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Reflecting on Rwanda’s education system

In Rwanda, two broad schools of thought exist on what education is and what it ought to do. One says that teaching is for the market; another says teaching is for human development

Competing imperatives

Like many Africans, I have been curious about the state of education on our continent. But proximity – and paying paid to the proverb that charity begins at home – has allowed me to pay closer attention to the education system in Rwanda. For Rwanda, the question that many have had on their mind for quite some time is why the constant reforms in the sector. I have asked myself the same and I think I stumbled upon my aha! moment and I’m either wrong or I may have confirmed my fears on education.

I had always felt that the education system in Rwanda – as is true in much of Africa – is yet to define what education means. What, for instance, would our education officials say if one were to ask them what characteristics, beyond the diploma and degree, distinguish someone who has successfully passed through our education system? How would that person defer, beyond the diploma and degree, from another who has failed to successfully make that journey? In other words, how to tell and educated person from one who isn’t.

In Rwanda, two broad schools of thought exist on what education is and what it ought to do. One says that teaching is for the market; another says teaching is for human development. These competing definitions have significant implications. As you read you will notice how this explains the need constant reforms.

The view that education consists teaching for the market is most dominant. It is held by most of the top officials in the sector, the overall Minister, his deputy in charge of primary and secondary education, as well as the head of Rwanda Education Board (REB). This perspective holds that the economy ought to be at the centre of education, in the curriculum, teaching, and learning. Indeed, they have pursued this aim by establishing requirements for licencing institutions of learning that include, among other things, proof that the curriculum they intend to provide is aligned to the labour market, whether a labour market analysis has been conducted to assess whether the programs in the curriculum are needed in the industry, and how the university curriculum fills that gap. One official said, “We insist on the role of industry and private sector.” In other words, market-oriented.

On the other hand, the subordinate view holds that education means teaching for human development. It is held by a passionate but lone-ranger, Prof. Phil Cotton of the University of Rwanda, whose conviction is not only self-evident when he speaks on the subject, it betrays this loneliness, if not frustration.

For Prof Cotton, what is happening at every level of education – primary, secondary, and tertiary – should ensure that learning transforms the individual Rwandan citizen. “We need access to education that transforms lives, not just access, but to what kind of education,” Cotton often observes. It is beyond access and certainly beyond the market. If access takes place, what is the kind of education that is being accessed? “Does it truly transform the individual?” is the central question as opposed to “does it align the individual to the market?,” he once asked, rather rhetorically or astonishingly.

By way of recap. In one view, the market is at the centre of decision making in the sector because education is market oriented. In another, the people – or rather the individual human being – are at the centre and their transformation matters most.

Practically, the fact that registration of institutions of learning must meet the market-oriented requirements implies the triumph of this view over the human development perspective.

Significantly – and this explains the need for constant reforms – this dominant view neglects the fact that the economy is nebulous, not static. In other words, as the economy changes so does the need to reform the education sector. Would it surprise anyone, then, that in a rapidly changing economy like Rwanda’s there is a need to reform the education sector every 5 years or so?

And beyond the diploma or degree, how resilient would such an education be in such a fast changing economy? Imagine spending four years getting an education that will become obsolete a year after graduation. Or the idea that over a five year horizon two people who studied in the same education system have the same degree but only in name because the curriculums were different.


However, the instinct to peg education to the economy has brought with it unintended consequences, the constant reforms is just one of them. The other, and possibly more pernicious, is that graduates aren’t getting what education is supposed to give them. This is true across all fields, in the natural and social sciences as well as the professional fields.

For instance, people to find it bizarre that students who studied in English cannot express – in written and spoken forms – in it even at the very basic levels. But this is not a problem that’s only in language.

While the paucity of basic skills is relatively more recognizable within graduates in the social sciences, for instance, the apparent lack of critical thinking skills demobilizes one’s ability to apply knowledge in those fields.

But imagine graduates in professional fields– health, law, engineering – that teach practical skills unable to demonstrate practical know-how in the respective fields of study. This is no different from a graduate who cannot command the language that was the medium of instruction for the diploma or degree in his or her possession. It is akin to owning a building but being unable to account for the source of funds for it. Even when you don’t know for a fact, the suggestion that something fraudulent is going on is inescapable.

Effectively, there is no substantive difference between graduates in the social sciences and those in the professional fields. A historian might – for all intents and purposes – embark on bridge construction!

