Educating an African fit for the 21st Century

Education systems, all the world over, are in transition. Indeed, we are in a global education crisis. The lack of resources, infrastructure, trained teachers, and funding are just some of the structural constraints that prevent millions around the world from receiving a proper education. Conflicts and war, poverty, discrimination, inequality, and inequity exacerbate the crisis and leave many individuals marginalised and excluded from the opportunity to learn, to exchange and co-create knowledge.

There is global unity in the will to transform education systems, but as I reflect on the theme of this year’s Africa Day “Educate an African fit for the 21st Century: Building resilient education systems for increased access to inclusive, lifelong, quality, and relevant learning in Africa”, I wonder is there unity in what we mean by ‘Educating an African fit for the 21st Century?’ Are we clear on what skills are needed for the 21st Century and who determines who is the African that is fit? Who is the education for, and what is its aim and agenda? Let’s take a step back.

Foluke Ifejola Adebisi in her article ‘Decolonising Education in Africa: Implementing the right to education by reappropriating culture and indigeneity’ (2016) NILQ 67(4): 433-51 has very well brought out that “evaluations focusing on the lack of educational infrastructure and personnel usually ignore the contextual inadequacies of educational provision in the region and the inability to equip its citizens to fit in with and benefit the societies they live in, leading to a significant level of unemployment / underemployment, underdevelopment and brain-drain, as well as erosion of languages and cultures”.

Global efforts to develop African education have focused on the availability and accessibility of education (Millenium Development Goals) and this has still continued with the Sustainable Development Goals specifically, Goal Number 4, Quality Education for All. Look at evaluations done by international organisations, and they will all tell you the same thing: meaningful progress has been made, there are more children in school. More recently, the discussions have taken a turn to start discussing the quality of education, which is extremely important.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the 21st Century skills that we are supposed to be preparing for:  critical thinking and problem-solving skills, communication skills, collaborative skills, creative skills, innovative skills, information literacy, digital literacy, global and cultural awareness and so forth.  It’s an interesting wide array of skills we need to provide to the African youth. Yet, when we look at current education systems in Africa, we see an emulation of European and American education systems, not to mention Chinese ones.  Where are the African education systems?

Some years ago, I was involved in teaching children in both Finland and Kenya about elephants and rhinos. To cap off the work, we arranged a drawing competition among the children. What struck me from the outcome was the difference in art skills between the children in the two countries, with the Kenyan children having poorer skills in drawing and depicting the habitats and environment, despite their being closer in proximity to the natural habitats of elephant and rhino. Contrary, most of the Finnish children had never seen either animal in the wild nor travelled to the regions where these animals are found. Certainly, the position of art as a subject in the school curricula is different in both countries. Art is a ‘lesser’ subject in the Kenyan curricula, with more resources given to science subjects and access to simple resources for art teaching are very limited and, in many cases, non-existent. Kenyan children (and Kenyans in general) do not have easy access to national parks, where the animals are found. Although entrance fees for Kenyan citizens and residents are lower than those for foreigners, the rates are so high that when faced with other imminent living costs, it is clear that a visit to the national park is low on the list for the average Kenyan school or family.

I also pondered on other issues, like why many of the Kenyan children had drawn apple trees in their drawings. Certainly, apples are not grown in Kenya – the climate does not allow for their thriving. The answer comes from language and geography teaching. From pre-primary level, children in Kenya are taught: ‘ A is for apple’ and the books have the most beautiful drawings of apple trees. I wondered, ‘Why are they not taught ‘A is for acacia?!’ Acacia trees are widely present in the natural environment in Kenya. One does not even need to dig deep to find that those that have gone to school, in many former British colonies, will be able to recite the Kings and Queens of Great Britain and can do fantastic citations of Shakespeare. Ask them about the former Kings of the Bukusu people and their clans, and very few will be able to answer.

Well, the Europeans did go to Africa to ‘civilise’ Africans. Yet, when faced with Africans wanting to immigrate to Europe for further education or work, Europe starts to build high fences. Those that have graduated from Kenyan, South African, Ghanaian, and Nigerian school systems will be able to talk and write the Queen’s English. Yet, wait until they are applying to European universities, and they are asked to complete a proficiency test in English. The story continues in development work in education. Funding for building the capacity of higher education in Africa is offered by European governments and the EU, which universities are happy to tap into for an array of reasons including funding, jobs, and important strides into education and research on African education.

However, when one takes a closer look, scientific articles are placed in western publications out of reach to the African researchers and policy makers. In Finland, researchers and universities are encouraged to publish articles in scientific journals that have a ranking of 1 to 3 (3 being the highest level) on the Publication Forum (JUFO). There are only 4 titles related to Africa with a JUFO rank 3 and they all encompass only history, societal affairs, language, and linguistics. There are only 11 titles with a JUFO rank 2 and again, the subject area is limited to history, arts, culture, and linguistics. Finally, there are 177 titles with a JUFO rank 1 and the subject area does not expand much further except one title in crop science and one title in mathematics. I find it baffling that there are no journals covering African education, biology, and science subjects. Yet, we while we say research and innovation with Africa is important, we do not recognise African scientific journals.

Taking a look at any Finnish university strategy, note that each and every one of them says something about sustainability. My own home university, the University of Eastern Finland’s strategy is titled: Seizing a sustainable future. We also talk about global responsibility. Our engagement with Africa and our African partners needs to take these two big words to the centre of all our activities. It means that we need to carefully assess our education development activities that we embark upon with our African partners in terms of sustainability and global responsibility. Are our activities simply copy-pasting the Finnish education system into African contexts, without considering if they will actually work or if they are indeed beneficial to the African youth that we are co-educating?

Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu’s Indigenous Knowledge and Education in Africa (2019) says that indigenous knowledge forms the foundation of knowledge for much of Africa’s population, nonetheless, this knowledge is neglected. I believe that as long as this continues, we continue to ignore the contexts of African countries, their cultures and knowledge and thus question how we can then package ourselves as working in arena that encompasses sustainability, responsibility, equity, and diversity.

Last year, the Finnish University Partnership for International Development (UniPID) and the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity (TENK) published Ethical guidelines for responsible academic partnerships with the Global South. Putting these guidelines into action in education collaboration with Africa will mean that we need to look more critically into what we do and how we do it. Finnish universities will no doubt need to give space to their African partners in order that local contexts are considered, and that indigenous and traditional knowledge are integrated into development work, which both sides are partnering on in the co-development of African education. It will also take time, no doubt, and requires even more open communication. But this is all the more reason we need to take the steps forward. Otherwise, we risk only falling more deeply into the trap of neo-colonialism, whereas we need to take a decolonial approach to educating an African fit for the 21st Century. After all, isn’t that the Africa we want? One that has Africans at the centre, learning and teaching about Africa and her rich cultures and biodiversity, and really leveraging the potential for sustainable development that exists?

Roseanna Avento
Global Development Manager
University of Eastern Finland

The author is the Nordic Representative of the East African Wildlife Society and a certified National Geographic Educator.