Features | Teaching unemployment in Cameroon

The disconnect between the curriculum’s European ideals and the training relevant to a rural economy

In my estimation, the people of Kumbo, Cameroon are not generally poor.

But for those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, adding school fees to the budget means something has to give – especially in the surrounding villages, hardly integrated into the cash economy. For some struggling families I’ve visited, basic nutrition is sacrificed – in others, health care, clothing, or fixing a leaky roof.

I have been administering a program providing school fees for AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children. During the six months I have lived in Kumbo, I have heard stories of the sacrifices made for school fees over and over again. For all of this hardship, I expected to see some evidence to support the nearly-universal conviction that education would provide a good life.

But that wasn’t the case at all.

It’s not because of a lack of government support. For example, in 2007, the Cameroonian government devoted 17 per cent of its budget to education. In 2006, Canada spent roughly 12 per cent. The government is committed to putting a school in every village. While they don’t always provide enough teachers, or any funds at all for construction, a casual trip through the villages in various regions of the country suggests that the promise has at least partially been fulfilled.

That education is not improving quality of life is even more baffling in light of the students’ enthusiasm to learn. Feeling worlds away from my hometown of Toronto, I was hard-pressed to find a single student who said he or she didn’t like school. This, despite the fact that school is no picnic in Kumbo. Public primary school classes often have 40 to 60 pupils; secondary classes can range from 70 to 180. In the local high school, an offence as grievous as leaving school property before the end of the day can land you spending your week digging up a tree.

That education does not transfer to success is not due to a lack of willingness of parents to pay fees, of government funding, or of dedication on the part of the students. I am quite certain that education is creating poverty in Kumbo. The culprit is the school system itself.

I sat down with Fuekang Cyprian, veteran headmaster of a government primary school. “The educational system is non-functional,” he boldly declares. “Children will graduate from secondary school and expect a job from the government. And when the job does not come, they will roam the streets.”

Mme Elizabeth, who runs a local church program that sponsors AIDS orphans’ education, found that school wasn’t really helping these youth. Even those who completed primary school, she found, were “just roaming around. Some were becoming thieves, armed robbers, even.”

The biggest problem facing the youth of Kumbo is unemployment, affirmed Claitus, the divisional delegate for the Ministry of Youth Affairs. Unemployment is not the product of a lack of education. According to Claitus, most of the unemployed youth have completed secondary school, and some even have primary degrees. “They are selling used clothes or driving taxis,” he explained, despite their education. Echoing Mme Elizabeth’s phrasing, he added, “some just roam the streets.”

The problem is a disconnect between the educational curriculum and the needs of the local economy. In rural Bui Division, the economy is primarily agricultural. There is little need for office workers. Yet the school curriculum looks strikingly like that in Canada, emphasizing English-language proficiency, academic analysis, and hierarchical discipline. Students graduate utterly unable to make something of the resources available to them in their environment, and thus unable to make something of themselves.

“The youth are trained in general education, but they cannot fit into the society,” explains Claitus. He adds, “[The school system] doesn’t train job-creators, but it trains job-seekers…. It doesn’t train them to be self-employed.”

Local government officials blame pervasive unemployment on the economic crisis – the one Cameroon has been battling since the crash in world coffee prices in 1986. But at root, the two problems are one and the same. Were the school curriculum relevant to local needs, the local economy might have been sufficiently diversified to weather the coffee price shock.

The curriculum in use is identical to the one designed by German, and later British, colonial authorities. Even within the colonial administrations critics noted that the system wasn’t practical. German colonial authorities made repeated recommendations for school instruction in local languages rather than in German. In 1925, the British Advisory Committee on Native Education in Africa recommended study in indigenous languages, technical and vocational training, and generally, education adapted to the needs of the local population.

According to John Mukum Mbaku, professor at the University of Texas, Cameroonian nationalists in the struggle for independence vowed “to bring school curricula in line with local needs, aspirations, and interests.” Yet somehow, after independence, changes fell by the wayside. Sixty years later, nothing has changed. At head teachers’ meetings, says Cyprian, “the cry is we need to change our school system.”