Teaching for the economy has predisposed educators to preoccupy themselves with administering tests and learners to regurgitating in order to pass the test, Prof. Cotton once said. This implies a sophisticated game that is played at both ends, rather astutely it seems. But who is defrauding whom?

Why we must fix pre-university education

The human development paradigm – as is the case for education planning in stable traditions – conceives education planning, not as a reflexive reaction to the economy; it is considered a generational endeavour.

This does not imply neglecting the socioeconomic environment, like the economy. On the contrary, such needs are addressed though specialization with departments empowered to respond to peculiar needs of the field. However, these needs, important as they are, are not an end in themselves: they don’t replace the human development aims of education.

A generational view of education imbibes in the learner with a value system from the point of entry at the pre-primary stage to the point of exit at the higher learning institutions. According to Prof. Cotton, the focus is to transform a learner who is: written, literate, numerate, critical thinker, empathy, self-driven, confident, has command of the mother tongue, and fluent in at least one foreign language.

It forms a learner who understands the value of creating social bonds, as well as the importance of sleep and hygiene; a moulds a learner fluent in the generic IT skills, such as keyboard and the internet; it is an education that inspires the learners that aspire for excellence in different sectors of society: politics, civil society, academia, public and private sector, according to Prof. Cotton.

However, to get that kind of transformed learner, the style of learning must change in a number of ways. First, change from learning to pass – cram and regurgitate – to preparing an introspective learner.

Second, the method of assessment must of teachers and students must deeply reflect on how “performance” is defined, to answer the question: what do we value and why?

The result will likely be a shift from the credentialism that is tied to market-oriented education to introspective learning that is intended for human development so that at the point of exit an individual who has gone through the education system has the values – and skills – they need for life, including empathy, patriotism, and a sense of belonging to a greater purpose beyond the self.

The greatest challenge to such an education is the structural contradiction between a market oriented perspective and education for human development, especially the domination of the former at the lower level of education where formative learning that stays with the individual for much of their lifetime takes shape. By the time they get to tertiary education where they prepare to exit back to society, it is too little too late. “Igiti kigororwa gikiri gito,” the proverb says.

How to fix this disconnect is the most urgent imperative for our education. Otherwise, the disconnect will continue to manifest in terms that Jenerali Ulimwengu, the Tanzanian intellectual and weekly columnist for the East African, has observed: A crisis, borne out of credentialism and fascination with the market, where the byproduct are graduates in history, sociology, biology, chemistry, engineering, but without historians, sociologists, biologists, chemists, or engineers, and so on.

And another reform will be around the corner because the structural contradiction demands so.

The need for a national dialogue

Since the establishment of missionary education and its entrenchment under the colonial state, Africa’s education has never been organic. Education was in fact the last frontier in the emasculation of the African given the enormous opportunities that were made available to those who subscribed to it with enthusiasm. Western institutions have remained on the watch over the control of Africa’s education because it means the control of the mind of Africans, how they think and act: what values they espouse.

Despite claims to advancing enlightenment in the colonial order and democracy and freedom in the post-colonial setting, western institutions have ensured that African education does not cultivate personhood, self-concept and self-reference, self-worth and dignify, self-assuredness, confidence. Africans are free but everywhere in the chains of the education system that is by design incapable of nurturing a free human being: a people whose mind is occupied territory can only reproduce and express an occupied conscience. This education system has ensured that Africans do not know what they have achieved in human history, what they are capable of achieving as a result, and how to be self-confident and comfortable in their own skin, and how to be themselves as a result, in a Fanonian sense. It is no wonder that a crisis of confidence and a crisis of leadership emerged as an outcome of this tragedy of historical proportions.

Before an assessment of colonial exploitation of material resources, the need to take stock of the distortion of the African reality is essential. However, the way a criminal would cover their trace, the African education system isn’t designed to take stock of this distortion. An education system is an idea or a theory of society around which a curriculum to express that idea is crafted. This idea is debated and a consensus emerges about certain fundamental ideals of the present and anticipated future society. Consequently, every generation attempts to reflect over the coming 15-20 years and agree on the set of values that should be reproduced systematically rather than emerging on their own and prevents the creation of a society that is at conflict with itself, overtly or subtly anarchic. It is also how to cultivate generations that are not in conflict with each other, that understand the story of their society and are self-aware of their place within that story. It is how social change is institutionalized. Under normal circumstances, which we are far from, this is the function of society’s intellectuals, who anticipate how society will change or how it needs to change.

Today’s education will be different from that of the pre-genocide period and that ought to have been different from the colonial and missionary education. However, change must be kept within some firm parameters to ensure continuity and sustainability.

