Consider these three glimpses of education in East Africa:

  • A charismatic Maasai leader in Southern Kenya has launched a nonprofit—I See Maasai Development Initiative—to champion girls’ education and the eradication of female genital mutilation (FGM) in his community. Residents support the initiative because they believe that the only way forward for them is through education. Not just girls, but also the traditional Maasai morani (warriors), exhibit a hunger to keep learning about new ideas and how to apply them in Maasai society. But they also know that this fledgling program faces enormous challenges in the current political and economic landscape.
  • In war-torn Somalia, schools stand empty—not because people don’t want to learn, but because NGOs, UN agencies, and other charities have not provided the funding to hire, train, certify, supervise, and pay teaches and education personnel to run them. 
  • In Northern Kenya, 150 students crowd a school. Many are refugees; they don’t all speak the same language. Some are former child soldiers. Many are orphaned. Some exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and all are hungry. Their teacher—herself a refugee—has had eight years of primary education and two weeks of teacher training. There is one book for every seven students, and the only history book available was donated by a charity based in Australia. It details the history of Perth. 

According to a recent study conducted in East Africa, communities struck by disaster and conflict regard education as the first priority. Schools—whether they are a building or a tent, or are simply a space under a tree—can provide life-saving information. They can provide knowledge and skills that promise an alternative to child labor, early marriage, or recruitment into armed forces. Perhaps most important, education can bring a sense of stability and hope—and a promise of future progress. 

And yet education represents a mere 1.4 percent of the global humanitarian budget; it is drastically under-funded. What’s more, donors who do support education often focus on school construction—a tangible, easily photographed “easy win.”

But there is also another layer to the challenge in many East African communities. There, even investing a great deal in teachers and training won’t be enough if educational methods don’t evolve. We need creativity and innovation to create and sustain strong schools—students need to learn how think on their feet, take risks, rebound from setbacks, and forge ahead. Yet as Sir Ken Robinson has eloquently argued, educational methods and structures in developing countries remain a curious and troubling relic of the days when schools were mandated to produce clerks and bureaucrats for colonial outposts, and lessons were governed by the mantra, “Repeat after me … ”

In Kenya, as in many emerging-market countries, the only way to progress in the education system—and therefore in the regional society at large—is by passing exams that are based solely on memorization skills—not the ability to interpret or think creatively. “Failing” those exam can sound a student’s academic and economic death knell. It’s not hard to see then how “failure” becomes something to avoid at all costs, long after students finish school. And, by extension, it’s not hard to see why a mindset that embraces innovation and encourages risk is difficult to cultivate. 

To address that challenge, between 2012-2014, Mary worked on implementing the Masters in Education in Emergencies program—a new graduate program at the University of Nairobi designed in partnership with the International Rescue Committee. The program’s goal is to build a hub of education experts who can design education solutions for communities in Kenya and beyond to cope with the impact of war, conflict, and natural disasters. 

Subsequently, we helped a core group of program graduates enroll in the Amani Institute’s course on social innovation. Six students joined: One was from the nomadic community on the Kenya-Somalia border (not far from where a terrorist attack on a university took place in April 2015); another, formerly a child soldier, was from South Sudan; others were from equally diverse parts of Kenya. All were deeply committed to finding solutions to the complex education challenges they were facing in their home communities; most had to travel long distances—sometimes for days—by bus or plane to come to each class. 

Students re-imagine what education in East Africa can become. (Photo courtesy of Amani Institute)

These individuals had never before experienced an approach to education that was not focused relentlessly on exams or grades, where students stood and moved around as much as they sat at desks, and where they interacted with changemakers from 15 different countries (and held their own in such interactions). They had never before experienced an educational environment that included guest lecturers from all around the world (via Skype) and that required taking responsibility for a tangible outcome—an innovation for their school or community. This was their first experience learning in an environment where they could openly take risks and adopt the attitude that failure is a critical component of learning. At the end of the course, all students reported that they were eager to take action in their own communities, knowing that failure is an expected step in the creative process. They also spoke about bringing such methods into their own work as educators and actively discussed how to support each other in doing so.

Communities throughout East Africa are desperate for what education, at its best, can provide. But others—those in Syrian refugee camps, Nepali earthquake survivors, residents of slums from India to Brazil—need innovative education methods just as urgently.

In all of these places, constructing safe, inspiring, and empowering educational opportunities is critical for helping communities recover and rebuild. In the aftermath of a disaster, parents and children consistently identify schooling as the highest priority. If donors and aid agencies truly listen to communities in war-ravaged and developing countries, they will shift their focus from building schools to supporting teachers, school management, and parents—the hearts and minds of people who are eager to create a brighter future.