had problems translating such names as Cape of Good Hope to which egunia called aase ogosemeria (literally meaning the place of hope).



With such struggle obviously the exam outcome was barely above average when compared with city schools where scoring the maximum 36 points was pretty common.  Whenever we encountered excellent performers, we were often thoroughly intimidated and subdued.  There was little confidence in us.   It was a thrill for us whenever we performed better than most of good performers many of whom came from well to do families.  This indeed helped create lifelong bonds between two different social backgrounds.  This was Kenya with one single system of education for the rich and poor.  A common ground for understanding our past, present, and future together.  Today, the gap between the rich and poor has widened not just economically but socially.  We have embraced two divergent systems of education that will further alienate the poor from the rich.

A new policy of favouring children from public schools irrespective of their performance, will kill private investment in education and is disenfranchising poor parents who have sacrificed everything they own to have their children get into what used to be Kenya’s centers of excellence.  I never had points to take me to Alliance but I will defend a merit system that would guarantee the school as one of the centers of excellence.  Every country has some centers of excellence that have served the poor and rich equally.  It is defeatist to tell a child who scored 435 out of the possible 500 points that he or she cannot be taken to a school of his or her choice just because the parents took him or her to a private school.  The child will grow up knowing there is discrimination.  Such discrimination does not fix the problems we have with public education.


The new policy is counterproductive since it has opened up new avenues for black marketeering where students are registered in public schools while receiving tuition at private schools.  Capping admissions to good schools based on systemic failure is like price controls which in the long run will kill innovation and encourage corruption.  For a start we need to fix the system.  We must be bold enough to either revert to the old system which did not require huge investments but served us well or wholeheartedly accept the British system now common with private schools.  The 8-4-4 simply has too many subjects for a developing country like Kenya to afford.

Most of the courses in 8-4-4 need to be transferred to Technical Industrial Vocational Education and Training (TIVET) institutions.  It is absurd that we do not have Masons, Carpenters, Mechanics, Electricians and many more other trades, yet many of our youth are unemployed.  Since part of the reasons why youth shun training in trades is due to social dynamics, we need to mount a massive campaign to sensitize youth on becoming independent by exploiting all available opportunities.  We need to diversify university education.  Today almost 50 per cent of university students are studying business when the economy needs several other professions.  There are no psychologists to help the likes of Micah.  If Dr Njenga decided to migrate to Hawaii, we shall not hear much about Psychiatry.

Although we had more play and little learning during our formative stages, we eventually caught up.  Children should spend much of their early years exploring and playing.  The Norwegian system is more like what I grew up doing.  Like in a field of roses, children bloom at different stages, the reason why we must learn to be patient with our children.  There is no need to bundle pupils like in a production line where we condemn bad products. 

Dr. Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter: @bantigito