In 2007-2008, Kenya had a post-election crisis that resulted in alarming ethnic violence. On April 30, 2009, parliament passed a motion to adopt the nominees of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC).
The mandate of the Commission, on which I served, is to mediate ethnic- and race-related conflicts and promote peaceful and harmonious coexistence in Kenya.
Preventing ethnic violence across Africa remains core to my work. Ten years since Kenya set up the NCIC, we have had gains and reversals in the search for national cohesion. Kenya still faces major challenges.
The notion of citizenship in particular continues to be eclipsed by competitive electoral politics mobilised around ethnic groups, inter-communal tensions, and the rise of ethnic and racial identities.
At the NCIC, we told educators that they would succeed in promoting pluralism by fostering national identity over ethnic identity.
At the same time, they could help culturally diverse groups to develop their self-esteem and identities by increasing their awareness of their own cultural, linguistic, and historical heritage.
The Global Centre for Pluralism has simplified all that by defining pluralism as an ethic of respect for human differences.
What today is the role of the educator in shaping a cohesive society that is at once plural and cosmopolitan, prosperous and inclusive, fair and responsible?
This is the question posed by the organisers of the Oxford Symposium on Comparative and International Education.
I am reminded of the words of Katerina Tomasevki, the first UN Special Rapporteur, on the right to education: “Education can be a means to retain as well as to eliminate inequality. As it can serve two mutually contradictory purposes, two opposite results may ensue.” She was talking about the role of education in apartheid.
The Kenyan state and many others in this age of uncertainty seem to stand on the verge of a transition to national cohesion that is yet to be fully defined.
I am often struck by how the themes of inequality, inequities, and ethnic violence walk hand in hand. Conversely, there is an absence of educational material on how to address these themes in the many African countries.
While I believe the education sector is crucial in building the relationships needed to address ethnic conflict, the sector cannot do it alone.
In divided societies, peace is political and so is pluralism. It takes both political leaders and educators to unwind the harmful dynamics of competitive ethnicity and build towards peaceful pluralism.
Here is a short list of key ways in which educators can play a constructive role.
Educators need a shared understanding of pluralism, and skills in navigating meaningful dialogue on ethnic divisions. Teachers are traditionally seen as the holders of knowledge and learners as the receptacles.
However, teachers usually come from the same society as their learners and share their cultural biases. Many are reluctant to challenge existing prejudices.
Teachers need to begin with a shared understanding of pluralism and enough data to defend what they say. A skilled teacher would then be able to use facts to explain the root causes of a particular ethnic conflict.
Teaching pluralistic practice demands infusing daily lessons into incremental, habit-forming activities. It also needs to be tested alongside other subjects, not integrated or mainstreamed, so as to measure learning outcomes.
We need to learn from success stories about sustaining stable and pluralistic societies. For instance, why is there so little violence between ethnic groups in Ghana and Tanzania?
We need to start teaching pluralism to children at an early age, before the outside world shapes their understandings of “us” and “them.”
Learners need to see themselves in educators, and in their learning material. This means we need teachers from several ethnic communities in our schools, and we need history textbooks that tell the story of every ethnic and racial group.
We need to understand how individual learners grasp pluralism to achieve sustained change. The educational institutions I have worked with tend to focus on long-term institutional outcomes. But learners who hold strong ethnic or racial biases are often confident and can be great influencers.
Their fellow learners, family, and friends listen to them. When such learners come to understand pluralism, they can interrupt other learners’ prejudicial statements. They can draw others into programmes to increase their knowledge and skills.
Educators with a new understanding of pluralism need time to integrate this knowledge. Educators may receive training in pluralism but they return to unchanged communities. The training needs to include institutional and peer support.
Signs of progress
We need ways to assess whether educational institutions have the capacity to promote pluralism.
Signs of progress include: Changed policies, invitations to people from different ethnic groups to speak at or participate in school activities, teachers’ willingness to speak up in support of pluralism and against inequity, and new opportunities for staff to build knowledge and skills in pluralism.
In conclusion, it took the 2007 post-election violence for the NCIC law to be put in place. Implementation has proven difficult but Kenya was still the first African nation to attempt to deal with ethnic relations through legislation.
I have found that the most consistent leaders in changing mindsets and working towards pluralistic solutions are the men and women of the teaching profession.
The educators I work with in conflict zones give me new insights about the possibilities to engage ethnic and racially mixed groups in productive dialogue. Teachers are respected. People seek them out for opinions.
Many want to contribute to solutions but do not know how. They want to embed pluralism in existing values and build new attitudes. Let’s build a generation of teachers who respond to the uncertainties of this world by creating an ethic of respect for human differences. This is pluralism.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu is a former commissioner of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and a co-founder of the Uwiano Platform for Peace, which led efforts to ensure a peaceful process during Kenya’s 2010 constitutional referendum and 2013 elections. She has served as lead mediator in armed conflicts in Nigeria. In 2017, Ms Nderitu received a Global Pluralism Award.
The above is an abridged version of a speech delivered in June 2018 at the Oxford Symposium on Comparative and International Education at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.