Africa: The Need for Liberating Education

Published on 13th June 2017

Education is the software of any society. It is what programmes us to see the world the way we do, and conduct ourselves the way we do. In planning foundations of any society, the first question should be: what type of education do we intend to offer?

For Africa, and much of the developing world, this question is imperative because for more than a century, our education was designed to disempower and stagnate us. In a sense, the African situation is a product of its education.

However, it is impossible for us to speak about the history of education in Africa without thinking about colonialism. On 2nd February 1835, Lord Thomas Macaulay presented a Minute on Indian Education in the British Parliament. He proposed the use of education in order to create Indians who are “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” This is how human psychology in the colonies was programmed. Education was an imperial weapon for domination. The testimony that follows makes the point clear. In spite of its contested authorship, whether it is Lord William Bentinck or Lord Thomas Macaulay who said these words, it tells us how colonial education achieved its goals.

It says: I have travelled across the length and breadth of Africa and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth as I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we should ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage. And therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Africans think that everything that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native culture, and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.

The spirit of the continent was captured and killed. This was a genocide of the spirit. Up until this day, there are many Africans driven by the belief that everything foreign and Western is greater than their own.

The worst is that we lost ourselves. Many lost faith in themselves and the cardinal truth that the salvation of Africa can only be led by Africans. We were made to forget that nobody owes us their existence and that whatever charity comes to Africa is nothing but charity.

This colonization of the mind was supported by well-founded institutions, including universities. The university was the major factory for producing discourses that shaped and dominated the colonized mind.

Let us admit, there is no history that can be wished away in human existence. Colonialism was a complex history that cannot be erased by demolishing a statue of an imperialist who built the very halls in which you sit to learn about evils of imperialism.

But suppose we take down that “dark blot” of our past, what do we do with the many buildings that Cecil Rhodes built in this university – the buildings that we happily use? I take it that you have read the will of Cecil Rhodes and seen the treasure he invested in this University. This was the money he got from the so-called poor Africa.

The point is: we cannot change the fate of Cecil Rhodes – a man whom fate had it that he must be a student of this University just as you are. While we cannot change the fate Cecil Rhodes, we can change the fate of those who continue being victims of the past. This change begins with what we are doing right now – opening cross-cultural dialogues.

The question I bring today is: what type of education do we need to economically emancipate generations whose past education was designed to dominate them? I will answer this question by illustrating what we are doing in Malawi.

First, we need an education that goes beyond the classroom. We need an education whose objective is not simply to qualify and certify individuals. It must be an education that aims at building capabilities in the people. We must aim at empowering the people with skills.

We must remember – that Africa is not a poor continent. Although its people are poor, even Malawi is not a poor country. Every year, Sub-Sahara Africa alone receives about $134 billion in loans and development aid. But, $192 billion is taken out back to developed countries. We have the resources, but what we lack are the skills for turning our assets into capital. That is the knowledge and skills that we need.

I will tell you one thing that has been happening. For a long time, every student who went to school in Malawi was supposed to know who discovered the Congo River or Lake Malawi. This is the kind of education colonialism left and was adopted for a long time. In other instances, one was supposed to be able to dissect an insect and label its parts. In that process, you would qualify a person and certify them as educated. But what is the use of such education?

Secondly, we need an education system that empowers the majority of the people beyond the classroom. We need to take education to the community. Much of education in Africa has been the creation of an elite class that almost echoes the idea of Lord Thomas Macaulay in 1835.

What do I mean by the majority? The category of the majority has three dimensions. We have the women who constitute nearly half the population. There is no vehicle that can move with half of its tyres not functioning. I am proud to say that I have appointed a lot of women into key decision-making positions. There is no point in educating women when you cannot give them key decision-making positions.

Besides, we have also intensified investing in the education of the girl child as a means for achieving sustainable empowerment of women.

The second dimension of the majority is the Youth. In Africa, about sixty percent of the population is the Youth under the age of 35. We have a similar situation in Asia. It is the same case in Malawi. I believe a time has come that any development planning must focus on investing in the Youth as a human capital. I am thinking about how to fast-track progress in the developing countries.

What we have done in Malawi is to introduce a programme called skills development targeting the Youth. We are building community colleges across the country. We have a practical curriculum that focuses on vocational and entrepreneurial skills. In so doing, we are creating a human engine for industrialization for us to move Malawi from a predominantly importing and consuming nation to a producing and exporting nation. We are creating a skilled labour force for such a movement.

These community colleges are targeting the third dimension of the majority. Because our education system has been elitist since colonialism, there are a lot of Malawians stuck without skills between the secondary school and the university. This is the majority that finishes secondary education but cannot get into the university. I believe there is no society that can develop without a skilled labour force. Above all, I believe in empowering communities, empowering women and empowering the Youth.

By H.E. Peter Mutharika

President of Malawi.

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