Teachers Day feast and woman who took miti shamba to Karen
I started my International Teachers Day celebrations, last Tuesday, with a reading of my colleague Margaret Maina’s article about Harriet Chebet. The article caught my eye for two main reasons. First, Chebet’s enterprise is in herbal medicine, and I had been rereading my own play, A Hole in the Sky, which shows an environmental degrader being treated and cured of cancer with forest herbs.
Secondly, I had already developed a profound admiration for Harriet Chebet when I heard her speak at a conference on culture, back in March 2020. This is the woman who set up a miti shamba (herbal medicine) clinic and shop in Nairobi’s prestigious suburb of Karen. Karen and African traditional medicine (ATM) sounds like a contradiction in terms, unless you are talking of bank ATMs (automatic teller machines).
That, however, is just the point. Harriet Chebet was originally trained as a banker, and her successful venture and adventure in herbal medicine illustrates how flexible and adaptable a well-educated person can be. The challenge to us teachers is how to produce, through the educational system, such persons as Chebet.
They should be not only technically competent but also creative and imaginative. My properly educated products should be humanely empathetic and sympathetic, always seeking practical solutions to our problems, and capable of thinking and acting outside the various social and technical boxes around them.
The Chebets of this world, who revolutionise society and change the course of human destiny, do not just happen. They are largely made and shaped by us humble teachers in our schools.
Great head teachers
“The British Empire was built on the playgrounds of Eton,” you may have heard people say. This is actually an adaptation of what the Duke of Wellington, the British general who defeated the legendary French commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, said about their decisive military encounter. Wellington remarked that the Battle of Waterloo, where he crushed his adversary, “was won on the playgrounds of Eton”.
Eton, founded in the 1440s, is the oldest and most famous of the “public schools” that are iconic of the elitist high school education characteristic of British aristocracy and upper middle classes. Other such schools are Rugby (where the game of that name originated) and Arundel. I toured this last one in the summer of 1966, with my friend, the late Hon Joshua M. Angatia, at the invitation of one of the masters there, who had previously taught Angatia at Friends School Kamusinga.
What building an empire or winning battles on the playgrounds of Eton means is that great social actors and influencers acquire most of their skills and tactics from their basic education in our schools. The values instilled into them in those schools, through academic study and co-curricular activities, like prayer, the organisation and running of their “houses” or dormitories and, of course, sports. The core values of self-respect, honesty, endurance, discipline, teamwork and fair play, learnt through these activities, are what made the graduates of these schools people of sterling worth.
Tom Brown’s School Days, a much-loved novel throughout the English-speaking world, tells the story of a student’s career at Rugby, one of the English public schools. It suggests how the young people in that system developed, with the help of their colleagues and their teachers, the qualities that made them empire builders and battle winners. A real life character in the novel is Dr Thomas Arnold, Headmaster at Rugby between 1828 and 1841, who is a model of a totally committed educationist.
He reminded me of the many great head teachers we have had, and still have, in many Kenyan schools. I thought of greats like Carey Francis of both Maseno and Alliance High Schools and Geoffrey Griffin of Starehe. I cherished my encounters with professionals like Fr Hillary Wambugu of Nyeri Boys, Ms Pricilla Were of Bunyore Girls and my Dar contemporary, Matthew Kanyi of Nairobi School.
I also recalled my profound respect for Ms Florence Mulatya, currently Principal at the Kenya High School, with whom we celebrated the centenary of my beloved Machakos Girls School in 2015. The young women at Machakos loved her with an almost fanatical affection, but that was only a reciprocation of what she gave, as she prayed, dined and played netball with them, apart from organising them into the best-performing school in the County. Through her, I salute all my comrade teachers in Kenyan schools.
My message to us as we celebrate ourselves is the same as I have always shared with you. Love yourself, love your students and love your calling. Live vibrantly and actively, with a keen interest in everything and everyone around you, and share whatever you have with your students and your colleagues. Struggle constantly to improve yourself, to be the best teacher that you can be, and have a strong faith, in yourself, in your students and colleagues and in your Maker.
“Competence” is the buzzword in our system now and we are inundated with guidelines and texts to help us impart it to our learners. We must, however, interpret “competence” creatively and imaginatively, not aiming at mere mechanical ability to “do things”, whether that is speaking well or developing computer software. Important as such skills are, they are inferior to the fundamental competences of “social sense”.
These are self-respect, respect for others and respect for our environment. Abbreviate that to “self-other-environment” and you get “SOE”, a spice to add to every competence that you care to impart to your learners. Awareness of the need for social sense has been crucially heightened by the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic and the havoc they have wreaked on our young people, who are our main business as teachers. We now know, for example, that our profession is a strong contraceptive device.
Teachers Day was last Tuesday, and I trust you observed it appropriately. But the reality is that every day is teachers’ day. We should be celebrating ourselves every day.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature.