“A hydra-headed problem calls for a hydra-headed solution” | Northern educator reveals solution to problem of education deprivation

Hardly any problem exists in this world for which one can say with unassailable certainty, “If you do this one thing, your problem will be fixed.” It is always a combination of things – taking a  painkiller and a nap to heal headache for instance – that helps us arrive at some kind of resolution.

Hence, when you read a headline that goes, “Only 4% of Northern girls completed secondary school: Report,” it will be foolhardy to immediately think or say, “If they are not so obsessed with early marriage, the number won’t be this dismal.”

Nigeria is neck-deep in the unsettling problem of education deprivation for children. Estimates by UNICEF put the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria at a whopping 10.5 million children aged 5-14 years.

Education deprivation for children is a country-wide problem, but the situation, as UNICEF reported here is much bleaker for Northern Nigeria, where the percentage of children that go to school stands at 53% of the children population in the region. For a region with the highest population in the country – a population that grows daily, 47% of children being out of school is a colossal problem.

It gets bleaker still.

That sorry number of children who go to school tells the story of gender-based exclusion which affects girl children. UNICEF reports that states in the north-east and north-west have female primary net attendance rates of 47.7% and 47.3% respectively, meaning that more than half of girls in these states are not in school.

This is a problem that calls for concern and immediate addressing, yet we are poorly served when, in trying to address it, we simplify it to the point of obnoxiousness that hinders even meaningful conversation.

The education deprivation problem in northern Nigeria is driven by a number of factors, including economic barriers and socio-cultural norms and practices that discourage attendance in formal education, especially for girls. This is a statement of fact.

That even school attendance doesn’t equate education – particularly in the North even though this is a Nigerian problem, is also a statement of fact this writer gleaned from lived experience and a conversation with an educator of 27 years.

There are other observations that this formidable woman, Mrs. Kulu Sule made over the years that will come in handy in designing interventions to address the problem of education deprivation for Nigerian children but especially for the Northern girl child.

You have taught in primary school after primary school for over 20 years, what do you think about the report saying only 4% of Northern girls completed secondary school?

“It is impossible to dispute that number unequivocally without a counter statistic that arrives at a different number. What I can say for sure is that even if this number is exaggerated, it is all good so long as it moves the right quarters to appropriate action.

“I say appropriate action because the unique problem we have in the North calls for a unique approach to solving it. Slapdash, UNICEF-(or some such body)-formulated solutions just won’t do. I know because I have seen most every one of those touted solutions deployed in my time as a teacher, then a headmistress, and now a local government guidance counsellor, I have seen those solutions play out sometimes with a spurt of success, and I have seen each one die out.”

Kindly give us examples of some of these solutions and the reason you think they eventually failed?

“I will give you one. If you know anything about the North and the problem of access to education, then you know that the cause of this problem is a hydra-headed beast. Yet, for the longest time, we focused our energies on the economic head of that hydra. We said to each other in closed-door meetings with Northern leaders and global donors that if we take away the pang of economic desperation more parents will be more open to sending their children to school. I admit without regret – because the feeding scheme among other assistances that resulted from that conclusion sure helped many a child have some food access stability – that I believed it deeply then.

“We agreed that if we feed these kids once a day it will incentivize parents who struggle to feed them on any given day to send them to school – it is a brilliant solution that addressed education and malnutrition in children. Government after government came up with different incentives – from reduced to fully paid fees to free uniforms and school materials. Yet decades down the line we are still dealing with this problem because its many other heads thrive without any hindrance from a government or organization trying to address them.

“Cultural attitude towards formal education is one of those heads, and it is fed by a multiplicity of drivers also. Religion is one such drivers. The solidity of the Hausa-Fulani tradition that strips human existence to the simple pleasures of life: community, family, just enough food to get by and peace with one’s neighbours, is another driver.

“It is near impossible to expect a girl child to start school – which usually begins at around 8 for many here – and be able to finish it with our 6-3-3 basic education system when cultural attitude demands that a girl be in her matrimonial home as soon as she hits puberty to preserve her purity. Do the Math, an 8-year-old girl will be 20 – barring any issues – by the time she finishes secondary school. Very few parents can be convinced to allow their wards to remain at home that long without marriage, and while purity culture feeds that, economy also plays a major part.

“It is part of the grand plan for perpetuating life and community in this culture to plan your girl child’s life taking into account she would leave your house in her early teens to a house she will come to call her own. It allows you room to raise your other children while she raises her own, and you become this expanded community. It isn’t ideal, but people here swear by it and won’t let go of it easily, certainly not on the altar of formal education which they don’t consider a necessity.

“So the girls get pulled out of school once a suitable suitor shows up. The boy leaves school once he finds a way to make money and in so doing develops the capacity to cater for a wife. It all ties back to this culture of, “Mutuncin ‘ya mace gidan mijinta,” which loosely means a woman’s worthy station is her husband’s house”

That is a lot. And it has us wondering if a solution is possible at all. What do you think now, 20+ years later and with this wealth of understanding?

“A solution is always possible, otherwise us diagnosing something and labelling it a probem will\be a most laughably absurd thing to do, wouldnt it? The important questions are, ‘Who is coming up with the solutions?  What is their measure of success?

“I will give you an example. Having sat in meetings and come up with some of the ‘solutions’ we believed will change things for the better, and having been aware even then that these ‘solutions are only so we have a conducive structure to work within, my personal wins have never been the success of these ‘solutions.’ I am grateful I was part of coming up with them, yes, but it was simply a structure that helps bring the kids out of their homes and communities. Educators are supposed to step in and take up the work from there.

“Some of my favorite personal wins are; ensuring this bright girl who was uprooted from school to be married at 15 resumed school 3 years and 2 kids later, and overseeing the return of a woman in her 40s – who regretted never having been allowed to go to school –  to primary school education. She worked and paid her fees, and went through her school work like fire to tinder. The joy of seeing her face light up when she first wrote her full name in her wobbly handwriting, my God!

“That girl went on to finish her secondary school education and get a National Certificate of Education diploma. She is a teacher now in the same secondary school she finished. How we managed to get her parents and husband to conceed was to offer to assist with child care while she was in school. The reduced burden of care on the husband was also a great incentive. The older woman is past now, rest her soul, but she sat for NECO and passed before she passed. She was very happy for it and that is massive for me.

“This is what these two things achieved that I thought to share it; the family of that girl – now become teacher – is forever transformed in their attitude towards formal education, so is the community that older woman was in – she sent a message of hope to many grown women. Some of those inspired women later enrolled in the adult education classes she took.

“So in framing solutions we have to think of all the factors that hinder women and work with rather than against them because you can’t convince people here to choose education over the deeply entrenched purity culture that makes them prize marriage over anything else.

“Any solution that stands a chance of succeeding must factor in the economic implication of keeping children longer in their parent’s house – boarding schools help a lot. It has to also address the culture factor, maybe we can’t convince these people to delay marriage, but we sure can convince them to consider continuing education post-marriage, we can incentivize this by framing it however the community we are assisting is best served. It has absolutely to factor in religion, and we must begin to openly challenge the teaching of Islamic clerics that make it sound like a woman can’t marry and still have a life beyond and above that marriage. Men do it all the time and the world hasn’t busted into flames for it.

“A hydra-headed problem calls for a hydra-headed solution, unless what we seek to do is not solve the problem for the long-term. Stop-gap fixes leave us drifting in the same mess, just like we are now.”

Thank you so muchh for your insight.

“You are welcome.”

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