Sunday, January 31, 2010

Policy makers must tackle rot in our education system

Sunday Nation 31 January 2010

A recent opinion piece in one of our dailies lamented the precipitously dropping standards of education in our country, citing the example of an argument about whether students pursuing the privately sponsored university programmes were intellectually inferior to those in regular programmes.

The writer quoted a student who lamentably went ahead to prove the argument right by using practically illegible ‘SMS’ English in arguing her point. This article was one in a long list of commentaries that have highlighted the decline in Kenyan education standards, and many of them have found a convenient punching bag in the 8-4-4 system of education.

This is not to say that the opinion writer was inaccurate. The truth is that a large number of Kenyans cannot coherently express themselves in writing, and many can only mumble incoherently when required to speak in public. Whether this is due to the system of education they went through is open to discussion.

Since the mid-1980s when Kenya’s education system was changed from the four tier 7-4-2-3 system to the three tier 8-4-4 system, there have always been murmurs about how weak the ‘‘new’’ system is and how the country needs to go back to the ‘‘good old days’’.

Many scholars have trashed the system for one failure or another, and all seem unanimous that the system needs to be changed. Amazingly, very few of the system’s critics come up with an alternative system that would be designed to meet the needs of our country in this millennium.

Most of those criticising the system went through the older education system, and are thus only engaging in the favourite Kenyan pastime of bigotry camouflaged as educated opinion. The 8-4-4 system of education has been in existence for 25 years since its launch in 1985.

Those that have since gone through this system now form a majority in the job market, and many are in leadership positions today. It must be acknowledged too that there are 8-4-4 graduates who do not amount to much, but this probably has nothing to do with the education system per se.

It often has to do with poorly equipped schools with fewer teachers than they need, lack of commitment on the part of some teachers and parents, and largely, poor planning on the part of government. Whether we had retained the older system of education or not, the so-called rot in the education system would inevitably still have descended upon us.

The reasons cited above for the problems bedevilling the 8-4-4 system have not miraculously appeared in the past 25 years. They have been incubated in the attitudes of the average citizen of this country over a long period of time. Parents have become too busy to be involved in the education of their children, while teachers have suffered the ravages of a declining economy that has resulted in their having to spend lots of time chasing the ever-elusive shilling.

The net loser is the Kenyan child who now has to make do with peer influence and no one else to provide any sort of mature guidance whether in school or at home. If parents were paying any attention to the performance of their children in school, they would have noticed a long time ago that their children no longer made any effort to speak in complete sentences in any language.

They would have noticed that their children are more preoccupied with besting the next pupil than bettering themselves. They would also have noticed that the demands made by these children long ago changed to include money for purchasing ‘‘past papers’’ to facilitate cramming for the national examinations.

The attitudes in our homes have also become more and more parochial, with childish competitiveness characterising our view on anything under the sun. Children going through the ‘‘new’’ education system are learning their poor manners from parents who went through the ‘‘old’’ system.

The teachers, on the other hand, often feel overburdened by large numbers of learners that preclude the personal attention necessary for good performance in school. They are further hobbled by a shortage of learning materials and ebbing motivation due to poor remuneration and terms of employment.

It is therefore not the fault of the 8-4-4 system that the numbers of children needing education have steadily risen over the years, leading to overcrowding in classrooms and shortages of books and equipment necessary for proper learning. Similarly, the 8-4-4 system is not to blame for shortage of teaching staff in most of our public schools, or for the flagging morale at our learning institutions.

Policy-makers in government and elsewhere must start burning the midnight oil seeking solutions to the problems at the root of the declining education standards, instead of continually barking up the wrong tree.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Whatever we do, let us put the nation first

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 24 January 2010

The fiasco surrounding the alleged radical Islamic cleric from Jamaica, Abdullah al-Faisal, has exposed several facets of our national life that many Kenyans would prefer were kept under wraps.

One question that has been glossed over by all concerned is: How did this individual gain entry into the country in the first place? The government’s response that the cleric entered through a manned entry point that was not networked with headquarters will just not wash. It implies that there are areas along our borders where unwanted persons may enter and leave the country at will, posing a threat to national security.

To make matters worse, after the Nairobi protests, Internal Security minister George Saitoti pointed fingers at the al-Shabaab group from neighbouring Somalia, suggesting that the extremists had entered the country and managed to organise violent protests in the nerve centre of the republic. Unwittingly, the minister was conceding that the security apparatus had failed, and that every citizen was now on his or her own.

