Category Archives: Education

Encountering the self as a Black Muslim African Woman in Cambridge

This week, I attended a talk on black Muslims entitled “Beyond Bilal” – Bilal with reference to the first Muezzin of Islam, a black man who grew up as a slave in Mecca. To say that this talk filled my heart and elevated my spirits is an understatement. Being a Black African Muslim Woman in a place like Cambridge can be challenging – always navigating around edges and pushing back at narratives from the margins. It is also a privileged space to be because when with seating at the margin comes the opportunity to grow constantly and to expand worlds, yours and others. This is where I seat.

The talk “Beyond Bilal: Black History in Islam” by Mustafa Briggs was one of the first talks in my three (3) as a student at the University of Cambridge where I saw myself represented in my fullness, a Black Muslim African Woman whose father is from Boboye and the mother with roots cast, across the Sahel, as wide as the Sokoto Caliphate – one that drew its progressive policies on women from Islamic teachings brought to that context by the teaching of Nana Asma’u. This does not diminish the power and value in (de)construction that other talks have provided. However, with identities as intertwined and as complex as the ones I embody, few “Venn Diagrams” bring to life the colourful and unique experiences, perspectives, insights, “manques”, and ideas. The “Venn Diagram” is in a never-ending quest for layers upon layers – that is, it’s very nature.

I learned so much from Mustafa Briggs’ two-hour lecture. And to me as a researcher, learning is deeply intertwined with “quest”, a genuine search for something that becomes sweeter with the search despite the sweat. Here are a few things that have rekindled my hope and belief in the power of genuine research and inquiry to humanise, to validate, to elevate, and to acknowledge.

Briggs’ work acknowledged the invaluable contributions of Black people in building Islam and the Islamic identity in a contemporary context of racism, classism, and imagined hierarchies amongst ad between Muslims, particularly towards their black brothers and sisters. Needless to cite examples here – if you need examples, talk a Black Muslim or ask google. Race sadly matters in a religion that has draws its fundaments on elevating all humanity. In his final sermon in the year 632, the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) said,

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

It is a beautiful message that we need to hear more and more because it is more relevant today than ever before. There is a history of scholarship created, beautified and solidified by Black Muslims and communities – this should be known as a given but it is not – especially when listening to some of the discourse around “Islam” or what is commonly referred to as the “Muslim World”. By serendipity, “Beyond Bilal” led me to “Beyond Timbuktu” by Professor Ousmane Oumar Kane. These “beyond”s are a call to demystify and deconstruct our default references when thinking about the contribution of Africans, particularly Black Africans, in building the identities of the religion of Islam. It is a call to recognise and see those voices that are overshadowed, overlooked, silenced, or marginalised in a discourse that has failed to validate certain voices.

It was was a walk down memory lane, an invitation into re-imagined futures, a whisper unto the crowns over the head of the Muslim black African woman, cornrows or headscarf or Afro, a call for “not settling” – one that ultimately led to the Cambridge UL to contemplate the portraits of Black Cantabs pioneers who have left their marks on the world or are redefining spaces they find themselves into or are recreating new spaces. It is a continuation but also a finality in the humbling quest for wholeness.

Thank you to the Islamic Society organising this talk.


There is “no data” in Africa… really?!

This sentence drives me crazy, and I have heard it from many researchers – Africans and non-Africans alike. I recognise and acknowledge many of the challenges related to compiling, accessing, and storing (digitally and manuscripts) data in many African countries. These challenges must be addressed so that we do not lose valuable contribution to world’s history, mathematics, economics, etc. The challenges must be addressed so that knowledge seating at the periphery could also become mainstream.

During my doctoral research, I have conducted some work in the national archives of the country and found “treasures” that debunk the overly repeated notion, “there is no data in Africa”. These findings further question the validity of the transactional nature of some fieldwork, especially in non-western contexts. How can you find data (in any form) when some fieldwork lasts at times lasts one or two weeks? There is a wealth of data, often unexplored or seating at the periphery of conventional sources of knowledge. Some of the most reliable sources of information are the libraries within old traditional palaces where the works of the likes of Nana Asmau laid “dormant” to the rest of the world until uncovered by contemporary scholars.

The sad truth is that when repeated, this notion about the unavailability of data becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which impacts what we think we know and how we engage with certain places. This impacts even the very nature of what we teach and learn. If enough researchers repeat “there is no data in Niger”, for instance, then surely, it becomes acceptable when certain extrapolations are made… even if untrue.

