The front entrance of Nairobi Primary faces “Box,” a women’s residential hall at the University of Nairobi. When I was at Nairobi Primary, the easiest way to get to the city center was to walk through the compound of university housing. In those days, teachers nurtured our dreams that one day we would “walk across the street.” Proximity made dreaming possible. UON was never an abstraction: it was the faces and bodies of students we encountered every day as they went about the most banal business of studying, eating living, dreaming, being.
This proximity created other types of interactions.
When university students “rioted,” and when the police pursued them—most often the GSU were called in, essentially a military unit—students would flee through Nairobi Primary. My siblings recall hearing students run through the corridors as they ran away from military men intent on “beating” students. While I don’t recall any such incidents from my days at Nairobi Primary—I have a leaky memory—I certainly understood, even then, that being a university student rendered one vulnerable to massive state-sanctioned violence. To be a student at UON was to be, to use an ugly word to describe something ugly, “beatable.” And even “beatable” might be a euphemism for the range of (often undocumented) violations that took place, many of which included sexual violence. Recall, Nairobi Primary was across from “Box,” the women’s residence.
One wanted to go to university, less because of the glorious opportunities higher education promised—by the 1980s “tarmacking” was all too real, graduates clutching their papers and walking from office to office in search of jobs—and more because it confirmed something: one belonged to the select few who had made it through a competitive process to gain admission to the university. At least, in retrospect, this is how I remember it.
But Nairobi Primary’s proximity to UON also made evident that university life was anything but idyllic. In Moi’s Kenya, the one I grew up in, the university was a place where students and faculty wrestled with question of belonging and justice, a place where the “best and brightest,” as we termed them, fought for a better vision of Kenya, for better versions of citizenship. The university was at the heart of political debates and struggles, a place that nurtured “dissidents,” taught the usefulness of dissent, fomented dreams of utopias, even as it anchored those dreams in concrete material struggles. Utopia may have been possible, but it was going to be a hard, bitter slog to get there. And students’ bodies would be on the line. Were on the line.
I want to begin from here, from the intimacy of fuzzy memory, to think about the university’s mission, this time, not as a young primary school student, but as a faculty member, as someone invested in nurturing dreams worth fighting for. This is, I confess, not in my job description. Nor is it to be found in UMD’s mission statement. And, certainly, it is nowhere in the rhetoric of “skills attainment” and “appropriate assessment” that now shapes university culture and administration. It is not that these things are bad or irrelevant, but they often miss the mark of what it is one might be attempting to do. When I teach C.L.R. James or Fanon, I am interested in students thinking about genre and tone and historicity. But I also want them to be inflamed, excited, provoked into imagining better worlds and acting to realize them. In this sense, I am very much the legacy of the political movements that allowed my presence in the classroom in the first place.
To bridge time and space: I want my students to realize the stakes of their education just as UON students did in my fuzzy recollections.
As I watch the terrible videos of students being assaulted at Berkeley (scroll down the page)—Aaron’s account is a must read—and the fissure visible (all-too-visible) between the university administration, on the one hand, and students and faculty, on the other, I keep wondering how the university’s mission might be defined. Part of UMD’s Mission Statement reads, “The University creates and applies knowledge for the benefit of the economy and culture of the State, the region, the nation, and beyond.” UMD considers UC Berkeley a peer school.
It is tempting to believe that “rioting” students, to use Kenya’s language, or “not non-violent civil disobedience” actors, to use the UC administration’s obfuscatory language (see Rei Terada) have gone beyond the university’s mandate. That when students assemble to protest injustice and advocate for better modes of living they have stopped being students and are no longer subject to the protection of the university—certainly, this is the narrative the UC administration would like to believe. But to believe that is to misrecognize and diminish the university’s mission: to believe in and act toward a better world, a more just, more equitable, more accessible, is a major component of what it means to “create and apply knowledge for the benefit of the economy and culture” of a place.
When we talk about creating knowledge—in my upper-level classes, I tell my students that they are not simply knowledge consumers, but, more importantly, knowledge producers—we are talking about a wide range of ways of knowing: how to read a poem, yes, and also how to read the social. How to parse language, yes, and how to engage that language as it circulates in the world around you. How to recognize injustice in texts, yes, and also how to recognize injustice in the world one occupies. And how to act in the face of injustice. We read Fanon and Du Bois for reasons that go beyond historical coverage.
We try to provide students with what Kenneth Burke termed “equipment for living.” And we get angry and frustrated and grieve and mourn when the institutions in which we try to teach these lessons negate their missions of creating ethical humans by beating students.