Reviving humanity: Africa’s lessons for post-Covid education

Many months after Covid-19 hit Africa, education systems, like in other parts of the world, are struggling to figure out the way forward. Schools have started to reopen across the continent, as governments cautiously attempt to implement social distancing restrictions. But in many African countries millions of children are still at home, due to legitimate fears that speeding up reopenings could contribute to a new wave of infections. Since the pandemic began, national school systems have been experimenting with alternative approaches to delivering education without a physical classroom.

So far the focus has been on logistical changes to education. As many commentators in this blog have already noted, what this pandemic has done is to highlight and exacerbate deeper structural inequalities at all levels of society which were pre-dating the spread of the virus. In the case of schooling, the digital divide between North and South, between Africa and the West, between urban and rural areas, has come into stark relief. While many parents have been concerned about the quality of online teaching for their kids in areas with high connectivity and widespread affordable access to the internet, in some African communities the deficit in digital infrastructure and the high costs of mobile data have made the situation even more difficult. The choice of reopening schools itself has much higher stakes in countries with underresourced health systems to cater for people who develop severe symptoms from Covid-19.

As pre-pandemic inequalities become starker, so does the need for a more fundamental educational reform. There is no doubt that we are living in turbulent and confusing times. Hopes raised by the good news on vaccines’ development are tempered by the uncertainty of when it will actually reach the majority of African citizens. Yet, this is also the time to think beyond present circumstances and to explore the shifts that we can begin making now to create a more sustainable post-Covid future.

Education should not just cope with the new constraints but also attack the underlying problem at the roots: the failure to appreciate our profound interconnectedness and to treat all humans and societies with equal dignity and respect. Indigenous African philosophy applied to education can help restore the wholeness of our global community by helping students embrace the interdependence of their lives and those of others.

Covid-19 magnifies the fact that every individual’s action creates ripple effects upon the world. Protecting oneself is not enough to protect one’s personal security; we all need to protect each other to be safe. This has come to the fore as politicians who refuse to wear face masks have come under fire for their recklessness. At the same time, the virus has heightened the fear of the Other as discrimination abounds against those stereotyped to carry the virus. Whether they are Asians in the US or Africans in China, we continue to fear and stigmatise those we do not understand and compete to produce vaccines to protect “our people” first.

This fear of the Other also lives in our education systems, where Western thought is privileged over all other ways of thinking. The othering of African cultures persists in the postcolonial African context, where the languages and knowledge of former colonisers dominate. In some schools, teachers punish students for speaking in their native tongue instead of English, while social studies textbooks continue to marginalise indigenous voices. Aside from select African studies courses and occasional cultural festivals, indigenous epistemologies hardly have a place in Africa’s school curricula, leading to an epistemicide that is gradually killing off the historical and cultural legacy of entire societies.

Covid-19 has reminded us of how deeply interconnected our lives are, but we need to infuse this realisation into our highly segmented and inequitable education systems if we are to prevent even more devastating calamities and a homogenisation of the human experience.

This is where we can turn to indigenous African philosophies for fresh inspiration. Prior to colonisation, Africans across the continent had their own holistic, community-based approaches of educating people. The understanding was that we are not just born human but we become fully human through education. Education instilled the values required to experience the fullness of life and to achieve personhood. Despite the epistemic colonialism that has informed the development of formal education, indigenous forms of education have continued to exist in multiple and transformed forms across Africa.

As anthropologist Francis Nyamnjoh explains, one important principle inspiring many African philosophies is that all of us are incomplete, and we need to create relationships with others to become complete. None of us can exist alone because our humanity depends upon participating in the larger collective. This understanding of interconnectedness as essential to life was integrated throughout every aspect of indigenous African societies.

Indigenous African education systems emphasise this understanding of interconnectedness as essential to life itself, and life-to-life interactions based on a sense of care for each child to help them develop their character along with respect for elders, vocational skills, and cultural heritage. This is why indigenous African pedagogies do not take place in a classroom with a designated teacher but start from the home and extend to the wider community.

I had the privilege of experiencing such an education first hand in a village in northern Uganda. During the evening, we sat in a circle around the fire, exchanging stories, proverbs, and riddles, spurring wonder, excitement and creativity in a trusted environment. Each person from the infant to the elder was an active participant.

How can these notions be applied to a post-Covid education in Africa and around the world? And how can we start experimenting with these ideas during the pandemic?

First, the community can serve as an extension of the classroom. When schools close or move online, students can immerse themselves into their local realities. Teachers can assign projects that require students to safely talk to community elders, including their own family members, about local culture, customs, and thought, and where feasible, these elders can also be invited to class to share their knowledge as guest speakers, telling oral histories that are not captured in history books and sharing their rich life experiences.

In addition, through uncovering examples of international phenomena in their own town, students will gain a first-hand understanding of the interrelated nature of local and global systems that impact their own lives and those of their community members. These community-centred interactions empower students to build positive human relationships and to appreciate the richness of their own locality.

Second, we can foster transdisciplinary and transcultural approaches to teaching and learning in order to help students understand the intricate connections between all aspects of life. For instance, rather than teaching various subjects in separate classes, teachers can employ a transdisciplinary approach that facilitates an exploration of a theme while introducing theories and methods that straddle a variety of fields and cultures. While it may be challenging to restart an entire curriculum with this approach, teachers can experiment by collaborating with colleagues from other subjects to create and pilot course sections that bring together multiple subjects in analysing a contemporary issue. Teachers can also challenge themselves to learn about other cultures’ contributions to their own discipline to push the boundaries of their own understanding and teaching.

Third, to expand beyond cognitive learning outcomes in the pursuit of cultivating each student’s full humanity, schools can become intentional in helping students exercise the empathy and courage required to listen to, understand, and even feel the pain that others feel as global citizens.

Many of the emotions that have been triggered by the pandemic, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement, stem from the frustration and fatigue of people who have endured long unaddressed systemic injustices. It takes courage to engage in difficult conversations on such topics and to recognise one’s own part in another’s suffering.

But we need such dialogues to transcend the fault lines that threaten to tear society apart and to create a vision for our shared future. Teachers can help students practice such dialogues by creating a safe and supportive climate for expressing opposing perspectives and by having discussions with students about how to create such an environment in online fora. Through a process of self-reflection and improvement, students can develop an awareness and mastery of their social and emotional competencies, as they do with intellectual competencies.

The Adinkra symbol of Nkonsonkonson is a chain link which emphasises the importance of contributing to community and the strength that arises from unity. Rather than being swayed by the politics of division and isolation, educators can help create linkages of trust and community to develop our joint resilience in the face of today’s challenges.

Actualising such an education will not be an easy task, but if we want to collectively heal from the painful wounds left by the pandemic, discrimination, and disrespect for life, we should have the humility to learn from indigenous African philosophies and apply the wisdom of the continent to transform our education systems. This would be one more step forward towards rediscovering our common humanity.

Takako Mino is a lecturer in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ashesi University in Ghana. She is also co-host of Ma Sankofah Folktales podcast, which brings to life African folktales and their lessons through storytelling and discussion.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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