Researchers need to stop being lazy and stop perpetuating single narratives about research in Africa based on their inability to search deeply, patiently, and differently. Furthermore, this is one reason why we need people with personal stakes to also research these issues because they would (hopefully) do it with their whole heart, settling for nothing but the very best, searching until they find (or at least try really hard), being patient with the challenges however long it takes…

To all researchers, especially venturing in a context that is not your own, before you utter the infamous “there is no data in [cite any African country]“, ask yourself some critical questions: Have I looked long enough? Have I looked in the right places? Did I ask the right people? Have I asked local researchers? Have I looked outside of what is usually considered a “source”? Am I doing justice to this community that has existed for centuries when I dismiss their forms of creating knowledge by saying ‘there is no data’? In what language(s) did I look for that data?


Niger Archives

I took this photo from a file in Niger’s national archives. In 1920, there were 455 students in total in the entire country; 712 students in 1921. In 2010, there were 1,554,102 students in primary schools alone.



Is education in mother-tongue a silver bullet? (1)

Many countries have serious issues in their educational sector – from access to quality…. In Niger, gross enrolment rates at the primary school level are 72.5% and even lower  for girls (66.8%). Yet even as students enter schools in greater number, the quality of learning is low – many reach 6th grade with a 2nd grade level, unable to read or even write their own names. Countries are turning to mother-tongue education as a means to tackle the ‘quality’ challenge and use what remains one of the most basic principles of pedagogy, “going from the familiar to the new and the unfamiliar”. Some even view this as the last frontier in educational policy in African countries – teach children in their mother-tongue and learning would follow… but is this always true?

Recent fieldwork in Niger proves that mother-tongue education when done right could be a powerful tool to impart knowledge and rekindle minds. An experimentation started in 1973 under “ecoles experimentales” has been reviewed and has consistently shown remarkable results in the past. Countries like Tanzania have been even more revolutionary – primary education is in KiSwahili – despite resistance from some parents who view in the “foreign” language as a ladder for social mobility. Beyond the immediate learning outcomes, what language in mother-tongue does is that it reifies the importance of that language in its context and validates it as a means for the quest of learning. If introducing mother-tongues could keep children in school longer with better outcomes, then it becomes a matter of social justice. But does it always?

Mother-tongue education is not a silver bullet… In fact, if done ‘badly’ it can severely backfire. Some preliminary results from my ongoing research, observations and (non)cognitive skills tests in the bilingual schools in Niger show abysmal learning outcomes. A recent study done across 10 African countries shows that 91.5% and 92.4% of Nigerien children in 6th grade did not reach the minimum “required competency and skills” in reading and math respectively (see Table below, PASEC 2016). As something that seems like a desperate last resort to meet the challenges of a fast growing school population (Niger has the fastest growing population in the world), the country has adopted bilingual education in public primary schools. This will be rolled out gradually and is already effective in 5000 schools across the country. It could work, if done well… and could in fact open up learning opportunities for underserved students, left at the margin of learning.

Studies in various parts of Africa compiled in a rich book entitled “Optimising Learning, Education and Publishing in Africa: The Language Factor” shows that while mother-tongue education favours learning, it could have disastrous effect when the transition to the other language (in the case, French) is done too early or done in an inadequate manner. My PhD research shows similar results. Students in bilingual schools perform poorly and less than their peers in “conventional” schools in numeracy and literacy. This is not to say that bilingual education must not be done. However, if we are to embark on that road, it has to be done right. Based on what I have seen on the ground, there is much to be done to produce the type of positive changes we are hoping for.



Figure from PASEC (2016). PASEC2014 – Performances du système éducatif nigérien : Compétences et facteurs de réussite au primaire. PASEC, CONFEMEN, Dakar. 

“I thought she was getting crazy”

As I do my research going into schools and communities, I also “follow” those people that seem interesting… the students that hitch my curiosity with hints of stories that demand to be listened to. One of these students is Hamsa in a school at the periphery of Niamey. She did not immediately catch my attention; in a classroom of over 70 students and with a programme that must go on, it was hard to see individualities. That was why I always looked forward to the individual “reading tests” I administered as part of my research – incredibly tiring yet rich, informative, and at times hilarious. Hamsa walked towards me with a disarming confidence yet it looked just normal. She was not trying hard. That day, she was one of 6 students in her 6th grade classroom of ~78 who could read properly. She intrigued me not because she could read but because she could analyse situations. She told me her father is an imam, and her mother works in the house. In her family, everyone knows she is smart so everyone is trying to direct her path, that her sister wants her to become a nurse but she is more keen on becoming a journalist because that is what she likes, “if my sister wanted someone to become a doctor, she should have studied to become one. I want to become a journalist. I like to uncover (yes she used that word) stories, reading into people and giving voice to those that we do not see”.

