Three recent events got me thinking about what our nationals really know about their countries.
The first was Liberation Day in Uganda that falls on January 26.
On the eve of this year’s celebrations, various news media in Uganda interviewed a number of Kampala residents about what they knew about January 26 and its place in Uganda’s history.
Most were young people, in their early twenties, mostly still in school or recently graduated.
The results were shocking. Many did not know why the country was marking the day and seemed to be proud of their ignorance.
Others made wild guesses that were really laughable were it not that they were a reflection of a serious problem.
You may interpret this any way you want.
Perhaps in Uganda’s deeply divisive politics, this is perfectly normal. The atmosphere between political parties can be so bad that no one sees any good coming from a rival political party.
And so those owing no allegiance to the National Resistance Movement (NRM) will not bother about events associated with it. Still, they would at least know about it to better denounce it.
Or perhaps people are so concerned with the struggles of daily living that national celebrations are simply a distraction to which no attention should be paid.
More likely, however, these responses simply reveal ignorance of the country’s history. Even worse, they are a damning comment on how history is taught in schools.
The second event was the celebration of Heroes’ Day here in Rwanda every February 1. There is a slight difference here, however.
Most Rwandans know about Heroes’ Day and why it is marked, even if in a vague way. They can even name some of the national heroes.
This is perhaps because our recent history that called for heroism is still fresh in our minds. Or it is because Rwandans generally extol acts of courage, bravery and sacrifice.
It could be because celebrations are held at the grassroots and involve discussions on what heroism means and its place in the national life.
But even here knowledge about why we celebrate the event and who our heroes are remains vague, especially among the young.
Again, interpretation may be varied, but it comes down to the same thing: how we view history and how it is taught in our schools.
In most other countries, people know the major events in their history. They are proud of their heroes in various fields - politics and the military, science and technology, literature, music and art, sports and business.
For the most part these heroes act as the reference point for excellence and success.
As the interviews in Kampala showed, this, sadly, is not the case in our schools. History is taught as a list of events and dates that you cram and reproduce during exams and then promptly forgotten.
It has nothing to do with the lives of a people, their struggles and achievements through time, and its relevance to the present and their future. Small wonder then that educated citizens know nothing about an event only thirty one years old.
Luckily here in Rwanda, oral historians, mainly old people, still talk about history in this manner- as a continuum, not as fragmented, unconnected events. Perhaps, while they are still with us, we should deploy them in our schools.
The third event was the pre-selection for Miss Rwanda 2017 last Saturday. Besides showing off Rwandan beauties, the pageant also reveals other things about our country.
The selection process involves, among other things, asking the contestants certain questions, usually after they have been in some form of training.
Nearly all the girls answer in the same manner. Their answers to similar questions are nearly identical. They are also a fast, breathless recitation of what they have been taught.
The breathlessness is understandable. It is nervousness. Even the speed: it is so as not to fluff their lines.
However, the sameness is surely parroting, not the result of independent thinking.
Considering that most of the girls have just completed high school, some of this is a sad commentary on our education system.
It seems we teach for short term specific purposes: to pass an exam or interview, for instance. The learning reflects this, and it is perfectly understandable because assessment demands reproduction of what was taught.
Because students have not been prepared to analyse, interpret or think critically about issues, they are unable to think on their feet, especially when faced with a situation they have not met before.
And speaking about high school graduates, are they the best choice to represent Rwanda and our values on the international stage?
Beauty is important, but we should expect the girl who will wear the Miss Rwanda crown to also have grace, brains and maturity.