Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: The Chinese are sagacious people. Their ancestors taught them how to dominate the world using the values of corn, trees, and knowledge in proverbial terms. When planning for a year, they were told to plant corn; for a decade, they were taught to plant trees; educating the people was the counsel when planning for life. Unfortunately, no society followed the above advice that has failed to conquer the world around it. Again, every people in history who chose ‘corn’ and scorned education has ended up as a curse to its era.
My favorite contemporary African author with my literary inspirations when discussing or talking about Africa, particularly the hopelessness of the Gambia, is the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah. He warns the black man’s “spring water” against flowing desertwards. The consequence of doing so, he says, is extinction. We run a system that kills excellence, a system that proudly reserves front-row seats for failure. It is a system that ignores what you know and rewards where you come from. Teaching is a sacred calling. It is the spinal cord of society. Any corruption of the system of learning kills society. No parents want their child taught by teachers deficient in learning. It is like repeatedly washing a new cloth with dirty water.
For some reason, certain politicians feel the need to tinker with the education system to leave a legacy that affects every family. Granted, education is a political process. Each political party (or person ) in power essentially would want to use polity and resources to advance the ideologies of its party or political persuasion or philosophy. There is a constant tension between a conservative view of functional education in the West and the more left-leaning view of liberal education. The problem in our case is that our politicians do not have an ideological persuasion- ours is politics of eating and tribe. So if we are changing the system, given our political lack of guiding philosophy, our only refuge would be to listen keenly to the Gambian people. To honestly assess their aspirations for the current and future generations. That way, we can find a philosophy, and from many years of studies, our philosophy in Africa is Ubuntu. The Ubuntu philosophy would make us thrive.
Fatoumatta: Exactly three decades years ago, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, in one single exercise, sacked dozens and dozens of trainee striking teachers considered disloyal who were trained (training course for Qualified Teachers) at then Yundum College Teacher’s Training ( now the Gambia Teacher’s College). What happened after that? Nothing – except that the government who sacked them left office decades later after, and the sacked “would be qualified” teachers came back to continue their “service” to the state as “unqualified teachers.” That same state engaged those untrained teachers to the service of the state. Those inept or incompetent teachers teaching in public schools were the ones who could not answer the primary four questions set for them by the state to test their competence. These uneducable teachers expelled from the then Yundum College were submerged in the mainstream public schools countrywide and “service” the state as teachers; the average ones were back as politicians, public policy influencers, and lawmakers, setting standards. The smartest of them decades later were back as parliamentarians or as ministers or commissioners for education enforcing standards. Some of them come back, outliving their nemesis. You can kill mosquitoes of ignorance a million times, and they will always be around if their source is active.”
Fatoumatta: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that high school class is running the country.” American writer Kurt Vonnegut was probably right – especially when you know the quality of your teachers. The Gambia has long died at the hands of its diseased political teachers. Is there any difference between unrepentant teachers with wrong answers and arrogant public officers with false solutions to societal problems? Afrobeat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti warned “Teacher” not to teach him nonsense. However, if “nonsense” is all that teacher has, is it not what he will teach? We consciously elect leaders without knowledge, then we say we want a nation of light. Leaders without knowledge will lionize idiocy and ignorance. They permanently abandon the substance and chase the shadow.
The darkness in the Gambia’s public school system here is a chain. That chain of “nonsense” is what has dragged the Gambia to this desert of nothingness. Failure did not start from that Yundum College teachers strike, and it will not end with them. The teachers who failed were taught by teachers whom themselves failed. Those and the ones before them, too, owed their ascendancy to a failed system. Teaching is a sacred calling. It is the spinal cord of society.
Fatoumatta: For centuries, the fear of the Yundum College Teacher’s strike and later expulsion of a highly qualified teacher’s situation had always made geniuses shudder at the kind of tomorrow awaiting them. Some, in history, opted for self-tutorial, seizing their destiny from corrupters of sanity. Roman statesman and orator Cicero saw teachers as an impediment to learning. Pupils, he said, “cease to use their own judgment” and regard “as gospel whatever is put forward by their chosen teacher.” When a chain of generations passes through the wrong tutelage, the nation is doomed.
