One of the most disheartening dispositions of the majority of Kenyan citizenry is their weakened (and the operative word is weak) interest in engaging in political debates. They are disinterested, indifferent and unmotivated and see many talks involving politics as a bother.
We emphasize that it is a weakened interest because once in a while the Kenyan citizenry takes part in a political event such as an election. Their participation though is often a result of having no preferable alternatives. Therefore they simply play along with the rest of the populace and follow the electoral calendar. Their activity as political animals is minimal and sometimes almost involuntary. But we cannot blame these weakened and law-abiding citizens one iota for their limited engagement with political issues, though we cannot in the same breath absolve them of the responsibility and quilt for who they have become.
Let’s first examine the life of a common mwananchi (citizen) before we elaborate the benefits of educating her in philosophy. We may call her Person X (borrowing from Malcolm X’s use of the letter X to signify the unknown, and I will add the invisibility and the insignificance attributed to the common folk by the ruling political class).
Person X wakes up early in the morning just like other hundreds of thousands of fellow casual laborers and heads to undesignated work places to hunt for work. If she is lucky today, she might get a job as a stonemason or as a Matatu conductor at Eldoret-Kapsabet bus station. If she secures one of these two opportunities it means that more than 20 other fellow casual laborers have lost either of these two spots she has taken. If she is unlucky, well, she will be one of the hundreds of other fellow proletarians who sadly head back home after a full day of search and thirst without the hoped-for daily average wage of $1. Her older family members, if this happens, might understand her misfortune and bear with her just the same way she learned to understand and push on through life by witnessing and also taking note of moral lessons from stories about her parents’ struggles in their (parents’) childhood, youth and adult life.
The poverty-stricken living conditions of Person X are hereditary. Her future, which is now the present and probably like the future of her children, is bleak and uncertain. The daily realities are hard and reinforce this message. But as we said, we cannot fully blame Person X because her struggle is clearly a struggle against terrible odds, against forces apparently beyond her control. If you are born in an unprivileged environment, there are things you cannot do regardless of your will. Like getting rid of poverty overnight. You cannot force getting a job especially where opportunities are scarce and competition shocking.
But why (a big WHY), despite the excruciating experiences of these inexorable daily economic hardships, despite the inadequacy of the few available economic means to furnish survival and comfort, despite the conspicuous inequality in social relations and economic distribution, despite the exponentially increasing numbers of the already-hundreds-of-thousands of people like Person X – why despite the bitterness in the hearts of Persons X about the economic pain and struggle they are going through, why despite Persons Xs’ indefatigable efforts and undampened desire to transcend their miserable state, why (and this is the last why for now) despite the claimed representation on the national platform, why have there been no significant milestones achieved in procuring stability and in pacifying the dire situations of these Persons X?
One more question: do Persons X ask themselves these questions? After their long and disproportionately poorly-rewarded toil in all sorts of weather, you do not expect Persons X with their bent and hurting backs and minds to have any sufficient energy left to meditate on such rigorous and taxing questions; mind you they also have family issues to worry about in every spare moment when they are not hunting for work or toiling. If Person X lives in an urban locale, night and darkness may offer job-options she might pursue. Depending on the courage and moral inclination, she might work, though not limited to, as a sex worker, or an overnight watchguard or a part-time member of a local gang of thieves. Her hands are already too full for any philosophical deliberation. Poverty is an all-time profession.
Besides the restless and busy lives of Persons X, there are mentalities that perpetuate the non-inquisitive attitude in Persons X about their surrounding realities. Under the shackles of perpetual need and want, they (Persons X) reason that one cannot make a jump from their poverty to the other, affluent camp without the aid of one or two of these factors: Luck, Connections, Fate (or God’s will) or wealth potions. Hard work, they believe, can only help safeguard their situation from deteriorating further into an abyss but it is not in itself sufficient to promise or pave the way for a better future. And this is truly the case since looking at their dawn-to-dawn hustling, an everyday routine, one can easily conclude that their life stories are a factual narrative of existing economic hurdles that cannot be just overcome by hard work alone. Other factors must be brought into play.
With such a mentality, they henceforth rationalize their abject state as unchangeable. As Luis Rusmando mentions in Carlos Fraenkel’s article Citizen Philosophers, they become resigned to thinking that inequality and poverty are laws of nature. And so Persons X sadly equate their struggle as the meaning of their lives. Misappropriation of their labor value and their never-ending struggle, be it in the market places or in the prostitute streets of Koinange, (plus spectating the dirty drama in politics) enhances their weakened interest in political engagements.
Persons X see their economic struggle as mutually exclusive of political engagement. Though they are aware that the politics of the country are negatively affecting their situations, most of them believe that they can lead an independent life that is not involved with and affected by politics. To them, when you hate something, the best way is to turn your back to it. And this is precisely a misunderstanding that we would like to right, the reason why we cannot absolve Persons X completely.
