Using literature to break coastal stereotypes

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019 00:00 |
Abdulrahman ‘Abu Amirah’ Ndegwa is an author who cultivated a reading culture at an early age. Photo/PD/Peter Ngila

When our Literature teacher Okiya Oriang walked into our class when we joined Form Three at Kivaywa Secondary School many years ago, he told us that we would not immediately start learning the set books.

Instead, he said, he would teach us Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe for three weeks before formally embarking on The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which had been newly introduced as set book.

He said although the 1981 Form Four students were the last group of candidates to do Things Fall Apart as a setbook, he found it necessary that we should study it first before embarking on the recommended setbooks.

He said there were parallels in the three setbooks—The River Between, No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe and Muntu by Joe De Graft—that Things Fall Apart would help us understand better.

“In all the three books, children are rebelling against parents and society,” I recall Okiya as saying.

“Similarly, we have children rebel against parents in Things Fall Apart,” he added, saying this was why he thought we should have a feel of Things Fall Apart before embarking on the setbooks.

I recall this aspect of my education for several reasons. Our teacher saw literature beyond exams. He sought to expose us to more books of outstanding literary worth. 

We completed secondary school having been exposed to outstanding books, in aesthetic elements and in subject matter, apart from the setbooks. 

The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development has, over the years, selected some of the best books in Kenya, Africa and the rest of the world as setbooks for Literature in English national exam candidates. 

However, the four books it prescribes are not enough—in my view—to build the literary appreciation and thinking skills that literature ought to develop or impart in learners.

Literature nurtures in students an awareness of the value of reading good literary works, a deeper understanding of important human concerns and relationships, an ability to appreciate values which would enhance an understanding of themselves and relationship with others and can develop many skills such as analysis, synthesis and empathy. 

It also helps to hone the ability to communicate their response to texts supported with reasons—which ability they are able to use in their professional and personal lives.

While four setbooks have all the ingredients that can achieve this purpose, they are not enough.

The first two years of secondary education should ideally be used to expose students to as many books of good literary merits as possible.

This is the reason why KICD and the Ministry of Education prescribe that students be formally introduced to setbooks for purposes of exams, in Form Three.

Schools which start teaching setbooks earlier than in Form Three are in violation of the prescribed curriculum.

This is the kind of vision our Literature teacher had in mind when he suspended the teaching and learning of setbooks so that we could get a chance to study Things Fall Apart.

It is that vision that, by the time we left secondary school, we had studied George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Tobias and the Angel by James Bridie. 

The two books—and Barbara Kimenye’s books we had formally studied as literature—adequately prepared us for the formal study of setbooks in Form Three.

It is a vision worth emulating by teachers. It is a vision principals of secondary schools should embrace by ensuring students are exposed to excellent books in Form One and Two before they start reading setbooks for the national exam purpose. — The writer is the communications officer, Ministry of Education

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