Urugwiro deliberations

An education system that is designed this way has to be a mirror to image of society; it has to be history-specific and culture-specific. Post-colonial education in Rwanda was essential to the collapse of society in 1994. This is the failure of a conscientious intellectual and political class to emerge in ways that repurpose education to counter the colonial intent noted in this essay’s opening paragraph. The colonial-missionary education took the Hutu to have animus against the Tutsi and formulated destructive narratives. As was the case during colonial rule, a politico-intellectual class created a system that harboured negative intentions for Rwanda’s society and rewarded those who perpetuated those intentions in their interpretation of society. The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi was a natural outcome of that entire process.

Much as the post-genocide order created a system that punished those with negative intentions for society, it didn’t go as far as repurposing the intent of education. It held national deliberations that set to build an organic political system and from that consensus birthed an organic model to respond to Rwanda’s history-specific and culture-specific challenges. The 1998/99 Urugwiro deliberations grasped Rwanda’s (present) challenges as they were then and anticipated (future) others which it articulated in the constitutional, legal, and policy framework. A national vision for socioeconomic transformation was similarly conceived and executed. I am of the view that the enormity of the challenge required a separate national deliberation for pursuing an organic education system. This article aimed to elaborate a tweet where I wrote, “The education sector needs its own Urugwiro deliberations.”

Six months of ongoing reflection about what it is that we call education. For a Rwandan to be considered educated, what should they know? That’s a question that would take about six months to answer.” The aim of the deliberations would be to repurpose our education around a set of values it ought to internalize in our young people and thereafter reproduced in society. I also noted that it would be my hope that after those deliberations, our society will have “defined education as a security concern, it will be placed under the security sector. Not because it understands education better but because it is most organized. A province education officer who reports to a division commander.” On the part of the division commander or regional police commander is about the institutional credibility and clarity of purpose they bring, rather than any notion of coercion, on the part of the army and the police.

I further proposed that “Focus all education resources on building a strong primary school system. Stop secondary school specialization and impart broad knowledge including soft skills like empathy. End glorified high schools masquerading as universities.” A primary education steeped in an integrity-based curriculum would be complimented with a secondary education introducing key texts. It would introduce basics of research and discovery undergirded by a “foundational curriculum” consisting of courses on key African thinkers, Cheikh Anta Diop, Kwame Nkrumah, Dani Nabudere, Samir Amin, and the like. University curriculum would therefore branch students into their specialized fields having been appropriately rooted.

The final year is mandatory community service in key sectors: agriculture, education, health. Candidate graduates would add to the corps of agriculture extensionists, teachers, community health workers, and demonstrate through reflection – in the form of a thesis – the relationship between the academics and the lived experience in the community. Where will the funding come from? I noted, “This proposal for our education system overhaul will cut our education sector budget by at least 70%. It means we can actually fund it ourselves if donors say that they won’t fund an education system that’s under the security sector.” It is without question that the cradle of the post genocide efforts noted above is the country’s security sector. It stopped the genocide and from that moral basis if pursued social change. The army – and later the police – has been the fulcrum of the rebirth of the New Rwanda. The success of the armed forces is that as far back as 1991 they were able to articulate their purpose as the cradle of Rwanda’s progress. A youthful army commander told his fellow youths that they might as well give up on their cause if they are unable to conceive themselves as the cornerstone of the nation “Ili jeshi litakua msingi wa inci yetu!”

If education is about imparting a set of values, then it is as if the army has had its own education. Its philosophy, known as the doctrine, is not written anywhere but all know not to violate it: a doctrinal transgression is the red line in the armed forces. Similarly, an education system imparts a set of values that guide members of society on what they can expect from each other, how to build trust and reciprocity; it’s how minds of young people are framed and how they internalize systems of self-governance: how they can be themselves in a society and how they conceive relations between the individuals and society; this is the value system that moderates society and expectations get predictable; it is how social change gets institutionalised.

I suspect that the doctrine means having answers to these basic tenets: this is who we are, this is where we are, this is where we want to go, and we are doing it our way. As a result, a soldier who has command of the doctrine is self-aware and is not easily subjected to manipulation. The armed forces are cultivating human beings with a sense of mission in life; a sense of honor; a sense of what they want to accomplish. This is drastically different from our education systems that are formulating training manuals and referring to them as education, unable to craft a societal doctrine. This is the fatal mistake that post-colonial Africa is yet to overcome.

