Photograph courtesy of Adolphus Opara

I came at the wrong time. It was mid-March 2011, a few weeks before general elections, and every surface in Lagos—compound walls, gates, even buses—was covered with political posters. “You came at injury time,” the senior teacher at the government junior high school told me. She was small and well-groomed, her blouse awash in ruffles. She looked me over suspiciously. “Why are you here?”

I explained that I was visiting a few schools for an article about education in Nigeria.

“Why are you here?” she asked again. A big bible sat on her desk, one of six in the wide staff room. “I want to be sure that what you’re saying you’re here to do is what you’re here to do.”

“Look, let’s not pretend,” she went on. “I schooled in America. In America you see something is white you say it is white. Here it is not the same. I know America. I am familiar with America.”

Her suspicion was hostile; it surprised me. The gateman, too, had been hostile. The principal had stopped us as we walked in, saying, “Yes? Can I help you?” even though my contact person had previously spoken to her about my visit. And now, the senior teacher I was directed to told me, “This is a government school, the government has opponents, everybody is coming to discredit the governor. I don’t want to be used as a platform. Only last week some people came here and told us they just innocently wanted to observe the school but they took pictures and used it to embarrass the governor!”

I assured her that I had no political purpose. I told her my name, vainly hoping she might have read my work. An unimpressed shake of her head. No, she did not know of me.

“I want to observe a class and talk to some students and teachers and take a few photographs.”

Her eyes widened at the word “photographs.” “No, you better go. I thought it was just to observe a class but now that photography is coming in, I will not allow it.”

I hid my irritation. I smiled. I told her I understood her position but surely there can’t be any harm in taking a few photographs.

“Look, let’s not pretend,” she went on. “I schooled in America. In America you see something is white you say it is white. Here it is not the same. I know America. I am familiar with America.”

I was only slightly surprised that she brought up America; it is not unusual for Nigerians to whip out America or a generic “over there” to make comparisons—this kind of nonsense that happens in Nigeria would never happen over there, we say. Or perhaps she, a teacher in a shabby government school with uneven cement floors, wanted to alert me to a sophistication in her life and education that she feared I may not see. I did not want to argue about her knowledge of America. I just wanted her to let me take photographs.

“No,” she said. “Unless you go and get permission from the governor. In short, you better go. Just go. I will not even let you observe a class.”

I was scribbling notes, so that I wouldn’t forget her words.

“I see you are writing,” she said. “You don’t know my name so you cannot use my name. If for any reason you put in the name of the school, we will sue you. The principal will be called immediately to Alausa and she will lose her job for allowing you do this. I don’t want my principal to be indicted. Go and get permission from the government.” She paused, told me she is tired of our conversation, shuffled papers on her desk and looked at me again. “If you put my own name, I will sue you!”

Startled, I began to feel guilty of an unknown crime. I started, too, to realize just how politicized public education is in Nigeria. The upcoming elections had stretched nerves, for certain, but I wondered if there would be much of a difference if I had come a year ago. Public schools are, after all, repositories of political capital.

I lowered my voice to a step below groveling and told her that I understood, that I would not name the school, that I would not take photographs and that if I wrote about the school, perhaps somebody might read it and be moved to help the school. I recited familiar platitudes. This country belongs to all of us. If we keep this kind of attitude nothing will ever change. We can change this country for the better. It was a risk. She would either accuse me of insulting her, or nod in agreement. It worked. She said yes, we can change this country and she would let me observe a class and talk to students. Photographs were still out of the question.

We walked out to find a class. The first was Yoruba, which I do not understand. The second class was copying notes, the teacher’s back to the class, shoulders moving as she filled the blackboard with writing. The third class was copying notes, too, only that this time it was a student writing on the board, her handwriting neat in a rounded, childish way. It reminded me of when I, too, wrote notes for my classmates, while a secondary school student in Nsukka, the small town in the southeast where I grew up.

At the next class, a male teacher was scolding a student, both standing by the door. “Why? Eh? Why?” he asked and then his hand rose and fell on the student’s cheek in a loud slap. We walked on.

Most Nigerians complain about the poor state of public education, and parents aspire to a private education for their children. A free government school is often a choice for the choiceless and I had expected infrastructural devastation. And so I was surprised that the fans were on in a number of classrooms; there was electricity. “You have light here?” I asked the teacher. She shrugged. “Sometimes we do. There is also a generator. But not all the blocks have them.”

The school courtyard was sandy and freshly swept, a Nigerian flag flying in the corner. The furniture was basic but mostly in good shape, there were no frills, nothing decorative in any of the classes, and the entire school possessed the air of a weary civil servant who, every morning, carefully presses his one frayed shirt. I asked her if parents were involved in their children’s education.

“We threaten the students so that they bring their parents. Otherwise they will be punished. The parents will come and argue with teachers and discuss, the children will bring their notebooks and parents will compare with other students notebooks.”

We settled on an English class. There were seventy students, most of them twelve and thirteen years old. The teacher was a plump, pretty woman with her hair in neat didi plaits. She had the demeanor of a good teacher who knows that she is a good teacher. I imagined her as the brightest student in her teacher training college class. There was a stick on the table.

