It has often been said that if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Africa provides many lessons on the damage done by ignorance, and if the continent is to get rid of gloomy perceptions, it will be through education. For the continent to develop, its education must change, writes Pusch Commey. After all, as Nelson Mandela put it: “Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.”
From the eco-systems of Silicon Valley to the slums of Nairobi, and the squeaky-clean streets of Doha, experts are adamant that education as we know it is changing. No longer does a formalised, structured educational system serve global needs. The game has changed to fostering creativity and innovation. The game has changed to finding imaginative solutions. Panel experts at summits and leading entrepreneurs have pointed to the significance of a little bit of craziness, adaptation, problem-solving, innovation, teamwork and disruption. After all, with an element of craziness and innovation, Apple and Google disrupted the way we communicate and the way we seek knowledge. The Internet and email disrupted postal services. All became possible through collaboration, competition and teamwork.
So where is Africa going in the field of education? What kind of education is most suited to serving the developmental needs of the continent and at the same time making it globally competitive? How is Africa going to harness its vast human and natural resources in the direction needed, as the Pan-African icon Kwame Nkrumah put it, “To allow the African genius full expression”.
More than 50 years ago, Nkrumah also noted the need to equip students with an understanding of the contemporary world within the framework of African civilisations, their histories, institutions, and ideas. African studies was compulsory in the universities he built in Ghana.
The first university in the world was African – Al Karaouine, in Fez, Morocco (859 AD), founded by an African woman. It was a full 229 years before the first European University was erected at Bologna in 1088 AD.
Before the disruption of slavery, colonialism, oppression, and destruction from the 15th century on, history tells us of the great African medieval civilisations, and the part that higher institutions of learning played in African academic and cultural life. There is no doubt that in the 13th century, centres of learning such as Walata, Djenna, and Timbuktu had a singular impact on African education and that the University of Sankore, with 25,000 students, had already qualified amongst the foremost intellectual inspirations in the world.
The historical paradigm
All over the continent, governments have either settled with the legacy of colonial education or tinkered with reform. But one country that is serious about changing the existing paradigm to an appropriate educational system is Uganda.
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire, a Ugandan writer, lawyer and academic, writes in an article culled in the online media platform, This is Africa, about the decolonisation process going on in Uganda.
“The African experience has been that education during colonial times was driven by missionaries. The conventional wisdom suggests that this was mainly through altruistic considerations – albeit racially tinged – to bring light to the Dark Continent and enlightenment to its natives.”
The language used was the tongue of the colonists. This western education expanded the basic numeracy of natives, introduced literacy and introduced new technical skills. There was the good and the bad. Most African leaders, past and present went through a western education. It was elitist.
The education system had an in-built slant that meant it suppressed local knowledge, promoted inequalities through unfair access, and helped create a mindset of blind loyalty rather than open minds to new ways of thinking. But the overriding philosophical approach was a top-down master /servant relationship. Knowledge was defined by the master. The system was further designed to serve the economic interests of the colonisers, which was the primary motivation for colonialism in the first place.
Prof. Mahmood Mamdani of Uganda argues in his article entitled “Politics and Class Formation in Uganda”, that the missionary education was designed as a tool of control, not one of empowerment. He points out: “The political usefulness of missionary education, it should be clear, stemmed from its dual nature: that it was technical as well as ideological, that it imparted skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as values such as loyalty to the existing order and disciplined self-sacrifice in the interest of that order.
“This was not education, but training; not liberation, but enslavement. Its purpose was not to educate a person to understand the objective limits to the advancement of individual and collective welfare, but to train a person to accept and even administer the limits in an ‘efficient’ manner.”
In an uncomfortably high number of cases, the elitist products of the system were hard-wired to mimic and replicate western views and values while thumbing their nose at local knowledge and practices, including those that were progressive. But it also signalled the death of the nation’s community spirit, as the severe individualism of Europe supplanted the African spirit of collective welfare.
“Fast material progress had produced a brand of young men, who though in a sense were quite educated, lacked any intellectual commitment to causes.”
They could read and write but as they were handed the monumental task of building a nation-state, they could neither hear nor learn, notes the Professor.
The eminent academic Edward Said writes, in his book Culture and Imperialism:
“Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations which include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with that domination.”
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire, writing on the decolonisation process, notes:
“African pupils and students learnt that explorers Mungo Park (Scottish) and John Speke (English) discovered River Niger and the source of the River Nile respectively despite the fact that the people who lived around these rivers already knew of their existence and had names for them. Something was not true, was not real knowledge until it came off English lips, eyes and ears. And what came off the colonial office was meant to justify colonialism. Thus, through education, Africans were fed an inferiority complex.”
And as many have noted, confidence is half the battle won. The pattern of brainwashing the minds of Africans to subservience was replicated everywhere and illustrated in the last African country to obtain independence, South Africa, where the infamous Bantu education was designed to make blacks aspire to be bus drivers and labourers.
Decolonising the education curriculum
On attaining independence, some post-colonial thinkers and politicians embarked on the decolonisation of the education system, to serve the needs of Africans. This has had varying degrees of success and failure. Most failures can be attributed to the colonial mindset of African policy makers and implementers, fostered by the former masters.
Arguing for the abolition of the English Department and establishment of the African Literature and Languages Department at the University of Nairobi many years ago, Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote:
“We want to establish the centrality of Africa in the department. This, we have argued, is justifiable on various grounds, the most important one being that education is a means of knowledge about ourselves. Therefore, after we have examined ourselves, we radiate outwards and discover peoples and worlds around us. With Africa at the centre of things, not existing as an appendix or a satellite of other countries and literatures, things must be seen from the African perspective.”
Mwesigire notes that in Uganda several steps to decolonise the education curriculum have been undertaken to date.