The suggestion is that our education system has much to learn from the armed forces, at least for Rwanda’s context.

Critique of the proposal

Two key critiques for my proposal are the militarization of education and its efficacy for natural sciences. I am of the view that we are more likely to produce an enlightened division commander or regional police commander than we are from the current education system. If Rwanda will only go as far as its security forces will take it, then it follows that the most pressing challenge faced by society gets taken up by that sector. Indeed, if the most efficient and effective sector is the security sector then its reasonable that we ought to leverage that organisational capacity to solve what has been termed as an existential threat: “an educational crisis that leads to a social crisis and ultimately an existential crisis,” as Dr. Donald Kaberuka warned recently.

If education is an existential threat, then it is a security threat and therefore it belongs to the security sector. In a counter-intuitive sense, taking education to the security sector may produce a symbiotic relationship that demilitarizes the armed forces, itself a pernicious legacy of colonialism. A fraudulent education system considers natural sciences as disciplines that have nothing to do with the human spirit. Consequently, the need to craft an education system that cultivates personhood is easily understood when it comes to humanities and social sciences. Consequently, this obsession with compartmentalizing knowledge has struggled with producing self-actualized mathematicians, physicists, chemists, engineers, doctors, and lawyers. In other words, the subject is taught in a vacuum and its interaction with the social world constitutes an unguided missile subject to the kind of manipulation; rather than producing human beings with a sense of mission in life; a sense of honor; a sense of what they want to accomplish for their society.

Clarity of the security sector

What seems clear is that people want structural change in education, as long as it deals with cosmetic improvements. They don’t want to hear that delivering that expectation is impossible simply because it is a contradiction. Consequently, I am now convinced that a slow change in the sector is the persistent expectation that conflicting imperatives should be pursued simultaneously. Generally, there’s agreement that a three-step process is needed. First, properly defining what education means and what an educated Rwandan should know. Second, the imperative of putting in place structures to express that idea. Third, to identify the right human resource pool for delivering the idea along its structures.

There’s controversy whenever an effort is made to address the three points in substance. The critics of my views were less hostile on the first two steps than they were on the third, which suggested that the military should take up the education sector. But is their hostility substantiated or dogmatic? Consider these arguments. They say the proposal amounts to “militarizing” education. However, they want an education sector that is efficient, effective, accountable and centralized around a clear purpose. When you tell them that commonsense and research (Rwanda Governance Board RGB studies) show that the institutions in the security sector (army and police) are the best performers on these measures, it becomes obvious that they want the organizational capacity of the army and the police but without the soldiers and police officers.

But there’s a reason why these institutions are organized and have a sense of clarity about what it is they ought to do and how they should do it, which I called ‘doctrine’. I suggested that we don’t have a civilian doctrine – a system of values that we all prescribe to – precisely because the education system that was supposed to produce it suffered a stillbirth. This is the intellectual dishonesty in this criticism. It takes the auxiliary argument regarding the security sector, reduces it to the military, and then transposes it over the primary thesis that demonstrates the imperative of organizational capacity and a sense of purpose in any changes we wish to see in our education system. In other words, any institution whose organizational capacity rivals the kind in the security sector would do well in overseeing education – in other words, organization and sense of purpose are essential and the security sector is incidental. The objective of the national dialogue would be to identify the goals of education. And once those goals have been identified to find an institution with a sense of purpose to deliver those goals. What is needed is an efficient institution whose discipline and sense of purpose would make it easier to implement whatever decisions would come out of a national dialogue as the goals of education.

But as the reality, and research demonstrates, such unique organizational capacity (as well as ability to derive a clarity of purpose) has thus far been demonstrable only in the security sector. In fact, there has been a tendency to take officers of the army and police into leadership positions outside their institutions in order to export this ethos. Critics point out that this has not worked out so well, and use this as proof that the security sector would fail in the area of education. However, they forget that these officers are deployed there as individuals. They cannot change the culture that they find in an institution. On the contrary, they get swallowed by the culture of the institutions where they are posted, and are likely to lose the clarity and effectiveness that led to their deployment. For such deployments to have effects on the culture of the institutions to which such officers are deployed, they would need to deploy what constitutes a critical mass of officers into that institution. It seems this is the only alternative to actually handing over institutions to the security sector.

When the Rwanda National Police was created in 2000, a critical mass of officers of the RDF were deployed there in order to transfer the organizational capacity and culture of the latter into the former. Today, it is difficult to separate the two in terms of doctrine and how it is manifest in producing the clarity of purpose around security and law enforcement. The point is that if a leader is good, he or she will need a critical mass to implement her doctrine; without a critical mass ready to support her, any attempt from her to impose discipline will mean death, a coup, or exile.

Critics also point out that “militarized” education will kill innovation and out of the box thinking. This is not supported by evidence. Some of the best schools in the world belong to the military, although they are not military schools. West Point, for instance, is in the caliber of Ivy League schools. Moreover, the military has been the centre of innovation in the US and Israel; they have globally renowned think tanks that shape global thinking on strategic matters. The US defense is responsible for discovering the Internet, for instance. The RDF, on a lesser scale and for obvious reasons, has been investing in Research and Development. If anything, the present education system of cramming and regurgitating information is – by design and intent – a militarized education; it takes place in an environment of command and control in the classroom where only the superior (the teachers) knows everything and the subordinates (students) know nothing. Therefore, critics confuse the concepts of discipline and command. They are not the same thing. Out-of-the-box thinking may be difficult to nurture in an environment of command; however, no worthwhile endeavor – including innovation – happens without discipline.

As noted above, the military has traditionally excelled at research and innovation. I think discipline has a lot to do with that. Even if one were to concede that argument on militarization as somewhat valid, does Rwanda’s security sector fit the definition of a militarized force? Is it brutal, suppressive, coercive, and feared? As noted above, repeatedly Rwandans rank them among the institutions they trust and are most satisfied with – above 85% satisfaction. The RDF’s civil military affairs and the RNP’s community policing departments have been involved in streamlining the force to be “community”-oriented. Consequently, they have been involved in “human security” activities that include mobile hospitals where they have treated people; they have built houses; and have given out cows and mosquito nets. They have also been paying health insurance for the most vulnerable members of the community. Without exhausting these examples, the question to ask is this: Beyond liberal dogma, in what ways is Rwanda’s security sector militarized?

I have been thinking about this and have come to the conclusion that the police and army are still conceived this way as a result of trauma. We all have a traumatic memory or memories tied to the armed forces, which we transpose and project on the RDF and RNP. It’s our memory that is militarized. However, the RDF and RNP carry the burden of offloading this trauma from us, which they are doing through their community outreach and human security programmes. For this reason, I suggested that taking education to the security sector would accelerate this demilitarization of our minds and society. This way, a generation that is entirely unburdened with this trauma may emerge in the near future.

Criticism must be in context

I do agree with the critics in their general view that under normal circumstances the military should not have anything to do with education. Heck, even the government should not be in education. Ordinarily, the government should only participate in education in the sense of articulating its needs; it ought to make some input because it needs a certain knowledge base to run society. It should not take ownership or charge of crafting education. In fact, the government is expected to fund it without owning it. However, the task of crafting education is entirely that of the intellectual class; they debate ideas and come up with a consensus about certain fundamental ideas and ideals that should reflect and grow society. This is the conventional sociology of education.

However, there’s nothing conventional about our situation. Colonial and missionary systems of education have not allowed us, as a society, to know what its intellectuals think; we are therefore unable to distill out who our best thinkers are, and allow them to articulate education. Even when they do, the ideas they express reflect the perpetuation of the colonial and missionary intent: our education system has not been able to create home-grown intellectuals in the real sense of it. As a result, the edifice of colonial thought and practice remains intact. The globally renowned African intellectual, Mahmood Mamdani, has noted that for Africa to get out of this maze, to find a cure, it must grow its own timber – nurture home-grown intellectuals. This deficiency is the reason my proposal replaces the process above with Urugwiro deliberations on education, as would be the case with any structural national emergency. It is only out of necessity that the government finds itself deeply embedded in education; it’s filling a void because it can’t afford to do nothing.

However, it can only do so much. Which is why no structural transformation has taken place in the sector: the cart is pulling the horse because government is avoiding a necessary confrontation against forces that are invested and entrenched in the misdirecting Africa’s education – because it’s the real front-line in the struggle for real independence. This is the politics of education, which is closely linked to the economics of education but is entirely different from the sociology of education noted above. If the aim is to fix education, then avoiding the confrontation is delaying the inevitable. A bandage approach can only stop the bleeding but can’t be a cure for the wound. When you apply a bandage to a wound, you must replace it – the recurrent changes. These changes show that at least this government is trying to grapple with the challenge. Others have entirely given up and have turned to prayers to heal the wound. A more reliable and stable education system that is only subjected to generational changes will only emerge when we are clear of the inbuilt contradictions.


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