Out of Africa

Too many African schools worship the idea of education but then teach nothing useful. A school in rural Uganda points the way to a brighter future
February 25, 2007
Uganda's education pyramid

If you ask Africans what they want for their children, they reply: education. Most of their wealth and savings go to paying school fees. Britain is committed to giving millions of pounds to African governments so they can provide free primary education. You can't argue with that. Education—especially of girls—is an unqualified good. But as with so many things in Africa, scratch the surface and the reality is different.

I recently visited schools in Uganda, where Aids deaths and family breakdown have created huge numbers of orphans, and drop-out rates are high because of school fees, poor teaching or pregnancy. At one school, I was received with great formality: lunch, speeches, music, a ceremony to open the new science laboratory—a day devoted to rituals in honour of learning. (They really do worship it; at the local university town, a traffic notice reads: "Drive Carefully Intellectuals Crossing.") Then came traditional dancing. I am all for African traditions, but could there be a connection between that dance and the high rates of pregnancy? Performing the most sexually explicit dances I have ever seen, the pubescent girl dancers knelt and offered themselves to me, the parish priest and the teachers.

I was disturbed too by the expensive laboratory. Teaching O-level chemistry to a class of 90 without equipment is impossible, but in a school where drinking water comes from butts that collect run-off from the roof and last year's exams were abandoned because of an evil spirit in the school, Bunsen burners, test tubes and pipettes feel like objects from a cargo cult.

School is seen as an escape route from the village; a magic elevator that will lift your child from the patch of subsistence land and transport him or her to the city to work in an office and send money back to the family. It is a terrible illusion. Visit a typical village school and you will find rows of old-fashioned desks crammed with anxious young people chanting answers learned by heart. The curriculum that is being crammed belongs to Britain in 1960. The teacher stands with a stick, which he uses to beat anyone who gives a wrong answer. That is if he is there at all—teachers' attendance record is poor.

The education system in most African countries is a steepening pyramid pointed at Oxbridge and creating failure and despair at every level. Each year millions tumble off it, without qualifications or useful knowledge. They are failures who have wasted the family's resources, but they cannot go back to digging the land, because they have "learned book." Despite the obvious need for profound curriculum reform, African civil servants and politicians have little interest, since they themselves reached the peak of the pyramid. But what about the rejects?

One answer comes from the Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (URDTP) in one of the poorest, most neglected parts of the west of the country. The founder is a local man, Mwalimu Musheshe. He says he went to two universities. He was at Makerere, the national university, during the civil war in the early 1980s when he was arrested and taken to the army barracks for 13 months. He was actually in line for execution when he was rescued by a sympathetic officer. "That second university taught me more," he says.

The school occupies only part of the URDTP site. There is also a technology centre and a local radio station. Musheshe tells parents at the school not to tell their children they will go to university. "That is a lie. This school teaches you how to make life better here in this area when you leave school." The next thing he tells parents is that they too must come to school and learn alongside their children. And it is not just literacy that the school teaches. There is a solar power centre and, if families can afford a car battery, they can charge it up for 60p, which will give them a light in their house for a month. In a country with 12-hour nights, that is a lot of studying time. The schoolchildren learn to grow their own food and use new farming methods. They look after the school herd of cows, using the cowshit in a biogas maker for cooking. And the radio station holds discussions about everything from land rights to safe sex.

The teachers combine roles so the maths teacher is also the solar technician and so on. Top of the agenda is self-esteem, belief that you can think for yourself and solve problems. "This was an area of high morbidity and passive violence," says Musheshe. "We have got to stop being passive orphans and take control of our lives. If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere."

The students are encouraged to go home in the holidays and make money by growing things or doing handicraft so they can contribute to their school fees. The philosophy draws on Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but it also reminds me of Julius Nyerere's concept of ujamaa—a Swahili word meaning "familyhood." Musheshe acknowledges the debt to Tanzania's first president. I had never seen a trace of ujamaa in Africa until this school. And it seems to be working. The children seem more confident and inquiring than in any other school I have been to.

Latest on Akello Corine

In the August edition of Prospect, I wrote about an orphaned girl in north Uganda, Akello Corine, whose school fees I paid. She became pregnant and dropped out of school. In November she gave birth to a boy, and despite some complications, both are now well. Since she has no relatives, it will be hard for her to find someone to look after her child if she wants to go back to school, but we will cross that bridge next year.