Kenya currently has Kiswahili and English as both the official and national languages (Buzasi 3). Kiswahili is widely spoken across Kenya, with virtually everyone in the population being able to speak it. Largely, most Africans and Kenyans in particular, are multilingual, a fact attributed to the presence of ethnic languages (Kenya has more than 40 tribes and an additional 60 ethnic languages), the national language and the official language (Chonghilen.p.). While individuals easily learn Kiswahili and the ethnic language as they grow up, English, the official language and the language of instruction in all Kenyan schools has to be learnt through schooling (Alwy and Schech 266). With a history of colonization, ethnicity, language and education in particular, have been a source of economic disparity in the country.
Colonial divisions, development, and education policies were all regionally inclined, which meant that some sections of the country remained economically and socially underdeveloped through the colonial period, something that did not change even after the attainment of independence in 1963 (Alwy and Schech 267). Therefore, proficiency in the colonial language (English) became a core factor in social and economic mobility, with a few people with English proficiency taking up strategic positions during the colonial period. Consequently, these individuals fought into maintaining the positions at the attainment of independence, and propagating similar practices well in the all-African governance of the country, and with it propelling the current economic disparities between regions, ethnic groups and among different individuals.
Kenya, like many African countries is largely multilingual. According to Muaka, “Kenya is pervasively multilingual both at the societal and individual levels. An average person speaks at least three languages” (218). Part of the reason for Kenya’s multilingualism is the ethno-linguistic groups habiting the country, as well as the need to communicate with these individuals from the different ethnicities on a daily basis in different contexts. This is especially important for individuals in urban centers, which are cosmopolitan, with virtually every ethnic groupings represented in the centers. With this marked diversity in language, Kenya has two official and national languages—Kiswahili and English–which help in solving the language quandary.
The establishment of English and Kiswahili to solve the language diversity is largely visible even in the Kenyan education system. The country’s language policy within the education system has English as the main medium of instruction in metropolitan areas (Muaka 218). In remote areas however, the policy leans in favor of linguistic homogeneity present in such areas, and therefore identifies “indigenous languages as the initial languages of instruction until the third grade, with English taught as a subject” (Muaka 218). In these areas, English then takes precedence as the medium of instruction. Kiswahili on the other hand, takes precedence in the first three years for urban centers, and is later relegated to being taught as a subject through the entire primary and secondary schools. Moreover, after the third grade, vernacular languages are discouraged from school with English taking precedence within the entire education system as a medium of instruction, the exam language as well as a determinant in admission to schools and higher education (Muaka 218).
The predominant position that English takes is visible within the country, where the language is used in public forums and official communications. In fact, the language is encouraged given its instrumental role in an individual’s career life (Muaka 218). Kenya’s legal system, parliamentary proceedings, constitutional and most mainstream media use English for communication despite the constitution allowing all official government communications to be relayed using both English and Kiswahili (Muaka 219).
With most academic and government institution discouraging the used of vernacular for English, proficiency in English can be a determining factor of success in academic, career and business dealings. Yet with the importance of the language, disparities are visible in the whole education system specifically in relation to regional balance in education, and therefore the access to the important English language. According to Mulongo, “almost 100% of children in Central province go to primary school in comparison with thereabouts of 34% in North Eastern” (50). Additionally, these children (from North Eastern) are also most likely to drop out of school, perhaps a pointer to the debilitating poverty and illiteracy levels in the North Eastern region, while the bulk of the country’s wealth rests in individuals from Central Province (King, McGrath and Rose 60).
Initiated in during the colonial period and propagated by the leaders in the post-independence era, continued inequality is commonplace in Kenya. The inequality has particularly established ground in all educational levels; which are the basic source of learning of the English language, which is also instrumental in career propulsion (Nishimura et al.). The gap between Kenyan haves and have-nots continues to widen today due to educational inequalities between these two groups. This gap moreover transcends regional boundaries to ethnic, class and gender variations. According to Mulongo, women form the bulk of the illiterate in Kenya, accounting for 70 percent of the total number (50). Further, more females than males are illiterate in Kenya, with females from Nairobi being more literate than those from North Eastern Kenya are at a ratio of 14:1 (Mulongo 50). Such disparities mean that most women from North Eastern cannot speak English, and can therefore not gain any meaningful employment, relegating them into agricultural and unskilled labor force.
While English is a determining factor for career propulsion, the very basic determinant is access to education, which then allows one to communicate in English effectively. So far, none among the indigenous people in most African countries can speak the colonial language as the first language (Prah 2). Most of these colonial languages are therefore learnt in schools, most of which have disparities in the amount of resources availed to them. A study into the imbalances among schools and regions showed that “schools low-income areas, especially in rural areas in Kenya receive less resource, face insurmountable challenges in attracting and retaining qualified teachers, are rarely inspected for quality, and get littlebacking from the school community” (Mulongo 50). The result of such poor quality education is that most of these children end up with little or no knowledge of communication in English, enough to make them progress in their educational pursuits an ultimately in well-paying careers.
On the other hand, the quality and quantity of schooling offered to students from better economically capable parents draws a sharp contrast to the education in rural areas. While parents from poor backgrounds have to contend with the poor quality public education provided freely by the state, parents from wealthy parents enroll their children to high cost quality private schools; rarely will such parent send their children to public schools (Mulongo 50). This largely happens at the primary school level, where children get the basic skills in communication using English. Children from the private schools therefore tend to master the language of instruction much earlier and better than children from public schools. This later becomes a determinant of performance in the final examination and placement in secondary schools.
