Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Labour of Love: Education in East Africa

Mwanza, second largest city of Tanzania. Nicknamed Rock City with good reason. As my bus rattled through the north of the country, the expanse of Lake Victoria to my right, majestic obelisks balance one on top of the other, years of erosion having reduced the soil around them until they are left to stand crutch-less. Across from one of these overweight ballerinas was the school I was to visit.

Straight ahead, a man mixing cement and then passing the filled pallet to his co-worker. They throw it one to another, up and up the scaffolding until it reaches the uppermost floor of the secondary school’s main block. This is Nyakahoja Secondary School: a school for girls being built by East African nuns. They do not have enough money to finish but know it will come somehow. The school will start before the complex is finished anyway, such is the need. And who cares if the authorities complain? The school is being built on their own farm anyway. 

The other side of Lake Victoria: Kenya. Kisumu, third biggest city of the country. A fishing city crippled by AIDs and abandoned by the government. Residents praise the new constitution voted for last year, which they hope will guarantee some devolution of government funds away from Nairobi. There I meet with a friend called William and take a car that feels older than the tarmac road beneath it. We hit an unseen road bump at speed and after the smash I realise that everything that could have dropped off the car had already fallen off years ago.

To left and right, farmers ploughing furiously to pre-empt the rain that gathers overhead. William’s work is different. He visits schools in the Siaya region to meet with the AIDs orphans sponsored by the NGO Teach A Child. He meets the students, encourages them, gives them books and calculators recently sent from Nairobi, and speaks with their teachers about their progress.

Nairobi, the heart of the nation. Across a well-kept sports field, Kenyans gather. Rows of seats stretch out beneath the shade of enormous trees; in the foreground, a beautifully arrayed altar. This is the 50th anniversary Mass of Strathmore, a school and university that continues to expand at an electrifying rate. Founded by members of Opus Dei, Strathmore has grown from the same seeds from which Netherhall grew, nourished by Kenya’s desire for education.

For education is a big thing in East Africa, conveying the hope of the people. The introductory rite into the larger world of opportunity. For Professor David Sperling, Netherhall alumnus, previous Principal of Strathmore and current senior lecturer of the University, education has been his labour of love for over half a century. His journey, he explained to me when I met him in Nairobi, has seen ups and downs.

How did you come to be here?

Well, I came to Kenya to teach, and I came specifically to work in setting up the sixth form college of Strathmore. You already had a group of members of Opus Dei who were in Kenya, who were planning the college. One key person who had taught at the Royal Technical College put together the Strathmore Educational Trust. Then they needed people to actually come and teach in Strathmore. So I came specifically to work in Strathmore College and to be there as the Principle.

Now at that time, the British government was paying all our salaries, so I was actually interviewed by the Director of Education here in Kenya because I was appointed under the Overseas Appointment Board in London. Strathmore got help right from the beginning from the colonial government, capital as well as paying all the salaries. I originally had a two year contract and then it was renewed, and then independence came and of course I stayed on.

So I think this gives you the formal, administrative dimension of why I came. The personal dimension was that I was asked by St Josemaría if I would like to go and work in Kenya, to do my professional work, leaving me completely free to come or not. There was a coincidence here because the work of Opus Dei was beginning in Kenya. People of Opus Dei who were already in Kenya had formulated a plan to start a college of some kind. So the implication was that if I came I would be able to work in the college, helping.

So I came, was interviewed and accepted. I took over the position of Principal. The college hadn't started: we had to get the teachers, we had to get the finance, we had to interview the students. Pre-beginnings, you might say. I came in July, 1960. 

Strathmore’s crest bares the lion of Kenya and the rose of Opus Dei. The three hearts represent the three races of Kenya which, when Strathmore started in 1961, were segregated in the colonial system of education. Strathmore was the first school to include all three.

For those who don't know how it works, how is it that you are now teaching in a university, if you came to teach in a school?

It works this way. I taught A-Levels at sixth form (we were a sixth form college, no Form 1 to 4). Then, in 1981, the Education Commission, chaired by a North American, recommended to the government that Kenya adopt the North American system. Big mistake, but it was adopted. The minute that was adopted, the Kenyan government announced they were phasing out Forms 5 and 6. We now have a North American system with eight years primary, four years secondary and a four year degree. The same total number of years but arranged in a different way.

