Somalia’s literary lessons on education: More teachers, classrooms and jobs

Saturday January 05 2013

Caroline Kende-Robb and Nuruddin Farah

In an ancient Somali poem, Coldiid is a wise warrior who rejects all forms of violence. Mocked at first by his peers, he eventually shows them that violence is not a way to earn respect or love.

This story may be lost on many of today’s Somali warriors, because so few of them will have any education — yet another brutal consequence of instability in Somalia that has been dragging on for more than 20 years.

Africa’s conflicts remain a key obstacle to education and a better start in life for millions of African children. But away from the Somali and other conflicts, Africa has made major progress.

The recently held Kwani LitFest 2012 was a great example of the Horn’s impressive cultural legacies and it proved that we can take some comfort that all across Africa, millions more children are going to primary school and dropout rates have tumbled.

The ability to read and write means the ability to buy and sell, to trade and make a living. An additional year of school in a poor country, for instance, has the potential to increase a person’s income by ten per cent.

Education is the best possible opportunity of securing decent work.


To our north and west, the lack of jobs, justice, and equity prompted popular uprisings all across the Middle East. If Africa is to avoid the same fate, then we must do all that we can to keep youth unemployment down.

But with the world’s fastest growing populations, governments and societies face a real challenge to create jobs fast enough. 

Our continent’s rapid population boom means that by 2020, Africa’s population of 15-24 year olds will rise from 172 million to 246 million. Africa must create another 74 million jobs in order to prevent youth unemployment from rising.

Africa may have some of the fastest growing economies in the world, but growth — especially when generated by oil and mining — does not automatically translate into jobs.

Some analysts say that if we can persuade them to invest in Africa, manufacturing industries offer good hope for job creation in Africa. Africa is more connected with the world than ever before. But this is a highly competitive world. Our workforces must be better educated to be competitive.

To be sure, Africa has seen an increase in primary school enrolment from 60 per cent in 2000 to 76 per cent in 2009, and reduction in school dropout from 42 million to 30 million within the same period.

Much as the continent must raise its education standards, existing analyses suggest we are way off track. By 2025, a decade after the MDG target date for universal primary education, Africa will still have 17 million children out of school, according to a recent report by the Africa Progress Panel.

And millions of African children are still emerging from primary school lacking the basic skills in literacy and numeracy.

Gloomy stuff, but then some African countries have made extraordinary progress with their education.

Countries such as Ethiopia and Tanzania were able to reduce out-of-school numbers by over three million each in the first half of the decade after 2000.

Their successes and educational work all over Africa have taught us plenty of lessons.

First, governments must focus their education spending on disadvantaged regions, schools and pupils particularly girls and marginalised groups.

Educating women has strong benefits for health and economic growth. Women who are educated tend to be healthier, work in the formal economy, have fewer children, and provide better healthcare and education for their children, all of which improve the well-being of individuals and help lift households out of poverty. These benefits transmit across generations and to communities more broadly.

But massive gaps exist all across Africa. In Nigeria, for example, poor rural Hausa women aged between 17 and 22 average less than one year in school, while their wealthy, male, urban counterparts average more than nine years.

Second, break the links between hunger, poverty, and parental illiteracy on the one hand and educational disadvantage on the other.

Evidence suggests that children who are stunted lose the equivalent of two grades in education and another two grades as a result of diminished learning.

Third, expand “second-chance” education to target those who missed out on education in their early years.

Fourth, demand that Africa’s international development partners honour their funding commitments. Africa has a deficit of one million teachers.

Too many classrooms are overcrowded, textbooks are in short supply, and infrastructure is in bad repair.

If education gave us nothing more than the ability to enjoy our own cultural legacy, then surely it would not be worth it. But it gives us so much more than that.

Nuruddin Farah is a prominent Somali novelist and playwright and Caroline Kende-Robb is the executive director of the Africa Progress Panel