A hysterical video of a hapless Miss Rwanda contestant answering a question in meandering French is doing the rounds online. In the video, the visibly shellshocked Southern Province native tries to answer a question but only ends up confusing the entire audience and the judges as well. This video has been used by both the general public, and some New Times columnists, to rail against our education system. According to the commentators, our education system was to blame for her butchery of the French language and inarticulateness.
That was the same thing that a friend of mine, who works in the banking sector, said when complaining about a job candidate that he interviewed for a position. “The fellow graduated with a First Class degree in banking, he passed the written exam with flying colors, but when I asked him the simple question, what is a bond, he stared at me like a deer caught in the headlights”, he told me. “And then, can you imagine, he told me that his head had froze”, my friend said, incredulously. “Who says that”?
Remembering that incident sent him into a legendary rant about the inadequacies of our education system. According to him, students graduating from our universities were half-baked (nay, quarter-baked, if that is possible), unable to think outside the box, unable to interview, with little to no ability to communicate effectively and, worse of all, able to “hustle”, unlike Ugandans and Kenyans. He warned that, unless something changed, either our economy would stall because of our inept labour force, or other East Africans would come and take all the jobs, leaving natives bitter and unemployed.
While I found his gripes telling, I disagreed with his hypothesis that our system was the culprit. I’ve studied in both Rwanda and Uganda, and in my experience, the systems are similar. The way the teach are the same and so are the curriculum. I did history, geography, economics and literature in A-Level. We were taught to cram; for example, for the question, discuss the causes of the Russian revolution, we were taught that there were exactly ten ‘points’. Our jobs was the remember these ten points if we wanted to get an ‘A’.
What I found different in the two systems was what happened after class ended. While in Uganda, you could join the debate club, the literature club, and discuss revolutionary politics for hours on end, in Rwanda students either played games, napped or, if they were really studious, crammed some more.
In my opinion, that was the major difference between the two systems. While they teach the same things, the students doing the cramming are fundamentally different in the way the relate to information. And I believe that the superior skills others showed was simply manifestation of where they came from as students. While most of the students I went to school with in Uganda were products of middle-class households, with parents educated enough to ply their children with newspapers and books from the home library, those I went to school with in Rwanda came from a background that was radically different. These students were often the first members of their family to pursue an academic career and so while they were often extremely book smart, matters became more challenging when it came to issues of general knowledge and language skills. They simply hadn’t had the opportunity to sit down with newspapers, magazines and novels the way others had.
I wish I could say that matters are better today for young students but that would be a lie. How many homes have you visited that have reading material scattered around? I’m not even talking about book shelves, but a copy of a newspaper? Its still a rare occurrence in my opinion. Parents still think that its the teachers responsibility to teach their children while theirs is simply to pay the, too high, school fees. In my opinion, this is a wrong way of doing things. Instead of breaking the bank to send your children to blue ribald schools, spend the money providing them a home-life that makes learning a regular part of daily life?
When I look back, I honestly cannot remember a lot of what I learnt from school because I was a hopeless student. Perhaps its because I was barely in class (I was a notorious truant). But the reading skills I learnt at home, simply because there was reading material wherever I turned, are what made me a successful student. I could spend less time cramming because I mentally process the words I read easily. It all started at home.
So, instead of blaming our poor schools which, in my opinion is simply passing the buck, what we should be doing is encouraging a reading culture as soon as a child can understand speech. Read bedtime stories to infants, buy them books, let them see YOU reading, discuss their reading materials with them and give them the most precious gift I believe a parent can give a child; the love of knowledge.