Sunday, February 10, 2013

On Partington's "War on Kwani?"

Yesterday’s Nation features an article by Stephen Derwent Partington, “War on Kwani? marks the death of literary engagement and rise of spite.” The article spotlights Kenya’s ‘literary wars,’ and highlights the regular cycle of criticism that some Kenyan academics direct against the journal Kwani? and those associated with it. However, the article does more than that: It can also be read as commentary on inter-generational conflict in contemporary Kenya.

Like many, I have read a good amount of the literary criticism in Kenyan newspapers over the past few years. And, like them, I have noticed that a disproportionate number of the articles consist primarily of academics taking pot shots at people who dare to create, particularly those in the Kwani? camp. Little is constructive about much of this criticism. In fact, as far as I can tell, most of it goes along the lines of: "Unlike us, the younger generation has failed to create anything worth acknowledging."

This is noteworthy in a nation that has preserved political power in the hands of one generation in its 50 years of independence. In every walk of life, older Kenyans cast doubt on the ability of those younger than them to carry on old traditions or build functional new ones. Interestingly, they never seem to realize that, if the younger ones are really as mediocre as they claim, then that reflects on them as mentors: They can't have done a good job teaching and mentoring if, as they claim, there is no talent in the younger generation.

I think it is definitely worth our while to ask ourselves why our elites (cultural, political and otherwise) have such a hard time handing over the baton to those who come after them. Why are they reluctant to nurture and support budding talent? Fortunately for us, Stephen D. Partington has taken it upon himself to attempt to broach this subject.

My favorite excerpts from the article follow:

“How quickly we forget? How quickly we return to valorise the theories of the very colonisers whose culture worked to oppress us many decades ago? And how spitefully we do it, relishing our role as the New Imperialists? The lazy complaints are all the same: our Kwani?-types are ‘young’, they don’t consider literature’s ‘grand themes’, they are ‘urban-not-rural’ — yes, the right-winger, Leavis, loved his organicism — they do not write according to the classic Aristotelian structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’, they are ‘popular’, they fail to submit to the censoriousness of gate-keeping ‘university experts’, they care about ‘minorities’, they are ‘vulgar’, they don’t use ‘pure linguistic forms’, they do not promote ‘traditional morality’.”

“In short, our ‘new moral formalism’ is a new conservative cowardice, an anti-reform return to the snobberies of the past when and where we could as a middle-aged middle-class mix with our own and choose not to see the slums, the young, the poor, women, and all those others whose vulgarity offends us. And while we might, in the best of worlds, hope that our academics might rise above the simplistic, petty awfulness of elitism and go ‘public’ as intellectuals, it is clear that we cannot rely upon them — or, at least, we can no longer rely upon many of our so-called ‘literary intellectuals’ to show the solidarity with us that their forebears did. Instead, we can expect the silence, in effect a turning away, that we saw from them in 2007-2008. They have not only thrown us to the wolves; to them, we are the wolves, the disgusting young who would bite and rip at the mythical glory of the world they believe we should inhabit. But we do not inhabit that world. Yet. And the Kwani?-ites know it.”

Two things stand out to me here. First is the fact that our contemporary elites have adopted the language of our one-time colonial elites. Second is their silence when faced with harsh Kenyan realities that they have surely had a hand in creating or perpetuating. You know what all of this tells me? It tells me that our cultural, political and other elites have two favorite pastimes: criticizing those who came before them, and criticizing those who follow in their footsteps. But they will not even acknowledge their own part in creating the status quo; and it doesn’t seem to occur to them that they should put themselves under the microscope.

If somebody were to ask me what our biggest challenge as Kenyans was, I would say that this was it: the inability of those at the helm to subject themselves to the same level of scrutiny they subject others to. Predictably, most of us follow suit. It is no wonder that we continue to perpetuate the injustices and inequalities that were set in place during the colonial era.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The little things do matter.