At that point I had no interest in teaching Form 1, so I went to do my PhD – which is why I stayed in Netherhall. I was doing my PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) from the fall of 1984 until 1988, although I only spent one full academic year in SOAS and then came back to Africa to do fieldwork, taking visits to the UK to see my supervisor. SOAS required one year in residence so I stayed in Netherhall that year, from October 1984 up until May 1985.

When I finished my PhD in the end of 1988, I joined the University of Nairobi because I didn't want to teach Form 1 and there was no sixth form in Strathmore; it had now become a secondary school with additional accountancy training. The A-level had disappeared and Strathmore College had focused on accountancy. I worked at the governance level of the Strathmore Educational Trust and at a certain point I became the Chairman of the Governing Council of Strathmore College, though I was teaching at the University of Nairobi. So I kept a link with Strathmore at the level of trusteeship and governance.

Then we developed plans to begin university undergraduate courses in April 2001. So as soon as that plan was approved, and we had negotiated with the Commission of Higher Education and got approval for it, I decided to leave the University of Nairobi to come back to Strathmore, so to speak, to teach the undergraduate students who were enrolling in April 2001.

I was now employed by Strathmore College. Beginning to teach degrees, I couldn’t be the chairman of the council of the institution which employed me! So I resigned as chairman and came to work in Strathmore College in this campus. But it was a long process because it was a five year accreditation process, so we couldn’t change the name to Strathmore University until we got the charter in 2006. But this is how I kept my link with Strathmore through the years, at different capacities and levels, finally coming back to teach here.

This is a new campus. The land was given by the Kenyan government; the buildings funded with the help of a European Union grant. You’ll understand it just like that, but try to explain the process to an American! ‘What is this Sixth Form thing?’ ‘Accreditation?’

Difficult to explain to an American? Even though there was this conscious move towards an American system?

Yes, there was the move, but that was a disaster! We had fantastic forms 5 and 6; we had something like 250 schools in Kenya that had developed excellent form 5 and 6 classes. It was a tragedy for the Kenyan educational system. Just crazy. Daniel Arap Moi was President and he didn’t really know what he was doing. In fact, the director of education was a very close friend of mine and, literally, I had lunch with him a day after the announcement was made by the ministry to change to the North American system. The director of education told me he had told the president that we need at least a year to study the implications of this – the financial implications, the educational implications. But it was a political decision: the president just said no, we are going to do it. He never took any professional advice from the education commission or anybody. This was Moi rising to be a real dictator. The financial implications turned out to be disastrous: the one year in university cost more than the two years in A-Level. We’re still trying to recover from it.

There are a number of people who pass through Netherhall and who attend SOAS. How was your time in SOAS and what did you take from Netherhall?

Having completed that year in SOAS in residence – attending all the weekly African history seminars and all the stuff you have to do – I came back to do fieldwork in Kenya. When I would go back to London to see my supervisor I would stay in Netherhall. 

I don’t think I can praise the system in Netherhall enough. Just extraordinary – even from the point of view of other Kenyans I know who have gone there. You are moving into a community which is very British in many ways but at the same time combined with the commonwealth ethos. One of my closest friends – and that friendship came out of the one year I stayed in Netherhall – was Ben Thomas, who was from southern India and had come to do some medical studies. The interaction with the people from the different countries there is an experience, and is combined with a very British environment. So Netherhall has got its cricket team, it’s got its Peter Brown: it’s all very British and yet combined with this openness to other cultures and peoples.

You really feel at home, right from the first moment. You appreciate that you’re accepted as a non-Brit but you’ve got a culture that’s accepted, whether it’s Ghanaian, Kenyan, Indian, Hong Kong, you name it. This, for me, is supporting the idea of the commonwealth as a reality. It’s not just the commonwealth games once a year, it’s a reality. There’s a common denominator there that binds the people.

Netherhall: let’s call it a microcosm of the world of the commonwealth, together with a social environment that makes you feel very much at home.

Strathmore University is currently undergoing an enourmous ‘Phase 3’ expansion. In support the project, a 50th anniversary raffle is being held. To buy a ticket, please email the author at dominic.burbidge [at]