A System Without a Soul: Part II

This week marks the end of my second trimester as a teacher. In total, twenty-six weeks of teaching. With such vast experience, I might flatter myself with the term “educator” and act accordingly: I speak to other volunteers about successful teaching techniques; I fret about the quality of my classes; I have even been known to share an article or two about education with other volunteers (in between articles about SCUBA diving in Mozambique). Last month, another volunteer sent me an article about “What the best education systems are doing right.” Although it focuses on education in South Korea and Finland, I found the implications of the final paragraph deeply disturbing in regards to the education system in Mozambique. The author writes, “In the most successful education cultures in the world, it is the system that is responsible for the success of student, says Schleicher – not solely the parent, not solely the student, not solely the teacher. The culture creates the system.” The culture creates the system. What kind of culture allows for the fraudulent system at work in Mozambique (see Part 1 of this post for a description of that system)? What kind of culture condones widespread deceit? Allow me to elaborate a theory.


At independence in 1975, Mozambique had perhaps three dozen college graduates in the country. The men who assumed control of the government gained their positions largely based upon their participation in the anti-Portuguese resistance movement. It was the task of these guerrilla fighters to set up a system of governance for the Mozambican state. A state; not a nation. “Nationalism” is a term specific to European history, referring to the nineteenth century movements of people with a common language, culture, and historical tradition that fought for the right to self-determination. They began with a nation and they created a state (hence the term “nation-state”). In Mozambique, and most of Africa, the state was poorly drawn by a European hand. It included an awkward geographic zone encompassing disparate peoples: peoples who shared neither a language, nor a culture, nor a historical tradition. What they shared was the condition of subjugation, a desire to no longer be controlled by Portugal. At independence, Mozambique was a state without a nation, a system without a soul.

The new government turned to communism from the outset. They needed a western system in order to govern the western state they inherited; traditional forms of governance would not suffice. At least communism allowed them to condemn the capitalist colonial system. They received aid from the communist bloc. A new guerrilla movement, however, immediately divided the country. The civil war lasted from day one of independence until 1992. Rather than focusing efforts on building a national identity, the Mozambican “nation” only fractured even further. Instead of subjugation, now the people shared war and poverty. Portuguese became the official language, a hangover from the colonial era, a reminder of what the people had in common. Even today, the national language does not unite the nation. A fourth grade teacher in my province recently told me that only 9 of his 25 fourth graders can understand Portuguese.

As communism began to crumble towards the end of the eighties, the Mozambican government needed to find alternative sources of aid. They became a democracy. They turned to the west with money on their minds. Money had always been on the minds of the government leaders. Mozambique was one of the poorest countries in the world (it still is). Poverty is the norm; money is on everyone’s mind. The only real example of governance the Mozambican leaders had experienced was colonial rule: an authoritarian system designed to enrich those at the top, mainly by force. These war heroes, emerging from poverty and enslavement to control the government, followed example and used the government as a vehicle for their own benefit. Even today, the last president of Mozambique is under heat for using state contracts for his own prerogatives (see one example here).

In order to receive aid, Mozambique needed to craft a state system that fit the expectations of the world. This system needed to follow the example of other countries, other nations, we might say. And as Mozambique successfully met international standards, it received international aid. Look like a state, be treated like a state: the appearance holds greater significance than the substance. Government and party officials grew wealthier, and the vast majority of the people remained in poverty. A state without a nation; a system without a soul.

Mozambique is still a very young country. Not even fifty years have passed since independence. War heroes still run the government (the man who supposedly fired the first gunshots in the independence war is on the president’s inner council). These, along with black music artists on television, are the examples of success that the majority of Mozambicans have. Education is not widely seen as a means to economic mobility. In order to improve our own lot, we must please those above us. We must not disappoint our superiors, just as the administrator in the Mia Couto book states. Suckle up to the power tit and we might get a taste. Just as a colonized Mozambican might have done to improve his status with Portuguese rulers, so too do Mozambicans continue to do with government officials and anyone possessing a semblance of power. As long as we keep our bosses pleased, the line of thought runs, we maintain the possibility of a handout. Ultimately, the result of this manner of thought is deception, a scramble near any of sort deadline to hide the flaws: to lie, lie, and never stop lying.

The majority of Mozambicans (especially where I live in the north), I’ve mentioned repetitively, live in poverty. They are motivated by a desire to escape their economic sentence as quickly as possible. Poverty motivates like nothing else I know. “How did you learn to fish?” I asked my friend Abdul during my trip to Nampula. “Hunger,” he said. “How did you amass your millions?” I might ask the previous president of Mozambican. “Hunger,” he might reply. Unfortunately, the immediate needs of an impoverished family alienate them from the benefits of education. Education is a slow process; hunger is not; disease is not; shelter is not. Subsistence farming has been the way of life for generations of Mozambicans. Many people do not make the connection between going to school and earning a consistent salary. Many people cannot afford to. For example, several months ago I needed to weld a part for my bicycle. I went to Rosalino, a twelve-year old boy who dropped out of the fourth grade to run a welding business with his brother on the side of the market. They use sunglasses instead of welding goggles; they earn money instead of grades. So while the ordinary Mozambican culture does not value school, those involved in the school system value themselves, which means that they lie about student attendance and success. The fraudulent system is not such an anomaly after all.


I began this post with the last paragraph of an article on education. I’ll finish it with the first paragraph of that post: “Fifty years ago, both South Korea and Finland had terrible education systems… now both countries are hailed internationally for their extremely high educational outcomes.” Within half of a century, South Korea and Finland transformed failing systems into exemplars of success. Mozambique is not even fifty years old. It is a baby yet – a baby forced into the body of an adult at birth. National identity is an ongoing and troublesome process (for any nation). I hold on to the hope that, with generations, the soul will grow inside the system, that the state will find its nation. More and more, as the public sees teachers with government salaries, education is beginning to gain more weight in the culture. Although, at present, teachers are notorious for their selfish behavior, at least some of them are giving classes. And as more and more students turn into teachers, the quality of their work will have to improve (in theory) in order to secure a position.

I’ve witnessed this hope most promisingly in the students involved in my English club. Our numbers have dwindled from fifteen to five, and meetings can be inconsistent, but the five that remain have recently given me a reason to believe in the future of education in Mozambique. Together, we wrote a short play for an English theater competition based on the theme, “Today’s Learners, Tomorrow’s Leaders.” The students produced a manuscript that wholeheartedly affirms the power of education to lift someone out of the streets of poverty that we traverse daily on our way to school. After our competition at the end of September, I’ll include a follow-up post about the play that includes the script. The education system in Mozambique may have its flaws, but it is better than no system. And my students, at least some of them, still seem to be under its enchantment.


*Post Script: Building a national identity, history has shown, is a difficult and often violent affair. In countries like the United States and Argentina, it involved the complete massacre of the native populations and the domination of a European language. Although, for educational purposes, I value the widespread use of Portuguese in Mozambique, I am also torn at the possibility of losing local languages and cultures (whatever local culture remains after colonialism). The western state system is not natural to Africa; it covers the people like lumpy sweater from a despised relative. But it is what remains, and we must make do with what we have. The negotiation of this process has left me in a pickle.


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