Why Africa will always lag behind intellectually

It costs Ksh 50 to buy the latest pirated series of 24, in Nairobi. Its costs Ksh 799 to buy (about $ 10) to buy Nairobi Half Life, which hitherto was the most sensationalized movie that received the best ever critical praise in the Kenyan media. Obviously, there are more Kenyans who have watched 24, and other trashy movie and TV imports from the west, than have watched, what to me is the best Kenyan movie of all time, so far.

In the streets of Nairobi, you can buy books by world renowned thinkers, such as Alvin Toeffler, Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Kiyosaki (throw in all motivational speakers and authors you know) for Ksh 400-1000. In one of the bookshops (Prestige Bookshop along Mama Ngina St), Yvonne Awuor much publicized novel “Dust” goes for Ksh 1,600 ( about $20).

Popular fiction novels by authors such as Sidney Sheldon, Tom Clancy, Norah Roberts, Jeffrey Archer, Stephen King and the likes go for Ksh 200-300. When new, it is Ksh 300-400. Kenyans novels, even the not-so famous ones go for at least Ksh 500 onwards.

In bookshops, they are normally in the darkest, abandoned corners. All bookshops have biographies of leading American entrepreneurs, IT pioneers and presidents on the front row display. Books by Kenyan entrepreneurs and politicians are often shyly displayed alongside, but tell me, given a Musalia Mudavadi biography and a Barack Obama new book, which one would you buy?

There are extremely few Kenyan books on the streets. And when available, they are comparatively expensive. Sample this, I bought George Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and similar literary classics each for Ksh 50. I recently bought one of the best works of fiction to have come from Kenya, a book by Mwangi Ruheni, “Love Root” for Sh 470. And it is just a 74-page novella… To this we shall return.

It is a long acknowledged secret that university students, both at undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels mostly use foreign, mostly Western scholars. African scholars, while published, scarcely have the confidence to recommend their books as the class reads. Just take a peek at the bibliography or the recommended class reads…

Even our constitution was a copy and paste work from the American constitution without cultural, environmental and historical considerations. It was the best demonstration of the laziness of the Africa intellectual class. But what do you expect? They went to universities abroad, which often is the best mind proselytizing activity. Give someone a scholarship to a country better than his, and he will come back singing its praises, except of course when it is Russia or Eastern Europe.

Ideally, we cannot wait for the English Premier League to start or the latest edition of the Scandal. Our TVs are awash of B-rate soap operas and movies that failed at the Box Office. Music programs have the shortest shrift for Kenyan music. Interestingly, Nigerian and South Africa music are favoured. Our night-clubs and restaurants scarcely play more than 10 Kenyan songs. American and Jamaican music take at least 70% of the time. Our book collections, music, art and anything in between is most likely to be American or European.

There is a method to this madness. With such a strong cultural presence in our minds, living rooms, roads and everywhere, little wonder that intellectually, we are shamefully behind in the world.

I recently asked my friend Boniface, how come that Harvard and other Ivy League or Ox-Bridge institutions have never set up branches here that offer competitive training. They can rake in million dollars and at the same time, show Kenyan universities what learning institutions are for: not minting money, but creating a thinking that can enrich a country. This is what he told me verbatim:

“I partially believe in conspiracies, I don’t think if it is possible for the West to share their best with us. And I think, there education system is more geared towards producing thinkers and ours- job-seekers.”

Ever a pragmatist, Boniface reckons, that we are too slow, low-grade for the West to share their best with us. I asked another friend, Paul. This is what he said…

“I don’t think, they are ready to share their best with us.” It is like they were reading each other’s mind. My question while daft, if far-fetched, was with a reason.

I went through a Kenyan university and believe you me, the quality of degrees offered in Kenya is questionable. I had classmates who attended less than 20% of classes but they graduated with honors. Almost half of the individuals who register for the MBAs don’t even attend their classes. They pay young men and women in town to do research, assignments and pretty much everything for them. Not that universities are not aware of this anomaly. Universities need money. Importantly, they need money.

Picture this, JAB students (those with B+) on government scholarships will take the required 4 years (or 5-6) to graduate. Those who are self-sponsored (those with grades less than B+ or rich) can only access university through a parallel program that charges an arm and a leg. Besides, they take a relatively shorter time to graduate. And the country is OK with that.

