A child is late for school for one reason or another. The school has a set punishment routine for students who come late to school, and this child is not spared. In the evening he goes home and complains to his mother about the punishment he had to endure due to his lateness. The next day his ‘powerful’ mother goes to the school and causes quite the scene, and as a result the school relaxes its rules on lateness. After all, what difference does a few minutes delay in starting classes make, right?
We carry this habit everywhere in this country, much to the detriment of our collective development. We complain forcefully about how our children should not be marked down for ‘small’ spelling errors during school tests and examinations. As long as the teacher knows what the child meant to write, why penalise them? Similarly ‘small’ infractions like a child stealing another student’s pen, or shoes, or even shirt, are excused and the authorities encouraged to look the other way.
As a result, we are breeding a generation of Kenyans who find details to be vexatious inconveniences that can be ignored without consequence. We use our roads as if they are footpaths on our own farms, and traffic rules, like all other laws in this country, are viewed as suggestions to be followed only when they confer advantage to us. We jump queues presumably because we have more important business to attend to, we demand better service than we are willing to pay for as if it is a birth right, and we do not care about the long-term consequences of our actions as long as we get immediate benefit.
At university level, many lecturers and professors who supervise graduate students in writing their theses, and who examine theses from a variety of institutions, have acquired the reputation of being ‘petty’ because they insist that the documents must be written grammatically and without spelling mistakes. Those who insist on the right thing are often labelled as ‘petty’ examiners or supervisors who ‘delay’ student progress. It’s the content that matters, not the form, they argue. A coherent counter-argument is that it is much easier to adhere to form, than to create new content as required in a thesis. If a candidate cannot do this simple thing, how can they be trusted to do the more complex thing of generating new knowledge?
As this culture permeates our entire national life, we still feign surprise when engineers and contractors cut corners and build pathetic roads and houses that soon collapse and cause serious injuries and deaths. We are surprised that we have lawyers who cannot string together a complete sentence in Kiswahili or English, and that we have doctors who communicate using phone text shorthand. Indeed, we have language teachers whose writing makes for painful reading, mangling the language they teach in a worse manner than the students they teach.
One is therefore not wrong to argue that we began to lose it as a country when we stopped caring about attention to detail and started making excuses for mediocrity in defence of our own failings or those of others close to us. We arrived at a place where we relegated professionals to the periphery and allowed mostly barbaric politicians to determine everything, including matters beyond their meagre expertise.
The leadership of the country at some point saw it fit to appoint illiterate villagers to head strategic State Corporations and departments, perhaps in the belief that these villagers would follow instructions better than professionals. There was even a time in this country when the president appointed someone considered by professionals to be a layperson as the senior-most ‘doctor’ in a province. The elevation of mediocrity was gradually institutionalised and now you will find counterfeit academics heading departments and sections in our universities, presumably churning out copies of themselves year in, year out.
A radical rethinking of our attitude towards ‘small’ details is required if we are to move away from the pernicious culture of mediocrity and achieve true prosperity in this country.
Lukoye Atwoli is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Dean Moi University School of Medicine ; [email protected]