Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Perspectives: Education and Soccer

I was able to take a little break and go visit my sister in Germany with my fiancée this past week. It was a great trip, full of soccer, wine, trains, rich food, chocolate, and Germans (culture shock!). The internet was 'high speed', for real. It was also sad - my fiancée is heading back to Canada to start medical school. Well, that part isn't sad, I am super excited for her and her new career. I'm just not looking forward to being without my #1 sidekick/partner/fan.

Taking a break from Nairobi was also a good opportunity to take stock of what's going on, from a slightly removed perspective, in International Human Rights. With the Kenyan media in full swing and reporting on scandals, political manoeuvring, and the shockingly poor performance of the Kenyan National Soccer team, I was definitely getting some tunnel vision and a bit discouraged (and maybe even a bit cynical). In every lead up to elections in Kenya's recent history, there are certain things that seem to repeat themselves - tribal-based political activity, major scandals, and non-stop media dramatization. Well, this time, politicians have engaged organizations like GEMA and KAMATUSA to start the tribal discourse, the major scandal this time around centred on the National Health Insurance Fund, and the embezzlement of millions of dollars.

Some things don't need much dressing up, as the death of the Minister of Security, George Saitoti, and his assistant and aides was a major occurence. Saitoti was a presidential aspirant and a major political player since the Moi era. He died in a helicopter crash, the details of which are currently being investigated. Three days of mourning were declared, and there were constant memorials and photodiaries of his life and times. All the major political players eulogized his good deeds. No one seemed to mention the fact that he was a central figure in one of the largest scandals of grand corruption in Kenyan history - the Goldenberg Scandal, which to this day is unresolved. He seemed to get more tributes and mentions than Wangari Maathai, who passed away early last year, and who I consider to be a real (nobel-prize winning) hero.

So, I have been a bit sensitive to some of the negative occurrences leading up to the elections in Kenya.

But, being in Germany, with the associated culture shock and ultra-efficient city transportation, I was struck by a few things:

1. The first German University was established in 1386 (the University of Heidelberg). That's over 600 years old. That's 6 centuries of access to higher education for (some) German people.

After doing some extensive background research (i.e. Wikipedia), I found that the oldest university on the African continent is in Tunisia - the University of El-Zitouna, established in 737 CE*. The university teaches exclusively (so Wikipedia says) in areas of Theology, Islamic civilization, and Islamic law. As far as I could see, the next earliest universities popped up around the mid to late 1800s, and were almost exclusively through the efforts of colonialists. Significant African attendance at these universities didn't seem to occur until the post-world war II era (I think that the University of Makarere in Uganda is an exception).

What that means is that there are only one or two generations of indigenous peoples in Africa that have had any meaningful access to higher learning and education.

This is interesting. The influence of the 'developed world' on African Nations has been massive, for better or (usually) worse. I think, increasingly, that if there is going to be a 'solution' to the 'problem' of Africa, it is going to come through the practical and intellectual work of African peoples. Generally, all types of intellectual progress (science, philosophy, law, medicine, engineering, some of the arts, business, etc.) have their genesis in institutions of higher learning. And if the continent has only had meaningful access to this higher education for around 60 years, then I think large doses of empathy and patience are required, rather than the pity and pretentiousness that western culture takes towards African development. Of course, the concept of Universities and higher education is also a legacy of colonialism, but I think it is one that can have a positive impact.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I think it's a fascinating situation. It makes you wonder - if Africans are given the luxury of access higher education for 600 years, what kinds of things will develop out of that? It should also be noted that the types of developments through higher learning are also context dependent. For example, the reason that Kenya is a leading country in Africa in terms of Information and Communication Technology, is because it is an ICT hub, thanks to a direct cable running from India that provides Internet coverage. The reason that African nations like Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and South Africa have such expertise in International Criminal Justice (even though it is often unrecognised by developed states), is simply because of the amount of International Criminal Justice work coming out of African nations.

Similarly, the human rights abuses coming out of Africa (and everywhere else in the world), are at least partly due to the fact that human rights are such a new concept. England, France, and the USA have some of the oldest precursors to Human Rights documents, but our modern conception of human rights arose in 1948. Canada enacted the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in 1982 (it's the same age as I am). Kenya promulgated its new Constitution (with a Bill of Rights included) in 2010. It takes time to build a culture of human rights. Give Kenya 10 years, 100 years, and see how things develop under this new dispensation. The USA has had 200 years, and it is still doing a pretty poor job of protecting human rights.

2. I love soccer. Watching Euro 2012 games has been fantastic, and especially watching Germany play while in Germany was a nice touch.

I think that my appreciation for the game has progressed beyond individual skill, fancy plays, and goals, though. These days, I tend to watch soccer games as a sort of psychological exercise. I notice the fact that Spain still exhibit confidence with their 'tiki-taka' style, but that the weight of expectations has drained their precision and directness - they collectively seem to be more concerned about not making mistakes than destroying their opponents. The Portuguese have changed dramatically over the course of the tournament, and their last game shows that they are finally comfortable playing with each other - Cristiano Ronaldo's impact is a direct result of the team cohesion. The Germans are so coached up and cohesive that they have attained an almost zen-like emotional detachment from their game - they don't get rattled, they make extraordinary plays seem 'normal', and when Mario Gomez scores, they take it as an inevitability, rather than a celebration. I have no comment on the Italians, since I haven't figured them out - some of the players honestly look like they'd rather be somewhere else.

By far my favourite moment of the tournament came during the Spain-Ireland game. Ireland was out-gunned, out-classed, and, ultimately, outscored. But, the Irish never gave up, and played their hearts out right until the final whistle - you could see in the post-match interviews that the Irish players were discouraged and disappointed, but you wouldn't have known that while the game was on. That's the way that the game is supposed to be played. That's why it seemed like there were 50,000 Irish fans in the stadium, as they sang non-stop for the last 15 minutes of the game, with their team down 4-0. That's a lesson in what it means to be a 'supporter'. I wish more professional sports were played with that kind of attitude and in that kind of atmosphere.

Somewhere down the line, I will work on how soccer relates to Human Rights, and how it can save the world.
* I also found out that 'CE' is the new politically correct way to referring to dates - it is the 'Common Era', formerly known as 'AD' - so as to not upset non-Christians who also want to meaningfully talk about the past. Guess I'm behind the times on that.

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