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Enslaved by freedom

By Danai Nhando

Bob Marley’s famous lyrics in Redemption Song have been a silent anthem in my head of late. “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” The more I ponder on the state of my beloved continent, the more I realise how ironic it is that he sung this song to a generation that thought it had found “freedom”. Many may know the lyrics but very few know that he was paraphrasing from a speech that Marcus Garvey gave in Menelik Hall in Sydney, Nova Scotia in October 1937:

“We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or ill.”

African countries hold their liberation from colonialism very dear. There is no greater celebration than that which takes place on an African nation’s independence day. I have memories as a child of my native Zimbabwe, of family members waking up early in the morning to make their way to the country’s largest stadium to celebrate independence day. Oh how opulent the celebrations were, from jets flying over the stadium, to fireworks and army parades. Cost was not a factor, this was about celebrating “freedom” after all and no price can be placed on it.

I can understand the passionate zeal to celebrate but the sad fact is the celebrations made and still make no significant impact on the standard of living of my people. In South Africa, Freedom Day is meant to be a manifesto of eternal and indivisible liberation yet witnessing the lives the majority live here makes me question what freedom we’re celebrating if the very people for whom “freedom” was proclaimed are still bound by the talons of poverty.

Whose freedom is it if they remain the economic and academic minority and they have limited access to quality education because of their economic status?

You cannot walk the path to true freedom without a conscious upgrading of your mind. Garvey nailed it here and what rung true in 1937 still rings true in 2016 across Africa: “The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.”

Could it be that the very “freedom” my people fought for continues to enslave the majority silently hidden behind the veil of independence and sovereignty? Why is it that 20, 30, 40 years later rural and township schools remain in the same squalid conditions they were in in colonial times? What freedom are we celebrating if 400 million Africans still live in extreme poverty, 33 million children are still out of school and 38% of African adults, about 153 million, are illiterate?

Education is indispensable in realising all human rights and African governments need to make it a priority. Years of practising human rights law, assisting indigent clients with heart-wrenching cases, showed me first-hand how illiteracy and poverty share an intimate bond that continues to cap the progress of so many. The foundational issue my clients had was not that their human rights had been violated, it was the fact that 90% of the time they were illiterate and had no understanding of their rights or how to stand up for themselves. They had no voice!

There comes a point where one has to stand up for the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves. My people will remain enslaved to the man “who uses his mind” unless our governments realise education’s role in helping people escape poverty. Every African needs to have access to quality education to unlock the wider benefits of education so that it can play its full part in transforming my beloved continent, otherwise “freedom” will continue to enslave my people.

Danai Nhando is a human rights lawyer turned equitable education advocate. She is passionate about democratising access to quality education in Africa through open educational solutions. She believes that eLearning advancement does not always require large amounts of resources and she offers professional advisory services to academic institutions on how to set up low-cost, high-impact eLearning initiatives.