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Is Education a Good Thing for Africa?

We are often told that the solution to Africa's woes is education. With education the continent will prosper, equality will improve, conflict will reduce and the people will be able to pull themselves out of poverty.

We are often told that the solution to Africa's woes is education. With education the continent will prosper, equality will improve, conflict will reduce and the people will be able to pull themselves out of poverty.

No doubt there is plenty of truth in that. But is education really a panacea? In fact, is it even certain to benefit all Africans or will there be winners and losers?

I started questioning this when I visited the Masai people in northern Tanzania:

Traditionally the Masai live in remote areas, in round huts made of wood and clay, they are pastoralists who herd cattle (cows, sheep and goats), they have no formal education (as we'd understand it) and very little, if any, need for money. They live communally and share what they have. If someone needs help there is a support network - in other words the rest of the village steps up to help. Their diet is milk, meat and blood. They don't have bank accounts, fast cars, designer clothes or exotic holidays. But they do have cattle. Cattle are an important form of wealth for them and an even more important status symbol. These cattle can have such a high value that in relative terms a Masai may be far wealthier than many people in the UK.

But from our perspective he is poor. However, he is actually more like an illiterate homeless man who lives in a cardboard box - and yet owns a Ferrari! That's a combination of poverty and education with which we are unaccustomed in the West. If we saw the homeless man in his box with no Ferrari in sight - we'd assume he is poor. But as soon as we know about the Ferrari - well, our view changes. So it is with the Masai - to us they LOOK poor but in fact in their terms they are wealthier than our homeless man - they have their 'Ferrari' (cows), a roof over their head and a hot meal at least once a day. And if all that goes wrong - they have an extended support network who will step in to help them and their family. They are far better off than the homeless Brit.

Let's take this a step further ... for the Masai the number of cows is important. Not the quality. So 100 emaciated cows with very little meat on them is better than 50 cows with three times the meat (i.e. three times the food and three times the market value). In this way he is like our homeless Ferrari owner who doesn't have enough money to put petrol in the tank, but refuses the sell the car and buy a more practical one with a full tank of petrol. In other words - neither is a huge amount of use, other than as a status symbol.

But we, in the West, don't like to think of the 'poor' Masai in his hut, with mismatched sandals, and just a cloth thrown around his dignity. So we decide to educate him. And what happens? He leaves his village, (leaving behind other villagers for whom he was part of the support network) and he moves into town. He goes to secondary school and gets a job. He gets paid a wage - probably a very small one. If he works for the government he may find that at the end of the month he doesn't get paid at all! He lives in a tiny concrete room, which he will lose if he can't pay his rent and he can hardly afford to buy a meal each day. There is no community within a town - so if he is down on his luck there is no one to step him and help.

So who is better off? The 'uneducated' Masai with his cows, community, home and food, or the 'educated' Masai with money in his pocket - but not much else?

If we'd left the Masai alone and not forced our idea of education upon them would they, overall, be better off? Of course there are individuals who have benefited greatly from their education, but as a general people are they really wealthier as a result of their 'education'?

Education has also meant that traditions have been lost - something we claim we are so keen to help native cultures preserve. For example, in the past the Masai men would guard the cattle fighting off predators like lions and hyenas - this was a job for adult men. Today this job is given to young children instead. Now imagine a bunch of five year olds sent off to guard a flock. Like any group of children their attention span is short and they are more interested in playing than working. So the cattle stray. At the first sight of a lion - what do they do? What any sensible five year old would do; scarper. They then get disorientated and lost and can't find their way home. And nor can the cattle. There are many, many incidents of lost children and/or cattle - which are never found again.

Education is designed to change people. If we want to make a change (for example, reduce obesity or teenage pregnancy in the UK) we say 'we must educate people'. It's impossible NOT to change as a result of education (whether that education is good or bad).

So is education a good thing? Has it brought good change to Africa? Will it help to solve Africa's many social, economic and environmental problems?

I suspect the truth is it will both harm and help the continent; education isn't always the solution to a problem, sometimes it's the cause.

About the Author:

Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist and broadcaster with a passion for the planet. In 2002 she co-founded the award winning radio station PASSION for the PLANET and in 2009 Chantal was awarded London Leader in Sustainability status. Chantal also runs a successful communications agency - Panpathic Communications.

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