Kenya is now enthralled by the political narratives leading to the General Election just 15 days away. It is the politician’s day out. Perhaps understandably, therefore, narratives by and on the everyday lives of everyone else, including lecturers and nurses on strike, remain obscured in the din of extravagant promises made all over the place. The irony is bare for all to see.
The recent strike by lecturers and the ongoing one by nurses are part of the current cycle of a national ritual that dramatises the generally exploitative and occasionally acrimonious relationship between workers and their employers in Kenya, as in other parts of the world.
This relationship has been the stuff of debate ever since Karl Marx argued that class is the most influential basis of human engagement in an environment of competition for material advantage.
Of course, there is a whiff of Darwinist logic in Marxist ideology that was the favourite of many African intellectual elites, especially those who came of age in the mid–20th century, when the discursive fashion was to take leftist positions that rubbished the avaricious accumulation of wealth by the political elite, black or white, and the itinerant trader.
And although in historical accounts and even fiction, workers have generally been portrayed as wretched souls pulverised between the grinding stones of capitalism, it is the image of the teacher or lecturer that has generated conflicting emotions. This is despite the undeniable fact that no country or society in history has attained economic, cultural or even social development without their teachers.
It is the teacher who continues to lead an enlightenment operation to replace superstition with faith, magic with science, aiming to deliver the pupil to the glorious world of satisfied curiosity. This fact is well documented in historical books as in literary ones.
In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early fiction, if anyone needs an example, the teacher was a symbol of enlightenment and liberation from ignorance; the teacher exhibits unmatched political awareness all around. He is an enabler of ambitions and, especially for the female teacher, also the moral compass in society.
Truly, teachers have even historically salvaged societies from political implosions, through careful socialisation into desirable values and modes of behaviour. In fact, some scholars like Eilieen Julien have convincingly argued that formal Western education in colonial and early post-independence eras in Africa was essentially a rescue mission. Africa was threatened by the unholy trinity of poverty, ignorance, and disease. But for the teacher, none of these problems could and can be solved.
Then something changed, degrading him to a lesser creature. The teacher suddenly became an object of pity by many, known for his “respectable poverty”, as a character in M.G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets puts it. As we all know, the teacher’s standing in society has been diminished. For many of us, the joy of teaching is undercut by the misery of our pay.
And now we witness a spectacle where university professors picket in the streets of Nairobi and other towns complete with whistles, banners and deafening vuvuzelas, desperate to catch the eye of a cold-blooded government bureaucracy whose human agents politely ignore their teachers.
We suffer the misfortune of living in an era and among leaders who barely value our expertise. And they will not change. When shall we end the indignity of strikes? Maybe we need to accept our lot and try something else, lest we be stranded by the wayside like the toad in Chinua Achebe’s widely read story about the inadequacy of mere knowledge without the backup of property.
For our friends who are not familiar with the story, “[t]he snake was riding his horse, coiled up in his saddle. That’s the way the snake rode his horse. And he came down the road and met the toad walking by the roadside. And the toad said to him, ‘Excuse me, Sir, but that’s not how to ride a horse.’ And the snake said, ‘No? Can you show me then?’ And the toad said, ‘Yes, if you would step down, Sir.’ So the snake came down.
The toad jumped into the saddle and sat bolt upright and galloped most elegantly up and down the road. When he came back he said, ‘That’s how to ride a horse.’ And the snake said, ‘Excellent. Very good. Very good, indeed. Thank you. Come down, if you don’t mind.’ So the toad came down, and the snake went up and coiled himself in the saddle as he was used to doing and then said to the toad, ‘It is very good to know, but it is even better to [own]. What good does excellent horsemanship do to a man without a horse?’ And with that he rode away …
Godwin Siundu teaches at the University of Nairobi.