Justice Mumbi Ngugi’s Speech at the Launch of the Assessment of Lifeskills and Values in East Africa Project.

Wednesday 17th February 2021.

I am honoured to participate in the launch of the ALiVE project, and to be among the members of the Regional Education Learning Initiative and VaLi, which is keen on  analyzing school curriculums and identifying gaps in values and life skills.

I will not attempt to enter into the rather complex arguments that academicians and experts such as yourselves may advance in relation to the acquisition and adherence to values and life skills essential, not just for personal growth and success, but also for building a better society.  But it is correct to say, I think, that the reason the question of values and life skills arises in relation to our educational curricula is because we recognize that there is a distressing dearth of values in our society.

 I can also correctly say, I think, that this has not always been the case. For some reason, we seem to have taken a wrong path, turned in the wrong direction, in relation to what is considered important in a person’s life; what as a society we consider cause for admiration, celebration and emulation, and in so doing, we have ‘guided’ our children and youth in the wrong direction.  There was a time, not so long ago, and certainly in my youth, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when honesty, integrity and diligence were critical values for success. We respected people in society, not because of what they had, what wealth they had accumulated, but because of their contribution to society, their place in the transformation of our society for the better. Thus, teachers, doctors, and nurses, for instance, held a critical place in our roll of honour.  

In education, we respected those who, by dint of hard work, managed to get good grades, go on to university, and ultimately get a job in which they used their professional training and knowledge to solve the challenges that our people faced-whether in agriculture or health care or education. Hard work, diligence, integrity were the catchwords in our development. Even though we were not taught these values in so many words, we understood that they were important to our success.

I recall as a young girl in primary school always waiting excitedly for the end of term. If I had performed well in class, I would get a present, mostly books. During the national exams, those who passed were celebrated, honestly, and with joy. They were known to have done well, through their own efforts.

Not so today.

At some point, the rot of cheating in exams crept in. Institutions would procure exam papers and leak them to their students. Students would get grades that had no relationship or connection with their intelligence or diligence. And because teachers and parents were complicit in the dishonesty that crept into the exam system, they are not able to serve as a moral compass for their children.

But the rot and lack of values is not just in our education system. In virtually every sector, both public and private, what motivates us and drives our actions is not what drove our parents and grandparents. Our greed, corruption and me-first approach to life has perhaps put some of us ahead, but for the most part, it has led to a tragic and regrettable regression in all facets of our lives, our economy, our health and education sectors. Indeed, our entire society has been blighted by the absence of values.

Today, we see young people who give up on life, take to drugs or take their lives or the lives of others, or destroy institutional properties, because they have not had instilled in them the coping mechanisms that can help them get through the challenges that life presents.

We have thus arrived at a place where we must, in a sense, go back to the basics, re-learn these values and skills ourselves, in order to impart them to others.

But how are the values and life skills to be taught? Who is to teach the generations of the future?

I think we all agree that values are not, for the most part, taught through formal instructions in a classroom.  Children observe what the adults around them are doing. They catch adults out very easily. They begin to know when we are dishonest, when our words do not match our actions.

So we can only teach values and life skills, I believe, by living these values ourselves. We must show, by our own example, the value of honesty and integrity; we must teach, by our example, the importance of resilience and perseverance, however difficult our circumstances may be, or appear to be.

I will speak once more from my personal experience. Throughout my professional career and certainly in the 10 or so years that I have been in the judiciary, I have been commended and received awards for the work that I have done. I however, acknowledge that a lot of what I have been able to do has been primarily because of the formation that I received, from my parents and siblings first, but, crucially also, from my teachers. Despite being different, I was taught to work hard, to give back, to care for those who are vulnerable. But more importantly, I learnt the value of hard work and integrity; the need to do the right thing in all circumstances; the importance of being strong and persevering despite facing challenges.  These are the values that have put me in a position to do everything that I have been able to do and achieve in my life.  I doubt that I could have done half of what I have done without the lessons that I learnt from the adults in my life at my formative stages.

The challenge that I would pose to us all, especially those charged with the nurturing and education of children, is to live the values that they want, and that we all agree, are important to our society. In Kenya, we have even enumerated some of them in our Constitution- integrity, social justice, protection of the marginalized. These values, however, cannot be meaningful if we do not live and clearly manifest them in our lives.

Secondly, we must begin to tell positive stories: of those who have excelled, whether in school or business or in the professions, through honesty and hard work. Sadly, many times, when the media highlights an individual in society, it is often to portray the individual’s material wealth and possessions, without questioning the source of the wealth, and whether or not such material acquisitions have been obtained by dint of hard work, or through some other, dubious, means.

We must remember too that we belong to a regional sisterhood/brotherhood.  We are connected in many respects in East Africa, whether through trade, family or social connections. If we are not able to build and inculcate a value system that cuts across the region, then the changes that we would like to see in our societies will only be a patchwork. We must move together to make the entire region a value based community. 

I hope that the ALiVE project that you launch today feeds into and informs the process of regional integration and development.  I wish you all the best as you undertake this project that has significant potential for change in our region, and I hereby declare the project officially launched.

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