Fighting for an education after war

When Domingos Silva left the Angolan army, he returned to his home village and enrolled for classes. At the age of 36, he says, ‘I decided to take the opportunity to learn to read.”

Silva was conscripted into the Angolan Armed Forces at the age of 16. He had had little schooling before, and none afterwards.
But in his village of Santa Teresa, near Huambo in Angola’s Central Highlands, the donor-funded Development Workshop has organised an adult literacy programme - and that’s where Silva is studying.

South Africa might have one ‘lost generation” when it comes to education provision; Angola has two or three. The civil war that started before independence in 1975 ended barely two years ago. Both the Angolan Armed Forces and the Unita rebel movement used to draft youths into the army before they had had a chance to complete their education.

But the huge uprooting of the population also served to keep children out of school. In the last 10 years of the war, about three million people were forced to leave their homes in provincial towns and villages. According to Unicef, 1,1-million children up to nine years of age - 44% of the total - are currently outside the formal educational system.

‘We are finding that very few can read or write,” says Augusta Jamba, a teacher trainer in Huambo.

‘Learners are left out of the system because they are coming back to their home areas. It’s a universal problem.”

It is only with the end of the war that it has been possible even to start talking about providing a comprehensive education system in Angola, and classes for those who missed out during the war.

‘The war has finished but the problems continue,” Jamba says. ‘Training teachers is going to be a big challenge.”

The conflict did more than disrupt community life; it also consumed the largest chunk of Angola’s government spending, leaving education way down the list of priorities. Between 1997 and 2001, education received less than 5% of the government budget. (To put that in perspective, the

figure for South Africa is 22%, and the Southern African average is 16,7%.)

The Angolan government has promised -million (R280-million) for a programme to train teachers and bring 29 000 new educators into the system. That figure is meant to include those teachers who were previously attached to Unita and working in areas controlled by the rebel army. The idea is that the presence of new teachers will allow a nationwide back-to-school campaign to get going. But, remarked one United Nations official, ‘I still want to see it happen.”

As with so many other development efforts in Angola, cash flow has been the problem.

‘The Unita teachers who came out of the bush were allocated to their posts five months ago, but still haven’t been paid,” said one disgruntled official in the Huambo provincial education department. ‘So they’re doing candogo [informal trade] to survive.”

And not only the ex-Unita teachers. ‘My sister is a teacher in Galanga, 140km from here,” the same official said. ‘She hasn’t had a salary for four months. The only support she gets is from me.”

The lack of money from the government has driven some teachers and school administrators to start charging fees to primary learners. This practice is illegal, since Angolan law promises free basic education for all. That has not stopped fee-charging from becoming widespread. But it has also prompted parents to get together to try to put a stop to it. A coalition called Free Education Now has affiliates in six of Angola’s 18 provinces.

‘The budget approved for the education sector is not enough. On the other hand, there is no formal and concrete stance being taken against the charging of fees, whether by the provincial education directorates or by the ministry,” argued a recent report by Free Education Now.

In a country where years of authoritarian rule have discouraged people from standing up for their rights, Free Education Now is one of the more successful examples of campaigning and lobbying around a single issue. Its members have held meetings with people ranging from ordinary teachers to the deputy minister of education to try to put their case across. In one instance, a fifth-grade class teacher who had charged arbitrary ‘examination fees” and pocketed the money handed the cash back to the parents when he was confronted on the matter.

The system may still be cash-strapped and corrupt, but the will to learn is definitely present. Back in Santa Teresa, it’s not only former soldiers who are taking advantage of the literacy classes. Angola’s education shortcomings date right back to colonial times, and Pricila Nakangwe is learning to read for the first time - at the age of 72.

‘When I was a girl, I was only taught to copy Bible verses,” Nakangwe explained. ‘There were few opportunities to study.”