The Fallacy of Seeking Change Without Producing Relevant Knowledge, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
Given the excellent performance of Nigerians in higher institutions at home and abroad, we have proved beyond any doubt that we can compete intellectually with anyone in the world, that we are excellent knowledge consumers. What we are yet to become are knowledge producers, for the purpose of building our society. It cannot be done by anybody but us.
I watched an incredible documentary a few days ago about British-educated adult children of the Nigerian uber-rich. In this film, they could be seen popping champagne, flaunting their parents’ wealth, shopping in high-end stores, brandishing expensive clothes and jewelry, and living in tony addresses in Lagos and London. Before I saw this film, I never knew Nigerians lived this kind of life. The sons of the presidents of Equatorial Guinea, South Sudan, and even Mugabe have been seen on social media making sickening displays of wealth, while their fellow citizens starve. The British-Nigerian children could be seen on their parents’ yacht relaxing and drinking champagne. How their parents came about this wealth is not the focus of this article. What is of interest is the sort of education that these children and their parents had been given, the kind all of us have experienced since we came in contact with Western education as a part of the Christianisation and colonisation project.
The goal of colonial education was clear – to make subjects out of Africans, distort their thinking so they feel inferior to Europeans, and lose their intellectual and spiritual traditions. You can’t conquer a people fully without taking control of their minds, without shaping how they think, what they think, and how they see themselves. Given our state of existence now, this project has succeeded phenomenally. Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a returned captive, was the first person to write a book of Yoruba grammar, and he translated the Bible into Yoruba in 1884. He, in fact, produced the standardised Yoruba we all use today, choosing the Oyo dialect over the other dialects of Yoruba language. While it was a good thing to introduce literacy into Yorubaland, it came through the powerful medium of Christianity, which fundamentally undermined the belief systems of Yoruba people irreparably.
While school children were learning the new technology of reading and writing, they were all also taught to see their culture, their gods, and the accumulation of ancestral knowledge as inferior and undesirable. Literacy is normally defined as the 3Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic; but ours historically was reading, writing, and religion. In earlier generations, a child who excelled in all subjects, but did not do well in Bible Knowledge, was failed in all subjects. Yoruba religion encodes the people’s philosophy, morality, spirituality, artistic and intellectual traditions, but in one fell swoop through Christianised literacy, Yoruba children were made to acquire “Christian names” and taught to be ambivalent, if not downright hostile, to their ancestors’ gods and ways of life. They learnt a new word in school, “pagan”, to contemptuously describe their people’s belief system, leading to the distortions in our thinking we all suffer today. Post-colonial education is not much different.
A Yoruba proverb goes, “omo so si ni lenu, o tun buyo si, iso nii, ko see ponla, iyo ni, koo se tu danu (a children expels gas into one’s mouth, but also adds salt; you can neither swallow the gas, nor spit the salt out).” Ours was a situation fraught with dilemma. To this day, Esu is called the Biblical Devil or Satan because of Bishop Ajayi Crowther’s faulty translation. Nothing can be far from the truth. Esu in Yoruba cosmology is the god of the crossroads of fortune and opportunities, the messenger, and trickster god with a sense of humour, capable of turning things upside down or the other way. His defamation has become gospel truth because it is written in the Bible. Modern day Pentecostal Christians even give their children bizarre names like Esupofo, only because they have never really been educated about their ancestral cosmology. Oral tradition can never compete with literacy. The written word takes on an aura of truth, power and authority, and what is written in the Bible is generally regarded by many Christians as the word of God. How the Bible came to be written or edited over centuries, the debates over doctrines, and even the history of Christianity itself, had never been a part of their education.
When I was in high school, we were punished if we spoke in our mother tongue which was then called ‘vernacular’. Speaking English became synonymous with brilliance, respectability, and prestige. This attitude has now morphed to a dangerous level in contemporary times, as some parents have abandoned the mother tongue completely at home, and use English exclusively as the language of communication between them and their children. Nigeria has produced a Nobel winner in Literature, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is one of the most widely-read novels in the world. Obviously, we can speak and write English, but our national development has only been spiraling downwards. I’m from a state where people invested heavily in Western education, producing many national firsts in different areas of academic specialisation, but it has remained one of the poorest states in the nation, unable to convert the huge intellectual capital to growth and development. This is also a national problem. Decades ago, Nigeria invested a huge amount of resources from its oil wealth on the education of young people who enjoyed free education at all levels. The country is yet to see the returns on this massive investment.