The Kenyan education system is structured in such a way that there are evaluation tests at the end of the primary and secondary level of education. The Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) is a national examination undertaken by students from all primary schools in the country (public and private). Performance in the examination determines placement in a secondary school; better performance usually means placement in better secondary schools with higher academic prospects. Historically, private schools have always had better performance than public schools and therefore take the bulk of the placements in good secondary schools. According to Mulongo, data from the 2010 KCPE examination results indicates that out of the 30 top students nationally, 27 were from private schools (50). Moreover, there is a gap in education attainment between the poor and the rich, with only 60 percent of students from poor background completing their primary education, compared to 75 percent of children from well-off families.
With the good performance, most of the students from the private schools therefore get enrolled into the best secondary schools, mostly well-equipped, well-staffed and with better resource allocation. At the end of the four years of secondary education, these students are subjected to the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, again a national exam that determines their advancement to higher education with government subsidy (Oucho 62). Most of these students therefore pass their examinations and gain admission to the public universities. Few of the students who attended the other schools make it to direct entry into the university, and therefore have the choice of either joining the self-sponsored university program, which is expensive, or join tertiary institutions. Mulongo summarizes this stating, “Children from poor families are therefore most underprivileged by the schooling system, and are likely to be sentenced to less significant professional and occupational prospects” (50). The performance, and eventual placement to the university with government subsidy, depends on the understanding of the language of instruction in answering questions. Given their poor mastery of the language of instruction therefore, students from poor backgrounds ultimately fail in the final exams, and are not therefore enrolled into their choice careers.
Far wealthy elite on the other hand, either shun the Kenyan education system enrolling their children into international schools, or send secondary school graduates to universities abroad. These universities offer better quality education for the students, who then come back and clinch top positions in lucrative industries due to their “well-roundedness” (Business Daily, n.p.). Most employers therefore prefer employees from the foreign universities and foreign systems of education, as they do not necessarily need to conduct any on-the-job-training for these potential employees, as is the case with candidates from the Kenyan education system (Business Daily, n.p).
To provide an overview of the quality of university education in the country, an assessment of the facilities in Kenyan public and private universities painted a grim picture. The assessment showed satisfaction levels of 34.7% and 79.1% for the laboratories respectively and 83.9% and 35.3% for the private and public universities’ computers (Gudo, Olel and Oanda 205).This is even as there is an expansion of the universities in Kenya, with the government allocating even more resources to the higher education sector (Riechi 1). Many have however blamed the expansion on the falling quality of higher education, as much of it has invariably been commercialized (Manyasi 125).
The expansion of the universities to cater for a higher number of students, although has increased the number of students going to the university, still only favors those from high-income areas. Mulongo puts this rightly by stating, at the University of Nairobi, close to 85 percent of students hail from privileged areas and only 0.5 percent of total female students hail from arid and semi-arid areas (51). This situation replicates itself in other public universities, thereby concentrating the access to knowledge only among the already well off (Noyoo 58).
The expansion of higher education has additionally come with its own ills. Part of the reason for the expansion of higher education through the introduction of parallel education programs (self-sponsored programs) was to allow access to students who have attained a C+, the minimum grade for university entry. This opened opportunity for students from well-off families to gain entry into the university and study any degree of their choice given their ability to pay (Mulongo 51). The parallel education programs then became the universities’ source of income given the inadequate income given by the government. The programs have also affected the choice of degree as it is commonplace for students from poor background with scores of A plain admitted to Bachelor of Arts degrees, aside from their ability and interests in pursuing Medical, Engineering or Law programs. Contrastingly, students from wealthy backgrounds, even with B+ are enrolled to these potentially lucrative programs, given their ability to pay for the parallel degree programs. These students are usually from private schools in primary, who then go to better-off secondary schools, study lucrative degree programs and eventually gain gainful employment, a sure proof of how degree choice is biased against students from poor economic backgrounds (Hillmert et al. 30; Stewart 16).
English, as a medium of instruction, plays an important role in students’ academic achievement. As a result oriented nation therefore, Kenya heavily relies on education performance and achievement for social mobility. The level of educational involvement in most public schools however do not allow advanced engagement with English as a medium of instruction, he official and business language, thus leading to poor performance of students from the ill equipped and understaffed schools. The result of this is social and economic stagnation of most of the majority poor population, which relies on the public education. Conversely, however, the elite are capable of affording the expensive private school education, which consequently puts them at a better position of mastering the language of instruction, passing exams and therefore getting placement in lucrative jobs. Others on the other hand, shun the Kenyan education system, pursuing education from foreign systems and universities, which give them an upper hand in the job market. Additionally, with a history of colonialism, the distribution of resources remains unequal; some regions and ethnic groups aligned to those in power continue o enjoy adequate educational facilities and other resources propelling their social mobility, while others remain stuck. To address this problem, equality in the distribution of resources must take an upper hand, with particular attention to the marginalized areas and ethnic groups. Only with equality will English cease to become a determining factor of one’s social class, and be used by the elite in propagation of social, ethnic, regional, and educational disparities.
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