Kenyan Education: Words, and the Transmission of Knowledge

Posted on June 13, 2011


Note: Did not have Internet this weekend, but have two more posts I hope to put up within the day. One about a little Arab village I’ve heard about that might soon be destroyed in a Chinese bid for economic dominance in Africa. Another about a night I spent at a local bar here, listening to African music, and connecting some disconcerting trends as to how many Africans seem to approach history and the impact on some deep sense of self-worth and ability. But first, some words about a few trends I’ve learned about (from my girls) in the Kenyan education system.


Two weeks ago Valerie told me, by way of warning, a story about a girl from a rural Kenyan village who was accepted into Brown. She wrote a stunning essay, a tale whose details I’ve not wrenched out of anyone yet, but I have been assured it was full of the drama and insight that begs us to ask why we need fiction’s flimsy lessons when we have all that life can offer us by way of lessons and stories. We found the answer to that riddle when we learned that the girl’s essay was a fiction.

Not wholly fiction, but rather a mythic golem of a life, thatched roughly together from the experiences of a dozen other girls, some real and some half-real. It did not take much, after the girl was admitted, for her friends, her mentors, and those in the Brown administration who cared something about the fate of a poor girl sent to them through the work of an NGO to realize that the facts of her life and her words and the half-fictions of her application did not stack up. None of the girls in our program since have been admitted into Brown.

I took that as an extreme cautionary tale, some sort of legend from the past urging me to police the essays my students write for any distortions of the truth, to show them that plagiarism (greater or lesser) and fictitious fact never sits well in non-fiction and will usually betray itself rather easily. And much to their detriment, and to the detriment of the other girls around them.

But I’ve learned a curious thing about the Kenyan educational system recently—specifically about the way in which they teach their pupils to write:

Most of the educators here do not want the girls to form their own arguments, not really. I’ve seen it in other systems before—essays are all about parroting isolated bits of information gleaned in classes, spitting back verbal formulas much in the way one might recite the quadratic equation, with little understanding of the meaning of the formula, or the principles from which it was derived. There’s merit in that type of writing; it helps with memorization. But if one’s aim is to generate a critical mind, an understanding mind, a mind capable of picking apart and reassembling ideas, of understanding concepts and applying them widely rather than reciting pretty songs, then try as I might to rationalize this form of writing, I cannot.

There’s more to it here than in many of the other systems that using writing for regurgitation rather than reflection. The Kenyan system urges girls to weave their knowledge into stories, parables, meld them into old Swahili and tribal proverbs. It’s clever, really, if I’m reading it right—an attempt to co-opt and coexist with oral and storytelling traditions, to keep alive a creative element within learning, to encourage the girls to ground information within older cultural practices and let it root itself and flourish within the world of stories. It’s a bright way of making the lesson stick, of giving the girls ownership over their knowledge, of transmitting ideas and giving them potency and real life.

But the girls are urged to claim that special sense of ownership of knowledge by making the ideas their own within the story. They are taught that it is acceptable, even admirable, to take the ideas, even the lives and stories, of others and to present them as if they were their own ideas and stories and lives. The life of the girl next door melts into your own life as it becomes necessary when writing. Your story, when you feel it inappropriate to convey a message, may be augmented by many other stories, patched together until it has the warp and the weft of sufficient strength to carry the thought you wish to pass along. In a sense brilliant but in a sense dangerous.

The girls told me they do this often, that they planned to do this in the essays I assigned to them. I do not feel so bad trying to wean them off of this method of writing given that the act of developing and defending one’s own argument ties one more firmly to the ideas one purports in that essay, gives one more of a sense of ownership than the false graft of another’s idea onto one’s own life ever cold. It’s the difference between stealing a child in the dead of night and trying to pass it off as one’s own, and adopting the child outright at infancy, bringing it up in one’s own manner, but still acknowledging what is unique form one’s self in that child.

Mainly though I want to move the girls away from this style of writing because I want to acquaint them with the culture of attribution that academia holds so dear (and rightly so, I believe). I do not want to see them get into school, fall victim to plagiarism charges or labeled as liars, and lose opportunity for themselves and other girls like them. Aside from the fact that the style of writing is not conducive to independent thought and argument (things I hold dear), I see it as possibly dangerous for their futures and the futures of all the girls who would come after them.

Most of the girls seem to understand this, and many of them seem eager to start developing their own arguments. They seem to like what I have to say about the rhetoric in everything, in every step they take. You can tell that they have rarely had some to sit there and ask them to justify their every sentence, nagging with the question why, why, why? Save for some bratty sibling trying to be quarrelsome rather than constructive. And they’re learning quickly to duel with me, to rebuff and fight back against my barrages of questions, my counter-arguments and my critiques. And when they do manage to drive me back, they seem proud. They are less demur and deferent, more bold. You can argue that I’m infringing on their culture, but sue me, I like to see girls grow bold, learn to defend their own arguments, cease to cave in, question my answers and my views, question me despite my position as a man, a mazunga, and such a man in a position of authority over them at that. I can’t wait until they can knock me down and argue me into the ground, out-write me by leaps and bounds. That’s a ways off, but sometimes I think I can see it shining through faintly in the essays they’ve written for me so far.

Still, this whole piecemeal story writing style and the disquiet in the room the first time I told them to start writing in a different way, told them that would not be the dominate mode of communication where most of them were going, it makes me worry for the cultural change these girls will face. Many of these girls, when they leave their families, their tribes, their religions, their nations for an education, they face a great crisis of identity. And lost within themselves, they lose the bulk of the education as well, possibly even lose themselves. I do not know all of their expectations, all of the views they hold too holy to question, to believe it might not hold true in a different land. And even if I can prepare them for one or two things, teach them rhetoric and get them eager to learn more, I don’t know that anything I can ever do can prepare them for the move from the worlds they have grown up in to the world they will walk through in mere months.




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