Instead, we have cultivated a parasitic and callous elite siphoning public resources for their own personal use, creating an impoverished and unlivable society, and producing children with no thought or skills to improve their society. Badly educated, the elites have been unable to produce the kind of knowledge, culture and orientation necessary for development. They have been doing what the long-departed colonial masters did – extract resources from the state, and ship it abroad.
We are not the only ones who suffered European colonisation, but we seem to be the ones suffering the most mental and psychological devastation of the experience. I often think that this is because we did not have an indigenous writing system to codify our knowledge systems, our intellectual traditions, our customs, and cultures before armageddon hit us. Nigerians are clamouring for change, but what institutions will produce the change agents? The post-colonial education we all got did not give us the kind of thinking to re-imagine and change paradigms. The military evidently is not capable of this kind of change. Even though officers are educated in places like Sandhurst and other prestigious military academies, nothing in their training prepares them to be change agents. They are trained to fight wars. More than any institution, they took control of the nation for decades and wrecked it with monumental corruption and incompetence. At the height of our wealth in the ‘70’s, our Head of State said to the world that our problem was not money, but how to spend it. We became a money-miss-road country, with no serious vision for an organised and productive society.
We cannot have the change we seek without investing in our education institutions, from the primary to tertiary levels. We have to invest in people who are willing to do the work of decolonising knowledge and creating new knowledge out of our intellectual, moral, scientific, and spiritual history.
It is impossible to make the kind of progress we want without investing mindfully in our education system, and supporting the work of our intellectuals who need to produce the kind of knowledge necessary for positive change. Certainly, some of our intellectuals, at home and abroad, are doing this important work, in the sciences and the arts, but they are not encouraged or funded by the government. It is the kind of work that calls for a paradigm shift in how we create knowledge for our specific situation. We need original thinkers capable of creating new models out of our own indigenous epistemology and integrating it with knowledge from elsewhere.
As an undergraduate at Ife, I sat in classes that should have examined our society in relation to the Western theories in our books. In my Adolescent Development class, we learnt about Piaget and other theorists, and we all diligently copied whatever our professor said. The classes were never interactive. It was a one-way communication of feeding us knowledge and we did the stenographic work. Many of us in that classroom were adolescents, yet we had no idea those theories were about people like us. We did not see ourselves as the subjects of inquiry because we were not. The young people studied to generate those theories belonged to Western societies. There were no references by our professor to Nigerians or any African, for that matter, on how they reared their adolescents and what beliefs undergirded their development. We studied hard and regurgitated what we were taught during our Almighty June examinations.
I remember notes left for friends or classmates saying “Wake up me o, for the sake of 08”, when we were worried we might oversleep and miss our examinations. Grade 08 was the starting salary for a new university graduate at that time. We were credentialed, but not really educated. I read more research about my society as a graduate student at Harvard than I ever did at Ife and Ibadan. I took a course in Child Rearing and Development during my studies. Professor Robert LeVine who taught the course had done extensive field research in Nigeria, Kenya, Japan, United States and Europe on child rearing. He was basically questioning the theories of child development put forward by his fellow scholars as “science”, arguing that those theories are culture-specific and could not be universally applied because they are based on the priorities and goals of Western cultures.
Each culture, he said, has its own goals to produce a certain kind of child with its child-rearing practices. He then said that unfortunately, many foreign scholars who come to study in universities in places like Syracuse, Illinois, or any American university for that matter, take these theories back home and feed them to their students without interrogation. That was exactly what we got as students – theories that were irrelevant to our conditions and culture. It makes our education useless, because we had not been trained to think well about our problems.
We cannot have the change we seek without investing in our education institutions, from the primary to tertiary levels. We have to invest in people who are willing to do the work of decolonising knowledge and creating new knowledge out of our intellectual, moral, scientific, and spiritual history. The thought that any elected politician would rescue us from the present malaise is unrealistic. They, too, are products of this kind of education. The lack of rejuvenating ideas in the society, based on rigorous research, is obvious. Since nature abhors a vacuum, religion has moved in to take over people’s minds, sometimes in the most sinister way, killing all rationality and intellectual inquiry, and spreading debilitating superstition.
God must wonder why Nigerians replaced hard intellectual work with incessant prayers, when they are given the brains to organise and prosper like other people in the world. The late civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deployed Christianity to motivate people and fight against the unjust racist system in America, speaking truth to power with persistence and courage. It does not seem that Nigerian pastors have heard of the Liberation Theology, which says that the followers of Christ must ally with the poor, like Christ did, and fight for justice and fairness in society. This is absent in the current Nigerian situation. In fact, many who call themselves “Men of God”, lie comfortably in bed with the powerful, seeing fake visions about who will win elections, accepting millions of naira of stolen public funds, fleecing their congregation with apocalyptic prophesies, as the population suffers extreme deprivations.
