Over the years, education in Africa has remained the same, Dr. Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu, said while giving a Tedx speech on “How Africa can use its traditional knowledge to make progress.”
Recalling how she bought an alphabet sheet for her daughter during a trip to an East African city, Ezeanya-Esiobu said she was disappointed by the things the letter represented.
For Ezeanya-Esiobu, a major function of eduaction is to introduce the learner to appreciate their environment and be curious enough to explore it in order to value it.
So, teaching an African child that “A is for apple” may be the wrong thing to do because it is not her reality, unlike a western child, who knows what apple is, and is exposed to it in different colours and sizes.
Narrating two major experiences she had with her white boss about Africa, Ezeanya-Esiobu said, she has since dedicated her life to studying, conducting research on Africa’s own knowledge system and advocate for its mainstreaming in education, in research, policy across sectors and industries.
Introducing education to me with “A is for apple,” made education an abstraction. It made it something out of my reach- a foreign concept, a phenomenon for which I would have to constantly and perpetually seek the validation of those it belonged to for me to make progress within it and with it. That was tough for a child; it would be tough for anyone.
Some decades back, I was taught out of a similar alphabet sheet. And because of that, I struggled for years.I struggled to reconcile my reality with the formal education I received in school, in the schools I attended. I had identity crises. I looked down on my reality. I looked at my ancestry, I looked at my lineage with disrespect.
As I grew up and I advanced academically, my reality was further separated from my education. In history, I was taught that the Scottish explorer Mungo Park discovered the Niger River. And so it bothered me. My great-great-grandparents grew up quite close to the edge of the Niger River.
And it took someone to travel thousands of miles from Europe to discover a river right under their nose? What did they do with their time? Playing board games, roasting fresh yams, fighting tribal wars?
I mean, I just knew my education was preparing me to go somewhere else and practice and give to another environment that it belonged to.It was not for my environment, where and when I grew up.
I was privileged to sit in on a loan negotiating session in an African country. So I would do these consultancy positions during summer, you know, since I was a doctoral student. And then I traveled with the team, with the World Bank team, as more like someone to help out with organizational matters. But I sat in during the negotiating session.
I had mostly Euro-Americans, you know, with me from Washington, DC. And I looked across the table at my African brothers and sisters. I could see intimidation on their faces. They didn’t believe they had anything to offer the great-great-grandchildren of Mungo Park — the owners of “apple” in “A is for apple.”
They just sat and watched: “Oh, just give us, let us sign. You own the knowledge. You know it all. Just, where do we sign? Show us, let us sign.” They had no voice. They didn’t believe in themselves.
And so, I have been doing this for a decade. I have been conducting research on Africa’s knowledge system, original, authentic, traditional knowledge. In the few cases where this has been implemented in Africa, there has been remarkable successes recorded.
And so it was Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania- who said that you cannot develop people. People will have to develop themselves. I agree with Mwalimu. I am convinced that Africa’s further transformation, Africa’s advancement, rests simply in the acknowledgment, validation and mainstreaming of Africa’s own traditional, authentic, original, indigenous knowledge in education, in research, in policy making and across sectors.
This is not going to be easy for Africa. It is not going to be easy for a people used to being told how to think,what to do, how to go about it, a people long subjected to the intellectual guidance and direction of others, be they the colonial masters, aid industry or international news media. But it is a task that we have to do to make progress.
I am strengthened by the words of Joseph Shabalala, founder of the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He said that the task ahead of us can never, ever be greater than the power within us. We can do it. We can unlearn looking down on ourselves. We can learn to place value on our reality and our knowledge.