A Dramatic Dialogue With Myself
Charles Otieno-Hongo

When I received the invitation to write this article, several questions ran through my mind. First I thought: What am I supposed to write? Then I started to ask myself several questions. Then I thought, why not simply talk to myself, challenge myself through these questions? This is especially important to me because my early "education" always involved being at the passive end of a process, where I was expected to simply receive information and later reproduce it. I was only allowed to ask limited questions concerning my understanding of what the teacher taught, without challenging the idea that was being imparted to me. Later I was to discover that it is through critical questioning, questioning what I was taught, questioning what I believe in, interrogating my values, it was only then that I started to properly understand the world around me. And this is how I learn, by asking myself questions.

<<I have decided that the mainstream education model (schooling) is not my cup of tea. I have been heard to say that if we are to generate solutions to the current complexities facing our continent (Africa), we should abandon education! What inspires me to think like this? How did I come to the conclusion that schooling is the not the best thing to happen to somebody?>>

Sincerely speaking, I don't have a definite answer. Looking back, I have seen people, my friends with so much potential and talent, wither away under the school system. I too would have. I found school somewhat boring and frustrating. The lessons, the regimentation of time and duties, the lack of free time to pursue activities of interest, the atmosphere of fear and hopelessness and most importantly the lack of freedom to express myself.

I found lessons boring and frustrating, because all I had to do was sit in the class, listen to the teacher and take notes. I was only allowed to speak when directly spoken to by the teacher, or when I had to ask a question, because I had missed something that the teacher had said — never because I did not agree with the teacher. Something else that was a source of great frustration was the way my time was managed. I had totally no say or control over what I did with my time. When I was in primary school, my day was organized for me from Monday to Friday; when I went to a boarding high school, from Monday to Sunday. In high school, I often compared my stay there to life in a prison cell, for everything I did was controlled by a bell. I was woken up by the ring of a bell, sent to the dining hall by the ring of a bell, went to play by the ring of a bell and went to sleep by the ring of a bell! I felt that all this was designed to make me lose my individual identity. I was just one of the boys. I even had a number that I was known by in the class registry, number 34. Whenever the class teacher called out number 34, I knew that was me. Just a number.

Then there was the question of fear. The environment I schooled in was dominated by a fear of teachers and prefects. We would be caned for speaking in another language which was not English. We would be caned for talking when we were not supposed to, for being late, and even worse, for not knowing! Our mathematics teacher was notorious for giving sudden tests, or what he called 'mental tests', a total of ten math problems, every morning. If you missed one, you got one stroke of the cane, if you missed five, you got five strokes. I was always missing at least three or four problems!

<<How did this affect my learning?>>

Because of the repeated 'failing' in especially mathematics and science tests, I lost confidence in my ability as a learner. I came to believe that I could learn nothing where science and mathematics are concerned, and thus I lost interest in science issues. I concluded that these were fields for certain people, endowed with certain intelligences, and it was better if I kept off. The idea of forced learning and total unquestioning submission to school authority incited a rebellious streak in me. By the time I was in my last year in high school, I regularly absconded classes. I believed that university was not made for the likes of me, no matter how hard I tried.

<<When I say I too have withered under the school system, what do I mean?>>

When I was growing up, I had a desire to study law and become a writer. But under our examination system, I had to get a pass in mathematics no matter what I intended to study at the university. I was not good at mathematics and therefore simply gave up hope of going to the university. In effect, this meant giving up on my dreams.

In high school, I had friend who could never get a pass in any subject, but he was not only a very talented artist, but also very kind and warm person, always ready to help others. He would spend his study period drawing biology diagrams for those of us who were not good at drawing. The fact that he never managed to pass other subjects meant that he could not pursue art studies at the university. The system was punishing my friends and me by denying us the chance to pursue our interests at the university level, simply because we were not interested in unrelated subjects. Worse, however, was the fact that my teachers and parents had made me to believe that it was only by going to the university that I would be considered successful. The teachers made us to believe that the reason we were in high school was to go to university, and each year a list of those who made of those who made it to the university and those who did not was pinned up on the school notice board. I was not able to see beyond the university and look at other options.

<<But don't I think it makes sense to have at least some knowledge in several subjects?>>

I see several issues here. It is not a matter of acquiring knowledge but questioning how knowledge is measured and determining what constitutes knowledge. Let me start with the first one, measuring knowledge. In school, the knowledge we gained was measured through tests. I saw some boys dash through a three hour math test in one half hours, others completed the test in three hours while others probably needed five hours to complete the test. Looking back, I tend to think that the system was unfair to those who needed five hours! I was one of those people who needed more time to complete a test. Actually, what was being determined here was test-taking skills rather than a deep understanding of the subject.