An American student was asked to describe the dumbest teacher she ever had. Her answer: “a Spanish teacher we never heard speak Spanish.” A retired teacher in the United States told the media in February 2008: “As a teacher, it really made me sick to think that I was a teacher who couldn’t read. It is embarrassing for me, and it’s embarrassing for this nation.” Imagine! We have all met, at some point, teachers who did not measure up to our expectations. However, such were very few and far between. However, this PPP sacking of qualified teachers thing is mass production of tragedy. The paralysis of literacy is certainly creeping up on the nation. However, it was not like this four, five decades ago. So, what happened? Every noble thing inherited from the founding fathers has been systematically destroyed. No fool who could not read and write was inflicted on us as a teacher. Those who taught us were those who went through a rigorous training process. There were teacher training colleges that carried out their mandate diligently. To be certificated by those colleges, you must pass all your subjects – the rule was “fail in one, fail in all.” Only those who passed through those colleges were called teachers. Others were qualified with the adjective “auxiliary.” They were not yet teachers, no matter how brilliant they were. That process has sadly been subverted by a corrupt system that gives teaching jobs as compensation for deprivation. The corruption of the process has systematically destroyed public education. The focus has moved from content to form. There is an ongoing contest among governors for the one who could build the grandest of classrooms. However, gilded classrooms can only massage the egos of governors and governments. They will not listen if you tell them buildings do not make schools. That will birth a tomorrow of greatness lies with who is employed to teach in our schools and how the teacher is treated.
Fatoumatta: The teachers who failed in the Gambia were public school teachers. They are likely to have come from the same challenged backgrounds of failure. The elite does not teach in public schools, and their children do not attend public schools. Even that poor teacher next door dreams of making sure that his kids do not school in the decay of the public space. He knows the quality of the service he renders and will not make his children victims. It will get worse tomorrow. It cannot get better unless there is a change of course. There is currently a whole class bar in primary education; there is segregation in secondary and apartheid at the university level. The children of the super-rich no longer do any schooling here. The middle class is opting for African universities and colleges in Ghana and others in the sub-region and Asian universities, Europe and North America, or private universities. Hundreds of thousands of children of the poor are the ones who suffer from teachers without knowledge. They are the ones who struggle every year to be among the five percent that annually gets admission into the only one public university. The remaining 95 percent are in town, looking for a way out. That way, they must find, and society pays for it. You cannot plant onion and reap okra. What you input determines what you get.
Fatoumatta: A snake will remain a snake even if it sheds its skin a million times. If you like, sack teachers every year in all states; recruit new ones, and celebrate them. The following competency test will mock your efforts. Unless a comprehensive reform of values is carried out, in vain are all efforts to force the impotent to perform. There will always be a teacher who would calmly write that a fictitious Dony Teron is the US President. There will always be challenges in public schools, which is just a metaphor for the Gambia. A dysfunctional system will continue to churn out failures until the cause (curse?) is rooted out.
After decades of sacking those disgruntled striking Yundum College teachers bash, the PPP administration may even be shocked after leaving office. They may discover that those teachers were the same persons they sensationally sacked are now running the affairs of that state, particularly in education and in politics. You cannot save the toxic river of the Gambia by damming and scooping out its water. The poison is buried in the source; the course is just the carrier.
Fatoumatta: The solution for the Gambia today is a firm, responsible government willing to give teachers respect and education what it deserves. The key for tomorrow is education in the right measure for the future generation of Gambians. We were taught very early that education promotes teaching and learning, which is the antidote to poverty. We were also told that education is the only stairway to greatness. Therefore, we have been warned the children to run away from those mocking education. We are told that education makes one the boss.
Consequently, we are strongly advised that we must acquire education very well. Suppose you see many people mocking education with laughter. In that case, you are warned not to keep company with such kind of people because suffering will soon come for the unwise child, and wailings and tears are for the truant child. We are also warned not to play with your early years; instead, work hard, time waits for no one. That was the philosophical foundation that framed every Gambian child from my generation’s urban and rural Gambia. We went to school, but some of our neighbors mocked (and still mock) education. Now, because of them, our schooling and all we acquired are almost useless. Worse is, we can no longer sleep. Our leaders face challenges of insecurity. It is unfortunate to share the same space with strange people whose lives are built on weird ideas—a country of a super spreader of sorrow and tears across the country.
Fatoumatta: The work of building an education system must encompass all aspects of our lives- culture, economy, history, pedagogy, sociology, pediatrics, nutrition, psychology, name it. It is not just about skills… and jobs. It is about our ability to impart humanity to the rising generation. On this count, we have failed. We have ignored all the steps that take us to a functional system that creates humans.
Like Julia and Winston in George Orwell’s 1984, we are the dead. Francis Imbuga reminded us of the dangers of name changing as a development priority in Kafira: “It was better while we waited. Now we have nothing to look forward to. We have killed our past and are busy killing our future. “Sigh. Let me, with Alan Paton, Cry my beloved country: ‘Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley.’ For those who know, you know.
Fatoumatta: What Gambian youth needed is education. However, is it not too late for these wild young men already? How do you train people who grew up sipping blood to be well and responsible again? The time to mold young people who choose to be bandits and profit from banditry is passed. We saw famous vagabonds wrapped up in sagging pants with pants down and with unimaginable weapons of death are too far gone. They cannot be saved. We need to be safe from them and from the violence that will come tomorrow from their descendants. The solution for today is a firm, responsible government that is willing to give teachers and education what it deserves.
Alagi Yorro Jallow