We Must Unlearn to Look Down on Africa

When I was in high school we spent 3 months of the academic year learning about ‘Hard Water’.

Let me start by saying that when the topic of hard water was initially introduced to us — a classroom of teenage Kenyan students — we were gripped not by our interest in the subject, but by our curiosity as to why our teacher did not just say “ice”.

Little did we know that ‘Hard Water’ was actually a real ‘thing’. “Water that has a high mineral content and forms limescale in kettles…. Blah, blah blah”, as our school textbook would say.

Now, I don’t dismiss the importance of learning about hard water. And even though I much despised chemistry as a subject in my teens, I suppose it was important. ‘Important’, for the same reason my father sent me to school; “because education is the key…” Not because of any logical reason I could bring myself to believe as a young teenager.

Hard water is relevant — perhaps to students who have grown up seeing limescale in their kettles or experiencing this “strange water” first hand. But to kids from Kenya who are more likely to see Giraffes through the windows of our houses, than hard water spilling through our kitchen taps… it was all irrelevant. Learning about hard water only served to turn our education into an abstraction; a collection of lessons that were beyond our frame of reality.

There is a quote in Nelson Mandela’s very insightful book named “Long Walk To Freedom” that says;

“The educated Englishman was our model.; what we aspired to be were “black Englishmen” as we were sometimes derisively called. We were taught — and believed — that the best ideas were English ideas, the best Government was English government and the best men we Englishmen”.

The book was written over 20 years ago, but I struggle to see how anything has changed since, at least in my native country of Kenya.

As a teenager, I went to a British international school — what many, not by coincidence, would call one of the best schools in the country. And though I was the beneficiary of resources and means of education that few others got in Kenya, I don’t think I learned much. Not anything of real relevance anyway. Nothing that really ‘helped me’.

When I sat in that chemistry classroom as a teenager, listening to my English teacher ramble about hard water, I absorbed his words like I was sitting in the pews of his church; with unwavering faith, writing in my notebook as hastily as I could. Though, what I never noticed then, that I have been enlightened to since, was that I was actually a victim — a victim of colonialism in its most contemporary form.

A Voluntary Slave

Learning about subjects like ‘hard water’ in school, in Kenya, I was no longer learning about ‘my reality’, but someone else’s. As I scribbled in my notebooks in chemistry class, it never occurred to me that the things I spent night’s revising and cramming into my absent mind actually had no value to me. They did not serve to enable me to better navigate my country or better exist in Kenya. Instead, I was stuck in a system. A system which required me to seek the validation of those at its helm if I wished to get ahead. Instead of my education introducing me to an affixation with my environment, it taught me about somewhere else… somewhere far, far away, where the white people came from. I learned about the world from their perspective, and saw my country through their eyes…

“As I grew up and advanced academically, my reality was further separated from my education… I just knew my education was preparing me to go somewhere else… and give to another environment that it belonged to, it was not for my environment when and where I grew up.”

 Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu

We are Taught to Hate Ourselves

When I first learned about Mount Kenya — Kenya’s tallest mountain — I was a little boy, listening to my father’s words in the village where he grew up, at the foot of the mountain itself. Years later in primary school, I recall learning about Mount Kenya once again. Only this time, our textbooks told us of a man called Dr. Johann Ludwig Krapf. ‘They’ say he discovered Mount Kenya on the 3rd of December 1849. It was written and stated as a fact by our teachers, and somehow, when I was a child, I did not think to question it. I probably scribbled it in my notebook like it was chemistry class, struggling to engrave the date in my memory just to pass the next test.

Though what never occurred to me at the time is that my grandparents — and my great-grandparents — had grown up right at the foot of the mountain. So, what the teacher was effectively saying was that it took a white man from Germany to travel thousands of miles to “discover” a mountain that was right in front of them…?

No chance.

This was one of many of the paradoxes of my education. I grew up not believing that answers came from within the borders of my country or continent, but from outside. From the more intelligent white men who knew ‘everything’. From the ‘first world’ that we hoped to one day exist in.

It is this habit of thought that I have continually tried to remove from my mind but, at the same time, I’m terrified to I see it so deeply engraved in the minds of fellow Africans. We continue to see the ‘western world’ as ‘right’ or ‘superior’ or ‘further ahead’; we drink of their ‘hard water’ like we will one day taste it and never questioning why. It’s this same habit of thought that has kept us looking down upon ourselves, undermining our power and being told what to do.

It is about time that we, as Africans, empower ourselves!

The great Julius Nyerere once said;

“You cannot develop people. People will have to develop themselves.”

We as African’s cannot continue to voluntarily bow to the west. We cannot continue to see ourselves and our world through a ‘white’ lens. Let us see each other and our surroundings for who and what they are. Let us aspire to be ourselves and no longer need to be like ‘them’. Perhaps once we find pride in ourselves, we can slowly mold our continent into something that is really and truly our own.

Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) is a Spoken Word/Poetry writer/performer, and a Hip-Hop artist from Nairobi, Kenya. Click here to see more of his work.

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