EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION! BUT FOR WHAT? 

[Ambrose Ganda]
(Published in Focus Vol 4 No 2
February 1999)


THE TASK of informing and educating the masses in Sierra Leone is gargantuan. But that apart, educating the educated Sierra Leonean is an even more difficult proposition because one then encounters formidable barriers like conceit, arrogance and the undeniable fact that some of our brothers and sisters are self-opinionated. We lack the ability to cohere and to apply our knowledge to practical effect. 

I am of course speaking in general terms and I hope I am not causing offence to our best brains in the country. But even they will agree with me that many of us who claim to be educated are largely unproductive in our professed areas of learning. How many books have we written as living proof of our excellence in our specific areas of high learning, with all the degrees that we boast about? How many inventions have we made that can be applied to enhance the quality of life of our people and nation? 

How many have applied their knowledge and self-acclaimed intellectual prowess to things tangible and useful for the common man and woman in the street? How many literary achievements do we as a nation lay claim to, compared with countries of similar, or even less, size and resources? But specifically, considering the notoriety that Sierra Leone once gained as the Athens of West Africa, what has been so Athenian about our achievements in the last 40 years, including the thirty-eight or so since independence? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! It makes me sad.

And who have been in charge of the country during that time? No! Not Corporal Foday Sankoh; not poor Captain Valentine Strasser or the untested Brigadier Julius Maada Bio, both of the NPRC. Not RUF rebels or AFRC junta men. It has been our very own so-called ‘bookmen’ whom we depended on to run the universities, government ministries and departments, parastatals, etc., and Cabinet Ministers. They carry strings of letters after their names. And what have most (though I must exclude a handful) of them shown for it? Not much really.

For all his faults, including being the prime architect of the current troubles in Sierra Leone, late President Siaka Stevens had the best aphorism to describe his many PhD-titled cabinet ministers for whose intelligence he had nothing but contempt. He would often remind them that “Nar sense dehm take mek book, nor to book dehm take mek sense”. (Translated as “People use their intelligence to write books; books do not create intelligence”.) 

Did you see the educated men and women who prostituted themselves before the altar of Siaka Stevens’ kleptocracy? They were not the ordinary rank and file Sierra Leoneans because they could only hope for crumbs from the tables of their peers. Did you see the carnage left behind when these "bookmen" raced each other to get to the top of the ladder? It was a shameful scramble to advance self to the exclusion of others. It was dog eat dog.

Before my trusted friends and colleagues pounce on me, I should just pause to remind them that I have deliberately used the phrase “in general” which, I hope, more than adequately compensates and gives due recognition to Sierra Leoneans who have been productive and excelled in their chosen careers to acclaim beyond our territorial borders. But they are not many. Above all, even they would also admit that they are not given recognition in their own country, which sets out deliberately to either destroy them or devalue their achievements.

A nation of selfish individuals
Like the Irish priest, my former Latin and English teacher at the Christ the King College in Bo who, when recently discussing with me the horror of recent events in the country that he and other missionaries spent their lives - 30 years in his own case – trying to help develop, commented to me: “Ambrose” he said, “back home in Ireland our national problem is known to be the ‘bottle’ (alcoholism) and it’s an accepted national weakness of my people. In Sierra Leone, your greatest national problem (which you have yet to own) is the propensity for your leaders – mainly your educated people – to dip their hands in public coffers and their inability to distinguish money meant for development of the country from that in their pocket. This has held back your country’s progress and development. Otherwise, I am sure people like you would have been back to create one of the best nations on earth.” 

I could not agree more. In a country with a tradition of higher education going back so many years, it is a serious indictment that we lag behind virtually all other countries in both development and now, according to the UNDP index of countries, the quality of life. 

The reason is simple. We are extremely selfish people. As long as we ourselves or our families and friends are not affected or, as in this case, the violence has not reached us, we are OK, thank you! 

