Around the same time when Prof. Ali Mazrui was being laid to rest in his hometown of Mombasa, our Tanzanian brothers and sisters were remembering 15 years since the death of Julius Nyerere a man they fondly refer to as Baba wa Taifa. On Kenya, Mashujaa Day was celebrated. It is their Heroes’ Day.
When I tweeted that October was a month that had claimed many big African names and I included Burundi’s Prince Louis Rwagasore, many asked me who that was and what he had done to make it to a list that had Julius Nyerere, Ali Mazrui, Fred Rwigema, Thomas Sankara, Samora Machel, Milton Obote and Muammar Gadaffi.
I have written here before that it is important for us to expand our knowledge radars beyond the borders. We are always talking about the East African Community without noticing that in this community we have millions of people who barely know anything about their neighbours. This is largely because the media loves to focus on local issues and very little or nothing on what is happening across the border.
The media is not the only sector we can blame. In school, Kenya was only mentioned when we studied about the construction of the Uganda Railway and the Mau mau rebellion. Tanzania also mainly made it into our classes for the Maji maji rebellion.
On the contrary, more academic time was (and probably continues to be) spent on North American and European topics. Topics like the Tennessee Valley Authority and Canadian Prairies are taught with more detail than anything about Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania or Burundi.
Therefore students leave school with a keener interest and probably understanding of the Americas and Europe than their own region.
I know that for example in Uganda, the universities have become very East african demographically. Some of the universities in Kabale now have almost more Rwandan students than Ugandans. After all Kabale is closer to Kigaki than Kampala or Mukono. Kampala International University (KIU) has for long been known to have more Kenyans than Ugandans, with some people even joking that the abbreviation KIU actually means Kenyans in Uganda!
Other universities and secondary schools have Tanzanians, Rwandans, Burundians and Kenyans, all studying with Ugandans. The question therefore is why is it easy for us to study together but not about each other. Why should a Ugandan student have to ask his Rwandan friend questions like, ‘how many tribes do you have in your country and which one do you belong to?’
Why should a Burundian or Ugandan walking on the streets of Nairobi with a Kenyan friend ask questions like, ‘who is that man with dreadlocks and a gun,’ on cathing sight of Dedan Kimathi’s statue. Why should those who do not know who Prince Rwagasore was, sit comfortably with those who have never heard of Wangari Maathai?
Several universities in Europe, America and even Asia have well facilitated departments of African studies. Why should it be so difficult to have departments of East African studies in our universities? If indeed we are for integration then this is something we need as early as yesterday.
The French revolution is one of the topics for which a lot of time is dedicated. When are we going to dedicate time to study about Tanzania’s role in the liberation struggles of several African countries? Did we really have to wait to learn such history from President Kikwete’s speech at Mandela’s funeral?
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda should be studied in schools around the region if the Never Again message is to hold sway in the region. Other East Africans nees to know the mistakes that caused the various wars in the region and be better placed to see to it that such mistakes are never repeated. After all history is repeated by those who fail to learn from it.
We shouldn’t just expect to integrate through trade and open borders while the ignorance about our neighbours continues to prevail. If indeed knowledge is power, why shouldn’t we empower ourselves with knowledge about ourselves?
Actually if all the above and more are done meticulously, we could finally have real East African experts and not have to endure the embarrassment of people from elsewhere coming here for a short period and christening themselves as experts on the region.
It would also be nice if instead of teaching our children that a certain white man discovered the source of the River Nile, we simply teach them about the East Africans that live in that area and what they do for a living.