Secondly, acquiring "knowledge" was presented to me as a competitive process. The whole point of taking examinations was to determine who was the best in the class. At the end of each term, we were ranked according to performance. The competition here was so intense that friends would stop speaking to each other for several hours, simply because one had come out in front of the other. In the primary school I attended, the headmaster would call out the best three performers at the end of each term and reward them. He always reminded us the importance of competition by using Aesop's tale of the Tortoise and the Hare. Those who had slept like the Hare and had been overtaken by other students (the Tortoise) in the rankings would be ridiculed.

Thirdly, I was being given "ready-made knowledge" to consume. In other words, what was expected of me was to memorize whatever was on the books. Most of this was alien to me because I was not doing anything active or creative. I was not given the opportunity to question where this knowledge came from, how it was relevant to me, and what my role was in its construction and dissemination. I was thus never able to identify with it and forgot almost everything as soon as it was taught to me! It became difficult for me to become a model student.

Then we have the question of interest and motivation. People learn certain things for various reasons. My father is a scientist and, right from primary school, there was a lot of pressure on me to emulate him by performing well in Mathematics and Science subjects. But the figures and the technical explanations did not appeal to me. I preferred to learn History. This was because I enjoyed stories about struggle, especially against colonial powers. The story of how the Ethiopians successfully resisted the invading Italians during the battle of Adowa was my favorite, because it demonstrated to me that the Europeans were not that superior after all! I had no motivation to learn about molarity concepts, and here I was in a system that was going to condemn me to failure because I did not enjoy Maths, Physics and Chemistry!

<<Is this when I started "losing hope" in education?>>

Not really. I believed that a serious reform in the education practice to cater for people like me was necessary. I would think, "All this learning for what? To get to university, graduate, get a job…was that it?" When I was in school, they had promised us that if we study hard enough and pass, we would get lucrative jobs. The government of the day used a particular song to promote schooling: "Someni vijana / muongeze pia bidii / mwisho wa kusoma / mtapata kazi nzuri sana" (loosely translated: young people, study hard / put in a lot of effort / at the end of your education / you will get very beautiful jobs). Almost all school-going children knew this song. And we were all studying so that we could get beautiful jobs. And yet all around me, I could see jobless people who had degrees! I thought the education ministry should allow me to study what I wanted to, become an expert in a particular field… I mean if they didn't force us to learn all these unnecessary things, then our country would be a better country. It took me a stint in college to realize that I was just kidding myself.

<<What was my experience in college?>>

When I left high school, I decided that I wanted to become a writer, a profession that I assumed did not require a pass in mathematics or a university degree. My going to college to study for a degree course was mainly a result of family pressure. Within a year of completing high school, I was packed off to India. I had taken the attitude, 'if people want a university degree from me, then let me give it to them!' Despite my cynicism, I had hope in college. I thought that it was in college where one questioned the world. Within no time, frustration set in. All I had to do was remember what my lecturers taught me! I was not allowed to think on my own. Of course, they will tell you all about original thinking and stuff like that, but then try writing down an answer that contradicts the textbook and see whether you pass! Today I don't remember much of anything I studied in college, and neither do I find the degree useful. I think it was a complete waste of time and resources.

<<What do I mean when I say that I was not allowed to think on my own?>>

I mean that the moment I stepped into the classroom at the age of seven, somebody somewhere had already determined what I was expected to learn. Even in college I had to answer questions by saying, "According to professor so and so…" What would have happened if I said, "According to Charles Otieno-Hongo…"? There was this feeling that something somewhere was controlling what I was supposed to think and learn.

This goes back to what I said earlier about my time having been organized for me in advance. In college, I bought a curriculum book at the beginning of the academic year, which contained all that I was to learn. For example, for the poetry class, I would find a list of all the poems I was expected to study. There was no room for me to introduce and analyze my own poetry selection; it would not be examinable anyway and therefore would be construed as a total waste of time. The same applied to all the other subjects I was studying.

<<How did I feel at this particular time?>>

I was rather confused during this period. I felt as if I was being led somewhere, with a noose tied around my neck. The problem was that I did not have the faintest idea as to where I was being led. There seemed to be something rather evil in the notion that thousands or maybe even millions of people were being taught precisely the same thing in the same manner, regardless of their backgrounds and individuality. With time, it did occur to me that this process of mass education was a continuation of the same process I had experienced in school, being trained to fit in a well-defined system.