The citizens of Freetown have large numbers of their kith and kin in the UK, notably here in London. These people, whom I call occasional democrats, only react when there is a major catastrophe in their backyards but otherwise ignore distress signals elsewhere in the country. I note that they have been organising demonstrations, religious services, vigils and signing petitions to the British government since the destruction of their citadel, Freetown. I do not gloat over this event, tragic for everyone as it has proved to be. But it is fair to say that the vast majority of them did not care a toss when we gave warnings and related the facts about the destruction that was taking place in towns and villages across the country. When we went out to demonstrate for an end to the carnage up country they showed little concern and many did not turn up. Why? Simply because they treated the civil war at arm’s length as something to do with ‘country people’.

That said, I want to publicly applaud progressive individuals from the Western Area who have been steadfast in their commitment for peace and justice, sometimes to the annoyance of their friends and relations in Freetown, and have been campaigning on behalf of ALL Sierra Leoneans regardless of tribal origin or political association. They can hold their heads high above the rest of their compatriots. 

The rebels are our creation 
I have written about the origins of the conflict in Sierra Leone many times. I will not stop even if I have to repeat myself. We Sierra Leoneans – but especially the educated and privileged class – created the dregs and animals that are wreaking havoc on this country. By our previous and continuing policies of “we know it all” and of handing down decisions, without consultation, to the ‘lower classes’, we had arrogated to ourselves the right to control, and in the process have destroyed, the lives of so many innocent people. 

Well then, even among such ‘low class’ people or ‘dregs’ as they have been called, the occasional clever and opportunistic ones [like Foday Sankoh] emerge in the full knowledge that they will succeed in making hell on earth for the rest of us. They have no difficulty convincing their own ‘class’ of people to stage a revolt against the established order because the recruitment would have been done for them by the accumulation of failed government policies over the years.

The educated and privileged elite take cover in institutions like parliament, the judiciary, police, army, the university, and in phrases like ‘law and order’, ‘aiding and abetting’, etc., which the ‘dregs’ see merely as tools for keeping them in their place of disadvantage. So they rebel against these, too. Hence the carnage and the wanton destruction in Freetown both at the time of the coup in May 1997 and its action replay which we have recently witnessed in the city again. 

A revolution ...for good or bad 
If my distracters feel again that I am defending the brutish-ness of the rebels, and that by virtue of that I am myself a rebel, then I say to them politely, “You are wrong and missing the point”. Let’s face the truth, folks! What is happening in Sierra Leone is a revolution - unplanned maybe. 

But I ask: how come the RUF have outlived our best endeavours to defeat them? Not ideologically based or, as some self-righteous idiots keep asking, “what do these people really want?” And I say: why don’t you go and ask them, if you care so much? 

The fact is, this thing that is happening in Sierra Leone is a backlash against everything negative that the country has stood for all these years.

I will not go so far as to endorse the studied comment of one of our learned elders in London who telephoned me after reading the last edition of Focus to advise me to stop wasting my “time and money on a cursed people”. “Sierra Leone” he said “is being cleansed by the wrath of God, Mr Ganda. They are all evil people in that country. And you can do nothing to change the will of the Almighty. That nation is paying for all its sins. They are ungodly. They are ungrateful and wicked to one another, especially these educated people. Leave them to kill each other! Then maybe the good people will come afterwards and rebuild the country.”

Strong religious fundamentalist stuff,  I thought! But before I could put in a word of mild disagreement he had already hung up on me. I meant to ask him what he meant by “the good people”. 

The RUF (AFRC) “revolution” may be unorthodox and not fall on all fours with our own “educated” notions of what a revolution should be. But it is nonetheless a revolution for Sierra Leone and it cannot just be reversed easily or wished away, let alone by long-distance half-baked Kamajoh and Kapra fighters in the streets of London, or by emotional claims of divine wrath and vengeance. 

Now it has gathered its own momentum which is threatening to play itself out to its logical end while both sides test each other’s resolve, ignoring the constraints that many sensible people are urging on them. It will end only when all sides recognise that the 27,000 square miles of land mass, artificially carved by colonialists and arbitrarily labelled Sierra Leone, is meant to be shared and enjoyed by all its inhabitants, as much as possible, equally and collectively as a community of one nation. That nobody, no single family, no tribal, religious or cultural grouping has any more right, notwithstanding its numbers, than the smallest of such groups. 