The Bible is probably the most read book in Nigeria today. With the dubious interpretations of self-serving, greedy and manipulative pastors, it is no wonder that there is no space for careful thinking to guide personal and public life. India, a country colonised by the British, just like Nigeria, produces thought-leaders for the whole world. Their people attended the same prestigious institutions in Britain, sitting in the same classroom with our people sent abroad. Their intellectuals have been doing very important scholarly work, not only to examine the impact of the the British colonisation project, but also to reclaim their own intellectual traditions for national development. They never yielded to Christianity in the first place.
What happened to the knowledge brought back by our people from these institutions? Harvard is the latest rage. What is the impact of the graduates of Harvard and other Ivy Leagues on the society? Are we as a society unduly impressed with just the acquisition of knowledge itself that we never asked about its content and use to us?
Indians worshipped their many gods during colonisation, and they continue to do so. Today, they produce some of the great technology leaders in Silicon Valley, founders of multi-billion dollar tech companies. Professor Amartya Sen is a world renowned economist and philosopher. Born and educated in India, he studied at Cambridge University and won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998, for his work on welfare economics and the state of poor people in the world. He wrote about human dignity as essential to freedom.
What happened to the knowledge brought back by our people from these institutions? Harvard is the latest rage. What is the impact of the graduates of Harvard and other Ivy Leagues on the society? Are we as a society unduly impressed with just the acquisition of knowledge itself that we never asked about its content and use to us? What kind of houses and office spaces do our architects design? What is the thinking behind their designs? Is it just enough to tag our names as ‘Architect this’, ‘Engineer that’, or ‘Professor So-and-So’, without affecting the society meaningfully with the proclaimed skill or knowledge?
The people in the generation that brought home ‘the golden fleece’ are becoming elders, and some of them are passing to the great beyond. Hardly will an obituary tell us what the contributions of the dearly departed are. What did this person spend his whole life studying? What are his or her contributions to his field or profession, and how is it useful to our scientific, literary, political or moral development as a people? Obituaries will, of course, dutifully trumpet the prestigious institutions attended and the long list of survivors.
This is how we ended up with the children of the uber-rich who claim they were educated in the best British schools, but are unable to articulate a vision or idea about what they can do to change their society. They, too, are waiting for elections. In fact, my suspicion is that many of them came back to Nigeria, not only to make money using parental connections, but also to claim a lofty aristocratic perch unavailable to them in the West, because after all, no matter how rich they are, they are still black people from an impoverished and corrupt country, and their white peers know it. None of the families of these children could be compared to the wealthy families of Asia or Europe, who have built conglomerates making products that people buy all over the world, sometimes intergenerationally. None of the children came home to join family companies in manufacturing or technology. They are in nebulous and sketchy careers that do not justify their expensive British education.
Islamic Education is no better, as Nigeria battles its consequences in the form of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. In the South, some Muslims are going about destroying the artefacts of traditional religion, beating up masquerades, and insisting that practitioners of traditional religion cannot walk past their mosques during their festivals, even though Muslims blare their noisy megaphones every morning, calling for prayers and waking everybody up, without any consideration for the comfort of others who do not belong to their religion. Yet, they direct physical hostility to the practitioners of ancestral religion.
Many people are hungry for knowledge and ideas on how to live their lives, how to manage the tectonic shifts in a rapidly changing society, and how to be in touch with their spirituality. Over a century of Western education has not answered these questions, because of the nature of education propagated. It was a Trojan Horse. Education came embedded with the tools to undermine our identity, our sense of self worth, and our capacity to think in clear ways on how to develop our own solutions to our problems. The battle of ideas in Nigeria today is primarily within the religious and political realm. The battle for education reform should be at the top of the list.
Given the excellent performance of Nigerians in higher institutions at home and abroad, we have proved beyond any doubt that we can compete intellectually with anyone in the world, that we are excellent knowledge consumers. What we are yet to become are knowledge producers, for the purpose of building our society. It cannot be done by anybody but us. It cannot be done by the Chinese, Europeans or any foreign experts. The time has come for us to stop being impressed with credentials, with glorifying, first this, first that. It is time to start producing relevant and necessary knowledge, financed and supported by the government and an enlightened private sector. To borrow the old Gowon-era line “it is a task that must be done” for our survival and prosperity.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org