In school, we had to recite what is known as the Loyalty Pledge every week. We pledged our loyalty to the country and to the president. We were being trained in the art of unquestioning loyalty to the State, without being allowed to critically reflect on what the State actually means, how it came about, who benefits from it and who loses. I remember we would change the words of the pledge to make nonsense of it, an act that would be accompanied by punishment if found out. We would be forced to sing songs of praise to the president during particular occasions, and these too we would subvert. (Some of the versions we developed were rather obscene.) We were young but very creative. It's amazing how children can learn to resist and subvert education with natural ease.

In high school, I started to get an idea of what authority means and, even more importantly, what it means to bow down to authority. In my school, a lot of power was invested in prefects. These were the students who ruled on behalf of teachers. They were selected from the senior-most class. When I was a senior, several of my friends were selected to be prefects. At the same time, I was elected the editor-in-chief of the school's writers' club, a club that was charged not only with producing the school magazine, but writing daily happenings in the school. These would be pinned up on the Writers' Club Notice Board. In my position, I was responsible for any literature posted on the Board. It soon became clear that I had not understood my work. While I had assumed that my work only entailed checking other peoples' articles for grammatical errors, I soon found myself before the prefects, explaining why some articles questioning the prefects' decisions were on the Board. I was a bit surprised, because I had assumed that these were my friends. I was to find myself receiving several strokes of the cane from the Principal, something that I became proud of — not because it made me a hero among the commoners (as non-prefects were called), but because it made me realize that authority, justice and freedom are not the best of friends.

These experiences, coupled with the learning experience I was going through in college, made it seem to me as if I was being fitted into something. With time, I came to learn that there is no such thing as neutral education. Education can be used as an instrument to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the present socio-political system and conform to it, or it can be used as a tool for self-liberation, for dealing critically and creatively with the reality that surrounds us to transform our world. My school education had been preparing me for the former. My education was not preparing me to perceive the world in a radical and critical manner, to understand the power relations between the oppressors and the oppressed and even more importantly, it was not facilitating any process whereby I could engage myself in conceptualizing and co-creating a more humane society. It was the kind of education that would probably increase my chances of getting a job in an NGO. But then I joined an informal college.

I use the term informal college to refer to the new learning process and environment that I experienced when I was introduced to Shikshantar: The People' Institute for Rethinking Development and Education. I started getting involved in challenging discussions with friends, asking questions like, Who really controls society? How do they do it? Why? Who benefits the most and who loses the most in this scheme of things? I call it alternative college, because there were no subjects, no exams, no know-it-all teacher. Everybody was a teacher and student at the same time. It did not matter whether you had a Masters degree in education from Harvard, or had worked with all the major institutions in the world, or whether you were a first year college student, fresh out of secondary school. Everybody was accorded the same respect and given an ear if s/he had anything to express.

<<What did I find unique about this process and environment for learning?>>

Hey, I was starting to be in control of my own learning. The idea of somebody or some agency out of my reach, setting the agenda for me, was no longer there. I was even starting to ask myself, "Why am I learning what I am learning?" The questions we asked ourselves were open-ended and this helped to stimulate my thinking beyond the usual "there has to be one right answer" attitude I was used to. It was all very exciting to me. Through the challenging discussions and the literature I was getting exposed to, I was beginning to realize that my education had indeed been a process of fitting me into society.

<<What do I think is wrong with this?>>

I do not want to be manipulated to fit into a society in which only a few people have the power to make decisions for me. I want to be part of the process of deciding and co-creating the society I want to live in. Through the dialogue I was engaging in with friends at Shikshantar, I was starting to be conscious that certain forces were not only fitting me into society but also designing that society, for their benefit of course. Hell! It is my imagination that they have been stealing!

<<What forces are these and how were they stealing my imagination?>>

For example, by analyzing the media, I learned that only a handful of conglomerates, through news and television programming were controlling what I should know. Through advertising, they were manipulating my aesthetic senses and prescribing what I should consume. I learned that powerful conglomerates, through the process of Development, Education and the mass media, were controlling almost all the spaces I have to express and develop myself. And in the process, they were not giving me a space to imagine an alternative society. I would spend countless hours watching movies and sports on television. All this time my mind was asleep!