Every time I hear the words “Kenya Vision 2030”, the cynic in me bursts into life. Kenya Vision 2030 is a development program envisioned to take the country to middle-income status by the year 2030. The details of the blueprint are lovely to read. Who wouldn’t want to see all the great projects come to fruition? But, the voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me to set the grand images aside and look at the little things.

I think it’s great to dream of being bigger and better, but to turn the dream into reality, one must address the little details. For instance, industrialization and an improved transportation sector (presumably including commuter trains) are highly dependent on a reliable electrical supply. But what reliable electrical supply is there to speak of if, every time it drizzles, neighborhoods experience power blackouts for hours? How can one even start to make improved overall health and healthcare a realistic goal when safe drinking water is not available in our taps? Mind you, many do not even have access to tap water. Instead, they are reliant on boreholes, springs, rivers, and other water sources which may very well be contaminated.

While we’re on the subject, what hope is there for a nation whose various branches of government are not able to coordinate with each other to make a decision as simple as choosing an election date that won’t set students, their parents, and teachers back in significant ways? It is this last point that I want to focus on in today’s blog entry.

An article in today’s edition of the Standard online makes the alarming announcement that the national elections, which are due to take place during the first term of the school year, will cost the Kenyan taxpayer at least KSh15 billion. Rather than holding the elections during the school holidays as has been the norm, the decision makers decided to hold them at the beginning of March. Because schools will be used as polling centers, students will have to pack their bags and return home before the term is through. They will miss hours of coursework, and may not be able to make up for this lost time over the subsequent years. Furthermore, according to Juma Kwayera, the author of the article, “the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is expected to hire teachers, who will have to withdraw services to be trained in time to handle the polls as returning officers, presiding officers or clerks.”

Now, heed these words carefully: “whenever there is disruption in the education calendar, the country never appreciates the hidden costs that are never receipted such as bus-fare, pocket money and service delivery. According to the Ministry of Education, enrolment in secondary schools stands at 3.6 million students, out of which more than three-quarters are in boarding schools, hence will need contingency money, besides bus-fare to travel back to their homes during elections. Parents with children in primary boarding schools will have to cough up more funds as a result of the interruption by elections.”

The article goes into further detail: “A conservative estimate puts the minimum average each student in secondary school will require at Sh500 for a round-trip ticket. This translates to more than 2.7 million students in secondary school alone incurring over Sh1.5 billion in total while primary school pupils Sh2 billion, which cost is passed to parents.”

We are not a nation of tycoons. We’re talking about out-of-pocket expenses that are not going to be compensated for by any government program. Those most likely to be affected are students who attend public schools and their parents. In other words, Kenyans from most walks of life and at almost all income levels will be affected. Keep in mind that the cost to the nation quoted above does not take into account the loss of productivity/ man hours for parents, students, and teachers alike.

The same article points out that the teachers’ strike late last year, which disrupted the academic calendar, had a noticeable effect on student performance in the national KCPE performance. Primary school students at public schools did not perform as well as they should have in the national exam.  An expert cited in the article, Kenya Institute of Public Policy and Research Analysis CEO, Eric Aligula, asserts optimistically that the effect of the election dates on education is not likely to be major unless it “becomes persistent.” In my opinion, he is a tad too optimistic. Any disruption of this nature is bound to have unforeseen effects, and many of them will only become apparent in the long-term. A ‘little’ problem, such as two weeks of absence due to illness when foundational coursework is being covered, can change a child’s academic trajectory dramatically. How much more damage are the larger-scale disruptions due to the elections likely to cause?

All I can see is the tremendous amount of waste that is sure to result from some terrible decision making at the level of government. And I can’t help thinking that the same kinds of bad decisions are being replicated in different sectors nationwide. Surely, as long as such factors are in play, how likely are we to reach our long-term goals for development? We must first learn to crawl, walk, then run, before we can think of signing up for a marathon.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.