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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Kenya's Flight From Theory

Gabriel Nderitu wants to fly. The 49 year old  amateur airplane builder from Othaya has become an annual fixture on our TV screens as he tries out yet another of his contraptions that stubbornly won’t get off the ground. By 2014, Gabriel had reportedly spent a million shillings on his frustrated passion. And though we can't help but admire his chutzpah and determination, it is curious that over a century after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, Gabriel, and several others like him across Kenya, are not soaring.

The answer probably has something to do with Kenya's peculiar approach to learning. With a conference underway in Nairobi to discuss the scrapping of the 8-4-4 system of education, there is a marked preference for “practical” as opposed to “book” learning. Opening the conference, Deputy President William Ruto railed against university classrooms that teach Vasco da Gama but not how to fix a lamp. One radio station tweeted: “Kenyans propose curriculum system that emphasizes on skills not theory & exams”.

"Theory" has become a dirty word. Yet it, or rather the lack of it, is perhaps the reason why Gabriel and his friends are staying grounded for now. It is also the reason why Kenyan dreams of economic and political success have yet to take fight. This was well illustrated last week in the reaction to an opinion piece by Dr David Ndii.

That the article made for uncomfortable reading is an understatement. Dr Ndii’s proposal that Kenya consider balkanising into ethnic statelets in the event of a post-election conflagration triggered by a “sham” 2017 poll, had many frothing at the mouth and calling for his arrest. It has also led to an earnest debate about what nationhood is and why Kenya has seemingly failed to propagate a successful national narrative.

Many of the explanations put forward lay the blame on ethnicity. “The tribe has eaten the nation,” Dr Ndii wrote. He Kenyan elite, he argues, has preferred a tribal discourse and spurned several opportunities to nurture a national one. He sees Kenyan tribes in an abusive relationship with one another and proposes dissolution of the marriage as a viable option. Other, while not going so far, still accept that the basic problem is one of tribe versus nation.

However, this is lazy thinking and the frameworks employed obscure rather than explain the true nature of our problems. For the Kenyan people are not in an abusive marriage with each other. They are in an abusive relationship with their governing elites. The underlying reality is one of a state created by the British to extract resources from the local population and feed them up to an elite few. This state, which preys on wananchi for the benefit of wenyenchi has not been fundamentally reformed since independence.

"Will the elite which has inherited power from the colonialists use that power to bring about the necessary social and economic changes or will they … become part of the Old Establishment?" the future President, Mwai Kibaki, asked in 1964.

History has shown that they chose the latter path. As noted by Professor Daniel Branch in his book Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, “elites have encouraged Kenyans to think and act politically in a manner informed first and foremost by ethnicity, in order to crush demands for the redistribution of scarce resources.”

In using tribe as opposed to class to frame their analysis, Dr Ndii and many of his detractors fall into this trap. They fail to see that that the problem is not one of tribes robbing each other, but of a ravenous elite stealing from everybody else and hyping ethnicity to cover their tracks.

Far from wasting time, better theorising would lead to better solutions and learning from history is critical to not repeating past mistakes. Like Gabriel, if Kenya is to reach for the sky, it would do well to spend at least as much time thinking through theories of how things work as it does tinkering in the backyard.

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