I learned that this is a society, where less than 20% of the people owns and controls over 80% of the world's wealth and resources. It is a society, where we put profit over nature and over people! It is a society, where I am expected to consume, consume and consume, as if there is no tomorrow. In the city, everywhere I look, billboards tell me to buy something. When I listen to the radio, I am being told to buy something. I can't watch TV for ten minutes, before I am told to buy something!

I am living in a society where I never got to learn dholuo (my mother tongue), because I was made to believe that English is the mother of all languages. In the primary and secondary schools that I attended, we would often be punished for speaking in our mother tongues or any other language that was not English. The school intended, and it still does, to make us perfect English speakers at the detriment of our languages. Today I find myself in the embarrassing position of not being able to communicate properly in my mother tongue. I am not alone, there are lots of Nairobi-born and -bred young people who cannot speak their native languages. I am only starting to understand the rich tradition and wisdom of the Luo people that I had lost when I was alienated from my mother tongue.

I was told that before the white man came to Africa, Africans did not have a history. How could they? It was a Dark Continent. There were no written records! I am living in a society in which we have been made to believe that our continent is backward and underdeveloped, that we can only survive courtesy of the messiahs from the World Bank and IMF. When I look around me, I see that the problems facing my society are so complex that I wonder how these messiahs from their Ivory Towers in Washington are supposed to help us. These problems are so complex that even the so-called teachers don't have the answers! How then do we expect them to show us the way out? We have to start learning and understanding the world and ourselves anew. This is the new process of learning that I embarked on.

<<At the so-called informal college?>>

Yes. Together with students from other countries of Africa and Indian learning activists, we started asking tough questions and pondering these issues. This was my first real empowering experience. After a few informal discussions with friends at Shikshantar, we decided to create a forum where students, especially from Africa, would discuss the development and education issues that were of concern to the African continent. I was motivated by the fact that college was not providing us with forum for discussing and interrogating issues from our own perspective. In the debate about Africa's Development, our voices were conspicuously missing! This forum was the first step towards righting this wrong. Shikshantar provided the right environment for this. It was an open environment and therefore we did not have to worry about ideology. We also had access to a lot of literature that we used as tools to stimulate our discussions.

<<Did I get some solutions?>>

I have to be careful about words here. I started coming across some answers, as far as why some things are the way they are. For example, I was able to understand that contrary to what I believed in (that technology is all-good and will make the world a better place), technology is not neutral and investment in it is a Faustian bargain. It seemingly makes work easier, while rendering millions jobless, and promotes a 'global village', while facilitating the annihilation of non-western cultures. These were not the things I was taught in school. I think solutions will have to come from the society learning together, as opposed to an individual institution. I see this learning as involving critical reflections with actions. I will demonstrate how I decided to experiment towards this.

I also learned how the idea of a Nation-State (especially in Africa) was created and used as an instrument of (economic and cultural) exploitation and ascendancy to power. Before the Europeans carved out countries round a table in Berlin, the idea of Kenya did not even exist. Yet today I have been made to understand that I am different from my brothers in Tanzania and Uganda (through the issues of papers, such as identity cards and passports, and manipulations through recitations like the loyalty pledge!). These boundaries, created for the sake of divide-and-rule and exploitation, are being maintained for precisely the same reasons. The State offers the framework through which exploitation and oppression takes place.

For example, I have talked about how education/schooling is a process of integrating one into the global system of exploitation and, at the same time, suppressing our creative abilities to oppose and transform this system. The State acts as an accomplice in this process by providing the tools through which this objective is made achievable. In Kenya, schooling has been made compulsory and is used as a discriminating factor against those who refuse to go to school. You cannot get any meaningful employment without presenting papers that show you have been to school. A new Children’s Bill to take effect this year proposes to jail parents who do not take their children to school.

In our African students' discussion group, we initiated discussions around some of the issues we thought were pertinent to our lives and our countries. We discussed how the media affected us, our experiences in the schooling system, what we thought of democracy, peace, human rights and other institutions of thought control. We brought diverse views; we sought out different writers and critics and went over their essays, criticizing, discovering new perspectives.

During this process, I started getting new and deeper insights into the issues that we were discussing. We specifically chose marginalised voices to get their perspectives too. What happened is that I started to think more critically about the system and, at the same time, developed confidence to articulate my fears. But even more importantly, I began to imagine and create new ideas without feeling that this is the responsibility of experts only.