Simply put, she is bright eloquent and incredibly smart…. and she studies hard, so much so that her mother in a typical Sonrai accent told me, “I thought she was getting crazy because she read too much, always with books, always with books, so I would slap her so she could read less but I realised there was something there. She would teach her father French and math while he taught her Arabic.” She is the first in her family to go to “formal” school. All her older siblings went to Koranic education, and according to her father, they too are terrific scholar but only we are in a system that does not always equally value such knowledge systems. While her mother was more keen on having her contribute to house chores, her father wanted her to study and supported her as much as he could. What’s more interesting is that she really contributes to her family in many ways: she washes dishes everyday, she is the adhoc French teacher in the house, she watched her sister make traditional decorations (with calabashes) and now makes them better than her sister (I saw some of her work of art). Next year, she will be in a college not far from her house. I have been to that college which, this year alone, has had nearly 120 days of strike (by the students’ accounts even more)… that is 4 months “off” in an academic year that should have 9 months. I cannot begin to imagine how many students with potential end up in a system that fails to nurture their talent.

I cannot wait to start analysing the data I have collected across schools in Niger… but already, I can see some patterns emerge. A few extra hours at home have a tremendous effects on children’s reading skills and by extension mathematics skills at the primary school level. Unlike Hamsa, there are children whose parents are teachers who do not know how to read which I found quite surprising. One of those parents told me that at home, her children mostly watch ZeeMagic. Once at home, notebooks collect dust. In a context where classes could have over 70 students on average, even the most extraordinary teachers would have difficulty “properly” engaging with his or her students. That is why what happens in the family is crucial, critical, even for those who are from low income families.

L’école, une double perte ?

Si le thème de cette journée de la femme nigérienne fait le lien direct entre la scolarisation des filles, l’autonomisation des femmes, et le développement durable au Niger, ce n’est pas par hasard. Les filles et les garçons nigériens sont présents au primaire en nombre de plus en plus grandissant chaque année, ce qui démontre une avancée dans l’accès à l’éducation primaire. Selon des données de l’Institut National de la Statistique (INS), le taux brut de scolarisation était de 82,1% pour les garçons et 70,2% pour les filles (2016).

Néanmoins, le taux de survie tout comme le taux d’achèvement des cycles scolaires restent très bas, surtout pour les filles qui vivent la scolarité comme un parcours de combattant. Les données démontreraient que les filles comme les garçons ont du mal à « survivre » la scolarité… Mais c’est à partir du secondaire que l’écart se creuse sérieusement – les filles disparaissent au fil des annees. Sur la population entière d’enfants en âge d’être au collège (classe de 6eme), 43,7% des garçons et 30,6% des filles sont à l’école. Si l’accès au collège reste un privilège, très peu arrivent à franchir ce cap. Le taux d’achèvement du secondaire est de 20,3% pour les garçons et 14,1% pour les filles (2015). Ceci signifie que si on commençait avec une cohorte de 100 filles au CI, à peu près 69 finiraient le primaire et seulement 14 arriveraient à finir le collège. Ce chiffre est global et de ce fait cache des disparités régionales mais aussi entre les zones urbaines et rurales et entre les riches et les pauvres. L’accès, le maintien et la survie scolaire semblent être déterminés par plusieurs facteurs.

Ce qui ressort de ces données générales est que la scolarité est parcheminée d’embuches et d’obstacles divers pour les filles au Niger, et encore plus pour celles qui sont dans les zones rurales. Du fait du taux élevé d’abandon et des faibles opportunités, certains parents se demandent réellement si l’école en vaut la peine. Une femme explique que pour envoyer sa fille a l’école, il faut faire plusieurs calculs car souvent l’école est une double perte…. Les filles partent à l’école pendant 6 ou 7 ans sans apprendre grand-chose dans des écoles dont la qualité est généralement médiocre mais aussi ces filles perdent l’opportunité d’avoir pleinement cette éducation traditionnelle qui les prépare au rôle de femmes, épouses, mères dans leur communauté.