“At present, learners in [classes] Primary One to Three learn about their immediate environment, through the oral strand. They learn about the family, the home, school, neighbourhood and sub-county. This is called the thematic curriculum, and they study in their local languages, with English studied as a subject.
It is at Primary Four that learners transit to studying in English. Under Social Studies, learners are taught about the district in which their school is located. They learn about its location, physical features, vegetation, people, leaders, and how to meet people’s needs in the district. In Primary Five, they look at Uganda, Primary Six, East Africa and in Primary Seven, Africa. There is no doubt that the curriculum is very contextual up to this level.
The textbooks in use are almost all locally produced. The textbook industry in the country is booming because materials produced from outside can’t be used to teach the new curriculum. Thus, where John Speke would have been praised as the one who discovered the River Nile, the Primary Five textbook says that the river was called Kiira by the Basoga, who live around it, and John Speke was the first European to see it.
New trends, resources, and lessons from the East
From that historical foundation stone, how does Africa leapfrog its educational deficits and release the African genius? In other words, how will it unleash the African genie from the bottle?
The Middle East is moving at a rapid rate to convert its finite natural resources to human resources. Within their own cultural context, the Gulf countries like the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are making great strides in the field of education, and becoming globally competitive in business. For example, their airlines, shopping destinations and investments are becoming global, all built on their cultural foundations and language. Their schools and universities are affiliated to global best practice, but have deep roots in their confidence-boosting culture and self-determination.
It is that kind of wisdom that has driven, for the past six years, the Qatar Foundation’s World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). The patron is Her Royal Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser. At the annual WISE educational summit in Doha, Qatar (4-6 November 2014) – with the theme “Make, Create”, the Chairman of WISE, Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, noted that the natural gas and petroleum resources which have catapulted the Peninsula into being the richest country in the world per capita will run out in about 35 years. Most of Qatar’s earnings are thus being channelled into infrastructure development and education.
The reasons for the tectonic shift to innovation and creativity are not far-fetched. After all, while resources can yield so much that is finite, knowledge, creativity and innovative ideas like Facebook or Google can generate enterprises worth billions of dollars, that exceed in value the destructive extraction of tons of gold, and years of oil drilling. It is also instructive that science, renewable energy and new innovations like fracking will upset the apple cart. Importantly, knowledge and creativity is infinite. The experts at WISE in Doha noted that with creative tools like Google, a web-connected device and bandwidth, knowledge is now at one’s finger-tips. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. It is learning how to innovate and create something new that will drive the world.
The old era of standardised test scores in schools is going out of the window. The new world is about mobile schools, online education, and the kind of creative thinking that says a dissertation could be on the impact the song and dance Gangnam Style had on the South Korean economy. Technology, coding and the internet have a massive role to play. After all, Gangnam Style was driven by YouTube, the creative force of technology.
Post-MDGs and MDG2
With the UN-backed Millennium Development Goals coming to a close this year, MDG2, which sought to achieve Universal Primary Education, is as expected under critical scrutiny. Figures indicating the success or failure of this important goal vary globally due to a myriad of issues concerning public health, resources, infrastructure and human resources.
This is probably why one topic that garnered extensive debate at WISE was how and why having a holistic approach to the delivery of education and innovative ways to educate children is vital. At the Doha Summit, education experts estimated that all that was required to put every child into school was $26 billion, just a fraction of what is spent on some of the world’s major armed conflicts.
On the African front, education experts at the Summit agreed that the quality of education in Africa still needs leapfrogging, with many arguing that simple literacy and numeracy, as well as attaining MDG2, was not enough.
Fostering the thirst for knowledge, creativity, innovation, solutions, and a growth-oriented mindset were some of the suggestions made for the continent to progress. But what is the African leadership’s common position on education after the 25-year-old MDGs? The jury is still out on that one.
Unleashing the African genius
Very few will dispute that in the quest for an appropriate education, best practice should form an integral part of the African agenda. And that means shopping around the world, and adapting best practice to one’s special environment and circumstances, whether from England, China, India, South Korea, Singapore or Malaysia. Some African educational experts on the continent and in the Diaspora are adamant that the right foundation and direction in education for the African child must be African-centred.
Similar principles have been adopted in developed and developing countries that are making great strides; Chinese education is Chinese-centred and so is German education, German-centred.
In the diaspora, some African parents prefer to send their children to Afro-centred schools or use an African-centred home schooling curriculum, many arguing that the status quo negatively impacts their children’s self-esteem and confidence.
But what does African-centred education mean?
An African-centred education is defined as education designed to empower African people. A central premise is that many Africans have been subjugated by limiting their awareness of themselves and indoctrinating them with ideas that work against them.
In a 1992 article, US anthropologist Linus A. Hoskins wrote: “There is a vital necessity for African people to use the weapons of education and history to extricate themselves from this psychological dependency complex/syndrome as a necessary precondition for liberation… If African peoples (the global majority) were to become Afrocentric (African-centred), that would spell the ineluctable end of European global power and dominance. This is indeed the fear of Europeans… Afrocentrism is a state of mind, a particular subconscious mind-set that is rooted in the ancestral heritage and communal value system.”
Beyond these confidence-building values, the creativity of the African child must be unleashed in schools, to cultivate a focus on solving problems and creating, making and selling stuff to the whole world. For, after all, when the Gross National Products of countries are measured, it is precisely about the harnessing of the human resources of that country to deliver goods and services. The natural resources are just an enabler.
As ideas about the ideal global educational paradigm shift like the desert sands of Qatar, so must African policy makers rethink education, ensuring that it is in the best interests of the continent, and resist influences and pressures designed to entrench a status quo. Anything short of that will be slow suicide. That is why there is an urgent need for disruption in education, and also why teamwork involving all Africans on the continent and in the diaspora is vital.