Remember that simple, sweet novel by Chinua Achebe titled No Longer at Ease, which was so loved by secondary school students? The main character Obi Okonkwo was highly educated, having graduated from the UK at independence, but he turned out to be the daftest of all his Umuofia tribesmen living in Lagos.
Obi felt too sophisticated to associate with the lowly Umuofians in Lagos though they had “taxed themselves mercilessly” to finance his education overseas using a revolving fund they set up so that when a beneficiary got a good job, he would start paying back for other children of the soil also benefit.
As the first fund beneficiary, Obi was supposed to study law and help secure the land rights of his people but, without consulting the sponsors, he changed and studied English. On getting a good job, he lived large, not only failing to pay any loan instalment, but also degenerating to an arrogant apology of a man who couldn’t meet his own basic financial obligations despite his big salary.
So he resorted to taking bribes and, being too stupid to first learn how bribes are taken, he got caught. The pathetic graduate was left with only the humble kinsmen he had snubbed to sacrifice again for him by fundraising to pay the legal fees for his defence.
In terms of manpower planning, the Lagos manual workers from Umuofia seem to have had a better vision with their revolving fund than many an African government. Though six decades after independence the continent must be having over a million university graduates, a socioeconomic analysis would conclude that educating them/us so highly was a smart investment. Why our universities neither offer enough skills nor instil a sense of duty to society remains unclear.
At Uganda’s Makerere University, which celebrated 100 years last year, the whole of last week was devoted to graduation rituals and the parties are still going on, with the thousands of new graduates not doing anything they wouldn’t have been able to do had they not attained the coveted degree.
Yet most parents still prefer to push their children on an academic course up to university instead of setting them on a skills journey after basic education (since university and skills seem to be incompatible in these parts).
The African obsession with a university degree started with the justifiable objective of taking up jobs being left by colonial officers and it seems to have remained as a national addiction. Many Africans still despise skills-based training and regard it as something for those who fail to qualify for university. The liberalisation of university education a few decades ago ended with lowering entry grades and further closed the eyes of the students and parents to the great opportunities available to a person with skills.
With unemployment being the most certain next stage after university, parents still pester powerless relatives in towns to find jobs for their graduate, unskilled children. Some get jobs the same way they got their STDs — sexually transmitted degrees. Others “pay” but still don’t get the jobs, only getting real STDs instead.
The degree mania could end up accelerating the recolonisation of Africa, and there is a strong possibility from the available evidence. Six decades after independence, “successful” African graduates proudly drive third-hand cars originally made in countries that lack raw materials but get them for a song from Africa.
Migrating to developed countries
Many African graduates with useful skills prefer migrating to developed countries. Young Africans whose strength should have been used to work in their mines and industries using local materials are instead selling their ancestral land to go work as slaves in other lands.
No prizes for guessing who ends up controlling the land sold to finance the “enslavement” of the African youth; it is the emerging colonialists and their local agents. Yet the pittance the new “slaves” earn is now a key source of foreign exchange for sustaining debt-ridden African states that earn little in exports of unprocessed raw materials. They earn almost nothing from the minerals because the same unskilled graduates who mismanage African economies also push them into the debt trap.
As we praise the prophets of other lands taught to us by missionaries, who softened the ground for the first colonialists, we should also pay attention to our own prophets like Chinua Achebe.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]