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The dilemma of our education and language dynamics

Sunday March 2 2014

Bitange Ndemo

Bitange Ndemo 

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On India, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in their An Uncertain Glory : India and its contradictions, say “Teaching methods are quite often dominated by mindless rote learning, including repetition – typically without comprehension – of what has been read, and endless chanting of multiplication and other tables.” Absurd as it may sound, it rekindles memories of childhood education in rural Kenya.

Pedagogical methods in most commonwealth countries were similar either by design or by choice.  Students chanted through basic education without comprehension.  Teachers would say if you want to go out for a short call, you should say meaaout.  It wasn’t until much later when we learnt that it was a short sentence in which we were supposed to say “may I go out.” 

Similarly we could sing “Landas banning, Landas banning luk yonda luk yonda faya faya anda we have no wota.  Little did we know that we were singing a famous song from the London fires of 1666, later modified by The Clash from their eponymous debut album of 1977. 

In High School too we memorized much of the works including mathematics.  To remember complex trigonometry we created TOASOHCAH meaning Tangent = Opposite over Adjacent, Sine = Opposite over Hypotenuse and Cosine = Adjacent over Hypotenuse.  There was no effort to comprehend where trigonometry might be applicable.  Learned men built houses relying on local “engineers” with an eye for roofing.  The engineer’s role would be to stand some 100 meters away as the roofing poles are hoisted and direct the correct positioning.  There was no science to roofing and most roofs ended up either leaking or collapsing under the weight of voodoo architecture.


Our education moved from theory to hopefully practice.  If we flip this around, we should have started with what we know on trigonometry.  That before you do the roofing, everything must be done on the ground by deciding the correct angle of the roof which also determines the gradient.  The gradient is critical since it also determines the flow of water when it rains.  Then the measurement of the base to determine the height of the roof and ensuring that angles on both ends of the roof are equal to create what is known as the isosceles triangle. 


Theory will reassign the correct names such as the tangent, hypotenuse etc. and possibly create the vernacular version of the names and making them part of our lives.  This is how to enhance comprehension.  Even complex mathematics like calculus can be made simpler if we deal with its application in our everyday life.

 We were therefore not meant to learn either vernacular or English.  It possibly explains the reason why we are in between languages and this drains confidence.  Very few can speak the Queen’s English with full comprehension and very few can speak vernacular languages with full comprehension.  Newly Industrialized Countries like Singapore decided early on that they would teach proper English with proper pronunciation.  Their broadcasters speak better than the English.  You are probably wondering if our system of education is right.  If so please take a moment to watch this.

In Barcelona last week, a Chinese scholar gave a presentation on cloud computing going into finer details of cloud architecture.  He did it all in Chinese.  Whereas you could hear him speak ching chang chi chwe jang, the translator would reveal very complex terminologies in this emerging technology.  It was evident that Chinese language is dynamic and relevant to its ordinary people.  Our vernacular languages remain static and even Kiswahili has not caught up with global dynamics.  As new technologies come, majority of our people miss out on comprehending their implications. 

Although Africa has had an impact on the use of mobile applications, we could do better to improve on efficiencies.  We should for example use local languages for billions of unconnected people globally.  The industrial revolution evaded Africa, but there is no reason why the digital revolution should evade us too.  That is why it is Africa’s time.  Technology gives the platforms to either deepen our understanding of English or at the same time enrich our local languages as a basis of understanding the world around us.  It so happens that no country has reached the developed nation status using a foreign language except Singapore.


Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, in his speech at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona announced a pilot project called SocialEdU in Rwanda and the Philippines to help learning in high school.  This will be a new learning platform that is to be actualized by different partners including Airtel, EdX and the Rwandan Government.  It will reverse the current focus on theory to practice based where students will have greater understanding on what they are learning.

Virginia Rometty, IBM’s Chairman and CEO challenged global applications developers to leverage on their supercomputer Watson, to come up with new solutions.  She said, in the coming days, Data, cloud computing and engagement to create knowledge are key success variables for any country or organization that seeks to compete effectively.  Use of data especially predictive data will for example, help Africa overcome food security problems.

These are platforms of change.  There will be need for content to make these platforms relevant to our unique experiences.  These engagements with Africa coupled with recent optimistic view of Africa by a number of publications should serve as a wake-up call to Africans to start leveraging on these technologies to leapfrog in this digital revolution.

It may be necessary for each county to set up language councils to act as points of reference tasked with the responsibility of rebuilding local cultures; be custodians of local knowledge; patent community creative economy through creative commons; create partnerships with universities for research and development and manage community language centers. 

Such councils will enter into contracts with technology platforms for distribution of its content and receive any benefits on behalf of the community.  Besides creation of employment, opportunity for revenue creation will arise and such revenue should support the community’s poor children access to an education.  This is an opportunity we must take since content, including data will be a major resource in the future.

The mindless rote learning in rural schools will not end soon.  To mitigate against such, we must create a few centers of excellence and preserve the existing ones such as Alliance, Kenya High, Mangu, Maseno, Maranda etc.  In all centers of excellence, merit should be the basis of selection. 

Post-secondary education too should have one public university as a center of excellence which selects the best brains.  This is how it is done elsewhere.  In the UK they have Oxford and Cambridge; the US has the MIT, Harvard, Cal Tech, Stanford etc. As the Swahili saying goes Mtaka yote ukosa yote (if you need it all, you will lose all).  This is how the Indians lost it all when they chose quantity education losing their 11th Century Nalanda University to mediocrity.

“If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”

― Tom Paine

We can change Africa not for us but for our future generations.

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