The viral video of the child called Taju was both funny and sobering. Taju, in that video, was responding to a series of prompts by an adult and the affable innocence with which he spoke could not but endear the viewer to him. The boy barely understood English and since ours is a society where the inability to understand the English language is conflated with full-blown illiteracy, he instantly became a case to be remedied. Some celebrities promptly took up his case and offered to send him to school. There is even a project that has been labelled, “Taju goes to school,” an initiative to raise money for his education. I am a big believer in formal education and as far as project “Taju goes to school” keeps even one child in school, I am all for it.
In the world we live in, anyone with an education is as good as denied an existence. The move to get Taju an education is, therefore, a commendable gesture. His sponsors need to be careful with the rate of exposure, though. It’s all funny when they record their communication with him and share the video for its comedic value, but remember the kid will probably grow up, review the circumstances that enabled him to get an education and might become somewhat embarrassed by the whole affair. For now, the good thing is that he is going to go to school. That counts for almost everything. Taju has also met the governor of his state, Oyo, Abiola Ajimobi, and his wife, Florence. Both seemed happy enough to cash in on the sentiments that propelled the Taju moment and politicians that they are, they tactfully focused on other issues except why a child of Taju’s age has not been going to school.
By the time one has followed the drama through, one could be forgiven if one imagined that Taju’s case is an isolated one. No, it is not. The varying shades of illiteracy and out-of-school children can, in fact, qualify as the biggest shame of our nation. Taju is just one drop in a vast ocean of children that are being raised in this country without essential tools for future survival.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, Nigeria’s increasing young population is stressing the little resources that are deployed towards building education infrastructure. In other words, the rate at which we are producing children is far higher than the rate at which we can educate them. At the degree at which Nigeria’s population is going, we are going to have a Malthusian crisis in our hands except we treat these issues as extremely urgent.
At the last count, Nigeria has around 8.6 million children out of school and that number is said to be the highest in the whole world. Of that figure, an estimated 40 per cent are southerners. It is a shame that many of the blogs that ran with the Taju story reduced what was at stake to his inability to speak English, as if that is the only index of education. Watching Taju battle with speaking in English is indeed funny until one realises that there are almost nine million more of his kind out there, who are not even getting a formal education at all. The official figure of out-of-school children, I believe, does not even account for the many others who are in poor schools getting a poor education. They are the ones whose half-baked training will deprive them of the self-confidence that acquired knowledge imbues in one.
The number of children in Nigeria that are not getting an education is high. For all we know, the figure could even be higher, since we do not have a culture that gathers data accurately. Considering that the population of countries, such as Austria, Switzerland, Togo and Israel, are in the same bracket with Nigeria’s number of out-of-school children, our case is tantamount to having an entire country of illiterates. Now, that is extremely frightening. What such a massive illiterate population portends is a bleak future where Nigeria will be dragged down by a demographic that has not been given tools with which to exist.
Taju is the face of those grim statistics, but, unfortunately, his childish sweetness pushes us to want to treat his case so quickly that we are exploring easy fixes. I suppose the boy’s case moved many people because he is a child and a child’s innocence, almost always touching, makes us all mushy. None of that changes the reality that the Nigerian system is made up of millions of Tajus, produced and reproduced across multiple generations.
Those variants of Taju are all over the country and those who had enough grit in them to pull themselves by the bootstrap are engaged in one vocational job or the other, their imaginative and creative abilities severely limited by their lack of education. Their hands are trained to handle tools, but their minds are not equipped to ponder and question why machines and phenomenon work the way they do.
The problem that Taju’s case highlights is not as simple as in the case of a child that cannot speak English. There are the millions more like Taju who have outgrown the childish innocence that drew us to him. Some of those older Tajus will never attend a school in their lives. Some will go to school but drop out. There are other Tajus who are equally hazarded because they are being shepherded through the system where there are not enough resources to give them the help they deserve. Those are also the ones who are presently grown up and armed with their half-education; they are also raising children who will grow up with a similar defective background. Some other Tajus even make it as far as the university, but their certificated ill-literacy makes them more unqualified than even those who lack any education at all. They are there, all over Nigeria.
Let me reiterate once again that Taju’s good luck is a good thing, but that does not change the point that difficult circumstances of his family’s poverty are gentrified by the mawkish emotionalism of do-gooders. I think the celebrities who took up Taju’s cause have done the human thing in the circumstances, but their actions also risk turning a moment that should ignite deep introspective inquiry to one that offers simplified solutions and that is not far-reaching enough.
Finally, I note that it is possible for Nigeria to redress the crisis of ill-education in the country if we declare it a national agenda and consciously work towards it. Yes, it took less than two years for Cuba under Fidel Castro to go from a population that comprised almost 50 per cent of illiterates to become illiteracy free. Cubans made a concerted effort to cure their nation of illiteracy and it worked so well that even adults who lived in the rural areas acquired an education. Venezuela took Cuba’s blueprint, ran with it, and within a couple of years, they too had been declared “illiteracy free” by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The Cuban model has been studied all over the world and Australia. Some countries in Asia and even Africa have adopted it to build their educational systems. I know that Nigeria is a far more complicated contraption than Cuba is, but it is entirely possible to remedy the illiteracy situation in Nigeria if we create a model for the goals we want to achieve and develop steps that will enable us to attain those goals.