Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Outliers, luck or fate?
A few minutes ago, in the process of reading a certain document, I came across a picture of a school and pupils learning. I stared at it for a long while, not because I have not come across these kind of schools over and over, but I was wondering “how will this boy and this girl compete in this global world?” The school am speaking of is a shed with poles at the side and a bit of grass for a roof. If it rains, there cannot be school. The children are sitting on the floor, some on stones and some of some make-shift benches. Needless to say there is no blackboard and I am yet to figure out what the teacher is writing on. Luckily I can see some if not all of the pupils holding pens and paper! This is not a unique sight, it is seen over and over in many rural and informal settlement urban areas many countries in Africa. However, in another place, within the same country, or in neighboring countries, there is another child whose main worry is where is a new computer game! This got me reflecting about people and communities that I have come across and it struck me that luck and fate determines a lot. I am not suggesting that you “pray not to be hit by a car and sit on the road” as one of my great friend’s mum commented (hilarious story for another day) but rather that there are some circumstances that are beyond one’s control that determine their life. Sometimes we can do something about it but sometimes we cannot. I was discussing an issue with some girlfriends regarding how women and men live and believe in life when one friend commented that it is sad they are missing out a lot. But the rejoinder was, they do not know what you know, so they are not missing anything. If someone is living in a deep village where the main prestigious meal is beef they will not miss out on how pizza is delicious; or for that matter brooding over terrific Tuesday. Sometimes it pays not to know. Back to my luck and fate hypothesis, a few days ago I watched a video online by one of the Kenya media stations on “Kibaki’s siblings”. Hon Mwai Kibaki has been the president of Kenya for the last 10 years and has a lot of CV under his sleeves including being a Makerere graduate and many years as Member of Parliament for Othaya constituency. Makerere is a public University in the neighboring Uganda but in Kenya it is synonymous to the ‘bright boys of pre-independence era”. And now that I think of it, I don’t recall any Kenyan woman associated with Makerere! It is generally accepted that persons who went to Makerere are now controlling world in various ways. However that was not the main thing that caught my attention watching that vide, this is already in public domain. One of the older siblings of President Kibaki who was interviewed mentioned that Kibaki having been the younger one ‘was not useful’ in the home – read herding cattle- and since there was a requirement to take “one boy” to school he was ‘chosen’ to fulfill that obligation. At that time, the young boy might have felt ‘unlucky’ to miss out on the fun of what boys did away in the fields to go spend time in a classroom. Is it fate or sheer luck that he got an education that made his life take a completely different direction from that of his siblings? I recall while reading memoir of the late Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai (RIP) and a similar occurrence struck me. Wangari mentions that after her family relocated from Nakuru to Nyeri one day her elder brother, Nderitu, wanted to know why he had to go to school when Wangari did not. The boy did not understand gender issues and the fact that girls were not considered a priority to go to school. He could have been thinking that it was unfair for him to be made to go to school while Wangari did not! Regardless of the reason that the brother had for asking, the mother did not have a good answer and thought ‘why not’. That possibly abrupt occurrence set out the path for Wangari. Later on since the walk home was long hence not safe for a girl she went to a boarding school which increased her chances even more. One need to understand that in those days education was not a priority and educating girls was even rarer. First forward years later, Wangari was to become the first woman in in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, founder of the Green Belt Movement, first African woman to win the Nobel Prize among many other great achievements. Some ‘minor’ occurrences impact lives forever. My mother has told us that her father was very opposed to girls going to school so there was no question about it. However, her youngest sister was lucky to get basic education since (like Kibaki) she was ‘useless’ in the home. Unfortunately for her, when she got admission to a prestigious girls’ secondary boarding school my grandfather felt that if she went to secondary school far from home she would be bad girl and that was the end of my aunt’s education! How would life have turned for her if she had pursued secondary school education; or for my mother? We can only speculate, but will never know. This brings me to a very interesting book I read called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He explored how the ‘outliers’, those persons who are outside of the average in their group/ achievement graph. This is a non-fiction book based on a critical look at various people in history with various achievements and occurrences that were not the norm among populations. He defines outliers as exceptional people who are smart, rich or very successful who operate at the extreme of what would be called “statistically plausible”. The book discuss how certain factors like family, culture among others play an important role in an individual’s success and pose the question whether successful people deserve the amount of praise we give them. However, he adds the "10,000-Hour Rule", where he argues that to a large extent for one to be a great success in a field one needs to practice about 10,000 times. I will summarize a few of the issues that Malcom highlights. He examines various factors that contribute to high levels of success. He looks at how successful Canadian ice hockey players are born in the first few months of the calendar year and link this to the time of recruitment to the game. Taking an example of the ice hockey players, he argues that since eligibility youth hockey leagues is determined by the year one was born, someone born say January and December of the same year are considered in the same league. He further theorizes that since those born in the early months of the year are more mature, almost a year older for some to the peers, they are identified as being better players hence getting more coaching. Other persons /groups mentioned include Bill Gates, the Beatles singers among others. He further examines cultural and socialization aspects that affect how people behave. E.g. the fact that some cultures are assertive hence a mechanic noticing a problem in an aircraft will inform the pilot boldly while another will merely suggest and this can determine possibility of a plane crash or not. On less acclaimed levels, it is clear that certain achievements are determined by aspects that are beyond our control. If I was born in a culture where educating girls was unheard of; girls get married in teenage, I would not have had to the privilege of making some choices. My experience working in communities for over ten years always gives me such aha moment as I interact with various people in different communities. In most instances aspects of empowerment like access to education which is among the most of basics are a rare privilege. Nelson Mandela is quoted saying “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The first five of the UN Millennium Development Goals in my view are based on the most basic of human needs; 1) Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, 2) Achieving universal primary education, 3) Promoting gender equality and empowering women, 4) Reducing child mortality rates, 5) Improving maternal health. In my view is that access to education is one of the greatest resources than one can get. This can help in realizing ‘individual MDGs’. However, not everyone is born in area or culture that promotes access to education. If one has not seen benefits of education, will they even realize they are missing out? If children are schooling in such deplorable conditions, how do they fit in this ‘global world?’ Sometimes its hard work Sometimes its determination Sometimes its other values; given that people in similar conditions do not necessarily achieve the same in life due to the efforts they put into it; Nonetheless sometimes it’s really luck or fate! Being in the right place at the right time!