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Profile: Professor N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba

by: Harold Elletson

“Education,” said Nelson Mandela, “is the key to everything.” It is perhaps the most important key to the plans of both the African Union and the United Nations to end poverty and create a “transformed continent.” So how does a top African educational theorist and intellectual see the  challenges and opportunities ahead?

Professor N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba, who will be a keynote speaker at eLearning Africa in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire this year, is one of Africa’s leading thinkers about education and development. Born and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, she studied abroad in France, Canada and the United States. She arrived at Cornell University in the United States in 1991 and has stayed there ever since. Originally a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow and a Ford Foundation Fellow, she has developed not only a glittering academic career, but also a position as a senior adviser to numerous international development agencies, organisations and foundations. She is now one of Africa’s most highly respected international academics and a global authority on comparative education.

She is convinced of the central importance of both education and training at this juncture in African history. And, in her personal view, the two are very closely interconnected.

“Broadly defined,” she says “education is the process for developing the full potential of individuals and groups in acquiring technical skills, critical thinking and values that give meaning to the purposeful and positive utilization of the competences toward social progress.  In this sense, training which often consists in providing or acquiring technical skills should not be conceived or considered as void of critical thinking and values.  While training is often associated with acquisition of “neutral” technical skills, any training can achieve its societal goals only if the grounded social factors and values for its constructive utilization are integrated in the process of learning such skills, whether it is in “teacher training colleges” or technical and vocational schools of any level of the educational systems.”

The challenge for Africa is both to overcome the legacy of history and to do what is necessary to plan effectively to meet the new challenges and make the most of opportunities, such as Africa’s growing, youthful population. The role of technology in enabling African education and training to rise to these new challenges is very significant but she also feels it should not be overestimated.

“While technology should not be considered as a panacea, if it is used as a tool for well-designed instruction in schools, initial training and upgrading of teachers for pre-school to secondary school, knowledge production and dissemination, it can productively contribute to address some of these challenges.”

A Professor of African and Diaspora Studies at Cornell, as well as being the President of the Comparative and International Education Society, she believes that African concepts of education are important not just for Africa, but they also offer potential benefits for the whole world.

“The paradigm of uBuntu (a Southern African term with its equivalents in other languages across the African continent) stipulates the necessity of  conceiving life within a framework that acknowledges the factual interdependence between humans and their social as well as physical environment with all it living beings and organisms as well as seemingly inanimate entities.  Life is essentially defined by an intricate web of direct and mediated connections to realities near and far, visible and invisible… 

“Furthermore, if Africans can get their act together, they can, not only solve problems on the continent and promote social progress in Africa, especially at this historical juncture of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they can and ought to contribute again to the advancement of humanity in promoting uBuntu on the global stage, as a restorative universal moral compass. Certainly, as a holistic, human-centered, and environmentally conscious philosophy of life, this concept can serve the world by fostering and promoting a world-wide guiding principle for social progress. Of particular significance is the humanism model embedded in the uBuntu paradigm. Firmly grounded on the cultural, thought, history, knowledge, and social organization that constitute the foundation for an African ethos, uBuntu offers a tangible comparative advantage that can be applied in Africa and shared with the world, aimed at global collective wellbeing.”

Perhaps it is this belief in Africa’s inner strength and the value of what it has to offer that makes her optimistic about the continent’s prospects.

“I am an optimist and my optimism, particularly for Africa, is guided by my strong belief that with political will and caring leadership, a sense of collective responsibility at all levels of society, to move forward and promoting realistic reasons for everyone to have hope, we can change the reality and image of Africa in a few years.”

In her book, Re-visioning Education in Africa: Ubuntu-Inspired Education for Humanity (Amoako and Assié-Lumumba, Palgrave MacMillan, New York 2018), she and her co-author argue that African regional and continental organisations and their leaders should assert themselves with confidence and act decisively with vision and a clear sense of direction at every level. In doing so, they could then reflect the will of the African people and their aspirations for a dignified life and social progress for all. 

“The goals of the AAU in Agenda 2063 are consistent with these views,” she says. However, she cautions that there been other efforts to drag Africa into the future.

“It is worth recalling that there have been other continental and global engagements before but they did not reach the targeted goals despite some positive results… The internal and external factors explaining the recurrent gaps between the stated goals and actual performance are numerous and complex.  The most glaring ones relate to insufficient inconsistency in articulation and management of the idea of national project within the global context of mobilisation and allocation of resources.  Of critical importance is application of values of serving as responsible stewards of Africa’s own wealth so that even if global aid plays a role, development projects can have dependable African resources and generated wealth assured by political stability and peace.”

This time, however, championed by the African Union, the effort is more powerful and determined than ever. With education at its core, it may be that, as Professor Assié-Lumumba believes, it will lead at last to the fulfilment of aspirations for a dignified life and social progress for all Africans.

Professor N’Dri Thérèse Assié Lumumba will be speaking at the Plenary on Thursday, 24 October. You can read her full profile in the eLearning Africa Report that will be published on October 23.
Take a look at the
eLearning Africa 2019 programme here.

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