Confessions of An African Student Abroad: Trading Freedom for Western Education

The contract. “You signed an agreement that you will be returning home after you graduate.”, “You promised you will come back with your skills, disrupt and innovate in Africa and lead the continent into a new era.” says your government, your scholarship donor, or the third-party that helped you get that scholarship. But why do I have to return home on their terms and conditions? Why did I have to sign off my freedom of choice and mobility for a degree outside home? Why does this contract make me feel like the continent won’t survive without me?

Of course, I never asked myself such questions when I was filling out those forms. It did really seem like a fair deal when I was desperately looking for a way to fulfill my dreams. Plus, I had no doubt about wanting to live home forever. But how did we end up here? Since when do children of the continent have to sacrifice a part of their lives to pay back a human right that should be available and accessible for all? Why should western education cost African students this much: their freedom to take decisions for themselves, their freedom to live where they judge suitable for them, their freedom to explore other options?

The idea of giving back to one’s country is honorable, but why do third-parties perceive themselves as the most suitable authorities to decide how and when the African student should give back to his country? According to that contract, the African student doesn’t really know what he is doing, or what his country needs from him despite spending the majority of his life on that land with the people he cares the most about. Somehow, someone has to decide what is good for him, and his country.

During the colonial period, Africans were led to believe that the African man is unable to govern himself, and that he needed someone from the outside to lead him. (and the Bible to help him bear the torture and understand the humiliation). A few decades later, this belief has been carried through generations, and can now be felt anywhere on the continent, from the secretary who can’t assist you until the director comes back from his trip to the minister of health who can’t take any decision during a crisis because he received no order from the president. The African man doesn’t trust himself. For so long, he was conditioned to be obedient, to follow someone else’s order, sometimes walking in the fear of what could possibly go wrong if he didn’t.

Today, neo-colonialism has “loosened” it a little bit, and taken another form of “You do what you want, but on our terms and conditions”. Through education, the African man is introduced to the concept of freedom, but he is also expected to believe that he is not competent enough to decide what, how, and when he can use his skills or not. The contract is a constant reminder that I, as an African woman in the world, will never be trusted with any decision-making task. It teaches me that it is acceptable for my government to be forced to adopt laws and sign treaties in exchange of financial aid, without listening to the needs of its people.

Not only does the contract suppress the African voice, but it also splits the future generation into “Them” and “Us”: “Them”, being the African students who never left, and who are having a hard time being employed, and “Us”, those who left and who are being hired by multiple companies, mainly not because they have tested our skills and competence, but mostly because they assume that we are better than “them”, and therefore we deserve the job.

In his book “Something Torn and New”, Ngugi wa Thing’o talks about the “dismemberment of the continent”, where he tackles the division of the continent from all angles. A group of people was carved out the mass to be labelled as the “educated” and the “leaders”. The dismemberment, through education, forged an elite class that felt like the mass was dragging them backwards, and started to relate more to their colonizers than their fellow Africans. The contract builds a similar class entitled to power and leadership, and whose confidence rely on the belief that they are the experts and the saviors of their respective countries.

When a government focuses on bringing back those who left, what message is conveyed to those who stayed? Most, if not all, African countries have universities with thousands and thousands of students currently being formed and trained. These students not only get an education, but they also have the privilege to experience the realities on the ground and to find immediate solutions. They are sometimes in a way better position to contribute to the development of their communities, than those who are watching, commenting and writing papers from the outside. But somehow the contract is supposed to guarantee a place in the working force to those who left.

I will go back home, not because of what I signed, but because I believe in African Renaissance, and I shall never let a paper allow anyone define what is home for me. It is time we let the African, abroad or at home, judge what is better for his tomorrow, and his country. In the past, we have witnessed wonderful initiatives from those who returned, those who stayed abroad, and those who never left. It is time we stop believing that we, as the African students abroad, will “shake things up when we return”. In the words of the Malawian writer Priscilla Takondwa, “Remember that home is not your little project. Home is not waiting. Home is not frozen in your absence. Should you decide to do so, the home you left behind is not the one you will return to.” (Dear African Abroad: Home is not waiting for you).