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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We can learn something from Trump's America first agenda

President Trump is perhaps the most overrated public figure of the modern era. Trump is described in his campaign website as “the very definition of the American success story”. Talk about bombast and idolatry.

Both Trump and his transition team promised that the address would be a  “philosophical document”. Two days before his inauguration, Donald Trump posted on Twitter a picture of himself sitting at a desk writing his inaugural address at his winter home in Florida. For a man who without shame disdains ideas and especially the use of precise language, I was deeply skeptical that Trump would deliver a “philosophical document”.

On January 20th 2017, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. And President Trump delivered his inaugural address. It was not philosophical. It was not uplifting. For a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, President Trump did not have any words to heal a nation shattered by political division

In a rather morbid address, Trump observed that empty factories were strewn across America like tombstones. Trump spoke in apocalyptic terms about families ensnared in poverty and communities and cities staggered by the winds of crime, drugs and gangs. Under the dark winter skies president Trump proclaimed; “This American carnage stops here and right now”.

In his 16-minute address Trump advanced rapidly to what defined his unlikely rise and what shaped one of the most unconventional campaigns in recent times. In one of his sharpest indictment of Washington Trump said, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capitol has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost. Washington flourished. But the people did not share in its wealth. “

In an unvarnished smack against globalization, President Trump charged that the wealth of America’s middle class had been ripped from their homes and redistributed all across the world. President Trump decreed that a new vision would govern America. “From this day forward, it’s going to be America first. America first”. Trump declared with emphatic boldness. Protection, In Trump’s view, will lead to “great prosperity and strength”.

President Trump’s remark about an out-of-touch elite and a political order that is massively rigged against swelling ranks of the underclass has universal resonance. Here in Kenya, a small club of ethno-political and business elite has prospered at the expense of tens of millions of hard working citizens.

Too often ordinary citizens are denied basic social services. Our children lack adequate and well-prepared teachers. Millions of youth graduating from our schools, colleges and universities cannot find work. Those who work earn too little to live on. Our cities are chocking in filth, poverty and decay.  Where is the promise of urbanization?

The swelling ranks of Kenyans, who feel left out are veritable socio-political time bomb. This election season must go beyond narrow ethnic mobilization for higher voter turn out. I think we have a chance to put Kenya and its long-suffering citizens first. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obama legacy will unfold

“My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats”. With these words, a skinny kid with a funny name charmed a nation and a world was enthralled.

In 2006, two years after that Democratic National Convention keynote speech, The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote. “The next Democratic nominee should either be Barack Obama or should have the stature that would come from defeating Barack Obama”.

On the night of November 4, 2008 Barak Obama hailed “Hello, Chicago” as he stood in Grant Park in Chicago – before an adoring, tearful crowd – as President-elect. A world was both ecstatic and incredulous. Was post-racial America at hand?

On January 20th 2009 a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant took a most sacred oath. Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America.

On January 10th 2017 Barack Obama was back in Chicago. This time he hailed “Hello, Chicago” for the last time as president. The curtain will fall on Obama’s presidency in just three days. On January 20th 2017 Donald J. Trump will become the 45th President of the United States of America.

Everyone is talking about Obama’s legacy. Politicians and pundits are bloviating. Presidential historians are reflecting. Many believe that President Obama will be obliterated under a Trump presidency.

The Patient Protections and Affordable Care Act nicknamed Obamacare is in peril. Obama’s executive order to reduce gun violence through background checks and research in smart gun technology will be out the window under President Trump. Marriage equality could be history. President Trump will scrap the Iran nuclear deal. The Paris Climate agreement is off under Trump because climate change is a Chinese hoax. More consequentially, another conservative judge will replace the late Antonin Scalia in America’s Supreme Court.

It would be specious to imagine that Obama’s legacy has been revealed. Presidential legacies are more than policies or orders or infrastructure projects. Presidential legacies shift and bend through the tide of history. Presidential legacies are complex and often contingent on unknown and unknowns.