So if I finished high-school in 2004 for instance, and managed to be admitted to universities through JAB, I had to wait until August-October 2006 in order to be admitted. In the meantime, someone who finished high school in 2005 and had money, could join university in 2006 March and finish by2008 March. For me, I will graduate in 2010 December. So those with money who finished in 2006, 2007 can possibly graduate ahead of me.

Don’t get me wrong. Everyone in a country should have a privilege of higher education. But a system that is run purely on money as opposed to passing over constructive knowledge is a wrong one. Up to until recently, when The Nation came up with Seeds of Gold pull-out for their Saturday edition, most graduates frowned upon farming. Yet we even have a University dedicated to farming and agriculture. It takes a newspaper to reawaken possibilities in a sector that ordinarily is the highest income earner in the country.

Absence of Thinkers

Kenya lacks progressive thinkers. When professors worship politicians who don’t have degrees, we are screwed. We have seen professors from either political divide who supplicate to politicians. I have read op-ed done by professors and I cry within. Professors, elsewhere occupy the highest table in society.

Yet, Kenya has professors arguing stupidly in parliament. Professors elsewhere, often denounce politics, considering it the lowest calling of all. Professors elsewhere write huge tomes of highly researched books that educate and inform students for years before their theories are debunked by younger ones who come up with better theories. Tell me a Kenyan Professor who is renowned for a theory or an aphorism?

Think about the guys who have won the Nobel, especially in Economics, and the sciences. They come from certain universities, mostly in the West. While the Nobel is an award by the West for the West, there is some credible merit that that justifies the award. And universities abroad are often taken seriously by the number of Nobel awards their scholars have won.

In Kenya, universities have been scampering for ISO certifications that are mostly dubious or awarded corruptly. Otherwise what a university needs to do is paint a university well, spruce it up, flowers, and hooray! There comes an ISO- certificate.

Quality is never a big deal in Kenya. Common courses in public universities often have up to about 2,000 students hurdled in a hall. What kind of quality is guaranteed under such circumstances? Suffice to say HIV/AIDS and Communication Skills are some of the common units. Very important subjects that are often trivialized. Does it ever bother you why many graduates cannot communicate (speak or write coherently) or why they scarcely care about HIV? You can attribute it to the reckless manner with which common units are handled at universities. Many students actually ‘skive’ the classes and Lecturers hardly fail people in common courses.

Commercialized education

Aggressive marketing is no longer a province of detergents and alcohol. Universities have joined the fray and they are buying acreages of media space to advertise and attract the highest number of students. When education becomes a commercial enterprise, we fail into the old trap of ‘the end justifies the means” which is the worst capitalist justifications of exploiting the weak in the world. So individuals end up buying education.

We now have graduates who don’t think differently from their peers in the village. A mutura seller politically thinks like a degree holder, or is it the other way round. Ditto, a fisherman and his tribesman at the university. The analogy applies in every sector of the society. There seems to be no transformative experience in university for many Kenyan students. Graduates have never heard of the discipline called Critical Thinking. We have scholars and graduates who question nothing. Graduates who want jobs and money, period. And scholars whom are using research money to build themselves houses and running for political office. We are screwed.

Absence of common sense

The University of Nairobi considers itself the best in the region. I went through the institution and can attest that indeed it is. Except that it is not. Nairobi University students often pelt motorists with stones and steal from them, anytime they have a power outage. Anytime they take to the street to demonstrate, all we see are chest-thumping idiots, no different from a chang’aa drinking, village men. Go to their platform “New Comrades Forum on Facebook and have a peek at the sample of of the students, who pride themselves to be the best. You will be left wondering where the country is going. Yet the constitutionj stipulates those to handle high offices must be degree holders. I would like to see a Harvard Student debating with a University of Nairobi student. I will leave out the ethnic wrangles at top university management level. Too shameful.

There are students in our university, who never flush the toilet and of course the mad student in high school who wrote on walls with their fecal matter made their way to the university. With such kind of students, look at our parliament. The current crop of annoying politicians is probably products of UoN. Do your research. The students, while bright, have done little to change the livelihoods of Kenyans in a tangible manner. It is not going to change anytime soon. They sit in parastatals and institutions in charge of change in Kenya.

