The (D)evolving World – on the Books We Use to Teach Our Children

African History Project - Devolving World- Social Preview copy

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Buried deep within an anaemic copy of Evolving World Book 4, is a photograph of W.E.B. du Bois and one of Marcus Garvey (yes, that one).There is also one of Nelson Mandela. There might be one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. too, or Malcolm X—in his suit and skinny tie, and browline glasses; but this I do not recall for a truth.

However, I do know that there is neither photograph nor epitaph of Thurgood Marshall, the “American Revolutionary” justice who wrote the Kenyan independence constitution’s Bill of Rights (I am getting ahead of myself here but one would think the fact that it was an African American lawyer, who lived during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America, who found the time and wherewithal to write parts of Kenya’s constitution, is one of those things that teachers of History in Kenya would want mentioned with some sort of ceremony). 

Evolving World is the title of one of the Ministry of Education-approved History and Government textbooks for the Kenyan high school curriculum, and Book 4 is something of an oddity—and this is not even about how its front cover is simply a photo of seated UN peacekeepers (and all the torrid prophetic ironies that this comes loaded with). The thin book opens with detailed narratives of the First, Second, and Cold Wars (curiously forgetting to mention the grave African casualties incurred), then goes on to explain the world system of international relations hopefully before it runs out of space. It is important to note its reed-like stature, because this book must also cover topics in African co-operation; national philosophies of Kenya; political, social, and economic milestones since independence; public revenue and devolved governance; and electoral processes around the world—all in around 250 pages.


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Needless to say, but it shall be said all the same, the African co-operation chapter takes an especial blow as a result of all this stuffing full of the pages. Whatever foliage of achievement there has been in the great forest of Pan-African struggle, it appears there significantly pruned. I should hold my ire on the absence of Justice Marshall then, because even Roberto Holden is virtually non-existent, as is Mario Andrade and Amílcar Cabral. How reasonable, how doable, is it to teach African co-operation without teaching about the man who united two countries in a bi-nationalist struggle against oppression? I do not know, but they are doing it down there in the Kenyan Rift Valley, and everywhere else throughout that great East African country. So, that I learned this shrivelled sort of African History in a small school nestled within the Cherangany Hills, fifty-two odd miles away from Eldoret Town is no anomaly. This miseducation would have occurred anywhere else in Kenya: a place where instruction derives from a textbook that dedicates an entire two chapters to the history and operation of the United Nations and its role in world stability, then deliberately forgets its flat-footedness in Rwanda during the 90s, or throughout Africa at literally any other time (let us recall that cover photo of seated UN troops).

(Perhaps I am being cynical. It is not that the teaching of African civilisations throughout the ages was not made available: there is a lot available on the history of the East African Coast, the autonomy of those great Swahili towns—and their slave trading (of course), their rejection of occupation, and the sources of their history, all much more than I could get through in a lifetime. A lot is also available on the Triangular Trade. In my day, mention was even made of African resistance to colonial domination—in classrooms of my past I have been fascinated by Samori Toure’s ingenuity in resisting both France and Britain, learnt Kinjeketile Ngwale is better than any Baptist minister, and ardently professed that Mekatilili wa Menza will live forever, as will Moraa the prophetess. But this was all in Books 1-3. Then Book 4 came along and showed the contemporary world—by refusing to show that Africans, East Africans, Kenyans have had any meaningful impact to the world as it is today. For that book¸ the world evolved to this point because Gavrillo Princip fired a gun. I dissent. The nature of my place in the world has more to do with Toussaint Louverture than Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, but this is a different conversation. I have no problem learning of Jethro Tull and his planter; so long as I also learn of George Washington Carver and his peanut (butter?))

African History Project - Rene Odanga copy

“…the desire to look, with one eye on the past, into the future and mould that future. Surely, this is the work of every Pan-Africanist.”

– René ODANGA

So where does this leave us? Where does this leave the individual African who was schooled in the non-existence of the Pan-African parts of their story? Of course, at a trans-national crossroads of intense betrayal, anger and an abjection akin by what Aimé Césaire described as the logical conclusion for “millions of men in whom fear has been cunningly instilled, who have been taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, despair and behave like flunkeys” (Césaire 1955, 43). Unless:

Unless we centre Makerere in 1962, that great conference which birthed a new way of talking about Africa that we must carry on today. Unless we centre the Asmara Declaration and accept the impetus to take from our own history and language the tools to develop and grow. Unless we centre these and others of similar strain. 

Wait. Who is “we”? 


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Contrary to what obfuscators would have us believe, this question is not that difficult to answer—it is not too difficult to define a people with a shared history. There must be, somewhere, the hope that these people have a desire to rise above the lot that the world has decided to accord them. And that desire exists—the desire to look, with one eye on the past, into the future and mould that future. Surely, this is the work of every Pan-Africanist. And why would the past be important? Because of Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem. Well, not him directly. Because of a thing he said on how futures eat up the problems of the present. Take the sordid matter of African leaders and their secretly sworn oath to be an impediment to the African future by distorting the past and killing the present. “But one thing is clear: Africa will survive these leaders. But more than that, we shall overcome these obstacles. We just have to keep hope alive and continue with the struggles” (Abdulraheem 2010, 47)

Here is the importance of the Pan-African project today then: the African youth is quickly coming face to face, perhaps for the first time, with the unsettling reality that the rest of the world has refused to evolve any meaningful place for them. A solution to this conundrum has become to turn inwards, back to themselves, to find out their own history in shaping the world. And inwards, they shall find all sorts of wondrous things!


References

  • Abdulraheem, Tajudeen. 2010. Speaking Truth to Power: Selected Pan-African Postcards. Nairobi: Pambazuka Press.
  • Césaire, Aimé. 1955. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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