But we know this. Obama’s presidency revealed America. Decades of neo-liberal policies pummeled the American dream. The surge of the knowledge economy and the dawn of automation undermined America’s working class and chipped the middle class. In the rust belt coal mines shut down and factory jobs dwindled, leaving in their wake angry white men. Racial tensions boiled over. America was ready for a populist demagogue.  


But Obama the man embodies qualities we all desire. He is smart. He governed with vitality and integrity. He is perhaps one of the most charismatic public figures of my time. The power of his personal story and example will endure through the ages. Obama will be dearly missed on the world stage.

We can learn from the 2016 KSCE results

The 2016 KCSE results have stocked intense public chatter. Parents are incredulous and outraged. Pundits of all stripes are offering enlightened and outlandish commentary. Politicians and teachers’ unions are excoriating the government and Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi.

According to Prof. Makau Mutua “the 2016 KSCE results are to simply too fishy, not believable”. In Prof Makau’s it is not “possible to clean one aspect of an entirely rotten system without a systemic and publicly-accountable overhaul”. Led by Secretary General William Sossion the Kenya National Union of Teachers wants the 2016 KCSE results cancelled because they are “not a true reflection of the candidates’ performance. Moreover, according to KNUT, the results violate a cardinal law – the normal distribution curve.

Former Prime Minister and opposition leader Raila Odinga wants President Kenyatta to constitute a commission to investigate “the mysteries surrounding” the 2016 KCSE. In Mr. Odinga’s view too few students (141) scored “A” grade and way too many students (33,399) scored “E” grade. Odinga wants “disciplinary action” taken against those behind the mass failure.

The cacophony that has greeted the release of the 2016 KCSE results is not atypical. We are not a particularly introspective or reflective society. We huff and puff. We harangue. We ventilate in ways that are phenomenally fact-free. Public discourse spaces – radio, TV and newspapers – are unconstrained by evidence or sound analysis and are festooned with unbridled conjecture.

The 2016 KCSE results, despite what you think about them, provide us with a rare and invaluable opportunity deep introspection. It saddens me that what we – teachers, parents, students, and policy makers – care about is completing a narrow curriculum, testing and grades. What do we want out of our education and schools? Do we care about learning or a normal distribution of grades? What is the purpose of education?

What can we learn from the 2016 KSCE results?

Our education is broken. Teaching does not happen in our schools anymore. We have reduced education to testing not learning. Our schools have been reduced to grade factories. We are obsessed with grades. With bended knees we pray not for wisdom or learning but grades. We pay for grades. We are upset because 2016 KCSE did not produce enough A’s.

We have drank the Kool-Aid of grades and forgotten the real mission of education – teaching and learning. We have stripped tests and grades of their diagnostic value and disregarded the invaluable support they provide to teaching and learning. Tests and grades have become the sole purpose of education. The role of the teacher is not to stimulate, mentor, provoke or engage the student. The teacher’s brief is to drill and help students get better at taking tests. The mean score in their subject is the measure of the teacher.


Finland’s success in delivering educational excellence is the result of deep understanding of how children learn and a profound respect for teachers. What does 2016 KSCE results teach us about students and teachers?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Stripped of cheating, our schools are a disaster

The 2016 KCSE results are out and a nation is bewildered. The number of students who scored grade A declined by about 95 percent compared to 2015.  The proportion of students who scored below the C plus grade increased to 84 percent, up from 67 percent in 2015.

Moreover, 66 percent of the students failed. They scored a D plus grade and below. More than 5,000 students scored grade E. What this means is that about 2 out of 3 students completing high school are functionally illiterate. This also means that the individuals do not posses the ability to manage life and employment tasks that demand thinking, reading and numeracy skills at the basic level.

Let us be clear here. Failure at this monumental scale has catastrophic implications for our society. We are talking about 377,000 young men and women. We are talking about the individuals who are likely to be a guard, driver, house help, waiter, gardener, mason etc. Some of them will even end up teaching in our early childhood programs or in the army of police service. And you can bet they will be parents. In 2015, the number was 214,000. So in just two years we have produced about 600,000 functionally illiterate citizens.

