How chicken, maize and potatoes can solve education crises that buffet us

Wednesday July 10 2013

If my memory serves me well, Kenya has had a teachers’ strike at least once every two years, and a threat of a strike every year over the last 20 years. The recent teacher unrest is, therefore, part of a well-established pattern.

Kenya is not alone, in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and over half of Africa, teacher strikes are continuous.

They affect mostly state-owned primary and secondary schools, and universities. These strikes are just a reflection of the deep crises affecting public education in Africa.

Some of the stories can be depressing, but they reveal how poor people cope. Some time back, I read that students at a university in the DRC resorted to growing their own food around their dormitories otherwise they would have gone hungry.

We also often read stories about desperate university students taking to prostitution to get money for textbooks and food.

In its first after-war years, university students in Sierra Leone went a notch higher. They lined up the way prostitutes do on Nairobi’s Koinange Street, but this time along the main street inside the university.


There are many alternatives Africans have resorted to to avoid such morally troubling measures.

In Zimbabwe, where teachers lived through hell at the time when the economy had collapsed, parents gave teachers chicken and maize so they could teach their children.

In Uganda some time back, parents in the countryside who wanted teachers to turn up also gave them chicken, or just eggs.

Maize is not big in Uganda, so instead, some parents bring bananas (matooke), cassava, or potatoes.

The problem with education in most of Africa is that while the poor children, who are a huge majority, get a rubbish education, those of the small middle class and the rich are getting world-class teaching in exclusive private schools. This widens the inequality gap scandalously.

Unfortunately, education is not like infrastructure where a country can get a loan from the African Development Bank, then contract the Chinese to build a highway.

It is the one thing we have to do for ourselves. I also think that it is futile to always keep trying to find more money to pay teachers, because our political systems are just not structured to do that well.

Africa can do more with existing resources and draw some inspiration from those Ugandan and Zimbabwean parents who paid teachers with chicken and maize, for the poor and peasants in Africa have always been the most innovative in difficult circumstances.

My first solution, therefore, comes from the worst period of Uganda’s history – the rule of military dictator Idi Amin.

Uganda hit rock-bottom. In the villages, three or so women would come together, scrounge up some money and buy one dress.

On a Sunday, one of them would wear the dress to a 7am mass, return home and give it to another who would wear it for the 9am mass.

That one would dash home after her service, and give the dress to the third woman who would wear it to the 11am mass.

We could do the same for our schools. We could begin by reducing the hours of learning, and break the day into two.

In this way, instead of buying two sets of textbooks, school bags, sweaters or shoes, for her two boys, a struggling mother would buy only one.

One boy would use them in the morning, the other in the afternoon. This would immediately free up the resources spent on the second set of supplies to feed the children better.

A teacher would teach the morning session, and also the afternoon, and be paid double. So instead of hiring two teachers, you would have one highly paid, although overworked, one.

But the biggest reform would be allowing volunteer teachers. I lectured at university, but wouldn’t be allowed into a primary classroom because I am not licensed to teach at that level.

Throwing classrooms open to volunteers would allow thousands of professionals to do some hours of free teaching, without a new cost burden to the system.

I have always found it strange that in some countries, you can volunteer as a police reservist, get a gun and go about shooting people, but you can’t volunteer as a teacher.