As I said, critical reflection should be accompanied with action. As they say in the Bible, "Faith without Action is Dead," or as Gandhi put it, "What is faith, if not transformed into action?" So we started asking ourselves, "Now that we are learning all of this, what should we or what can we do?" Part of our discussions had focused so much on the media, so we thought of creating our own media. It would become our learning space and a platform for engaging others. We came up with a publication we called 21st Century Africa. This was a platform where we could freely express ourselves without having to worry about censorship, a platform where I started to explore my vision for Africa in the 21st Century. The most important thing though is that this effort helped to demystify the media and my role in it. I was no longer the passive audience I had been for years. The media was no longer the domain of a certain class of professional people. As long as I have something to say, I can create a platform to say it.

<<And so 21st Century Africa became the platform?>>

Yes. 21st Century Africa acted as a compliment to the discussion community we had created. Later I left India and came back to Kenya. Others might have been glad that I had come back with a degree, but I saw myself in a new light. The university degree was no longer important to me. I saw so many young "educated" people with degrees from universities all over the globe, all fighting to get a space within the system, little knowing that the system had space for few of them. And I wondered whether I would end up being one of them. I met friends who graduated years ago and were still walking around town looking for that elusive job. Some become frustrated and graduated into alcoholism, while others added to Nairobi's growing crime rate. School promised so much and yet offered so little.

Most graduates in Kenya have been trained for white-collar jobs and hope to get employment within sectors such as telecommunications, manufacturing industries, and maybe within the civil service. The irony is that most companies are either downsizing or moving away due to the harsh economic conditions. Having been trained to do nothing else, this generation does not know what to do except wait and hope that, sometime in the future, jobs will be available.

<<I talked of writers and critics. Are there particular writers or critics who made a major contribution to the way I see the world today?>>

Definitely. Perhaps the most revolutionary book I have ever read is Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It is revolutionary to me, because it made me humble. Even as I went through the process of detoxicating my mind, I still thought that I was better off than so many people, because I could read and write. As I was learning all these things, I thought that I could HELP others free themselves, empower themselves. But after reading this book I realized I was not more educated than 'the other people.' I could not be their messiah. I must fully strip myself of this kind of mentality and become one with the people whose struggle I identified with.

I was also influenced by Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, which brought home the essence of dialogue. Gandhi demonstrated that I don't have to chose either of two sides, but that I can transcend the compartmentalization 'either you are with us or against us' to reach a higher third level. This has proved particularly useful when dealing with people who tell me that if I am not for development, then I am for suffering and poverty. I am for neither!

<<How am I engaged in the process of resistance, decolonization and regeneration today?>>

I have been lucky to work with an organization called Mzizi Creative Centre, which is involved in grassroots communication strategies. This has given me the opportunity to closely study different communities and gain further practical insight into how development has been imposed on societies and how these societies are resisting this process. It has also given me the opportunity to pose some questions and share my understanding and experiences with other people/communities.

I am also rediscovering the art of storytelling. Before schools intruded, storytelling was the principal instrument of learning in African societies. Together with friends, I am involved in efforts to not only revive the art form, but to transform it into a tool of critical analysis and active and participatory learning. At Mzizi Creative Center, we are developing an art form known as Sigana. Sigana combines storytelling with elements of dance, traditional chant and banter and incorporates communal dilemma resolution as a tool for raising critical consciousness. Incorporating elements of Freirean participation and Boal’s theatrical techniques with traditional African storytelling concepts, we hope to develop a tool of communal interaction, self-critique and regeneration that leads towards the development of an interactive and participatory learning society.

I am also engaged in the Counter Renaissance publication. Here I not only learn from others but also share my perspectives and initiate debate on decolonization and regeneration. Issues raised in the Counter Renaissance have led to the formation of a group known as Brainstorm. Still in its early stage, Brainstorm hopes to bring together young people who envisage alternative media spaces to be used to facilitate discussions on decolonization, the reawakening of our creativities and the concept of an African regeneration.

<<Any last words?>>

I have slowly discovered that nobody can educate me, and neither can I educate anybody. I have to continuously learn and re-learn. Likewise, if we are to survive, the whole community must learn, unlearn and relearn. This learning involves an unprecedented tapping of creativity and as such, none can afford the arrogance of "I am the one who knows". I am refusing to be given a title that classifies me into a certain category. When people demand to know who I am (professionally), I insist that I don't belong to any profession. I am not a teacher. I am not educated. I am a learner. This is precisely why I think we should be learning, not going to school!