Two weeks ago, I watched a documentary on unemployment aired on NTV. It explored its causes, using case studies of graduates who have 'tarmacked' the roads for ages after university.
But what was disturbing was a clip in which President Museveni placed the blame on subjects students study at university. He singled out Literature in English as one of those “redundant” subjects, wondering what one could do after studying William Shakespeare. “Shakespeare said this in this year, so what?” the sarcastic President asked.
I don’t think Mr Museveni's choice for Literature as a subject to berate was accidental. Literature emphasises critical thinking, using works of fiction, at times reality. Most literary works draw inspiration from real life, with authors either seeking to celebrate or criticise these aspects of life. It trains learners to look beyond the surface, equipping them with investigative and analytical skills.
It is therefore very understandable for President Museveni to berate such a subject. I mean which leader would not be worried about many students studying George Orwell's Animal Farm and discovering how revolutions (read liberations) can be abused? Which leader would not turn in their seats with unease if most subjects know about a certain Napoleon taking on the same behaviour and mannerisms of the Farmer Jones he deposed? Just imagine the strife we would have if half this country understood the concept of "eating eggs and drinking milk" as propagated by Squealer - and was able to name and shame modern-day Squealers? Who would feel comfortable reading Shakespeare's tragedy of Macbeth, cognisant that the betrayal and deadly ambition therein abounds in their neighbourhoods? Is it not Achebe who talked of old women feeling uncomfortable whenever bones were mentioned in a tale?
Leaders who have skidded off the path of the ideals they promised have found safety in muzzling critics who can ably alert societies about the ills. It is why the likes of Alex La Guma were banished by the South African apartheid regime. Does it surprise anyone that during the riotous moments in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, students and lecturers of Literature were targets of the monarchical repressive regimes, many arrested and incarcerated?
Mr Museveni's argument of promoting science subjects at the expense of arts/humanities is hollow and escapist - mainly because employment in this country has ceased to be a question of merit. I know of several nursing graduates who are unemployed because every time they have applied for a job at a district, the commissions have asked for bribes that they can't raise. Those who have been able to oil the palms have been employed, irrespective of their competencies. The same cancer has eaten most public institutions and is gradually rearing its ugly head in the private sector.
Unemployment therefore, is an indictment on those charged with the duty of planning for this country. The Asian tigers we admire are able to predict human resource needs of their countries - at times decades in advance - and deliberately influence training in that direction. What do we do here? Let majority children get half-baked primary school education, go to facility-less secondary schools and fizzle out thereafter - adding to the statistics of the unemployed. Meanwhile, the few with the means send their children abroad to Ivy League universities and remind us about why we should not study Literature.
Can anyone explain why a President who sees no value in Literature at one point had an adviser on literary affairs? Saw it fit to back a local Literature guru as his party's spokesperson and keeps lacing his speeches with metaphors and similes - all literary qualities?