When I was an undergraduate student in London in the mid-1960s I enjoyed extraordinary benefits from a number of summer vacation internships I undertook through AIESEC, the international association for students of economics and commerce.
One was with Quaker Oats, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the heart of the American Mid-West. There I mingled with staff in their factory and offices, during a fascinating three months exposure to blue- and white-collar workers who had not been exposed to life beyond their confined environments.
This was my first visit to America, and I was really looking forward to exploring the great affluence and sophistication that I had heard so much about. What surprised me as I interacted with the workers at Quaker Oats was their lack of curiosity about me, this young foreigner with his strange English accent – so unusual in this part of the country at the time.
One even told me I was hard to understand due to my accent. It was for me to open and develop conversations, as I had found with previous internships in France, and for me to have them feel relaxed and to welcome me rather than ignore my presence.
As I observed all these good people – for they were good people – I concluded that what they had in common was that they expected their tomorrows would be like their yesterdays, and like those of their parents before them.
They lived day-to-day, expecting to be doing the same job until they reached the age of retirement, and that their children too would be employed in a similar way and at a similar level.
Even then, as the pace of development of technology was already accelerating, as long-distance air travel was becoming more common, and as we were starting to learn about the “global village” phenomenon, I was concerned about how these people would cope in the years ahead.
I also look back to a few years ago when through our Rotary Club my wife and I were supporting a village empowerment programme in Kiambu County, where we were very concerned about the deep conservatism of the farmers.
With very fertile soil, and located less than half an hour’s drive from Nairobi, they are so well placed to both grow and distribute their products. But their lack of curiosity to try out new approaches held them back from generating the wealth their land could readily deliver.
I come to the present now, and find that as I facilitate my workshops the same lack of curiosity often manifests itself. At lunchtime I deliberately sit at a table that’s empty to see who will join me, knowing that other than the most senior in the group hardly anyone else would do so unless I invite them (which I proceed to do).
Is it shyness, I wonder? Do they feel overwhelmed by this mzungu elder, preferring the comfort of their regular buddies? Are they not curious to know more about those with whom they are unfamiliar?
Whatever the reason, I also always see this when the participants choose where to sit at the round tables I set up for my events. Women tend to sit with other women, technical staff with others like them, juniors with juniors, veterans with their agemates.
I must take the initiative to shuffle them around, so they can reach out to “the other” and get to know people different from themselves, ones of a different age or gender, function or seniority.
It is those who are bold and curious – thanks to being relaxed with themselves and with others – who will seek and be offered more responsibilities.
They are the ones who expect to learn and to grow, who have developed non-technical skills such as emotional intelligence to complement their technical expertise, and they possess higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence.
So over the years, and in many different settings, I have seen that an absence of curiosity holds back far too many people.
My great hope for Kenya is that our new Competency Based Curriculum will go a long way to overcoming such inhibitions, transforming the present approach which on the contrary stifles curiosity – including at the university level. Both the curriculum and how it should be applied makes me very optimistic for our future generations.