What is wrong here?

Look at how corruption is normalized in the security sector. So much so that even the recent police recruitment exercise were almost reversed, yet they were overseen by recently vetted officers.

Look at the endemic traffic jams in Nairobi. It has taken IBM to come up with figures and possible solutions towards the same.

Look at the corruption at City Hall. Recently, I wanted to come up with book stalls that will sell Kenyan books in the streets. To make them as accessible as possible. All book vendors told me the same thing; by the time I’m done paying for copyright, licensing and all that, I would be left broke and I will never recoup my on my investment. How sad. That it is futile endevour to attempt to sell Kenyan books in the streets, baffles me. I mean, the copyright body, probably has scholars who cannot think outside the box. The city council are not necessarily scholars, hence their thinking cannot be subjected to scrutiny.

Look, why is Kenyan music only being sold in upmarket supermarkets? And expensively so? Why? Kenyans have demonstrated that their spending power is Ksh 50. Is it impossible to make the Kenyan music and art cheap and available? Ugandan and vernacular gospel artists know this secret. They sell their music, books and anything in between affordably.More to the point, which one makes sense? Sell the music at Sh 1,200 and sell 1,000 copies or sell at 50 and sell 50,000 copies countrywide? Same for the films. One has to build a critical mass first, before they can expect profits.

With many Kenyans watching, things like product placements and movie theatres can start helping movie makers recoup their cash. Why are pirates so popular in Kenya?

By design or inadvertently, we have locked out Kenyan stuff. In our midst all we have is foreign stuff. And we keep crying that Kenyan things are of poor quality. Kenyans things are expensive. Kenyans things blah blah blah.

University dons and graduates, must start thinking on how we can apply homegrown solutions. That Java Coffee house is expanding inexplicably, without competition from any locally-owned outlet is baffling. For crying out loud! we are a leading exporter of coffee in the world.

When we eat Western foods, drink Western Coffee, consume Western Media, even our thinking inadvertently becomes Western. Only that it never applies locally. Ask these young rappers rapping about bitches and dollars, when they live in Kayole…

And we pouting milk, like we are in Canaan. I’m done for.

7 thoughts on “Why Africa will always lag behind intellectually

  1. I completely agree with your line of thinking….we are dragging our country behind, maybe…and we really are not progressive thinkers(am a graduate looking for money, I figure passion will come with the money) but I think its not right to compare Kenya with USA or the west, reason being, while we do strive to emulate all they sell to us in films e.t.c., we are still a country in Africa…progress is slower than a snail in Kenya but its still progress! We are lagging behind compared to the west but we are still in the African pool, let’s compare us with our immediate neighbours first and appreciate Where we are in that pool…and then progress to the global pool! But good piece, nice perspective!

  2. I love this article from the first letter to the last full stop. indeed the tribulations the country faces is because of the crap we feed students right from kindergaten to university and colleges. If we are among the most literate in Africa and this corrupt, then I pity the dark continent

  3. You criticise everything ,Why then did you come study in American college for six months you only took 8 credits now you think you are on top of the world
    .let me jog your mind ,an average struggling Kenyan earns let’s assume 20 thousands kshs.he wakes up at 5 in the morning to prepare her/him self to walk to industrial area report to work at 7 in the morning they are overworked past six and they walk back home for six day’s then calculate the expenses , then the civil servants earn between 30 thousands and 70 thousands and they have many dependants, that there gives you the reason why they prefer cheap than expensive , But do you know what they have produced innovators , entrepreneurs unlike you.who talk down upon other people.i have been reading your articles you have this ego that you have really made it where other’s have not again let me remind you ihave sat with many African or Kenyan who are scientists , pharmacist, innovators , some of them working for big companies here in America they don’t brag the way you do mr. To have bachelors degree you need 190 credits 16 credits a quarter you reading almost 12 books and you make journals about each book and profs.have to evaluate them you attend seminars with groups.do alot of researching of what you are studying travelling to other countries for your researching then from there do your master’s then second master’s.but you coming here do only 8 credits of the concise guide to writing.and go home to talk down upon other people.like one piece of an article you wrote about Nyamira people that’s wrong you need to apologia to them.

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