It is that time of the year when public schools in East Africa reopen. Alongside school fees, neat uniforms, back-to-school tin trunk containing shoe polish, toothpaste, soap, and so on, there is one other obligation expected of students.
This is the mandatory composition titled, “How I spent my holidays.” In my day, the enjoyment of the December holidays would be occasionally diluted by the fear that what we were doing was not exciting enough.
There was no doubt that the “How I spent my holidays” compositions were the first conversations at the beginning of January in which the whole school took part. The headmistress read out the best compositions at parade with pride, her delivery timed to coincide with that solemn moment, right after we sang the national anthem, when the whole school was at attention.
She would read to pin-drop silence, with the fluttering of the flag above us seeming to rhyme with her pauses for effect.
The compositions we liked best were written by those who had travelled, especially by train, which many of us had not even seen, usually to visit relatives, with descriptions of what they had seen and whom they had met. The more different the people they described were, the better we deemed the composition to be.
We would listen enviously, imagining what it meant to travel, meet new people and maybe learn a few words of another language.
The headmistress would then ask us to identify the locations mentioned on a map when we went back to class. She told us the histories of the towns, geological formation of rocks in the area, varieties of livestock and soil and what crops grew there.
She made us see connections with the people who lived in those places and imbued in us, at an early age, respect and understanding of the value of difference.
We would talk about a good “How I spent my holidays” composition for months. Back in class, the teacher would be waiting and woe unto you if your composition was similar to what you wrote the year before or you dared say “nothing” had happened.
Well, “something” always happened: Sometimes it was witnessing the birth of a calf or twin lambs; watching a film – in which Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone always emerged as the heroes – at the village market square from a mobile cinema dubbed watoto kaeni chini – sit down children – a frequent exhortation by adults whose views we often blocked; running out to the farm every day to observe the sprouting of a seed you had planted; painstakingly rewinding a cassette tape of Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling, while carefully scribbling the lyrics, word for word, in the “song notebook,” which along with sugar, Blue Band and cocoa would be sneaked into school to share with friends; chalking up on a wall with charcoal the number of days remaining until new-born puppies opened their eyes; or exchanging novels – with neighbours – by James Hadley Chase or Barbara Kimenye’s Moses series about a naughty boy in a boarding school in Uganda.
These experiences, however, never felt “good” enough to make it into the holidays composition.
Imagine today’s student, whose era is defined by the global movement of good and bad ideas, often at amazing speeds. Many consider compressing ideas into a 140-word tweet or a pithy Facebook post as a cooler alternative to reading a book.
Each day, media reports come in from across the world of ethnic, religious or political tensions based on perceptions, real or imagined, of difference and of people disseminating hate.
These young people’s worldview, unlike ours, will never breathe only within the confines of the mere description of a ride on a train, the honour of helping a cow through a difficult birth, or the two weeks it takes for a new-born puppy’s eyes to open.
Yes, they are well and truly international and yet, ironically, the spectre of ethnic nationalism and religious partisanship hovers over their future, standing in the way of the urgent task of a conversation on why difference is a good thing.
How could a teacher begin a conversation in which the whole school participates, addressing the holiday experiences of this newfound fear of difference? Travel and exposure, both physical and mental, to people’s cultures takes the edge off the fear of difference.
The new information can help the teachers and students find ways of staying connected beyond social media.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides.