I spent quite a bit of time walking around the IMPACT Challenger exhibition halls, at the IMPACT Arena, Pak Kret, in the north of Bangkok, Thailand where the ITU exhibitions took place this year and after covering most of its 60,000 square meters,(side bar: It’s the largest column-less exhibition hall in the world. I can write a whole story about the whole Arena and how it highlights our infrastructure deficit, but I’ll be digressing) a couple of things struck me, the most obvious being the difference between the way Africa approached technology as compared to the rest of the world.
The African countries who attended the exhibition (without any exceptions) were happy to show school management systems, document management systems, or some app that didn’t really solve any problem but the fact that it was an app was meant to be mind-blowing…and the like…stuff that isn’t so different from the apps that were built in, and got popular in the late 80s and early 90s. Maybe with a lick of paint here and there, but fundamentally not different from what’s been out there for the past 20 or more years.
On the alternate, the Asians, Europeans and Americans were demoing stuff that wasn’t even relevant today, but stuff that could be very useful in the future. For example, I saw at least two Chinese companies demoing 5G speeds with around 10GB/s throughput, some young Indians built a system for managing traffic in smart cities of the future, some German doctors were demoing their blockchain-based solution to medical records for the future, there was smart agriculture — plants connected to sensors and computers to optimize nutrient and water uptake and plant growth, smart cars, virtual reality applications, smart weapon guidance systems…and so on.
If the stark difference between both sides hasn’t hit you yet, I will summarize it as this: For some weird reason, Africa is only now learning to build stuff that was built a long time ago. Everyone else is building for the future.
Right there on the exhibition floor, I started to ask myself why that was so and for the next few days it kept niggling at the back of my mind. I’m sure that being in Bangkok didn’t help, seeing as almost at every turn, it reminded me of Lagos…or rather what Lagos would be like if we generally had sense and Lagos worked. The parallels between both cities are really hard to ignore, but that is a story for another day.
The first thing I concluded was that it wasn’t what we were taught, because one of the common themes across all the tech entrepreneurs, programmers and the like from across the continent, which I have come across is that they mostly are self-taught, or at least picked up their skills from outside the four walls of a school. So we definitely weren’t taught to build the past in school. That’s not to say we were taught anything relevant, but as is the trend with this post, that’s a story for another story.
So what was it? Culture maybe? And just as I was moving my thoughts in that direction, it hit me. It was school. It wasn’t WHAT we were taught though, it was HOW we were taught.
I’m basing the next bit on the Nigerian situation, but I think it does cut across most of (sub Saharan) Africa.
You see, the very first thing you learn in Nigerian formal education, is the A-B-C-DEE EFG song. So from the onset you learn to commit the English alphabet to memory as a song without necessarily knowing why. At no point does anyone explain either, all that is important is that you remember the alphabet…one can argue that at the age you learn the alphabet, there’s not much else you can learn and get away with it (I don’t buy that argument by the way), but there’s no argument for the fact that that trend continues almost ad infinitum.
You’re taught to remember that 1+1 is 2, taught to cram the multiplication table, and eventually, you’re taught to cram whole notes and regurgitate them when needed. It’s so bad, that by the time you get to university, the odd lecturer that decides to give an open book test, or asks applied questions is such an anomaly that we decide that such people are “wicked.” You get so comfortable with seeing the words “list,” “define,” “explain” in our exams and not much more.
All through our lives, we are taught to remember stuff!
The problem with that is that a good education is not really about how good your memory is, it is more about the ability to think critically and make real-life decisions with the knowledge at your disposal.
At this point, it’s weird that I remember the words of one of the few professors back in university that peppered us with open book tests, made us summarize whole books into three paragraphs, and asked us applied questions all the time.
“The models you are struggling to grasp today, toddlers have been playing with them from their cradle in developed countries. At this rate, when do you think you will catch up?”
I also vividly remember my friend, a chemical engineer I had gone to university with, calling me at an odd time of the day screaming “I finally get it” over the phone from many miles away in Houston. A professor in his graduate class had just explained differentiation in relation to the flow of substance in a pipe and it made so much sense to him. Before he left the country, we had joked countless times about how seemingly useless our knowledge of “d/dx and dy/dx” was. Make no mistake, we both got As in our advance mathematics class. We just had no idea why we were doing what we were doing. (I still don’t).
After this realization, a lot of the other things started to make sense to me. Like how the average street seller in Bangkok owns and uses a smartphone to its fullest, while some of the most educated people here are scared of one. Considering that no one teaches you how to use a phone in these parts, there’s nothing to refer to. Figuring phones or anything really is too hard for most adults here, thanks to the way we learn. It’s the reason your parents probably call you from across the world to help them figure out what’s wrong with the TV, when the only thing different is that the input source has mistakenly been changed. It’s probably why like sheep, we do the very same things our parents did, without asking questions or thinking them through for ourselves but call it “culture.” It explains our disorderliness, our general near permanent state of confusion and indecision. I can go on.
I can’t say I have a solution to this problem right now, but the one common denominator that I have found with people that critically think in these parts — and they are unsurprisingly few, if you doubt this, scroll through your Twitter and Facebook timeline for a few minutes, then remember that the conversations you are seeing are written by some of the top 30% — is that they didn’t learn it in school. They found hobbies or passions that they figured out for themselves and that helped them develop their critical thinking. From cooking to books to computer games, to music instruments to programming languages.
They found something, and figured it out.