De ce fait, pour que la confiance entre les parents et l’institution scolaire soit reconstruite et consolidée, il faut nécessairement que l’éducation proposée soit de qualité. En changeant la perception et la réalité sur les acquis à l’école, nous pourrions amener les parents à voir l’école non comme une perte mais comme un investissement… Il est facile d’imaginer que ce sentiment de perte doit se faire sentir aussi au niveau de l’état qui continue de mettre des milliards par an dans un canari fissuré. Imaginez les pertes occasionnées considérant que l’éducation au collège coute un peu moins de 40.000FCFA par élève. Avec chaque abandon (et ce malgré les bénéfices sociaux de chaque année supplémentaire), le Niger perd sur un investissement non abouti.

Spaces where societies reimagine their futurs: “Karamin Sani Kukuminé”

Following the death of two university students on April 10, 2017 I struggle to find the right words, specially when thinking about the journey that must have been theirs to get to university and more so the journey that is theirs as they try to make it through the system. University students in Niger have to be brave to thrive when an academic year takes sometimes 18 months instead of the regular 9-12 months, when sessions happen late, when student scholarships come in late, when the needed resources to undertake innovative research often lack… I would not say that Niger’s future completely rests on university students for the make-up of our socioeconomic systems is not (and should not be) unipolar. I do believe however that we cannot reimagine a new future for the country without properly investing in our institutions of higher learning – and an investment in any institution begins with its human capital, here students. The gross enrolment rate for tertiary is less than 2% (see Figure 1).

In part due to global calls for basic education for all (EFA), policies and government expenditures in recent decades have put an emphasis on primary and secondary education. It is notable to point out a shift in the trend in investments in tertiary as a percentage of government expenditure on education (see Figure 2). Since 2010, the government has expanded the number of universities to cater to the growing needs and demands of higher education. This is a worthy investment: studies have linked higher education to improved economic opportunities for the individual and society at large. Most importantly, universities are sites for intellectual creativity; they are also spaces where societies reimagine their futurs and experiment with ideas, concepts and materials to create something new and build on existing knowledge.

When university students say nothing about the state of a nation or the state of what they learn or the way they learn about history and the present, then there is no learning at all. Universities are by design spaces where people question a society without fear of being violently harassed. A struggle of ideas. I often say that I enjoy the status of “student” while it lasts because as a student you are forgiven for making mistakes, you are forgive for asking “uneasy” questions, and you are forgiven for questioning. Then why and how should students exercising the free expression of their discontent with the system be submitted to violent repression? University students are a powerful force, one that politicians have taken to the habits of turning into “political” pawns when elections loom. They are also a force capable of demanding change and be heard.

As our nation mourns the loss of these young men, I hope we reflect on the purpose and the highly symbolic value of these institutions. Here are five points that come to mind:

1) These incidents are a further reminder that solutions are best found when ideas confront each other on a space where all parties feel safe and free to speak – when a system is in crisis, the more “powerful” party must bring itself to the level of the other parties, listen and appease the climate to allow fruitful conversations. In my second year at Harvard, Ayaan Hirsi Ali a well-known author of Infidel (2007) and controversial voice joined one of the university’s centers as a fellow. When a set of students expressed their discontent with the center’s choice to the school’s leadership, I personally felt listened to as a student. More importantly, despite the difficulty of the conversation (free speech, diversity of voices, etc.), I felt my voice as a student mattered. We need to make students feel and know that their voices matter even if there are disagreements.

2) Find a commonality of interests and put that at the centre – in this case, it is easy to imagine that everyone wants to work towards an educational system that adequately trains the country’s youth.

3) There are some valid demands being made. There are also many constraints, some of which many of us not in the decision-making circles may not even known about or understand… Policies change and could change drastically when a state committed to providing social aid faces economic difficulties or increased expenses in other areas. In this case, it is important to take time to fully explain the implications of those changes to the ones most concerned, and why there are no other (or better) avenues.

4) Students must sustain the demands over a long term agenda and use these platforms to fundamentally change the university’s structures of power and knowledge systems’ creation and dissemination. A movement that I find inspiring has been #DecoloniseEducation (linked with #WhyIsMyCurriculumSoWhite and others)… In the last couple of years, this movement went from South Africa to Oxford and Cambridge… students marched, wrote letters, started and sustained initiatives tailored to their contexts, and gradually universities themselves began to see and acknowledge the need for the changes students demanded. In fact, at a talk at Cambridge University, a professor confessed that his university was using their Black studies department as a means to attract scholars and differentiate itself from other institutions of higher learning in the UK.

