Saturday, 22 November 2008

Education, ICT, Nigeria and my friend Caroline Ifeka

My mind has really been stretched this week through a number of meetings. The actual discussions may not get written up, but there should be practical results over coming months and I will try to cover those as they happen.

The latest meeting (on Friday 21st November) was with my friend Caroline Ifeka (in the photo) who is director of REIWA . We met at Waterstone's in Picadilly (bookshops are such good places to meet up when you can't be certain of the time - warm, dry, plenty of interest, a chance to take the weight of your feet... ) Down in the basement, away from all interuptions (even beyond the reach of mobile phones) we settled ourselves on a comfortable sofa, with big mugs of hot chocolate, and dipped into the myriad things we have in common.

Caroline and I connect regarding, Nigeria, education, use of IT etc. Unlike me, she comes from an academic background, has spent much of her adult life in Nigeria, and leads a project there. Her project is based in Kaduna, slightly North of Fantsuam (my main location in Africa) but I didn't meet her through Fantsuam Foundation. The link was more distant. Caroline has worked in Australia, and we originally met thanks to an Australian friend of Caroline's, (Valerie) who I linked with through the pattern language list. It was Valerie who suggested, some years back, that Caroline and I should meet in the UK (her country of origin) and we quickly became friends.

There is huge overlap between our interests and projects, but tremendous differences too (partly because she is working with pastoralists and nomadic people) so it is great to chat and share ideas and anecdotes. I have stayed with Caroline in Nigeria and visited her projects, and I have introduced her to my friends at Fantsuam Foundation. It's not easy to keep in contact when she is in Nigeria so we try to meet up (or at least phone) when she in over here.

As usual, our conversation leaped from personal to political, practical to theoretical, comic to tragic, went on for hours, and hardly touched the surface of all we wanted to share with each other. For instance, one of Caroline's interests is adult literacy. So she was telling me about some of her adult literacy students (all women), their desire to learn, and how they feel they have missed out. It is so hard for girls to get a good education. The culture does not favour it. Caroline has also been trying to persuade one of the young men who works with her to let his teenage bride-to-be finish school before burdening her with childbearing. Caroline acknowledges that her pointed conversations with him are unlikely to make any difference, but at least she wants him to realise what he is doing to the girl, and question whether this is a selfish choice, before he decides to do it.

Of course we didn't cover educational opportunities for women and children in such a straight forward way. Even on that narrow theme of we branched off to adult education, UK Open University, Nigerian Open University, NOU experience of one of her staff members, anecdontes about Caroline's work, catch-ups on the staff I know personally, problems with paying people, exchange rates, falling value of the pound against Naira, how and why the dollar is holding up against the Naira, oil, ecology, power politics. Hmm - isn't it lovely to just chat with no set objectives or agenda!

We discussed various issues of education, including the legacy of rote learning, and related cultural issues such as a lack of questioning, and an acceptance of authority and things as they are. We covered "relationships with information" and all kinds of things that our own "information overloaded" culture takes for granted, which are completely outside the experience of many of the men, women and children we know in rural Nigeria. We are particularly interested in the appropriate use of ICT in education (both as a curriculm area and as an enabler) so all the usual issues came up on that. We were discussing the practicalities we are struggling with on the ground - but inevitably we wandered soemtimes into examples of hype and the gap between it and reality.

As I write this I feel a need to justify my interference in anything Nigerian, especially in instances where some kind of culture clash is involved. I think back to how I got involved with Nigeria (when my friend Agnita Sternheim married Peter Adetunji Oyawale - now sadly deceased - and I just did a few things to help Peter with a project back home). Later I came across the term "neo-colonialists" and I was so horrified by the potential label I almost stopped helping with Peter's project. I am still uncomfortable about the fact that I am helping to initiate change in a culture that is not my culture, and there is always the "law of unexpected consequences" to bear in mind. But as I think about the discussion with Caroline I know we were covering things that concerned Peter, and that John Dada has asked me to help him with. Peter was Nigerian and John is Nigerian and he is responding to local needs (especially the under-educated rural poor).

Why do "we" want people to be better educated and able to think for themselves? What does ignorance do to people? What does poor hygiene and health awareness do to people? How easily are ignorant unemployed youths turned into a violent rent-a mob? Why do people who are faced with domestic disasters, disease and death decide that the cause must be witch-craft? Why are young children blamed for natural events, and then abused, beaten and sometimes even killed in an attempt to get rid of the evil forces? We used to do that in the UK too - what stopped us? Does education help people to make better decisions and have a better standard of life? Is it ok if I help John to help the local teachers and trainers to improve local standards of education? Does it matter if I am attracted to this challenge simply because I am interested in how we learn, and how ICT is altering our potential to engage in learning?

I remember discussing with Peter the potential negative results of the project he was trying to do. He challenged me by pointing out the negative results of failing to do it - and he spoke from the heart. He was in his own words the son of "an ignorant peasant". Ironically it was in fact the local belief in witch-craft which enabled him to escape from a lifetime of ignorance and of toiling on the land. It was because his parents believed that a "witch-craft spell" had been put on him that Peter was sent away from his home village, and as a result of that move he managed to find and take opportunities for education.

On reflection, I think it is okay if I experiment with the use of ICT and the development of new educational systems with John at Fantsuam, even if I do get labelled a "neo colonialist" and even if there are some unexpected negative consequences.

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