Many Muslims have expressed righteous indignation about the whole saga, although it is by no means unanimous what their grouses are. Issues being raised include discrimination against the Muslim population, profiling and targeting of ethnic Somalis in the name of illegal immigrants and even violating the protesters’ right to demonstrate in favour of a cause they believe in.

These issues have been freely mixed up, such that whenever someone raises their voice in protest it is not clear what exactly they are protesting against. Some people are even talking about radicalisation of Muslim youth, as though the conflict involving the Jamaican cleric was a Muslim affair.

The government has tried its best to steer clear of this line of thought, and even trotted out some Muslims among its ranks to demonstrate this point. Those taking this line of reasoning might already have scores they are trying to settle against the government.

Discussion of this issue now even includes thinly veiled threats of secession curiously couched in religious language, as though Muslims only occupy one segment of the country. The truth is that Islam is a religion and, like other religions in this country, it remains a matter of choice. One may be born into a Christian family and convert to Islam at some later stage in life, and vice-versa.

It is, therefore, difficult to envisage establishment of an alternative statelet based solely on religion. It raises the question of what will happen to the Muslims in Western and Central Kenya, if the assumption is that Muslims are only to be found in the North Eastern and Coast regions. Further, what is to happen to non-Muslims living in the presumably Muslim areas?

The non-Muslim citizens of this country have not behaved any better themselves. Some were even caught on TV stoning the protesting Muslims and chanting nationalistic slogans. Many would like to be seen as patriotic Kenyans struggling to protect their nation against a threat from extremists. On closer examination, however, one discerns a deep-seated antipathy towards Muslims based solely on their professed religion.

This is even better illustrated when one holds their current sentiments against their sentiments at the beginning of 2008 when the country was up in flames and needed just this kind of activism to drag it back from the brink. Many of those making noises “in defence of the republic” were deeply involved in the fighting, either personally or by proxy.

The middle class chattering mobs outdid each other demonising members of other tribes, softening them up for the subsequent slaughter by their tribesmates. Many of those lauding the police response, and even suggesting that the police should have been more forceful with the Muslim youth, were at the forefront of condemning the police force in 2008 for slaughtering innocent citizens “peacefully” demonstrating for their rights.

This Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character of our nation bodes ill for any major decisions we may be required to make in the near future. Instead of carefully examining the issues involved, we quickly assess our position in relation to the parties to the conflict and then rush to take sides without any consideration as to its merits. Often, our position is informed by such parochial considerations as the tribe or religion of the protagonists.

This is the Kenya we have at this point in time and it is entirely in our power to decide if it is the Kenya we want to bequeath to the next generation or not. It may be useful at this point to step back and put the interests of our nation first and, maybe, then the issues will be clearer.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

Monday, January 18, 2010

Kalonzo’s declaration an insult to our intelligence

Sunday Nation 17 January 2010

Going by the behaviour of our politicians this early in the new year, it becomes clear that the optimism behind our “happy new year” greeting is either misplaced or premature.

A recent statement by Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka perfectly illustrates the point.

The VP was quoted giving his opinion in favour of a presidential system of government and, to illustrate his point, he claimed that the electorate in the United Kingdom had intimated to him that they would prefer to ditch their parliamentary system of government in favour of a presidential one.

Mr Musyoka has throughout his political career presented himself as a “saved” Christian without the tainted history most politicians have. A term commonly used to refer to him is “Mr Clean”, and he has worked hard to maintain this image of an honest broker with the country’s interests at heart.

This is why his forceful assertion that the people of the UK told him in no uncertain terms that they prefer a presidential system to a parliamentary one raises troubling questions.

Without a shred of evidence to support his statement, it must be assumed that he was attempting to be creative with the facts. In other words, it was probably not true.

If a person of the VP’s calibre can be caught not telling the truth about such an important issue as a new constitutional dispensation for our country, it is not difficult to imagine what whoppers other politicians have gotten away with in the “heat of the moment”.

It is quite likely that the VP just got carried away and, in seeking hyperbolic examples to prove his point, decided to foist upon Kenyans some “authority” in the name of the people of the UK.

However, such a statement may also be interpreted as some sort of “Freudian slip”, giving us a sneak preview into the man’s mindset. A few conclusions may be reached just by analysing this statement.

One, it is evident that the VP greatly values the opinion of the voters in the UK, and would not hesitate to be guided by these opinions in making choices for this country in which he is practically “a heartbeat away from the presidency”.

There is no other way to read his compulsive need to cite the British voter as an authority on what system of governance is good for Kenya other than the high esteem in which he holds our former colonial rulers.

