Education in Africa: Whose Education, anyway?

Guinea Schoolgirls

“Why do some of our people sometimes talk and behave as if they are not educated,” queried the man from the podium, as he addressed his largely West African audience; “Illiteracy, the Bane of Africa’s Underdevelopment,” the international magazine headline recently declared; and according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, as at 2007, only 3 out of 10 adults in sub-Saharan Africa are literate.

The above, represent the widespread belief held within and outside Africa that the leadership crisis and the development dilemma, which plague the continent is a direct correlation of low literacy levels. In effect, the fact that few Africans have been opportune to sit under structured tutelage, to imbibe the basics of arithmetic, geography, history or the sciences, account for the decadence that prevail in the continent’s social, political and economic clime.

However, a fact that goes unnoticed by Africans is that pointing to low literacy levels as the root of Africa’s predicament, shuns the innate abilities and shrewdness of the African. According to the same UNESCO statistics, much more than sub-Saharan Africa, East-Asia accounts for the highest level of illiteracy globally, but the Asians are able to manage their economies despite being so academically challenged. In the case of Africa, their ability to manage or structure their society and develop their environment is hinged on the extent to which they are able to assimilate western education.

Education ought to empower an individual to master the peculiarities of his surroundings and afford him the tools to improve on it qualitatively. In essence, what might be considered knowledge in a certain part of the world could amount to useless information in another. Take for instance a teacher in faraway northern Nigerian teaching his elementary school pupil under the perpetual year round heat that the four seasons of the year are; fall, winter, spring and summer. The confusion the pupil will encounter is such that will take him a very long time, if at all, to decipher what the word ‘season’ implies, owing to the lack of correlation with his environmental reality. While the example given may seem implausible, such, form the bulk of what is widely disseminated as knowledge in the continent of Africa today.

Western incursion into Africa brought with it a repudiation of everything original to the continent. The African way of doing things were classified as backward, unscientific and barbaric. To the point of death from malaria, the westerners that first set foot on Africa refused to drink the herbal remedies offered by the kind natives to alleviate their suffering. Indigenous knowledge was regarded as baseless and summarily dismissed as superstition.

South African School Children

Intuition, metaphysics, sixth sense and other sources of knowledge long depended on, tried and tested by Africans were de-emphasized and western “scientific” method was upheld as the ultimate. The outdoor learning culture of Africans was scoffed at and African children were made to seat in classrooms just like in Europe, to learn the history of the Europeans, the Geography of Europe and the language of the colonialists.

Education became an enigma for the young and impressionable African child, who looked on with confused eyes as his blue eyed teacher explained that Mungo Park discovered the source of the Niger River in 1796. Unable to comprehend, the young child ponders over the fact that the source of the Niger River is just a stone throw away from his home, and yet his forefathers, who lived, fished and farmed on the edge of the river, could not “discover” it. Ashamed of his lineage, the African boy considers the Europeans heroic to have traveled thousands of miles to ‘discover’ a river just by the nose of his own people. He dreams of being like the Europeans, the great discoverers, and understandably looses any regard for his ‘ignorant’ people. The deep rotted inferiority complex leads him to dismiss whatever is African; cloth, food, culture, values, speech, technology and medicine as inadequate and in that same mind-set, he rears his children.

Many generations later, inferiority complex and a passionate disregard for everything African reigns in the subconscious of the average African. Acquisition of western education is equated with the acquisition of common sense and values. People who were unfortunate not to have tarried within the four walls of a school are seen to be of no value to society. African herbal remedies are viewed with suspicion in several quarters, and the younger generations speak only the colonial language and cannot be caught speaking their mother tongue.

An African, no matter how brilliant and of good character, who lacks a good command of either English or French as the case maybe or whose fairly acceptable grammar is accented with his local dialect has a much higher chance of finding a decent job in Europe and America than in his own country. But for the wise step taken by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and to some extent Mzee Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya in elevating Swahili to the level of a national language, Africa would not have had any language with global appeal in the 21st century.

Worse still, are the courses offered within the African higher academic system; Euro-centered disciplines that lack applicability to the compelling needs of the continent and its people. Nothing prepares the African student for the reality he would face upon graduating with a degree in French, English, Business Management, Engineering, Food and Nutrition, Agricultural Economics or Pharmacy, to discover that he is still ill equipped to contribute meaningfully to his society. The fields mentioned are not inherently of no value to Africa, but the approach and curriculum they employ is bereft of originality and does not take cognizance of the environment in which the students are situated.

In Africa, education remains an abstract and unfathomable concept, neither easily nor conveniently appreciated nor applicable – a wasteful endeavor that should never have been embarked upon in the first place. Take for instance, the Pharmacy department of African universities, where students are forced to memorize the chemical components of the drugs already discovered by Europe and America. On the contrary, pharmaceutical companies of Europe and America- with the co-operation of ignorant natives – are claiming to “discover” and patent the many herbs in the rich forests of Africa long used to cure ailments. The drugs so manufactured are sold back to Africans at exorbitant prices, while the student of Pharmacy from Africa graduates, clueless about what to do with his degree.

The high drop out rate of pupils in African schools is a symptom of the underlying problem of boredom. The curriculum is not tied to reality and is neither adequately intellectually stimulating nor engaging for the very brilliant children of Africa; African children on their own, assemble radios and mini cars from scrap metals, carve beautiful artifacts and even repair broken down cars and motorcycles.

The unproductive nature of the African educational system goes beyond paucity of funds to a deeply entrenched apathy on the sides of teachers, researchers, students and educational administrators, who deep down, do not feel connected to an alien knowledge system that is elusive of their reality. The problem of food scarcity in Africa is not just caused by drought, but the fact that long ago, ever before famine became heard of in Africa, youths were discouraged from farm work and forced to sit for long hours within brick walls to learn, just like their European counterparts. Farm work became unfashionable and as the African proverb says, only the hands dirty with farm work get greased with cooking oil; hunger became the reward for self denial. In Europe, classroom learning is prioritized because of the harsh and extreme weather conditions that constrain people to stay indoors for most of the time. Ostensibly, African youth would have excelled more with a greater combination of outdoors or practical learning with the theoretical, as the culture and environment dictated. Unfortunately, they were forced to sit indoors to learn only to go home to bed confused and hungry. As agriculture is not part of Europe’s curriculum at the foundational level, a fundamental part of African culture – food production-was discouraged.

The vicious cycle of hunger and underdevelopment can only cease when Africans realize that indigenous knowledge, native intelligence, and values are what makes a society grow and not any super-imposed, parasitic and dependent knowledge. Any knowledge that lacks foundation or is completely alien to the culture of a people would hardly engender growth, but rather, it would create some sort of bi-polar mentality, fostering confusion rather than progress. Until the chemical engineering departments of African universities start using local resources as the raw materials for research, the Food and Nutrition department take pride in researching the calorific, nutritional and therapeutic values of African foods, and invest efforts in developing healthy, tasty and endurable snacks that a foreigner can enjoy, development and growth would remain elusive to the continent.

The problem is not in the acquisition of western education; the problem lies in the fact that Africans have lost their identity. Like a man in a borrowed suit a size or more too big or too small, Africans continue to struggle in the ill-fitting apparel, pointing accusing fingers, first to the tailor for not being magnanimous enough to make the suit fit a second person; or maybe to themselves for being be too fat and needing to go on a diet, or too thin and needing to gain a pound or two; or could it be the fault of the fabric, but how come it fits the original owner so perfectly well, then? The answer, which Africans have never come to accept, is that the suit does not fit because it does not belong to them. Western education was made to measure for the individualistic culture, the environmental dynamics and the extreme weather conditions of the west. The educational system should be overhauled in a simple and inexpensive re-evaluation of curriculum, process and system carried out by Africans who understand the nature of the issues at stake. A practical combination of African values should be merged with international standards, in order for the continent not to loose out in this era of extreme globalization.

Further, Africans must realize that the acquisition of western education alone, as it were, does not amount to common sense or the ability to be innovative and positively impact society. The emphasis should cease to be on the ability of an individual to express himself in English or French as the case maybe, as that does not remotely attest to one’s brilliance. Few Chinese are fluent in English and yet, Africa is currently coming to terms with the ‘Chinalization’ of the continent.

The fact that an individual cannot handle fork and knife or sit properly to eat at the dining table has no direct correlation  with his IQ; enough of the self-hatred and denial. Education is good when it is a product of the immediate environment and ought not to be validated by western culture and educational system. The solution does not lie in looking up to the west but in searching inwards to emerge with something original and authentic that can be explored, developed through R&D and used to foster development at home and ultimately exported.

The list of fields where Africa can and should explore its indigenous identity is endless; Medicine, Pharmacy, Food and Nutrition, Psychology, Architecture, Political Science, Sociology, Business Management, History, Pedagogy, Fine Arts, Mining, Technology etc and even yet to be named or discovered fields of study.

Africans should not be shy to leverage on information technology to conduct in-depth study in the necessary fields. Yes, available technological breakthrough and ideas should be borrowed to further  advance and indeed, excavate Africa’s authenticity. There is nothing to be ashamed of in active/objective borrowing as there is no civilization that has not had to borrow to bring about advancement of its originality. The shame should only be ours when we resign to copying.

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