What you need to know:
- Traditionally, the graduate was an aspirational class that both represented high achievement and serious potential.
- The graduate was a person of great distinction as well as great prospects.
A fiery eruption of outrage greeted the Hustler Nation’s “wheelbarrow” sensation a fortnight ago. This reaction came from scandalised elites and elitists who vehemently protested that the “Hustler empowerment” symbolism marginalised and insulted graduates.
Many well-known professional elites came down really hard on the mkokoteni optics, terming them demeaning, despondent and altogether inappropriate in terms of the career aspirations of graduates.
Obviously, this criticism could also be seen to implicitly denigrate all the millions of Kenyans whose daily work requires them to operate these implements. But that is not my focus.
Rather, what was fascinating was the representation of the graduate as a special demographic category entitled to very particular consideration in all sectors, including the fraught domain of political performance.
There is tremendous merit in examining this phenomenon in context. Traditionally, the graduate was an aspirational class that both represented high achievement and serious potential. The graduate was a person of great distinction as well as great prospects. She occupied a conjuncture of chronological progression and social mobility.
Pre-colonial society mainly locked people into rigidly bound age groups and occupations. An age cohort progressed through the rites of passage together, graduating along pre-determined stages into elderhood, before exiting the mortal coil into the realm of ancestors.
Of course, each stage had its prodigies, who were rewarded with high reputation. Occupations were likewise fixed, being practised by specific families and passed down lineages. There was structure, order and stability in this fixedness, and no youngster ever had to contend with the angst of, “What shall I do with my life?” or, “What will become of me?”
Modernity came with its own order, and supplanted the old. It also liberalised human pursuits, and today the very idea of family oriented trades is fairly exotic.
Similarly, upward mobility disrupted the harmonious collective drift of humanity along the course of life, making it possible for a young man to be called “Boss” by his father’s age mate. It also redefined purpose, creating new goals, new parameters and new paths of achieving them.
Embedded in capitalism
Education is the instrument of this definition and of equipping people with the means of pursuing it.
The modern state, embedded in capitalism, is underpinned by the idea of socioeconomic classes. The elite, as an aspirational category, is the repository of leadership for every sector. It comprises a group deliberately curated, mainly through a meritocratic education system that identifies and rewards outstanding performance.
A youngster who applied herself and pleased her teachers, therefore, situated herself firmly on the fast track to join the elite via the institutions of higher education.
For a long time, the state’s explicit strategy of elite creation was discernible in its policy towards pre-university and university students. The amenities these youths enjoyed socialised them to the world view and lifestyle of the leading classes.
On completing their education, young people smoothly ascended a ladder of incremental success in their professional world, rising inexorably into top leadership.
The graduate, therefore, was self-consciously destined for great things. The whole system, however, depended on governance and public management and sustainable economic growth.
The Structural Adjustment Programmes era in particular all but retired the idea of elite class construction. The graduate as an iconic social marque collapsed.
It was replaced by a precarity of prospects that over time turned pride and optimism into anxiety and despair.
Small, medium-sized and microenterprises, especially in the informal sector, were never part of the graduate’s prospective occupational domain. Indeed, jua kali used to be a pejorative reference to the menial pursuits of those who fell off the elite-production wagon.
Youth empowerment encompasses the millions of non-graduates in the informal sector as well as unemployed graduates who must now contend with a severely constricted path to socially promised success.
By forming groups, youth in the informal sector can access working capital — even in the form of wheelbarrows — and become employed.
Graduates do not have such luck. Employment for them entails hard crunching, at the policy level, of interventions that sound theoretical and future-oriented in ways that do not inspire hope.
The outrage at the prospect of graduates mixing it up with handcarts, wheelbarrows and boda boda was significant in important ways. It called us to reflect on the continuity and sustainability of our system for producing our leadership cadre.
Second, it suggested that, despite massive official negligence, our graduates — who somehow thrived despite prison-like pens, overcrowded facilities and hardscrabble subsistence in threadbare education institutions — still take themselves seriously as future elites deserving of a better deal.
They have kept their end of the deal. They rise up from the mud and dust of the struggle, holding up improbably impeccable cheques, which the state should, yet cannot pay.
This failure sets us firmly on the path to failure.