Education: Making a Difference

Published on 16th September 2013

                                 Graphics courtesy
We are celebrating the 40th anniversary since the first phone call was made on a mobile phone. Today, there are more mobile phones in Africa than there are in Europe and America combined. In Africa a mobile phone is used for banking, buying, and learning all at once. In Kenya, citizens used text messages to oversee the elections just recently concluded.

This year we celebrated the 10th anniversary of YouTube. Today you can continue learning about other cultures using all the excellent opportunities available on YouTube. When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Dar es Salaam in 1983, I had to use journals that my professor had carried with him from his studies in America. I used these journals to see what measures were being used to improve the safety performance of intersections in a secondary city called Mwanza around Lake Victoria in Tanzania.

Today, thirty years later, if you had to do the same research, you would find nearly five million videos on YouTube with all sorts of solutions to intersection safety based on movements of low risk and high risk drivers as well as by type of intersection control, whether traffic lights, roundabouts, or stop signs. With Google earth you may even be able to spot a specific driver’s behavior on a given intersection. The YouTube is being used in Rwanda to get orphaned gorillas adopted and to help adoptive parents from America and other parts of the world see a newborn animal they have just named. We can only imagine what other exciting discoveries lie ahead and to which youthful talent can be channeled to unleash.

It took traveling to some 100 countries during the time I worked for the World Bank for me to appreciate the vast differences in culture and the role information could play in raising productivity. In Peru I learned firsthand the cost of poor roads by asking a farmer coming down the steep hills from Ccorca to sell his produce in the market in Cuzco. His experience using a llama to go down with potatoes and up with sugar and oil allowed our team of transport experts and economists to calculate the rate of return of investing in paving the road, which got the project approved by the Board of the World Bank to finance that investment.

In Bhutan, I learned how to balance energy generation through hydroelectricity production while preserving the environment and trading energy with neighbors—especially India. What I learned from traveling helped me tremendously at work and in life.

When I first came to America I would stay informed about what was happening back home by writing long letters once a week and making short phone calls once a semester. Today I send text messages to my family and they keep on top of issues by surfing on the Internet. Every time I visit my siblings, I bring out the long letters I used to write. Last summer, I put together into one document all the text and email messages we had sent each other over the course of three days. It ended up being a collective book with tidbits and memories of our childhood. The ease of communication makes us forget at times the string of messages we are sending and their collective impact over time.
Consider some important questions. In the future, what new ways of doing your job could be defined? What new ways will exist for solving societies' problems? Research tells us that in your lifetime you will change careers five to ten times.

I know firsthand the value of a broad liberal arts education. I learned that growing up and watching my father struggle to make choices in life. My father was born between the first and second world wars. He studied to be a mining engineer during the time of colonial rule, but because he was in a school where he had to learn an instrument, he also studied music. He became quite talented on several instruments, but after he graduated he could only afford to buy a guitar. He got a job in a copper mine, and when the mine closed, he used his music skills to make a living. He composed music on a guitar and performed in a band where he recruited his sisters as singers. He wrote songs that got people excited to vote in a referendum for the independence of Tanganyika and worked to register people to vote. He was a creative recording artist.

From my father I learned rhythm and got interested in mathematics from watching him compose and play on the guitar. I learned physics when he taught me to estimate the weight of the elephant from its footprint. He retired as a farmer when preferences shifted and his music was no longer popular—his music is now considered "the Oldies.” I learned agriculture from him and paid for the GRE exam to qualify for study in an American graduate school using income from growing tomatoes. My learning in agriculture helped me use science in a unique way for productivity improvements on the tomato patch then, and today for understanding the role of women in transforming Africa's agriculture.

Whether it was math or physics, music or agriculture, learning from his broad education helped me get ahead. Learning does not end when you step beyond the campus—it continues on the job. I learned how to handle tense labor relations while interning on a construction site to maintain a rural road in Tanzania. Those skills are now helping me be a better mentor and guide to my children, leader at work, and advisor to stakeholders involved in the extractive industry. At the end of the day, what matters is how you use what you learn.

Use the grounding in values and ethics to be a good steward of the society in which you live. Use your skills to become a good citizen leader of this earth. Live up to the challenges that life and work present to you. Live your lives such that the next generation can tackle another set of issues and not be responsible for righting the ones we have messed up. Many times we fail. Sometimes our failures can be spectacular. But when we learn from failure it allows us to succeed in ways unimaginable before.

With the right values, engagement in productive work, and perseverance in the face of obstacles, anything is possible. What becomes of your life is largely determined by what you make of it, and how you weave the strands of opportunities presented to you at each stage.

Real life begins from the day you set foot in the job market with newly acquired skill sets. Life will come with its own challenges. Contest is part of life and it should not be unexpected when challenges come our way. What is more important is the adaptability we demonstrate in responding to such challenges and the resilience that gets born through doing so successfully over time.

By Dr. Frannie Léautier
Executive Secretary, African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF)

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