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Many of us who grew up in the rural African setting carry fond memories of the fireplace. Not only did the fireplace provide warmth and security during the dark night, it was also a focal point for family gatherings. Then again, in the traditional African setting, family was not just a father, mother and the children. Rather it was an extended intergenerational group, with a significant maternal bias that congregated as the sun set. Great grandparents and great grandchildren socialized and were inducted into the ways of the family, clan and nation around the fireplace.

The fireplace served as a center for learning and education, and for sharing wisdom and the ways of the world. Learning and education was mainly undertaken through the oral tradition. One sat and listened with rapt attention to the elders (philosopher-sociologists) regale the family with conquests and calamities that befell their ancestors, how they dealt with taboos and how the next generation could be social betters. Probably you recollect the exciting tales of how the small but cunning hare (‘wakayima’) overcame myriad enemies including the leopard, the elephant and the lion. How the slow tortoise won a race over a cunning ‘wakayima’. There was always a moral to these stories that addressed social dilemmas. Family disputes and feuds would also be amicably settled around the fireplace, because the fireplace would metamorphose into a court of sorts, and the gathering of grey haired adults, was akin to the assembly of a jury.

Knowledge was passed from generation to generation as stories and folklore. The art of storytelling was also a means of expression and a methodology for resolving the dilemmas that were experienced as one grew up. If it were not stories, it was verbal contests in which knowledge of the sayings of the nation were recanted, or puzzles that tested intelligence were solved by contestants. Indeed the oral tradition was and remains important, because writing was not a common thing. The limited use of the written word led some to note that the passing of an old person was akin to the loss of a library.

The import of the manner in which knowledge was organized and disseminated in the traditional African setting has mistakenly led modern African governments to believe that traditional societies did not have a good appreciation of science and hence their underdevelopment. As a result, education policy has been heavily biased towards glorification of the sciences, to the detriment of the arts. Pay differentials in the education system have become more pronounced in favor of the sciences, because of the belief that science is an autonomous discipline that is bereft of social context.

Don’t believe this and don’t confuse your kids when they ask for career guidance. For the arts are as important as the sciences. The advancement of society is based on an understanding of our social and cultural context. That context is expressed through the arts and humanities, beginning more especially with the oral tradition that has informed our own understanding of human progress and behavior over time. On the other hand, we must understand that useful science is that science, which addresses and solves the problems expressed through art and the humanities to improve our wellbeing.

What we ought to be saying to the young ones is that it does not matter what you become – an artist or a scientist. What matters is that whatever you chose to become, be sure you do two things. First is you should make sure that you enjoy learning whatever you chose to study and second is that you try to be the best in whatever you ultimately chose to do. That in my opinion is the only way to compete on a world class level and overcome mediocrity. By creating vibrant and passionate harpists and surgeons.

Samuel Sejjaaka is Country Team Leader at Abacus Business School. Twitter @samuelsejjaaka

*This article is extracted from a paper that was first presented to the Uganda National Academy of Sciences in October 2017.