Joshua philip levens, ph.d. » 2008» june


Every Friday at the end of the school day, the students of UL Secondary, bring their chairs into the Dining Hall for the week’s scheduled debate. A student committee chooses the motion to be discussed and moderates the proceedings. It is an English-only event, although the administration has decided to allow a Kiswahili debate sometime in the upcoming term. Although secondary schools are supposed to be English-only (with the exception of Kiswahili class), the weekly debate is the one-and-only time you only hear English spoken at my school. This most certainly includes English classes. It also includes all of my classes. My own proportion of Kiswahili-to-English in biology teaching goes from 90-10 (Form I), 80-20 (Form II), 75-25 (Form III) and 50-50 (Form IV) – to make up some numbers on the spot. In short, the students have a rough time with the debate.

Last year, I started attending these debates somewhat regularly out of my own curiosity. What do these young people believe? What do they consider to be a valid argument? What counts as evidence and what counts as a convincing explanation? Sometimes, the answers to these questions come out. Other times, it is work simply deciphering their attempts at complete answers to the questions at hand. When the confrontation is intense, the logic gets even more undecipherable. Having had my share of heated arguments in Kiswahili, I can sympathize. Recently, for example, I was involved in a bus-wide discussion concerning the claim that the American government infected condoms with HIV in order to kill black people. Personally, I believe there are enough real examples of bad American foreign policy decisions (including malicious ones) to mention without resorting to this kind of conspiracy-mongering.

As for the school debates, however, past motions have included:
Teachers are more important than doctors for society.
Life in the village is better than life in town.
Single-sex schools are better than co-educational schools.
Domestic work is a woman’s duty.
It is better for a country to be self-reliant than to depend on other countries.

It has truly been fascinating to see (particularly the harder-working) students out-reasoning one another on issues that range from moral to practical to political to cultural. Of course, these debates also mirror the larger problem with the country’s entire secondary school system: the central problem of English language instruction. Until this country decides to offer Kiswahili-medium secondary instruction, rural students at schools such as mine are getting cheated out of a truly higher education. Some students can excel at math and the sciences without necessarily having a gift for languages. Since English instruction really only begins at secondary school for more than 90% of my students and since this is the 3rd language (after Kibena and Kiswahili) for these students, it is safe to say that their language-skills are already being taxed far more heavily than most American (including 1st generation immigrant) students.

The government should experiment on a limited basis with Kiswahili-medium secondary schools.
I’m suggesting this for the next motion of the next debate. It would be appropriate if the students got to articulate their thoughts on this subject in at least their second language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *