Women and Educating the Next Generation

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Ruhanga Development School Uganda

As a kid, one of my favourite and frequently watched TV programme was called Tales By Moonlight. It was something so many kids looked forward to every week with excitement. It featured African folktales  narrated and acted out to obviously intrigued children seated on the floor. It was culturally rich, colourful, funny, was definitely an example of keeping an important element of the African traditions alive on a large scale. It was most importantly very educational. The narrator was a woman fondly called “Aunty” by the children in the audience.

It wasn’t just to the TV that we turned to for folktales. My mother had a handful of different stories that she retold when we demanded one. We loved them. The stories were often accompanied by songs in the middle and we enjoyed singing the chorus. They were often stories of heroism, of sorrow, of empathy, and of the triumph of good over evil. They were meant to entertain as well as educate. They carried moral lessons, and were perfect for teaching that actions have consequences. The characters were both humans and animals, almost all the possible human traits and characteristics were present. I suppose it was the closest our ancestor had to formal education. It was done by women, mostly by mothers. They were the primary educators, especially in any formal sense.

It wasn’t just through folktales that women educated the children. It also happened through practical every day interactions and problem solving. When children wounded or hurt themselves through work or play, it was the mother that was likely to know the right treatment. This means they carried with them the knowledge of local traditional medicine. This will have included knowledge of herbs and physical simulations such as massage. These women were also the repository of other practical knowledge such culinary, cloth making, hygiene. and so on. Knowledge, just as it is now, was power and the life blood of the society.

I recently attended the TEDxEuston event titled Ripple Effect: Educating the Next Generation. I suppose due to the selection of speakers, the focus was mostly on education of girls in Africa. The grim statistics and dire circumstances on the ground aroused thought provoking questions. There was the question of quantity versus the quality of education; girls having to drop out of school to be married off for the economic benefits of their families; girls being expelled from school if they get pregnant to avoid contaminating other girls with the idea of getting pregnant too; girls being discouraged from taking more challenging professions; school practices that reinforce the stereotype of role of women; history books that are devoid of any contributions by women.

It is indeed surprising that given the traditional roles that African women have played in educating their communities, many people still think it appropriate to deny them education for cultural reasons. Withholding education from the primary educator is suicidal.  There is nothing African about it. It is true that traditionally the women stayed at home, administered medicine to ailing children, told folktales, did the cooking, etc. But all of these activities have evolved into professions and the knowledge base has changed dramatically. They were practised in a world that was based on being a “Jack of All Trade”.  These services are now being offered at a different scale much more efficiently. It is precisely the failure to understand that the world has changed that explains why 70% of girls in Niger are married off before they are 15 with no hope of getting any education. It is therefore not surprising that countries that practice such are one of the poorest in the world.

The world has changed and we need to change with it. Instead of just telling folktales to their own children at home, people publish books that target a larger audience. Instead of just knowing enough medicine to treat their own children, people specialise and become doctors. The same can be said of any other profession. It is sad that terrorist groups like Boko Haram  that kidnapped school girls from their dormitory because they are threatened by “Western Education” don’t get it. It is not about adopting western education or lifestyle. It is about having a system that if fit for purpose.

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