5) Most importantly, truth matters even if it hurts individuals today, it is fundamental to instituting a climate of trust and mutual respect. Universities are spaces where sometimes uncomfortable truths and marginal ideas grow into norms, and norms get questioned. This is where it all begins.

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

(Reflections, comments and ideas welcome)

When and why did the contract-based system begin in Niger’s educational system?


The recommendations of the 1990 World Conference on Education for All (EFA) held at Jomtien were clear: to make primary education accessible to all children. Niger was one of the 155 countries that agreed to meet this goal by 2000… At that time in 1990, only 1 in 3 Nigerien children of primary education age was in school – this was one of the lowest gross enrolment rates in the world (see figure 1). Few of these children completed the required six years in primary school; the completion rate was lower than 16.5% (see figure 2). Achieving EFA was an ambitious and challenging goal, especially when considering the­­­­­ context in most African countries.

Firstly, debts were soaring as the state of public finances deteriorated. During that decade, Niger’s total debt service (as a percentage of exports) was on average 18.3%. This meant that Niger was spending more on debt payments than on health and education. Upon strong recommendation from multilateral organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank, countries had to “balance” their accounts and introduce a set of reforms known as structural adjustment programs (SAPs). To cuts its payroll size, Niger instituted retirement for government workers after thirty years of service. Thus, hundreds of teachers were called to retire, leaving a vacuum in the educational system…

Secondly, the demands for social services such as health, education, and simply better governance were growing. This was in part due to the country’s high population growth rates of 3.1% per annum in 1990 (see figure 3) with a large percentage below 15 years of age. Further, people understood that schooling could open new opportunities. When the first school opened in Doulsou in Tillabery in 1898, families were coerced into sending their children to this “new” school. Most eloquently Cheick Hamidou Kane’s L’Aventure Ambiguë captures the anxiety that accompany the decision to ‘submit’ a child to western-styled education in that period, “Perhaps the very memory of us will die in them. When they return from the school, there may be those who will not recognize us”. If the adequacy of the educational system was still called into question, people were more willing to send their children to school – schooling had become a means of socioeconomic mobility. It is worth noting however that this relationship is very dynamic. Up to the 1970s, completing university studies came with a guarantee of employment; this was no longer the case as the number of graduates soared, administrative offices became congested, and the rethinking of alternatives evolved too slowly.

It was in a context of high demand for education coupled with deficient public finances that, in 1998, national education experts along with international development practitioners met to finalise the LOSEN (Loi d’Orientation du Systeme Educatif Nigerien). The discourse on teachers’ shortage took center stage. Actors knew that despite various experimentation (including ‘double flux’), it would be impossible to welcome more students into classrooms unless more schools were built and more teachers, recruited. How to bring experienced teachers into the system while keeping in perspective the goals for EFA? That was when “volontaires de l’enseignement”, volunteers, were recruited to close the vacuum left by the policies instituted under the SAPs and the growing demands for education. One expert at the Ministry of Secondary Education explained that this approach was meant to be temporary. Yet gradually, contract-based teachers became the main constituents of the teaching body.

A UNESCO report entitled “Le recrutement des enseignants: Le cas du Niger” (2005) showed that given the ressources allocated to education in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Ministry of education could only recruit 520 full-time teachers per year (see table 1 & table 2). This would have jeopardised efforts of universal access to primary education.If contract-based teachers have been instrumental in boosting gross enrolment rates in Niger, there are serious questions being raised about the quality of the teaching in classrooms. Some of these questions on quality constitute a pillar of the latest national education programme, the PSEF 2014-2020 (Programme Sectoriel de Développement de l’Education et de la Formation). It is these very questions on quality and students’ acquired skills that have sparked the ongoing heated conversations between the government and teachers’ unions, leading to several strikes in the last few months… Nigerien children, in the meantime, are waiting for an educational system that truly prepares them to contribute to building the country and growing into valuable actors on the continental and global stage.

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Figure 1: Gross Enrolment Rates

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Figure 2: Primary Completion Rates 

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Figure 3: Annual Growth Rates

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Table 1: Evolution of gross enrolment rates with contract-based teachers recruitment

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Table 2: Evolution of gross enrolment rates with the recruitment of 520 full-time teachers per year