If the system is such an abject failure, why does it persist? In these sorts of situations, Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson advises to look not at what the system is failing to do, but what, despite itself, it succeeds in doing. A system that fails to achieve its stated goals may be maintained if it helps a powerful actor achieve an unstated one.

To see this at work, all you need to do is follow the students. Those who graduate from secondary school in Kumbo tend not to stick around very long. They quietly stick up their noses at agriculture and rural trades as they head off in droves for the urban universities. From there, they troll the Internet looking for full scholarships at schools in Europe or North America. The ones who really make it are those who find good enough jobs overseas to stay there.

The path is clear. Every student knows it. It leads directly from Kumbo to the gilded city streets of the West. To the detriment of Cameroonian society, it is walked by some of the best and brightest. But to the great disappointment of the masses of students, it is walked by precious few.

This inequality demonstrates how the school system in Bui Division creates unemployment. The system is highly successful in training students to desire office work. Year after year students graduate qualified to do nothing else. At that point, write Kenyan sociologists Diane Kayongo-Male and Philista Onyango, “they may for a very long time reject any employment that may be available as they consider themselves suitable for superior jobs.” Only a select few qualify for full-ride scholarships in Europe; only a further few can find office jobs domestically. The rest fall confused into the chasm between the expectations given to them by their school system and the economic reality of their state.

Kumbo’s economy rewards self-starting hairdressers, shoemakers, shop-owners, tailors, and restaurateurs. The most meagre premises and equipment suffice at the start. Its rich soil rewards attention to agriculture. However, graduates shun Cameroon’s rural economy because their education has trained them for a Western urban economy. This leads to unemployment for most. Measured against the substantial investments families make in schooling, it seems clear that education provides a net loss. Seeing how the school system creates poverty, it is possible to see why.

Over more than 150 years, the various stewards of Cameroon’s school system have differed in their goals. Yet each regime had reason to turn students toward Europe, sacrificing social relevance at the altar of socialization. The first schools were opened by European Christian missionaries. According to Cameroonian scholar Jacob A. Ihims, the process was initiated by Jamaican Baptist Christians who felt that “something ought to be done to emancipate Africa from its sin and ignorance.” In the words of renowned German mission educator Gustav Warneck, “it is impossible to Christianize a people without schools.” Cultural conversion was a prime goal of Cameroon’s education system from the very start. And on the eve of independence, in 1961, 95 per cent of Cameroon’s schools were still run by European Christian missionaries.

When the German colonial government took over control of the school system in 1884, they left daily operations of most schools in the hands of the missionaries, but added their own spin. According to Ihims, “all mission schools, besides their Christian mission, became institutes for the propagation of German culture and language.” Some years later, renowned German Africanist Martin Schlunk sought to justify the use of indigenous languages in schools on the grounds that “it is possible to give the natives a feeling of patriotism toward the Fatherland without the teaching of the German language.” The British colonial administration adopted much the same perspective to education. Throughout the colonial period, and continuing through independence, orientating students toward Europe has been a prime educational goal.

Hopes for change upon independence have gone unfulfilled. In his 1986 work of political theory, Cameroonian president Paul Biya wrote that “from mere anonymous elements in a shapeless and passive mass, Cameroonians have to be upgraded to mature and responsible individuals. In short, they have to become citizens like others and, like them, enjoy their basic rights.” That is, they must shake off the collectivist, responsibility-centred culture of the Cameroonian village and don the individualistic, rights-focused moral ethos of the citizen of the nation-state – a distinctly European ideal. His personal opinion is highly relevant to political reality; he has been president since 1982.

Biya talks the talk of African solutions to African problems. In the end, his success on the world stage depends on his ability to generate economic returns from a unified nation-state. That nation-state is a European model, and the people who will buy Cameroon’s exports are, in today’s economic reality, mostly North Americans and Europeans. Despite its shortcomings, an education system schooling pupils in European values serves him well.

