Almost a half century ago Kathleen and I drove into remote southwest Uganda sneaking precious, banned textbooks (on mathematics) to one of the few schools that until then had managed to survive under Idi Amin.

We drove past a football field littered with the bodies of 48 teens, their bodies torn apart by dum dums. Our hosts were in hiding. When one young teacher snuck into the room where we were he pleaded in whispers to steel him away. Did anybody read Eugene Robertson’s op-ed in the Washington Post today? “How Dumb Can a Nation Get and Still Survive?”
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Election Instructions

Election Instructions

Kathleen and I inserted ourselves when we were 24 years old into the most autocratic, terrifying society that I believe has ever existed: Idi Amin’s Uganda.

We traveled the country in 18 days. There was hardly a night without gunfire. Dead bodies might be found anywhere. We had to hide our vehicle in jungle before stopping it in order to eat our sandwiches or dying children with inflated bellies would surround us.

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What a Whitley!

What a Whitley!

Recently on a local birdwalk with some neophytes my colleague guide and I knew that we had to find something big quick. Then as luck would have it in swept a turkey vulture and with great enthusiasm we began explaining all the marvelous things about it.

“Ugh! A Vulture!” was the response.

Well, that’s not what Princess Anne just said.

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Pay To Pedagogue

Pay To Pedagogue

tan performancepayShould teachers be paid bonuses when their students achieve better test results? What would you think about giving a 6th grade English teacher a bonus equivalent to half his salary if more than half his students ranked in the highest 5 percentile of the No-Child-Left-Behind tests?

That’s what Tanzania is currently doing, and the approval from all parts of society is so high that foreign NGOs are now kicking in some of the funds.

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Sanity not Screams

Sanity not Screams

elephanttrustOne of the most important elephant organizations in the world, Cynthia Moss’ Elephant Trust, has minimized any imminent threat of elephant extinction and quite to the contrary reaffirmed the need “to promote coexistence between increasing numbers of humans and elephants.”

Over the last few years there have been literally dozens, if not hundreds, of not-for-profit organizations using inflammatory claims that elephants are on the brink of extinction in order to raise funds. This was malfeasance little different from Fox News.

Moss’ organization has reset the “elephant problem” in the right way.

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May Day Dead

May Day Dead

maydayMuch of the world takes a holiday, today. All of Africa’s largest and most powerful countries are on holiday. May Day carries a morbid tradition of celebrating the horrible mental and physical tolls on workers in the second millennium.

So who isn’t a worker? Is Trump a worker? Is Nigerian Aliko Dangote a worker? Is the poor Joe who was once a miner in Appalachia still a worker? Everyone and no one is a worker, today. This is a false moniker for the modern age and it leads us into a sort of dangerous nostalgia.

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How Much Is Right?

How Much Is Right?

rightoeducationThe success of childhood education is directly the result of how much tax payers will pay and how good the government is that implements it.

Backpedaling in America and proudful politics in Kenya forecasts doom for those countries. Instability and war not only inhibits but defiles education. Massive government investments have assured Asia will become the political, economic and cultural center of our earth. So says PISA.

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Heed History

Heed History

trumpandzumaThe current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has nearly destroyed his country. He rose to power on the negative emotions of a neglected class of people, and he had no idea what to do once there.

Jacob Zuma’s rise to power and destruction has many similarities to Donald Trump’s, and above all the lesson to be learned is that he is real, not just a pixel personality that you can switch off.

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Wealth vs Intelligence

Wealth vs Intelligence

getwhatupayforThe first student killed in South Africa’s year-long protests occurred yesterday near Pretoria when a driver ran his car into a line of protestors.

Street violence is not new in post-apartheid South Africa. Police have shot protestors (in mining strikes, for example), but this is a first for student demonstrations and the first time that citizen-against-citizen violence has reached this level.

Things are escalating; they’re getting serious. The Rand is falling, tourism is starting to balk and everyday life is changing. The time has come to tell South Africa, “You better get your act together.” And the time has come that the rest of us recognize a very important lesson before what is happening in the streets of South Africa spreads worldwide.

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#Everything Must Fall

#Everything Must Fall

thisiseducationSouth Africa’s respected university system is in chaos. Most universities are closed because of violent protests.

The two most prestigious, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) manage to occasionally open but violent protests disrupt most classes.

While the ostensible issue is the cost of tuition and fees, I think there’s something much deeper, reflecting a very troubled South Africa.

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Refugee or Reprobate?

Refugee or Reprobate?

Donald-TrumpMy first job after the anti-war movement was in Paris with UNESCO. Diplomats were aghast back in 1971 that before the end of that year there could be one million refugees under the responsibility of the United Nations.

Yesterday the UN announced it was handling 65,300,000 refugees.

That is one out of every 113 people who live on planet earth.

Two years later Kathleen and I were working for the Kenyan government on the border with troubled Uganda under the ruthless dictator Idi Amin. We traveled into that dangerous country and saw first-hand the devastation that gives rise to a refugee.

We saw children scraping roadways for food. We saw people dying. We saw educated people hiding for fear they would be killed for no reason other than they were educated.

We saw people who made the incredible decision to leave home.

