Peter Mortimore is a teacher and
researcher and the former director
of the Institute of Education,
University of London.
He is currently a professor at
the University of Southern Denmark
Namibia has a thirst for
education – let's hope it doesn't get
hijacked by the privileged
Before our forthcoming election dominates
every aspect of public life, I want to report
on education in a developing country
which, last week, experienced its
third-ever election: Namibia.
The British Council, in association with
the Namibian government,
is undertaking a series of projects
addressing inequality in education
and, this summer, I was invited there
to give a series of related lectures.
Namibia is the size of a combined
Great Britain and France, but has
a population a quarter the size
of Greater London. It includes the sand dunes
of the Namib and Kalahari deserts and
is home to spectacular game parks.
Diamonds, uranium and tungsten,
together with growing tourism,
have the potential to make it wealthy.
The country is committed to preserving
its pollution-free atmosphere and cites
the protection of the environment
in its constitution.
Peopled since the 14th century by
tribes people such as the Ovambo,
and more recently by Afrikaaners from
South Africa, Namibia was a
German colony from 1884 until 1915
(a few coastal towns look positively Bavarian).
It became part of the British empire
under a League of Nations mandate,
but was taken over by South Africa
and subjected to apartheid.
The South West Africa People's Organisation
struggled for liberation for three decades
before finally gaining independence in 1990.
There is a fierce pride in the newly
won freedom. Much energy is devoted
to the creation of a better society,
although the election campaign
has re-evoked some racial tensions.
Not surprisingly, given its history,
Namibia is still an unequal community
with massive differences in income.
Health care is limited, and housing
conditions in townships and
rural areas – to western European
eyes – are dire.
The infamous Bantu Education Act,
imposed by South Africa in 1953,
gave black children low-quality,
poorly funded instruction within
a restricted curriculum.
White children attended separate,
On achieving independence,
Namibia began creating
a universal system – building schools,
training thousands of teachers and
enhancing existing skills, designing
a new curriculum and shifting
the language of instruction
from Afrikaans to English.
The government currently spends
6.9% of its gross domestic product
on education – higher than
many western countries.
Schooling is still not free – annual fees
for one child amount to the equivalent
of a month's salary for many workers.
Yet there is a great thirst
for education. On a pre-dawn drive north,
I saw countless children in
immaculate school uniforms walking
alongside the dust roads to schools
often five or six miles away.
Some infants are unable to attend
until they can walk that far.
The University of Namibia has two sites.
One newly designed campus is in Windhoek;
the other, in a former army barracks,
lies close to the Angolan border.
Both need more books, extra computers
and funds to keep the libraries open
in the evenings.
One of the students explained to me
how difficult it was to keep up with
her course reading because the house
where she lodges has no electricity
and darkness falls at 6.30pm.
Namibian academics appeared
well qualified: many professors
have doctorates from the UK and
the US or, increasingly, from China.
A number of impressive British teachers
are involved with Namibian schools,
courtesy of Voluntary Service Overseas.
I met one enthusiastic former
senior teacher from south London
who is helping to raise the quality
of teaching and learning
in schools in some of the poorest areas.
Like many African countries,
Namibia has been hit hard
by HIV/Aids. The government provides
anti-retroviral drugs, but numerous pupils
have lost both parents,
and the lives of many teachers
and students will, in due course,
be further blighted.
Observing the strenuous efforts
of Namibians to obtain schooling is,
for a westerner, deeply humbling.
Better educational opportunities should
enable more people to rise
above poverty and help
to reduce the current massive inequalities.
I fervently hope that Namibia will
find a way to avoid the
situation – common in so many
"developed" countries – whereby
those who are already socially
and economically advantaged
ensure that the education system
own families' privileged status.
• Peter Mortimore is former director
of the Institute of Education
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda