Humanities & Higher Education in Kenya

In June 2015, Riara University honored Dr. Micere Githae Mugo, professor emerita at Syracuse University. Many gathered to praise her scholarship, her creative writing, and her mentorship to Kenyans in Kenya and abroad. As a poet and scholar, Dr. Mugo gave many Kenyans the words we needed to imagine different ways of being and thinking. It was ironic, then, that Dr. Mugo was honored by an institution that does not offer degrees in literature or creative writing. If one looks at Riara University’s offerings, one notes it does not have any school dedicated to the humanities. Disciplines such as Literature, History, and Philosophy are absent. In many ways, Riara University exemplifies the new ideals of a university education: it is created to produce skilled, knowledgable workers suitable for the development economy.

With the caveat that university websites are notoriously unreliable and often out of date, a brief scan at the new universities in Kenya—besides the public University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, and Moi University—reveals a dearth of departments and programs offering traditional humanist fields. I am not wedded to traditional disciplinary organization, so I’m quite okay with the absence of discipline-specific departments. However, a scan of the curricular offerings demonstrates the same absence of training in the humanities, little or almost no training in literature, history, and philosophy. Across schools, training in English focuses on teaching students how to write for industry: how to produce reports for the NGO industry, for instance, or how to draft proposals. The focus on writing as skill devalues writing as an important site of self- and society-making. As Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “A man who possesses a language possess as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.” The language one possesses—as structure—possesses one, directing the possibilities of one’s thinking.

In one of independent Kenya’s earliest blueprints, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta exiled academic debate—the kind of thinking taught in the humanities—from development:

To the nation I have but one message. When all is said and done we must settle down to the job of building the Kenya nation. To do this we need political stability and an atmosphere of confidence and faith at home. We cannot establish these if we continue with debates on theories and doubts about the aims of our society.

The “job of building the Kenya nation” demanded that “debates on theories . . . about the aims of our society” should cease. Nation building, and more precisely development, required that intellectual debates be silenced. Development programs were to be moral and ethical guides. We continue to live in the wake of this thinking.

Under Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, thinking that was not directed toward development, thinking that did not support the state’s image of itself, was threatened. Scholars and students were detained, imprisoned, and exiled. Subjects and methods that enabled critiques of the state—History, Literature, Philosophy, Marxism, Anti-Colonial Critique—were devalued and de-fanged. The joke is often made that a Kenyan official issued an arrest warrant for Karl Marx. This much-reported story provides a powerful metaphor for what it means to arrest thinking.

State repression was abetted by the neocolonial machinations of neoliberalism. Under colonialism, natives were educated to become useful to the state. The education was skill-based, designed to produce workers who were not thinkers. Needless to say, this strategy failed: freedom dreams cannot be so easily managed, and education creates opportunities beyond what’s envisioned for it. However, skill-based education became the foundation for development: Kenya needed people with the right skills to build the nation. The development imagination was privileged.

Something strange happened.

Prior to independence and, perhaps, in the early years of independence, teachers were esteemed. They were understood to create and spread knowledge, to provide opportunities for minds to expand. The title “Mwalimu” was a title of honor. Indeed, teachers were considered very clever—the geniuses of the village, if you will. In the post-independence period, the designation “best and brightest” no longer applied to teachers: it referred to doctors, architects, lawyers, and engineers. By the mid-80s, teaching was considered a profession for those who were not very clever. This devaluing of teaching at all levels—primary, secondary, post-secondary—was part of sustaining the “best and brightest” myth that, at its core, privileges skill-based learning geared toward nation building over intellectual debates that question state operations. Though I will not elaborate this point here, we need to consider the relationship between so-called elite professions in Kenya—medicine, law, engineering, architecture—and professions produced by vocational training: both produce the same effects, the same subjects with the same relationship to the state. In one sense, both produce skill-based professionals, albeit with different specialties.

Under neocolonial neoliberalism, the development imagination is the dominant frame. It dictates what counts as education and what the educated should do. The NGO sector, for instance, which is consumed with collecting data, writing reports, and creating proposals to receive donor funds, is thoroughly neoliberal and neocolonial. It rarely, if ever, asks about the structures of white supremacy that govern the donor economy. It is based on mastering skills: how to beg for grants, how to master acronyms and abbreviations, how to fit work into donor frames. It is also the place that currently absorbs many Kenyans with advanced degrees and good minds, who dedicate themselves to mastering arcane rules and languages so they can write reports and grant proposals. In many ways, it’s the sector where intellectual production is mastered and strangled by neocolonial neoliberalism. I note this point because many Kenyans pursue higher education so that they can join the NGO sector—it has well-paying jobs, as long as the donor funding continues to flow.

Training in the humanities teaches how to ask difficult, necessary questions: How does the past influence the future? How can we live together? What is the good life? What is an ethical life? What values are worth promoting? How can we learn to disagree without killing each other? What is collectivity? What is a shareable world? What is a livable world? What is freedom? Why is love important? Questions that can be considered in intellectual ways have been outsourced to homes and religious institutions. Certainly, they should also be discussed in these settings, but the humanities have frames and methods and archives for discussing these questions. A recent report claimed that young Kenyan people are okay with corruption. Where would they acquire different ways of thinking?

Devaluing the humanities continues to have devastating effects in Kenya. Sure, it would be great if universities without departments dedicated to the humanities opened such departments, but I’m not wedded to traditional disciplinary divides. Faculty who teach literature and history and philosophy and gender studies could be hired in schools and departments that focus on business and law and computer science and medicine and architecture and engineering. They could be hired to teach in schools that focus on carpentry and ironwork and accounting and dressmaking. Perhaps if we populated Kenya with better thinking, we might be able to demand more from ourselves.

10 thoughts on “Humanities & Higher Education in Kenya

  1. Hey Keguro. Thank you for writing and sharing this. I studied Theology (from a critical perspective, i.e. understanding the role of religion in society, and the ways in which religion interacts with politics, economics etc). People close to me who want to be proud of me have always been embarrassed about introducing me to people that they wish to impress. In our society saying “My daughter, my sister, my wife studied Theology” is not considered impressive. And what’s the title of a woman who studied Theology? Pastress? Reverend? Priestess? What are you supposed to do with a Theology degree anyway other than join the ministry? However saying “My daughter, my sister, my friend” is a doctor, an engineer, and architect…well now that encourages nods, and looks that say “Wow. Very impressive”. Especially impressive if you’re female. After two years of never receiving the aforementioned nods and looks, I went back to uni and studied Law and Development. Precisely so that I could get a job within the UN system, or in the NGO world. After 3 years of that (I became an expert at pleading for money from donors, writing reports, spewing abbreviations and acronyms etc) I had enough. You once wrote about the way in which NGOs are structured to the serve the interest of those who work there, in the sense that the problems they claim to solve often have solutions that are very superficial. After all, if an NGO was ever successful in solving any socio-economic problem, then they would have to close shop and go home. And who wants that? I was disturbed by this among many other things. In Dec last year I quit my NGO job to do something different. I ventured into self-employment. And to be honest I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been at work at least. I may not be pursuing “world changing ideas” or nation building strategies in the stereotypical sense, but I’m convinced that there are other ways to create what you refer to as more liveable spaces for different people, with different backgrounds, beliefs, wants, desires etc. And I’m now committed to that more than anything else, especially when it comes to how I choose to spend my working hours. I feel like my seemingly controversial thoughts are validated when I read your blog. And that has given me courage and confidence to stick to my guns. And for that I am thankful. :-)

    • Thanks for your comment, Maggie

      Had I the patience, I’d have been more careful about how I constructed this. Thanks for reminding me that Religious studies is one of the places that thinks deeply and well about morality and ethics, and it has a deep philosophical and historical tradition to draw on. No doubt, there are other fields–I can only speak about the ones I know. I think our collective thinking is impoverished when the humanities are not part of our conversations, and I think our businesses and lives and interactions are also impoverished. What if every Kenyan who went to school here encountered Gender studies and had a frame for thinking about gender and power? And that’s only one example. The economy of prestige, not to mention simply being able to find a job, makes stuff really difficult for very talented people. It need not be like this.

      Thanks for engaging,


    • I’m not really sure I understand how Marxism, as method, is to be read as Marxism as indoctrination. And, of course, there is no such thing as value neutral humanities–be the frame Christian humanism, or liberalism, or even neoliberalism, there’s always an ideological frame. After all, instructors and people who write textbooks have points of view and histories and training–none of which can be neutral.

  2. The point being that those humanities take for a given that their marxist ideas hold true and then strive to prove it while disregarding any evidence to the contrary eg. critique of capitalism. Also they tend to hide their sloppy research methods through important sounding post-modern language which has absolutely no meaningful use except to baffle the reader enough to believe their position. Value neutrality is hard but not impossible, it best not to start with a predetermined class war assumption then contrive data to prove the assumption

    • Given that even the most neoliberal, pro-business venues are reporting on vast income disparities, I’m very confused by your claim that there is no empirical basis to discuss exploitation and class politics. I have no clue what your problem is with postmodernism and, frankly, I think that’s a red herring. The broader point I was making was that methods are situated. This is uncontroversial. If you’re unwilling or unable to grasp that point, then we’re not engaging, and this is not a good use of our time.

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