I don’t think most Americans understand refugee-ism. In our current politicized environment, in fact, it seems to boil down to believing most foreigners are on-the-take, people making somewhat casual decisions to increase their opportunities.

Most refugees have no idea where they’re going once they pack up to leave.

Imagine that. Imagine deciding that your situation is so dire that you have to leave, no matter where you go or what might happen to you. “Chance” which obviously might include something worse is better than sitting still.

I’ve watched Americans mature in my life time as they inch towards the realization that they are not just Americans, but human beings, members of the same race on the same planet, brothers and sisters no matter what.

How can we tolerate such displacement of our fellow human beings?

The Brookings Institute says it’s because Americans have been brainwashed into being afraid of refugees. “Brain-washed” are my words.

The hardness, the callous disregard of our fellow human beings is about the most disgusting, low and immoral position any other human being can take. The “plasticity of public sentiment” – which is how Brookings sugar-coats brain-washing – among Americans is so damn embarrassing. For the first time in my life, when I find myself in a foreign environment unable to fully explain my country, I find myself ashamed of being an American.

We have to look inwards and understand that nobody is trying to minimize our anger – or our fear, for that matter. But directing our worries upon unknown fellow human beings and presuming totally absurd things about them — particularly when those refugees are among the most honest, courageous and loyal of all in our shared species – is nothing short of social and intellectual blasphemy.

It reeks of an egocentrism and selfishness that belongs exclusively to The Dark Side.

I have written about refugees, I have worked with refugees, I have housed refugees in my home, and I have worked for refugees.

Not one of the dozens that come to mind ranks one baby step in moral or intellectual stature below myself, my mayor, my governor or senator or religious guide, my mentors or my favorite people. To a person they have demonstrated the best of a human being.

It’s one thing to sling invective at opponents for ideological reasons. It’s another to condemn your own species.

Acting Right

Acting Right

groove theoryWhy in America do we have national student sports contests, national science fairs, national spelling bees … but no national performance contests?

Africans know why: Because the American entertainment industry is a monopoly of big money and nepotistic connections and the arts are no longer being taught in schools.

“In Kenya,” Dr. Hassan Wario explains, “students become performers because of talent” nurtured in school.

Dr. Wario is the Kenyan Minister for Sports, Culture & the Arts. His portfolio in the cabinet is equal to that of any other cabinet minister.

The devastation Americans have wrecked upon the public school system in my life time is equivalent to the nukes dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In fact, forget about the arts curriculum. America “is $46 billion a year behind what it should spend on building and repairing K-12″ just to have safe school rooms!

This week ended the massive student national drama festival in Kenya. In February my safari was passing through the town of Nyeri north of Nairobi and I wondered if there was a revolution going on.

It turned out it was a regional high school drama festival! It was the middle step in national competition held annually, just like for soccer and science.

Today the President of Kenya greets the national winners at Statehouse to congratulate them. This year’s national contest just ended yesterday.

The final round of plays, films, dance and musical performances drew 50,000 contestants! According to a local paper, it turned the relatively sleepy town of Meru in the Kenyan highlands into a “beehive of activity with hotels being fully booked and businessmen making a kill.”

It was, simply, as important a function of student growth as sports or science.

But in America we’re now decades away from this conversation. Kenya spends 21% of its federal budget on education. In America it’s less than 13% of the total budgets for the federal and all state governments.

So, yes, too little money is a part of the problem. Putting it a different way Americans believe that less of their resources should be spent on educating their children than Kenyans do. Finally, arts gets the shaft in America.

As a father and uncle to several successful entertainers I’ve often been grateful to their schools for getting them going. But they were among the privileged. They attended schools that – at least back then – sustained the arts. Even back then, many schools didn’t.

So Americans bifurcated potential entertainers into the haves and have-nots. This created a homogeneous pool of individuals from the privileged classes that now dominate American entertainment. No wonder we blame our media for our politics!

No question that the American performance industry is mammoth compared to Kenya’s, for example. But neither in my mind is there any question that today dramatic arts in Africa are more creative, less prone to formula, capable of greater risks and ergo, greater rewards. Moreover, the average Kenyan consumer nurtures an incredible range of performance, from lining up for Shakespeare festival tickets or improv comedy, or falling in love with vampires and Nobel Prize laureates at the same time!

I’m no entertainment critic, but I’ll tell you, Kenyan TV is much more creative and fun to watch than American TV.

Kenyans, well, just love …the arts!

Because – like here – it all begins in school.

Virgin Applications

Virgin Applications

virgin applicationA South African mayor has reserved part of her town’s college scholarships for virgins.

Concerned with the high rate of Aids and unwanted pregnancies, Mayor Dudu Mazibuko told the BBC that 16 of the town’s 113 college scholarships would go to girls cleared as virgins.

The certification is performed by an elder woman as part of an annual ceremony of homage to the Zulu king. Special intermittent testing would then continue – much like drug testing for sports – and whenever a woman fails the test the “Maiden’s Bursary Award” is terminated.

Even if the recipient has a 4.0?

“Unsurprisingly, this has been met with much controversy,” writes teen reporter Casey Lewis for Conde Nast. Lewis further notes that a college-age virgin is “very, very problematic.”