What is interesting is that the commentary and conversation about the 2016 KCSE results has been about what many call the dramatic decline in the number of students scoring grade A. This is not surprising. I have said many times here that our schools have been turned into grade factories.

Teaching and learning are widely considered as a diversionary and a waste of time. Teachers and parents are more concerned about the final grade. Hence, drilling and the application of techniques such as cheating are essential tools of trade. By eliminating cheating in the 2016 KCSE, CS Matiangi has laid bare the real problem with our education.

The problem with our education is not the curriculum. The problem is not 8-4-4. The problem is that our children are not learning. Our schools, primary and secondary fail too many. Moreover, our education resources are not equitably distributed. For example, it is unconscionable that about 61 percent of the students who scored grade A (assuming that this is some rough measure of learning) went to schools in Kiambu and Nairobi counties. These two counties have the largest proportion of the best-resourced high schools, also known as national schools.

The 2016 KCSE results present a profound teachable moment for our country. Stripped of cheating, our schools are a total disaster. Clearly, our teachers are not teaching and our children are not learning. This is the crux of the Kenya’s education crisis.


I urge CS Matiangi not to rush into curriculum reform and the introduction of the 2-6-3-3-3. Let us go back to the drawing board. Lets not fiddle with the curriculum yet. What needs urgent attention is teacher quality, school resources, school governance and how to unleash the creative genius in every child.

Shared prosperity, shield and defender of democracy

Two of the most consequential events that shaped 2016 have been in the making for decades. For example the neglect and honestly sheer hubris of America’s coastal elite gave us the TIME 2016 Person of the Year. Similarly, the underclass in the United Kingdom galvanized by uncertainty delivered Brexit.  

The triumph of Donald Trump and Brexit shook the devotees of liberal democracy to the core. The unprecedented revolt of the underclass in both the US and the United Kingdom – considered the citadel of liberal democracy – persuaded many to doubt that the working class who often lack four year college education could not be trusted with the delicate and complex choice that defines the essence of western democracy.

Populist nationalists marshaled arguments against free trade, globalization, automation, and immigrants to instill and harness mortal fear and despondency to galvanize a veritable revolt of the underclass. In both the US and the United Kingdom, voters pushed to the fringes of society, living on minimum wage or unemployed, without college education and lacking skills to thrive in the globalized knowledge economy chose Donald Trump and “Leave”.

Both Brexit and the triumph of Donald Trump offer invaluable lessons for Kenya since we are a nascent democracy. The lessons are especially critical because ours is a democracy conceived in the image of a liberal democracy.  The lessons from Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump are instructive because we are hard at work laying the foundation of the conditions that will produce and sustain an angry and virulent underclass.

A huge chasm of inequality has opened in our society. The fruits of economic growth, even though modest, have not been shared. As Macharia Gaitho recently put it, we have become a country of 40 billionaires and 40 million beggars. For a majority of Kenyans, life is uncertain, unforgiving.

Prosperity is stuck at the top, with who have a monopoly on capital. The last 15 years of sustained economic growth, albeit modest, has not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality. Our zero-sum ethnic politics has only rewarded ethnic elites.

How we educate has not kept pace with the demands of the new economy. About 90 per cent of youth entering the job market cannot find well-paying jobs. Urbanization has spawned a multitude of working poor.  Hence, a majority of Kenyans are disconnected and denied a chance to get a toehold on the first rung of the ladder of opportunity. Neglect of so many of our fellow citizens is both morally unconscionable and politically reckless

The end of ethnic politics is nigh. The emerging underclass will obliterate the primitive ethnic cleavages that now undergird our politics. The underclass will provide a fertile seed bed for virulent discontent and hasten the emergence of demagoguery.  


The biggest threat to Kenya’s nascent democracy is not foreigners. The biggest threat to our existence as a people grappling with nationhood is not terrorism or tribalism. The growing legions of the underclass are our most grave existential threat to Kenya.

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