On Friday in Kigali traffic was bumper-to-bumper. On the roads it was a parking lot so much so that the City of Kigali parking fee collectors, the KVCS, could have started demanding parking fees. Most of the traffic was due to the graduation ceremony that took place at Amahoro National Stadium in Remera.
I promised a friend that I would attend her graduation party. But because of other commitments I was running late; and seeing the traffic jam I knew that I’d face great difficulty reaching the graduation party before everyone there left. And so, I parked the car and jumped on a motobike. It seemed like others in a hurry were doing the same thing.
One good thing about riding motos is that their riders, the moto-men, have a lot of wisdom that, if you pay attention, you can learn a lot from them. It is some of the best political anthropology you can find.
They usually start with small talk to sense whether they have a friendly audience or not. Depending on how that goes, you can either have some of the most fascinating conversation you will ever have or there will be a lot of silent treatment till the journey comes to its natural death with the exchange of paper from one pocket to another.
My moto-man ran out of fuel a few metres into our journey. He asked me to step off for a minute so that he could “fix” it. I obliged. He said he was sorry. I told him, “things happen” and that he could not have wished himself to run out of fuel.
Voila! It was a friendly audience, he must have thought. As we made our way through the maze of cars we could see young men and women in graduation gowns possibly making their way from the stadium to their homes, where parties must have been awaiting the lucky ones.
The moto-man made his move. “Ariko boss rekankwibarize. Biriyabintu byigezebikubaho.”(Let me ask you, have you ever experienced that?). Before I could answer he interrupted that earlier that day he had had a passenger “yari afite ibyishimo bitabaho, kandi bose ndabona ariko bameze.” (She had the kind of happiness that is difficult to fathom, and they all seem that way).
Yes, they all seem happy. This I confirmed when I reached my destination. It was tears everywhere, the graduate was thanking everyone who had played a part in her life thus far. Indeed, it was the kind of happiness that is difficult to fathom.
But a week earlier two posts on Twitter had captured my attention. One was from a graduation ceremony in a neighbouring country. The graduates looked sad in that picture, the caption of which said that the harsh reality of life after graduation had just hit them.
The second was a picture of a graduate in her gown hawking goods in a busy downtown capital city in Southern Africa. Its caption read like this: “Families sold their livestock for their children to get an education and they end up here.”
This is the paradox of today’s education. On the one hand, it is still able to instil in us the feeling of having accomplished something important; on the other, it is a source of anxiety within us when its relevance to our lives is not clear.
What’s clear is that education is not what it used to be; it’s no longer a vehicle to a dream. At the minimum this dream meant the ability to live a middle class life with the assurance of a job, an apartment in the suburbs, a vehicle, and being able to afford to marry and support a family.
Ten years after graduation you could access all that, if you had worked hard in school. And if you excelled and graduated with distinction? You could get all that and then some. You’d expect that 15-20 years into the job you would climb your way to becoming the CEO or senior level manager of a top corporation; a Cabinet
Minister or get appointed to head a government parastatal; lead a non-governmental organisation; or you could become a medical doctor or a professor.
Today, you can still be any of those things. But it won’t be because you worked hard and excelled in school. Indeed, few today can claim to be where they are due to hard work. As such, the demand that students work hard and excel in school is increasingly becoming farcical.
Those incentives are no longer there. Consider this. If excelling in school and doing enough just to pass offer the same rewards, why bother?
The link has been broken. The degree to which a student can predict what they will become is gone, and forever. Education guarantees nothing. Its role as some kind of control about one’s destiny has been eroded, replaced by anxiety about its purpose.
Certainly that purpose, the vehicle to guarantee upward mobility, has ceased. Rather, education has become a symbol of the disappearing dream, at least as expressed in the paradox of, and a tug of war between, ecstasy and anxiety.