Children's Creative Thinking in Kenya

By Gacheru, Margaretta; Opiyo, Mumma et al. | Childhood Education, September 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Children's Creative Thinking in Kenya


Gacheru, Margaretta, Opiyo, Mumma, Smutny, Joan Franklin, Childhood Education


Within the traditional Kenyan society, children were perceived as precious beings highly prized by the community at large. As such, a child's early education was everyone's concern. The nurturing of children's creative thinking, however, was a responsibility especially reserved for the elders - men and women held in high social esteem who were recognized as reservoirs of rich oral traditions and fabulous folklore. More precisely, grandparents held the essentially oracular role of imparting the community's (or clan's) values and vision of life to youth. Using songs and spellbinding stories, wily riddles and proverbial rhymes, elders conveyed the joys of creative expression and imaginative thinking to their children's offspring.

Poets like Uganda's Okot p'Bitek and Sudan's Taban lo Liong, as well as novelist-playwrights like Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Nigeria's Nobel Prize-winning Wole Soyinka, all have recorded remarkable accounts of their upbringing under the care and cultural guidance of elders who enriched their early lives. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, this time-honored method of introducing creative thinking to Kenyan youth has all but vanished throughout much of the Republic. Despite the fact that many of the region's finest poets, playwrights, and performing artists have acknowledged the immense debt they owe to their elders for having given them such glorious tutelage, this singular approach to education has almost died out.

Aghan Odero, a contemporary Kenyan storyteller who had the good fortune to grow up under the wise and whimsical eye of his paternal grandmother, says the training his Mama Misca gave him was rich in imaginative charm and ethical insight. It was also highly interactive. Misca not only shared a seemingly endless stream of stories, songs, riddles, and rhymes, but also expected each listener to take his or her turn retelling a tale or two to siblings and cousins. The children had to pay attention to the details of Misca's storylines and learn them by heart. Aghan loved taking special note of the cadence and imaginative phrasing that Misca would use when telling her most spellbinding tales. In fact, he claims that in spite of his having studied with some of Africa's finest performing artists, he has yet to find one more compelling or charismatic than his Mama Misca.

With the coming of Western education to Kenya, however, the value of storytellers like Misca began to diminish - at least in their traditional forms - as did the oral traditions they shared and the local languages they used. The vital role that the storyteller played in nurturing both the character and creative thinking of Kenya's children and young adults gave way to Western educators who could not begin to replace this traditional oral interpreter and the rich legacy she offered. As the social value of these traditions, languages, and local lore depreciated, Kenyan youth began to distance themselves from their own cultures (including their native language) and adopt, through formal schooling, Western cultural values and lifestyles. This kind of schooling, with its emphasis on logic and the memorization of facts, did little to kindle the imaginative and creative power of Kenyan children.

For many years after Kenya obtained its independence from Britain in the early 1960s, critical and creative thinking were not taught within the national school curriculum. Instead, Kenyan youth were taught to absorb information and study to pass final exams. The need for a more creative framework and orientation to genuine learning - one that recovers some of the diminishing traditions of pre-colonial Kenya - is increasingly obvious to educators.

The Kenya Schools Drama Festival

Although many aspects of colonial education persisted beyond the time that Kenya won its independence, an extra-curricular activity in the performing arts gradually became the means for addressing the creative needs of Kenyan youth.

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