Thus: 

  • We must learn to live with one another, educated or not, to our own individual standards or not, and accept the strengths and weaknesses of each other. We must learn to respect Sierra Leoneans who have achieved, and give them encouragement to do better. 
  • By the same token we must show understanding for the weaknesses of others and help them when we can. We must live symbiotically so as to sustain each other and serve as safety nets for one another when we – I mean the whole country - are visited by bad times like the present. 
Collective amnesia 
Another related problem I detect is that we suffer rather readily from collective amnesia about our recent past. I had cause to refer to this in an earlier article and I make no apology for repeating it here. We see things that are wrong today and we know that they are responsible for our present predicament but then we act as if something else is the matter and that what we have just experienced, and in most cases are experiencing, is somehow a totally new and unrelated phenomenon. We seem to have no sense of linking dramatic events in our life cycle as a nation and as truly educated people should. For it is from these that we learn about our strengths and weaknesses, and our failures and successes. Then, if we have a national leadership that is committed to the welfare of all our citizens, it would be their moral duty to draw upon their experience of those events, reinforce the good ones and steer us away from the bad ones. 

I can vouch that the ordinary, uneducated and illiterate masses, for whom we have such contempt, do not have these failings. At worst they tend to copy and ape the worst excesses of their educated and notional enlightened compatriots. It is not patronising to say that they have always been extremely willing to learn, to be told things and to be led. 

Remember when you went back to the village at the end of school term, the reception that everybody in the village gave you and how the young men and women of your age, whose parents could not afford to send them to school, looked to you with awe and admiration? They are full of respect for the educated. In many respects they are gullible, easy to please and quite malleable to ideas, especially those that are explained to them as necessary for their advancement, in language they can understand. Their educated brothers and sisters know this, so they take advantage of them and exploit them. 

Growing cultural divisions 
These days I see growing cultural divisions in the country. One is between the people themselves, when one tribe begins to look down on the other with suspicion and scorn. This is becoming more evident in statements by various Southern (mainly Mende), and Northern (mainly Temne and Limba) kindred tribal groups, as the one accuses the other in crude tribal terms, in a desperate search for scapegoats to blame for the current disaster. Some leading (presumably educated) luminaries on both sides are guilty of this rabble rousing and crowd-baiting tactic. It is grave enough already to warrant anxiety. 

But the biggest and most serious of these divisions is between the people and their government. This is because ordinary citizens are reduced to mere spectators since they are not considered by their rulers to be ‘educated’ enough to partake in the process of government. They put up reasons like “Oh, they do not speak English” (Whatever happened to Krio?); “they cannot’ understand the ‘budget speech’ in parliament, the ‘rules and procedures of parliament’, or the substance of ‘administrative law’, etc. By these means, the educated ruling class ensures that it does not face competition. Everything is tailored to suit its preferences. 

Thus the real competitions, hence the operative contradictions in our present Sierra Leonean society, are played at a much higher level - between the two faces of politics that the Sierra Leone public is exposed to almost everyday: 

(a) The one is open and full of impressive inspirational ideas about the intentions of government – this is where a lot of our ‘doctors’ excel, with their ‘expert’ writings of programmes, projects and analytical essays which attract World Bank, IMF and UNDP monies. Don’t ask me what happens to the money when it gets into their hands! The projects never see the light of day, or if at all they do they are usually abandoned in mid term.

(b) The other is to do with government and big business. It is secretive, elusive and exclusive. It is untrustworthy, and untrusting, to those outside government. It even discriminates against the educated who ‘do not belong’. For these the chicken has finally come home to roost. They have fled the country twice in one year because they have no affinity with the ordinary masses on the ground. Let’s hope that they, and we, are all gradually, but surely, learning our respective lessons for the future. It is a pity we are doing so in needless painful ways.

 As everyone should have known by now, it is pain that does not discriminate between the educated and the illiterate, or the privileged and the disadvantaged. Education, after all, is only a means to an end and should not be taken as an end in itself. More importantly, even that end must not be self-serving to the exclusion and detriment of all else around. But as the saying goes, out of evil some good is bound to emerge. 

I sincerely hope it does, even in - as my defiant late Auntie Frances Momoh used to call it – a “God-forsaken country” like Sierra Leone.