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For the majority of Kenyans the term “career” is just another word in the dictionary – it has little to do with life as we live it. When it does come up, however, it is usually in retrospect, referring to what someone has already achieved. While making our way through the formal education system, the concept of career is rarely the object of carefully sustained focus.

In fact, the formal education system is to blame for this state of affairs. It is an efficient and ruthless process of elimination. The system itself can be compared to a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is primary education – today it is free for all. With primary school being readily available, it is no surprise that all the starry-eyed children attending school for the first time have aspirations of attending university. They even know what they would like to become: doctors, engineers and pilots.

Sadly, beyond primary school, there is not enough room for all of the aspiring students. The secondary schools in Kenya cannot even accommodate half of them. Most students will be squeezed out of the education system by the time they hit their teens. And of those who make it through secondary school, only a fraction will be admitted to public universities.

It should be of no surprise to discover that very little thought is given to the concept of career. Instead, most emotional and intellectual efforts are put toward achieving high academic scores that allow for acceptance into university. Because the number of students accepted into university is so low, the competition is fierce. So stiff is the competition, that the question, “Which university are you attending?” is a distant second to the question, “Have you been admitted to university?”

For Kenyans going to university is not a question of further education or job preparation, but simply a matter of prestige. Those select few that arrive at the apex of the formal education pyramid are completely exhausted by years of academic duelling and are totally ignorant of what the world has to offer in terms if careers.

Still, all is not lost. Somewhere in this paradox lies Kenya’s greatest strength as a labour market. When the ambitious graduates exit the ivory tower, with degree in hand (and both personal and family egos adequately satiated), they come face-to-face with the hot, dry barrenness offered by this corner of the world. Well-versed in the art of survival, they go through mid-level colleges at lightning speed to pick up the skills and competencies required by industry.

And so it is that Kenya has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of well educated, multi-lingual, multi-skilled university graduates who are strong, resilient, versatile and, most importantly, enthusiastic to work. And work they do – in every corner of the globe in every sphere of life. Kipchoge Keino, one of Kenya’s most successful athletes, made a comment about athletics that can be easily applied to academics: “In Kenya we train hard, very hard. And then winning is easy.”

© Esther Mbithi 2006
Published in the Carleton University Magazine, Spring 2006

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