Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Working in Africa"

A friend commented on the piece I wrote about freewriting (see the post "Getting into the habit of writing" of January 2008), asking for all the pieces I implicitly promised to deliver via this blog from that time onwards. Well, my friends, life has been on fast forward for me in the last few weeks; so fast that I've gone for days on end without even remembering that such a thing as blogging exists. Honestly. My circumstances have changed drastically within the last month – admittedly for the better, but the change process has been harrowing. I know everyone of us can come up with excuses for why we renege on our promises and resolutions, so I don't mean for that to constitute an excuse, really. I am guilty.

Now that I'm more settled, I'll give you the gist of something that's been on my mind for the past few days. About two weeks ago, a colleague who's doing postgraduate research in another university informed me about a seminar that was planned to hold in his school, titled 'Working in Africa'. One to be excited at the mere mention of any development-related activity in Africa, I quickly inquired about how to register. Although the seminar was ideally aimed at the university staff and students, I managed to worm my way in on the grounds of the interest I expressed to the organisers. So it was that I sat in on this meeting to listen to presentations of what would hopefully be stimulating ideas on how to make Africa work.

I guess in my mind I must have read the seminar title backwards, because the seminar turned out to be all about what's in Africa for the university. Four out of five presentations discussed ways to make the university more attractive to prospective students from Africa. So it was not that they were discussing how to make a contribution; they were rather interested in strategising to gain more income and global recognition through increased enrolment of African students. The first speaker went over statistics of African students enrolled currently enrolled on various programmes at the university. Of course several African countries were represented, but I didn't get past the first three before the alarms went off in my brain.

Nigeria was top of the list with 64 students registered in that UK university. The next country to Nigeria was Kenya with 19 students, followed by Ghana with 15 students! The presentations that followed the first one carried on in similar business fashion, the overriding aim being to measure the university's success so far in recruiting bright young talents from Africa, and devise means of perfecting the recruitment strategy so that the university's pockets can get even fatter with international fees. I'll let you on to a little secret, in case you didn't know: international students in the UK pay over 4 times – yes, 4 times – what 'home' students pay. The only reason a UK university will chase a Nigerian student desperately is to collect all that cash. Why, a single Nigerian student is financially worth at least four UK students. See?

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with leaving Nigeria to study abroad. The question I've started to ask myself is, why do people really leave? In my opinion, the fact that Nigerians hardly ever return home after studying abroad gives an insight into people's real reasons for leaving in the first place. I've always been aware of this fact, but the huge disparity between Nigerian students and students from other African countries in the example given above has set me thinking again. South Africa, for instance, has only 1 student enrolled at the same university this session. That's a difference of 63 from Nigeria! I know this is only one case, but from what I see and hear around me, it is not likely to be the only case.

I will answer the argument that Nigeria has a higher population than those other countries by saying that migration, especially for educational purposes, is absolute, not relative. There are 140 million people in Nigeria, but I don't know that up to 10 million of those can even dream of showing up at a foreign embassy to apply for student visas. How many of those millions even have proper primary school education? My point: There's nothing to say that the total number of educated 'elites' in Nigeria is 4 times higher (64/15, ratio 4:1) than those in Ghana. Probable, yes; certain, no.

In any case, this is not the time to be making excuses. The point is that we need to wake up. People, Nigeria is NOT the worst country in Africa! So why is it that Nigerians seem to be more desperate to 'check out' of their country than other, poorer, nations? It would be fantastic if all those 64 Nigerian students would return home at the end of their education to contribute to rebuilding the ruins of our nation. That is the only way we as a people can realise net profit from this desperate student–for–money transaction initiated by foreign universities. Otherwise, we will continue to be taken advantage of by people who prey on our weaknesses to make themselves stronger. Talk about 21st century slave trade.

I'm very familiar with the argument often put forth that Nigeria does not have anything worthwhile to offer her returning professionals and intellectuals, so it would be a shameful waste for anyone to go back after studying. What do I have to say to that? Well, that's a story for another day.