Two, the VP probably believes that his constituents, and Kenyans at large, also hold the British voter’s opinion in high regard.

He probably reasoned that citing an opinion expressed by the majority of British voters would help him carry his point a step ahead and demonstrate just how universally accepted his ideas are.

Kenyans’ preoccupation with everything foreign may be proof of this line of thought, and the VP is arguably not very far from the truth in making this deduction.

Three, the VP’s statement demonstrated just how much intelligence he credited his audience with. That no one has since stood up to challenge his assertion might be evidence that his estimation was not far off the mark.

His audience, the entire republic, is assumed to have swallowed his assertion unquestioningly and moved on, their minds probably made up on the issue of what system of governance is apt for us.

It may be useful to note that the three observations above may be transferred without much difficulty to almost any politician that stands on a podium in Kenya today.

The twin scourge of self-deprecation in the face of foreign “expertise” and assumption of the electorate’s ignorance is a sine qua non among members of our political class.

Indeed, the dogged insistence of populating our post-2007 institutions with foreign “experts” was the final demonstration of this frame of mind.

Many Kenyans, despairing with the quality of leaders we keep producing election after election, are hankering after some “foreign” benevolent dictator to come and help us sort out our messes before we inevitably self-destruct.

The assumed gullibility of the Kenyan voter is what gives our politicians the leeway to continue prattling mindlessly in public while we cheer and egg them on.

It has given them the guts to continue disregarding public opinion with abandon, from refusing to pay taxes to arbitrarily increasing their salaries and allowances whenever they feel like.

Unless and until someone speaks up every time our politicians insult our intelligence, they will continue on this trajectory until there is no country left to save.

On the other hand, if every time they publicly utter falsehoods they are confronted with the truth, they will have a greater incentive to keep to the straight and narrow.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Beware the grave dangers of faith healing

Sunday Nation 10 January 2010

Every weekend, television viewers all over the country are treated to a variety of Christian religious services on almost all the available TV channels.

In a country that pays nominal homage to religious freedom, this may be seen as a good thing, although some may argue that all religions need to be given equal exposure to the airwaves.

Some of the programmes are purely evangelistic in nature, preaching the word of God with the aim of strengthening believers and converting those considered to be “non-believers”.

Other programmes, however, incorporate extra “attractions”, including parading people with various illnesses and disorders, praying for them and pronouncing them “healed” from whatever affliction.

Most of the healing shown on national TV is of the “harmless” kind – the lame walking, the blind seeing, “demons” exorcised and so on and so forth.

These types of healing may be referred to as harmless because they only impact on the health of the “afflicted”, and any impact they have on others is often positive.

Aside from questions raised about some evangelists who have professional actors in their retinues to demonstrate their healing powers, purporting to heal people with physical disabilities can only serve to raise the spirits of those that yearn for this kind of healing and figuratively put the spring back in their step.

A more dangerous kind of “healing” is however becoming ever more common among these televangelists in their quest to attract more and more followers.

Many are now purporting to cure such chronic illnesses as cancer, HIV/Aids, hypertension and diabetes. They parade people they describe as suffering from these chronic illnesses and after a session of rambunctious “prayer” and intonations declare them healed of their conditions.

The first tragedy is that many people with these chronic illnesses actually believe they are healed and stop taking their medications or attending regular follow-up with their usual health care providers.

The end result is often deterioration of their conditions and many die sooner than they would have had they continued with medical care.

The second tragedy, which is bigger from a public health point of view, concerns HIV/Aids. Preachers who claim to heal people living with virus are many, and due to the huge burden of HIV in this country, their numbers keep increasing with each passing day.

Being desperate for a cure, many people with HIV/Aids (or any other “incurable” disease) will do anything as long as they are promised perfect health.

Reports abound of people who have sold all their precious possessions to pay a faith healer or other charlatans claiming to cure HIV/Aids only to eventually succumb to the disease and other complications including mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

The situation is even more tragic because after a session of prayer, some patients will go home truly believing they are healed. This significantly increases the risk of spreading the virus through unprotected sex with partners who wrongfully believe that the virus has been banished through prayer.

Responsible practitioners of religion will tell anyone who cares to listen that a condition such as HIV/Aids has no known cure at this point in time.

However, there are medications available today that reduce viral replication and control opportunistic infections, markedly improving quality of life and increasing the productive lifespan of the people living with the virus.

It is irresponsible that despite repeated disclaimers by medical experts that this condition has no known cure, these televangelists continue to deceive members of the public that they can mysteriously make it go away.

Talking to health workers in various facilities all over the country, one will hear stories of patients who stop attending clinic or taking their prescribed medications only to appear after a very long time in terrible condition.

