I spent an hour last Sunday morning watching a debate on TV. I always enjoy the show because the topics are usually controversial and serve as discussion points when I talk to friends who like to argue ( I mean discuss) like me. As I enjoyed my pearly white slices of yam swimming in beans sauce, I settled down to listen to a debate about race and education.
Now on the matter of race: I tend to see it as a distraction. People can call me whatever they like but I know who I am. I made up my mind long ago not to be defined by my colour or sex and pity those who underestimate me on the basis of either. When the TV debate turned to discussing children’s performance at school based on their skin colour I was prepared to hear that black children were discriminated against etc. To my utmost surprise and delight, one of the speakers quoted statistics showing that black African children were more likely to go to university than white male children. Not only that, West African girls were topping tables at universities for achieving first class and second class upper degrees!
Let’s pause here and thank all the parents, relatives, community-effort and petty-trading widows’ might that educated Nigerian women in the last 100 years. Thanks to all the people who made it possible for girls to go to school; established single-sex schools to alleviate the concerns of cautious parents and awarded scholarships to children whose parents could not afford to send them to school. Many of those women became nurses, teachers and secretaries, civil servants. Every woman in my family over the age of 50 has been engaged in one of those professions, with 90% of them having been teachers as some point in their lives (we are also known as the ‘efun-diran’ family, which loosely means ‘teaching is our inheritance’)
Some might argue that my female relatives, with all their education, didn’t end up with high flying careers. In those days, these were the acceptable careers for women with some form of education. Despite coming from humble backgrounds, they did all they could to attend teacher-training colleges, secretarial colleges, nursing schools and a few even made it to university and got masters’ degrees, my mum included. Some went to school while single; some had to find ways to further their education after marriage and children. I speak of my family but I know that this was common in many families in the 1940s onwards.
Fast forward to 2018 and many of the young girls of the ‘30s and ‘40s pre-independent Nigeria are now grand and great grandmothers who have passed their legacy of education to their daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand daughters. Even those who did not get much of an education in those days ensured that their daughters went to school. There has been an often-overlooked steady development of academic intellect amongst women in Nigeria and we are now seeing the fruits in foreign countries where young west –African (predominantly Nigerian) girls are beating the best students on their undergraduate programmes. There is an even mix of Nigerian girls who are international students in the UK and those who are of Nigerian heritage but born in the UK. Methinks some Naija parents (mums in particular) have been doing the right thing!
It is therefore inconceivable that while some young girls are making the best of the educational opportunities available to them, some are pre-occupied with other less fruitful pursuits. I have heard that many girls’ secondary schools, my old school included, have had to issue stern warnings to parents to ensure that their daughters do not get pregnant during holiday periods. The problem seems to be that some parents have reverted back to the olden days where all that mattered in a girl’s life was the monetary value of her marriage-match. Instead of ensuring that these girls are focused on their education, some parents are lackadaisical about their child’s prospects and are willing to encourage marriage over studies.
Let us not be deceived that money is the be all and end all. Granted that money cushions even the hardest situations in this life, only a small proportion of any society will enjoy substantial monetary wealth. History has shown us that we cannot guarantee that we will make enough money to be truly wealthy as the tools to achieving wealth are constantly changing. However education, once acquired, can never be taken from the person who acquired it. Opportunities will only open to people who have the required level of education. There may not seem to be any immediate rewards for getting a degree in these difficult times in Nigeria but we have to believe that the best is yet to come for our country and we must place ourselves in strategic places, ready for the new dawn.
I had a conversation with a Chinese student who told me she was studying law at university as a direct response to the UK’s impending BREXIT, as she knew there would be abundant opportunities for trade between China and the UK and she wanted to be qualified to practice Commercial law by the time it happened. How many young people in Nigeria are choosing university courses that will be relevant to jobs that are yet to be created? Artificial intelligence is all the rage in western countries. Technology is changing the way we live and the demand for skilled labour is steadily growing as many processes become automated and unskilled labour becomes redundant. BREXIT is also going to happen. We have the unique opportunity as a commonwealth country to step into the skills gaps that will be created after BREXIT. How many people are getting ready to take hold of the opportunities in science and technology when they arrive?
A word is enough for the wise. A journey of a thousand years starts with a single step.
BTW: The yam and beans ended up congealed and unfinished: too much shouting at the TV and we ended up being late for church.
Abi Adeboyejo lives in Birmingham, UK, with her two children and her fabulous man, who by the way, prefers that his wife writes down her thoughts than listen to her musings on everything.