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“A Choice for the Choiceless”: Chimamanda Adichie and Petina Gappah on Education in Africa

Chimamanda Adichie

The Thing Around Your NeckAn Elegy for EasterlyAuthors Petina Gappah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are two of the 10 writers who are taking part in the Writers Bloc project, which sends 10 writers to a country of their choice to write an essay related to education, published by Geurnica. Previously, we linked to Zukiswa Wanner‘s essay which explores the politics of language and class in South African education.

Adichie, author of The Thing Around Your Neck, visited a school in Nigeria where she battled the forces of beaurocracy in a government school:

I came at the wrong time. It was mid-March 2011, a few weeks before general elections, and every surface in Lagos—compound walls, gates, even buses—was covered with political posters. “You came at injury time,” the senior teacher at the government junior high school told me. She was small and well-groomed, her blouse awash in ruffles. She looked me over suspiciously. “Why are you here?”

I explained that I was visiting a few schools for an article about education in Nigeria.

“Why are you here?” she asked again. A big bible sat on her desk, one of six in the wide staff room. “I want to be sure that what you’re saying you’re here to do is what you’re here to do.”

Gappah, author of An Elegy for Easterly, visited a school in Zimbabwe and recalls her own days as a student in Zimbabwe:

If Zimbabwe were human, the country would need more years of therapy than its 30 years of independence. According to Foreign Policy, in 2010, Zimbabwe was fourth on the “Failed State Index.” In 2006, it was declared to be the unhappiest place on earth—ahead of Zimbabwe on the “Happiness Index” were countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and North Korea. In 2008, it had inflation rates not seen since the Weimar Republic: prices of goods changed as customers walked to the tills. By any measure, Zimbabweans should just have given up, switched off what little lights remained burning, and hightailed it to the nearest border.

Zimbabwe’s collapse is jarring because it has been so fast. Particularly, in education, where it once led all of Africa, Zimbabwe has had a dizzying fall. The papers are full of stories of teachers at government schools threatening to strike, of pupils being sent home for not paying school fees, of overcrowded classrooms and poorly maintained schools.

Kamila Shamsie has written about the Writers Bloc project in the Guardian:

More than four years ago Rachel Holmes, Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Nick Laird and I sat down in a cafe with Hugh McLean, director of the Open Society Foundations’ education support programme. Hugh had a proposal for us, sparked by an article Zadie had written about Liberia, which caught the attention of OSF’s founder and chairman, George Soros. If we were willing to find writers and send them to different countries to write education-related articles, OSF would fund the project, with no editorial strings attached. It sounded easy enough, though I’ll confess I wasn’t entirely sure what would come out of it – were we really being asked to tell writers to go to a country of their choice to write “something education-related”? Give writers such broad parameters and they could end up doing anything. Further queries to OSF resulted in the following guidelines: “cultural, sociological, political issues, and of course the human story” – in other words, anything.

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Photo courtesy Black Enterprise


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