Following the 1884-85 Colonial Conference in Berlin, a group of African educators asserted that only when education is relevant to the needs of the people “will the schools educate useful members of the society and only then will the schools be able to prevent the problem of rural-urban migration among educated youths.” Yet from its very inception, the education system in this area of Cameroon was designed to inculcate its students with European values. For at least a century, the school system has borne a crippling set of weaknesses – a dearth of trained teachers, instruction in foreign languages, teaching irrelevant to rural life, and high fees. Today, all of these problems endure. The result is that an institution capable of bringing immeasurable benefit to society is instead creating poverty.

I do know of an educational system in which there are enough teachers: the teachers speak local languages, they teach skills relevant to life, and they teach for free. Parents teach their children. It was once surely practiced in Cameroon, and in a hundred other countries. It is still practiced in many parts of the world where no well-meaning missionaries or aid workers have arrived to wax eloquent on how the poor people need schools.

Everyday, I see this system still working successfully. The eight children who live next door to me are expert in cooking, cleaning, farming, and childcare. They even teach one another. It would be absurd to argue that these skills should be taught in formal institutions. Yet, this is exactly what the first educators in Cameroon argued.

If all of the problems in education seem to be intrinsic to the school system itself, one has to wonder whether anything of consequence has been accomplished by schools except the socialization of Cameroonian children out of their traditional mores.

There is a wild folly inherent in the assertion that one way of life is better than another. Yet this is precisely what is taught, albeit indirectly, in Bui’s schools. It is evident to me in the glazed eyes and slack jaws I see each time I reveal the damning truth that there is poverty and social strife in white countries too. Meanwhile, the beauty, inventiveness, and social benefit of local values are increasingly swept under the rug.

There is a simple and practical way forward. It involves setting aside our urge to “develop” struggling communities in our own country and abroad. In its place, we can adopt an approach of solidarity, supporting and working alongside members of those communities with ideas for change.

I was fortunate to come across a few education initiatives in Cameroon that address the enduring problems. When Mme Elizabeth noticed that the school system was not helping the children that her church program sponsors, she decided to act. With the support of the same church, she runs a vocational training school. Her seven-classroom centre bustles with future hairdressers, barbers, shoemakers, and both traditional and modern dressmakers. Through the week, students cycle through the one academic classroom, where they gain foundations in English literacy, mathematics, and practical economics. She hopes to expand into carpentry and computer training. Students pay low fees, and payment in food crops is acceptable. Teachers sell the students’ work to supplement their incomes. The energy in the centre is palpable, and Mme Elizabeth is filled with hope.

“Not every child is a scholar,” said my friend Gerard. He is filing his papers to open an alternative school. He plans to supplement classroom lessons in English and arithmetic with extensive training in agriculture – organic agriculture, he insists, will ensure a lifelong income. They will sell their produce to help fund the program, and their agro-forestry training will include plenty of tree-planting to aid in the fight against climate change.

Riba Farm focuses on training farmers in organic agriculture. But director George Riba sees the connections with education – when youth get only a cursory education in farming, they find themselves out of work, or pouring pesticides on their fields just to grow enough to eat. Somewhere amid his busy schedule of agriculture seminars, he finds time to take on one or two pupils in agro-forestry. The scale is small, but the satisfaction he receives is great when he sees formal pupils making an independent living from their trees.

Claitus is administering two Ministry of Youth Affairs programs training youth in agriculture and trades. “The ministry comes in with a fire extinguisher [on] these programs,” he claims. Still, he notes that they are doing the best they can to keep these programs alive.

The mere existence of a school system does not guarantee any benefit to students or society. We can build school walls, but what matters more are the lessons that fill them. An education system can exist to teach skills that give life to pupils and their own communities. It can also churn out automatons who will put their shoulders to the grind to reinforce existing inequalities of power. The decision hinges on this: whether we are willing to honour others enough to permit them whatever way of life they choose.