The African classroom: Reviewing Le Monde Afrique’s series « La classe africaine »

AiW Guest: Connor Pruss.

From January to February 2018, Le Monde Afrique, the online African edition to the French newspaper Le Monde, released a series of articles chronicling education in various contexts across the continent called, “The African Classroom” (« La classe africaine »). A leading question proposed by the introduction asks if education will become a priority again for international aid in Africa. The opening paragraphs of the introduction explain that there has been an overall decrease in international financial support, which is creating tension in already strained education systems. In 2016, the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development found that international aid for education dropped to an estimated $2.7 billion whereas international aid for education was approximately $3.7 billion in 2010. Looking at France as a specific example, aid fell from $819 million in 2010 to $307 million in 2016.

Additionally, the stated objective of this journalistic project is to report on the progress and educational needs in a “postcard” exposé style format across 12 African countries, which recalls a problematic history of this writing format from the colonial era. The reporters interviewed schoolchildren, students, teachers, and parents in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, and Uganda to understand the educational issues affecting each area. Despite being a convenient and digestible format to relay information, this history of postcards in relation to French colonialism reveals a troublesome format to exploit and oppress minority groups. Postcards were a major method to promote colonial exhibitions, called “Human Zoos” by scholars today, that featured indigenous African people on display for European audiences:

To reach the widest audiences, the “human zoos” were organized relying on a plethora of media: posters, photographs, postcards, cinematography, advertising brochures, reports in the mainstream press and reports in the scientific press … The tens of thousands of postcards attest to the media coverage of these shows and, at the same time, herald the gradual disappearance of the genre (Blanchard 52). [1]

French colonial officials employed postcards featuring images of African men, women, and families to bolster their imperial objectives as well as to garner support from European audiences for ongoing colonial expansion across Africa and the rest of the empire. In considering the “postcard style” collection of articles as well as the dominant themes and language represented in Le Monde Afrique’s project, this begs the question, (how) do we talk differently about schools in Africa as opposed to schools in other places?

logo-le-monde-afrique-new.pngThe first half of the series presents a view of education entrenched in local and international discourses of economics and labor. Education is examined through an economic lens, seen through the article headlines evoking the rapid university growth in Ethiopia, the need for Ethiopia to train an industrialized workforce, and the universities in Kenya that are prestigious but disconnected from the country’s labor market. Another article from Cameroon quotes one parent who says, “I’m fighting a real battle to pay for my children’s schooling”. Amongst these articles, education is considered through an economics lens both at the macro-level (national labor forces) and the micro-level (family paying tuition), which frames education in terms of investment and productivity.

This series of articles by mostly European writers and circulated in Africa and in the West seems to reduce the value of education in Africa as simply a pathway to future employment. This perspective limits the transmission and value of African cultures and ideas through education that remain foundational to education systems in Western countries. The fifth episode on universities in Kenya reads, “In this country where academic success is praised, the university holds a special place: prestigious (about 5% of the population accesses it), expensive, it carries a dream of professional success and a comfortable salary. But at the end, the reality is often rough.” And, later it explains, “Every year 50,000 young Kenyans leave university with diplomas in hand. Far too much to be absorbed by the ‘formal market’, which in its totality currently creates less than 90,000 annual jobs across all sectors and skill levels.” This implicit indictment of an education as useless for failing to yield a job after graduation stands in contrast to the framing of education in the West as personally and culturally beneficial, in addition to its economic benefits. In the Western tradition of the humanities, education is considered to possess a value unto itself. For example, students in Europe and the United States are led to believe that reading the canon is just as valuable as any vocational skill or trade. Of course, these common discourses are being challenged more and more for various reasons such as inflating student debt[2]. Yet, the broad discourses on education in relation to African countries are often only associated with labor productivity and work as opposed to the transmission of culture or social values.

The respective reporter has undoubtedly pinpointed a problem in Kenya, and the correlation of education and labor is deeply complex in a globalized world. But, the emphasis on economics in the series suggests that the boundaries separating education and labor in Africa are even more opaque than in Western countries. In highlighting the value of an education by its ability to furnish an income, education and those who receive it are reduced to objects of labor as opposed to learned individuals. Often, the postcard style format of the articles use individuals’ experiences and local problems to represent broader national issues allowing just enough space to draw attention the reader’s attention without engaging historical or political factors. From this perspective, education is treated as a problem in African societies rather than trying to understand a community or nation’s relationship between education with various cultural, political, and social factors.

Indeed, the series “La classe africaine” also offers insights into the ways education in Africa is adapting and growing on both local and international scales. Two articles, the first, looking at Mandarin language instruction in Uganda and another on koranic schools starting math and English instruction in Nigeria, illustrate how schools are turning toward intercultural and transnational exchange. While the article, “Episode 14: In the face of dropping out, Niger focuses on teaching in local languages” demonstrates how education should be engaged with the needs and values of a community. Some of the most compelling episodes are the two articles focusing on the teacher Maxime Sou from Burkina Faso. The first episode notes the reputation of the teacher known for having 100 students per class and a 100% entrance exam success rate. The second episode on Maxime Sou declares him “the super-teacher of Burkina Faso”. I find that it is really in these two episodes that the reader gets an actual glimpse of the goings-on inside a classroom on the continent.

The articles detail the dedication of the teacher as he navigates an overcrowded classroom and successfully employs a combination of discipline and passion to lead his students to success. Maxime Sou’s ability to help his students obtain successful scholastic achievements in the face of hardship is beyond commendable and more than noteworthy. The article states that unlike other teachers in the region he assigns two homework assignments per day, as opposed to one, amounting to hundreds of papers to be graded each week with the help of a couple teaching assistants on top of the additional tutoring hours he offers before and after school. Conversely, one wonders about other teachers in similar situations in Burkina Faso and other regions who are not able to dedicate so much time and effort to their class. The amount of work done in and out of the classroom as well as class enrollment sizes can cause extreme burdens for teachers, which forces them to choose between their own well-being and the educational needs of the students they are committed to helping.

The ambitious project of Le Monde Afrique to report on the state of education across the continent in the series « La classe africaine » addresses a number of important issues on both local and national levels. The series interviews enthusiastic and relevant sources who are directly involved with and affected by issues of education. Reflecting on this journalistic project allows the opportunity to discuss how education in African contexts is perceived by the local populations who have firsthand experience with the education systems as well as the way the Western media and publishers represent these systems as valuable or not. By imposing discourses of labor and work, education will only ever be as valuable as the profits it yields. The postcard style format of the series draws attention to pressing issues across the African continent from a powerful European publishing entity like Le Monde. However, the postcard articles often feel like a guided tour across Africa providing a brief snapshot of a community or nation without ever truly engaging the nuances of each setting before moving on to the next one. Perhaps, reframing the discussion of education in Africa around local or regional needs and values will allow educational communities to flourish overtime with other economic and social networks.

[1] Pascal Blanchard et al., « Introduction. La longue histoire du zoo humain », in Pascal Blanchard et al., Zoos humains et exhibitions coloniales, La Découverte « Poche/Sciences humaines et sociales », 2011 (2e éd.), p. 9-61.

[2] See Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff’s Theory from the South, or, How Euro-America Is Evolving toward Africa (Paradigm Publishers, 2011).

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Connor AiW photoConnor Pruss is a Ph.D. student at UCLA, studying Francophone writers of an African origin. He is interested in the way these writers evoke themes of education and migration. Specifically, his research examines how discourses and themes of education are used to critique colonization as well as the migrant experience. Additionally, he is interested in literary journals as a cultural and educational form in post-colonial Africa.



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