“Virginity testing is an invasive, flawed, traumatising and sexist practice, that has no bearing on whether or not women should be granted bursaries,” an on-line petition organized by South African university students contends.

The petition points out that the policy doesn’t address the role that young men play in unwanted pregnancies resulting in an “unequal” approach to young women.

With less than a couple thousand signatures so far, the now week-old petition is not doing well by South African standards. Despite the resolute equality provisions of the young South African constitution – which among other progressive components mandates that a certain proportion of publicly elected officials be women – sexism remains strong in the country.

KwaZulu Natal where Mayor Mazibuko’s town is, is a particularly conservative region. In fact towards the end of the anti-apartheid struggle in the late 1980s the region broke away from the growing black power movement to support the white-led apartheid regime.

The fact that the policy was promulgated by an elected woman mayor illustrates a global phenomenon of conservatism beautifully discussed this month in Foreign Affairs’ look into “inequality.”

Michigan professor Ronald Inglehart links the decline of economic equality to “cultural issues [that] pushed many in the working class to the right.”

During a fall meeting with Pullman High Schoolers regarding a proposed bill in the Washington state legislature increasing access to birth control, the very conservative Olympia woman state representative Mary Dye shocked students by insisting the conversation be governed by whether or not they were virgins.

Education and women’s health are global as much as local issues. Economic declines are often surprising, or at least at the start seem uncontrollable at that moment. As Ingelhart implies the anger manifest in those hurt most by an economic decline is often expressed in support for cultural positions and personal values that are clearer to evince than policies for economic recovery.

South Africa has an inequality ratio considerably higher than the U.S.’ already staggering high one. The reasons for this include global factors and are certainly complex.

Mayor Mazibuko’s continued support is not unlike Donald Trump’s.

Rise of The Ignorant

Rise of The Ignorant

FirstGrader1Government politics clashed explosively today with education in Kenya as a court struck down a teachers’ pay raise that had ended a devastating national strike.

Kenya better take a lesson from the U.S.: compromise education and you’ll empower the ignorant. Soon Donald Trump will be running for President of Kenya.

Teachers in Kenya are employees of the federal government rather than state governments as in the U.S. The 5-week long strike which ended in October was therefore nationwide.

The pain of that strike didn’t end with the misery of teachers forfeiting their livelihoods to promote their rights. Kenyan teachers earn 12 times the average national pay, so a huge buying sector of the economy was shut off just as the overall Kenyan economy began to slump.

Ultimately the government agreed to a more than 50% pay increase. The court decision, today, reverses that on the technical grounds that the agency authorizing the increase did so unconstitutionally.

(It’s actually fascinating: the lower Appeals Court effectively reversed a higher Supreme Court ruling. The teachers union is now appealing this lower court ruling back to the higher court. Can’t help but loving this tinkering with government bureaucracy.)

If the pay increase is sustained Kenyan teachers will earn more than 15 times the national average. (In the U.S. a teacher’s salary is almost identical to the national average.)

Why, then, should anyone be worried if Kenyan teachers aren’t awarded this huge increase in pay? …that will stretch even more the disparity between teachers and the common worker in Kenya?

Well, to begin with take a look at the student/teacher ratio. In Kenyan primary schools it’s around 50:1. It’s 25:1 in all of sub-Saharan Africa; the U.N. benchmark is 17:1 and in the U.S. it’s 14:1.

So Kenyan teachers are taking a heavy lift, and this is precisely because overnight a few years ago the country decided to offer free primary education to everybody. (Everyone should watch the amazing movie about this, “First Grader.”)

But statistics like this used cross culturally lose some validity. About the only empirical conclusion evident from this data is that Kenyan teachers are overpaid for working too hard, and U.S. teachers are underpaid for working too little.

I think there’s something important to extract from this.

U.S. institutions of higher learning may be the best in the world. But our primary and secondary schools are a mess, dragged deeper today into our social dustbin by the outrageous licensing of “home” and “community” schooling.

When public education is ignored, as it has been in the U.S. for the last half century, a massive underclass of ignorant people who still benefit from an expanding economy grow more and more powerful.

This underclass pulls down the education system even further: Teachers get paid less, are given fewer resources, perform worse, get paid less still, etc. It’s a spiral into … well, ignorance.

Ignorant people are impressionable and gullible because they aren’t taxed with thinking hard. They’re more likely to jump to conclusions and embrace emotive reactions than question the world. They shoot before looking, because they can’t analyze what they might see.

As the ignorant gain power complex social institutions and infrastructure collapse. You’ve got to be able to think hard to build a bridge or understand welfare or negotiate a nuclear arms deal. Lacking necessary cognitive and intellectual skills the ignorant don’t consider the future as a component of well-being.

The enormous pay difference between an average Kenyan teacher and an average Kenyan worker is definitely cause for concern, but every time Kenyans compromise public education they concede a bit more control of their society and future to the ignorant.

Using the U.S. as the example, that’s not a good idea:

Imagine if when I was a boy I’d heard my parents debating whether they should elect as President Ed Sullivan or Doctor Spock.