As we said earlier, Persons X are fully aware of the economic realities surrounding them since they live them. They represent the agonies, they are the waste products of these economic realities. But this awareness is incomplete first due to the existing disconnect between their lives and political theatrics in the country and second, lack of a full understanding of the pivotal role they play in sustaining the whole political class that is actually the chief author of the miseries in their lives.
Many youths are relatively active in politics in various ways. But when they get caught up in life struggles like Persons X, when they become Persons X, they are forced to rank priorities in life. One of the priorities is minding their own business and staying as far as possible from political engagements.
Depending on what the newly-developed Person X was mostly interested in in her youth, if the interest had really been strongly developed (the key word here is strongly developed) in her youth, she will in one way or the other find ways of sustaining this interest. For instance, many women whose passions in their youth were to sing in church choirs still do this even in the face of insurmountable family responsibility and economic struggle. So do old men who loved to play soccer in their youth; they always find time and energy to indulge their old interests.
The point is, the ability not only to be aware and make connections between all forms of realities, economic and political alike, but also to inspect deeply and speak out about malevolent practices prevalent in these realities and innovatively come up with alternative ways of modifying these realities for the betterment of human and non-human species, is a developable skill, no different from any other character trait that needs development, nourishment and constant attention especially in the early stages of life; that is, in our teenage years. If Person X had fully cultivated this ability in her youth, we are sure that no amount of economic pain and misery could shake, let alone weaken, this ability. Our proverb captures this well, Samaki Mkunje Angali Mbichi (Bend a fish while it is still fresh).
Our current high school curriculum emphasizes what Paulo Freire calls a banking approach to conveying information and knowledge. Memorization of class material with an eye to passing the final examinations fails miserable in nurturing and cultivating the above-mentioned ability to think critically and be intrepidly outspoken. Furthermore there is a very insignificant focus on how students should creatively and freely engage with class material, and train themselves to develop, think, and articulate their thoughts in the ways they wish. The Kenyan educational system is very much dictatorial and unenlightening, suitable for breeding conformists and sycophants.
This explains why people like Person X (though they might be aware of their status quo and every day pray for redemption from their economic yoke) lack self-motivation to investigate and come up with alternatives to counter inhumane authoritarianism and unfairness crafted by the political class who are supposed to have the whole Kenyan public interests at heart. Persons X, just like many high school students, often cannot do anything except where there are laws and regulations, forgetting that they themselves, Persons X, should be their only legitimate legislators. The reason for this is that in high school people are taught to fear authority. The written word is given as the absolute truth and unquestionable command, and conformity of thought is praised and rewarded.
But what philosophy teaches us, as I have come to learn and as many of my Kenyan friends who have had the chance to take philosophy courses have told me, is the value of learning to question everything and the ability to listen and appreciate diverse ideas and thoughts, the power to exert one’s agency, and the courage to strive toward a fully realized humanity.
These are the values that we can and must impart to our budding youths. And yes, philosophy has a political and practical function. If we want to save our future Persons X, if we want them to stand up for themselves and unite in their fight for equitable economic distribution and humane treatment and just consideration in national affairs, then we ought to inculcate the above-mentioned ability in them at an early stage. We won’t be the first ones to do this; Brazil is one developing country that has already introduced a philosophy program in high school.
High-school students or non-sophisticated citizenry should not be undermined that they cannot understand philosophical subjects that relate, I say intimately, to their daily struggles. High-level philosophical literacy can be broken down to easily digestible bits for students; that is what teachers are for.
There is an Ethiopian saying that goes, when spider webs unite they can tie up a lion. The choice of letter X for Person X is not arbitrary. If Persons X unite, their invisibility and insignificance will soon be a thing of the past. If a good number of Persons X cultivate the above-mentioned and urgent ability, then they will be very critical and outspoken about their surrounding realities. And when this happens, even if politicians had built the impenetrable Jericho wall, it will surely be bound to fall. The unity of the voices of Persons X will be enough of a burning force that will surely raze the excessive and unnecessary political hegemony and unfairness (in forms of nepotism, ethnicity etc.) in our society.
Philosophy is really essential for this task. Carlos Fraenkel’s students argue, “if you can’t establish a just society democratically without the citizens knowing what justice is, and if you can’t know what justice is without philosophy, it would be impossible to achieve justice in an unjust society like Brazil [read: Kenya] if studying philosophy presupposes justice.” Need I say more?
We have already argued, the time to cultivate this ability of critical deliberation, innovativeness of spirit, and engagement with and outspokenness on all issues affecting us, is in high school. This is the best time, since there are more high school attendees in Kenya than there are students in higher education institutions, and Kenyan universities are more like technical than liberal studies institutions. If it is possible, we should really start this philosophy program on a small scale much earlier. We can catch the primary school goers since children are also capable of forming critical thinking skills at a very young age.
But why philosophy and not other disciplines like psychology or sociology? Well, philosophy is the bedrock of all investigative disciplines. It digs deeper and does not content with any correlations drawn between effects and presumed causes.
Another added advantage of introducing a philosophy program to our high school curriculum: We will be able to learn about our own African philosophy, which we have been alienated from for centuries.