Today I had a really interesting discussion with the manager of one of the book suppliers we are engaging with. Although we have used this supplier in the past, it had proved difficult to establish any personal relationships with the staff, due in part to their conservative, corporate nature. After a few weeks of unreturned phone calls, I decided to show up at the main store, to try to get a meeting with the manager. I have come to realize that this formality in Kenya – of having a meeting to request a meeting – is by no means unusual.

Despite being somewhat austere at introduction, in our follow up meeting (the real meeting) to discuss possible partnerships, the manager warmed up significantly, and I discovered he was kind, compassionate, and devoted to bringing education to children. He told me he had been a teacher for 30 years in Northern Kenya, well before the country nationalized all primary schools so that they were free to all students. Interestingly, he argued that because of harambee, the old system was better, when the schools were still private.

From what I understand harambee means coming together, where the community will join and raise funds for projects, including schools, so that a burden did not fall on the shoulders of one person. From the experience he recounted, when something was needed at the schools, the community was called upon to help. Because at the time schools were private, harambee was relied on heavily, but with great success to maintain the schools and cover tuition. He argued that the nationalized system, being centrally distributed, has lowered the bar for the standards of those schools.

It was fascinating to hear someone who has such extensive experience in the field criticize a system allowing for universal education. The debate of centrally versus locally administered institutions has been one that has pervaded through the centuries. I certainly don’t know if there is the perfect solution. However, I can’t help wondering if harambee, as it relates to schools, really is dead as he inferred. One thing that is certain though, is that I am here to find out.