Asked why they stopped using their medications or attending clinic, many have replied that they were convinced that they were healed by some preacher at a crusade or some televangelist on TV.

It may be possible that these faith healers truly believe in their own healing powers and are not willfully deceiving their followers. This is because after the “healing”, they hardly ever follow up on their “patients” to ascertain their conditions after a while.

Indeed, the reason they never see most of their “clients” again is because many die after discontinuing their usual health care following the “healing”.

Perhaps “faith healers” should be compelled to provide evidence of cure (through independent diagnostic tests) and continue follow-up of all their clients after the purported “cure”.

No one should be given a carte blanche to claim to cure all sorts of illness, when in fact all they do is profit from the misfortune of their unsuspecting “clients”.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Revised Harmonised Draft Constitution of Kenya

The Revised Harmonised Draft Constitution was handed over to the Parliamentary Select Committee yesterday.
Click on the title of this post (above) to download the document from the Committee of Experts website.
You may also copy this onto the address bar of your browser to download the document:

Enjoy the read!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Forget obsession with land: Exploit ICT potential

Sunday Nation 03 January 2010

The ongoing debate on a new constitution as well as events such as the Mau forest reclamation saga have revealed a part of the Kenyan psyche that is often ignored despite its crucial significance for the future of this country. The focus on land ownership as the most important determinant of individual worth seems to be a defining feature of many Kenyans’ thinking.

A colleague of mine recently intimated to me that “landlessness” in this country is considered a good reason to seek sympathy from the state or fellow citizens in all sorts of ways. Once a Kenyan has been declared “landless”, they have a licence to invade public land and forests to acquire a piece for themselves.

A commonly repeated adage statement in this country is that “every Kenyan deserves a piece of land for himself and his family”. This wisdom is stated solemnly, often as justification for some crass act involving public property that would be unforgivable under any other circumstances.

Since independence, we have been wrangling over all sorts of land – ancestral land, public land, trust lands and so on and so forth. Violent evictions from land have been common and, indeed, even political violence around election time has been linked to “landlessness” and the perception that “foreigners” have taken up land meant for indigenous people.

Hearing this kind of stuff from elderly Kenyans born mostly before independence is understandable, given that the land narrative informs most of our pre-independence discourse.

It is, however, quite disconcerting to hear relatively young Kenyans, some barely out of their twenties, carrying on about how everyone needs to have land in their “ancestral homes” or wherever else land is available. The expectation is often that if one does not have land, then it is the government’s responsibility to provide it.

A huge segment of the Harmonised Draft Constitution that has been the subject of robust debate is dedicated to the land tenure system and correcting perceived “historical injustices” in the land management regime. Contentions have been raised about the fairness or otherwise of certain provisions in this chapter, but all are agreed that land is probably the most important resource in this country.

That is the point at which I would beg to differ. To hold land as the most important possession an individual can have is to lock ourselves up in the past and to refuse to open our eyes to the emerging realities of a globalising world. It is akin to emulating the proverbial ostrich and burying our heads in the sand, hoping that developments in the rest of the world will just pass us by and leave us untouched.

The truth is that the most important postmodern economy resource is knowledge and information. This is not being hailed as the information age or a knowledge economy for nothing. In the information age, owning large tracts of personal land may even be considered an unnecessary encumbrance.

It ties one down to a specific location in this era that has been christened a “flat world” by thinkers such as Thomas L. Friedman. Most people just need adequate living space, and with sufficient amounts of money most of the other needs surrounding land can be freely purchased.

As for agriculture, science has informed us repeatedly that small scale subsistence farming is unsustainable in the long term. It is even destructive in the sense that it often depletes the soil due to repeated use by untrained “farmers” to grow the same crops every season.

Societies that take food production seriously do this on a large scale, with professionally enabled farmers supported by the State to feed the rest of the population. It makes little sense, in my opinion, for doctors, teachers, engineers and lawyers to dabble in farming when they could use the resources at their disposal to enrich their respective professions.

By combining farming with other pursuits, they are often unable to give their maximum attention to any of them, resulting in mediocrity both on the farm and in their professions. It is time the young people of Kenya used the virtually unlimited “land” available in cyber space to improve their lives and enrich the Kenyan economy in the process. Instead of waiting to be given land by their parents or the government, they should strive to establish themselves as the new “landlords” in the knowledge economy by gaining knowledge and using it for profit.

With the rapidly expanding Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure in Kenya, land is no longer that important. ICT is the new “land”!

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine: