I was minding my business (I try as much as possible to mind my business all the time) when a friend shared a photo she had picked off Instagram. It was a parent complaining about a book her daughter in JSS1 had been given as part of the official reading list.
The book was called Zumji and Uchenna and she took photos of pages inside it. It was hard to believe so I took the matter to twitter. I first asked if it was possible to find out if the book was on the approved syllabus (still finding it hard to believe).
The first depressing response was from a teacher in Lagos state who confirmed the book was indeed on the approved reading list but that she had not read it. Then someone sent me an online list (pdf) showing that the book was indeed on the approved reading list.
Inside The Book
I went inside the book to see for myself. Profanity, tribalism and bad grammar.
Another random page
All this in a book given out to 10-year-olds. However bad things are with education in Nigeria, how did we get to this point where a book like this is added to the reading list for children?
Kids As Teachers
I got talking to the parent who had posted the photos on Instagram and she offered to let me speak to her daughter directly about it.
It turns out the teacher handed the book to them to read and one of her friends quickly spotted the profanity in it. She then told her friends and they all mobilised and asked their other friends not to read it as it was not a very good book.
And did the teacher read it before handing it to them? No. How about the school? The 3rd paragraph of the letter below also reveals they didn't read it in advance either.
This is a story about multiple failures at every turn. Such a book made it on to the approved reading list (perhaps lubricated by bribes) and then was decreed to be fit for JSS1 students. A school that costs millions of Naira a year didn't check before handing it to a teacher who also handed it to students without checking.
It is said that a society’s first line of defence is its values. It is truly ironic that the people who were able to put up a defence based on their values, in this case, were the 10year old kids who spotted the inappropriateness of the book.
But one cannot pretend like this is new. I vaguely recall reading Jagua Nana as a young boy when I almost certainly shouldn't have been reading it in school. There never was any defence but it is even more sad that the problem remains unsolved till today.
What can be done about problems like these? Even if you take out all the profanity in the book, it is highly doubtful that the book would teach kids anything. This raises questions about what else is on the reading list that does not raise the obvious red flags. Who’s reviewing this stuff, not just for appropriateness, but for usefulness as well?
How do we solve for possible malign influences? Even if you pay a bribe to get your book on the reading list, why this one? Why pay to get a book with explicit sexual content and ethnic bigotry on a reading list for children? It is really tough to come up with an answer to this question that makes sense.
And for the toughest of them all — how do we get parents, who are hustling to make ends meet, to take an interest in what their kids are reading and watching? Almost by definition, this is something that middle and upper-class parents tend to do a lot more instinctively. And as we have seen in this example, the matter came to light from such a parent with a child in a private school. This does not make one very hopeful about public schools which is where the vast majority of children are supposedly being educated.
A state of emergency or something close to it is required for education in Nigeria. But everyone seems to know this already. Perhaps the problem so overwhelms our leaders that they would rather not bother with something where the payoffs are far into the future.
So for now, the best you can do is to watch what your children are reading and watching