Kenya’s Best and Brightest

I remain in thrall to the myth that Kenya will be “saved” by its “best and brightest.”

It is one of the founding myths of our country. The myth comes from that period when one young person’s achievement reflected on an entire village, district, and people, a practice that continues, albeit in modified form, in the published lists of top students. It is a myth that tethers individual achievement to social development, hence we are encouraged to be proud of Kenyans who have attained multiple degrees, though such achievements may be too removed from any quotidian we inhabit.

I am not saying that we cannot be proud of what we accomplish, but that we need a more measured approach to what we consider the function of the “the best and brightest.”

It strikes me, for instance, that of the many brilliant students and amazing leaders I knew from top schools, Alliance (both), Kenya High, Strathmore, Lenana (had to throw that in), Kianda, Mangu, add what you will, few, if any, have gone into public service, even fewer dare to venture into politics. Their successes live, very profitably, within the private sector. In fact, the products of national schools—ostensibly our best and brightest—form the backbone, or at least a prominent vertebrae, of Kenya’s successful, private-based middle-class.

To say this is not to cast aspersion; after all, with my recently concluded degree, I will also join the ranks of those whose work lives elsewhere—my knowledge circulating more abroad than at home. (I will quickly add that as compared to many of the people I knew, I rank as solidly average—Kenya has some frighteningly brilliant people. I rank nowhere among “the best and the brightest.” I’m simply privileged to be part of their posse.)

As I have noted in several other posts, this turn away from public service, often accompanied by moves abroad, is more complex than we tend to grant. Many of us left or turned inward because we had to—universities closed too frequently; the socio-cultural climate was toxic; the political air suffocating. And, given my distaste for martyrdom, I remain unconvinced by those who demand that those abroad return home to effect change. (This, too, is part of the myth of “the best and brightest,” that those from “there” can do something those from “here” cannot,” and it’s really quite silly. I have more brilliant Kenyan friends at home than here.)

I’m rambling.

I do have two somewhat coherent thoughts.

One, history has taught us that “the best and brightest” is an almost useless designation. Kenyans are wildly innovative, and the narrow measures we use to judge excellence and support it—school grades, internationally recognizable achievements and qualifications—don’t necessarily translate in public, civic-minded ways.

Which means, of course, that we need different ways to nurture our disparate, antinomian talents, different ways to discover who we are and what we can do without limiting ourselves to narrow test scores. (This has been happening for a long time; I simply want to mark it.)

To my mind, we need to get rid of the construction “best and brightest,” designate it an archaic holdover that had a certain historical function that no longer obtains—and those better versed in economics and neoliberalism will have far better explanations than I can muster.

We need to nurture various forms of excellence and creativity. I can assure the many teachers who punished me that being caned did not improve my math abilities. 2+2 is still 56.

Instead of continuing to pin our hopes on “the best and the brightest,” whoever those might be, we might pay more or at least equal attention to the interesting, the creative, the strange, the unusual, the ordinary, find ways to nurture a sense of civic-mindedness and public service, provide financial, social, and cultural support to those whose visions and versions of who we are and want to be might not coincide with official government desires, but will direct us in unexpected and profitable ways.

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