The students, in sky-blue uniforms, many of them ill-fitting or faded, rose when I entered. “Welcome to our class, ma. God bless you.”

“What does articulate mean?” the teacher asked.

“Pronounce!” they chorused.

I was surprised by how engaged the students were, how lacking in teenage irony, how completely under the control of the teacher. They were enthusiastic rote learners, repeating “fleas” and “fleece” over and over as a group, after the teacher, and I strained to hear the difference in their own pronunciations. The class ended with a spelling dictation. The teacher sent a student to the next class to bring the text book. “We don’t have enough so we are sharing the book with another class,“ she told me.

“Number one, curriculum!” she called out. “Number two, Disseminate! Number three, Efficiency!”

When she said, “disenfranchise!” a low hum of panic spread through the class. In the front row, two girls shared a pen. They passed it back and forth as each wrote down the word the teacher had called out. “Conceit!” came next.

Many Nigerians speak about education like this: in one breath they talk about failing schools and in the next they talk about students who do not want to read.

One of the students wrote “consit.” She noticed that I was looking at her book and quickly, shyly, covered her work with her palm. Her friend was not as shy; she looked up to smile mischievously at me from time to time, as though determined that this stranger notice her.

Later, after the students had exchanged their notebooks to mark each other’s work, the teacher asked who did the best. A girl stood up and said she got seven out of ten. The teacher examined her book and then said, “Oh, sit down. You did not get that one right. You got five out of ten.”

I asked the teacher whether any student in the other classes got all the spellings right. “A student in the next class got nine out of ten,” she said. I told her that even I might stumble at “miscellaneous.”

“But you know, many of these students cannot read,” she said. “It starts in their primary school. We changed dismissal time by an hour to give them time to read but do they read? No.” There was, in her tone, a slight element of Blaming The Victim, as if students had simply chosen not to be literate rather than that they have been poorly educated from the beginning. Many Nigerians speak about education like this: in one breath they talk about failing schools and in the next they talk about students who do not want to read.

I asked her about her job. She complained about poor pay but said she is in the government school system for the job security. She complained about being sent on training programs in faraway places with no stipend. She complained about living far away from school and spending all she makes on transportation because her request for a transfer was denied.

“Why does government ignore teachers? What is the offense of teachers?” she asked, a little dramatically, and for a moment I wished I knew the answer. “Teachers are not happy. No, no, no. There is a terrible disparity between health workers’ and teachers’ salaries. Do you know that at the same level, a health worker gets 110,000 a month [about $675] and a teacher gets 60,000. Why now? Even with the recent increase the government agreed to, so many people were short-paid. We still don’t even know what the new salary will be. It is terrible.”

“I wish I had a teacher like you when I was in school,” I told her and meant it. When we left, she was smiling, pleased with the compliment and the chance to air her grievances.

The gateman, who had been hostile earlier, apologized to me as I got into my car. “I did not know what you came for,” he said. “We have to be careful.” I wondered, later, about the school’s atmosphere of tension. That I was not allowed to take photographs is apiece with the general Nigerian culture of hiding, of distrusting transparency. The English teacher had told me that the school had improved since the present governor came into power. “They even give the students free textbooks and free club uniforms now,” she said. Because Nigerians talk about public education in superlatives of badness, I suspected that many Nigerians, if they did see published photographs of this junior high school, would be pleasantly surprised, as I was. Perhaps what is sad is how tensely political public education remains.

When, days later, I visited an expensive, private school on the Lagos mainland, the head of school, a small British man, also did not want photographs taken. He was pleasant, sincere, but there was, in his tone, a coiled defensiveness. He picked his words carefully.

“In this environment, it is very easy to get negative publicity,” he said. “People attack us for teaching the British curriculum, which we don’t even do.”

Finally he agreed to let me take photographs, but he would have to see them before they were published. The school, with students aged three to eighteen, had cheery murals on the walls, and cheery teachers who wore name tags. As we walked past the cafeteria, somebody was placing fresh yellow bananas on the students’ tables. A line of preschoolers, each clutching a teddy bear, floated past. The young children’s library had a colorful ‘jungle’ theme. Reviews of Enid Blyton books were pasted on the wall. “Most of the children travel a lot and what they’re used to are American and British books,” the librarian said. “But I decided to try African books and they liked them.” She sounded proud; hers was the tone of someone who is surprised that the children liked boiled vegetables.

I visited a French class. The teacher, friendly and chic, a red tint in her relaxed hair, treated the children like an indulgent aunt straddling the line between relative and friend. She was preparing them for the IGCSE exam. “Let me tell you how to pick up the key words,” she said, her tone almost playful. “This is how you will get the answer.” She paid individual attention to each of her ten students. “Adeola, do you have a problem?” she asked. And to another, she said, “Chineze, this is what we did when you were not here.” Watching her, I thought of the government school teacher who simply called a girl in the class, “that girl.”

The classroom was air-conditioned, intimate, with posters on the walls. There was a knowing confidence to the students. When I walked in, they gasped melodramatically and mock-fanned themselves with their hands, gestures they had learned from being immersed in celebrity culture, from watching E! on cable. They must know exactly where Beyoncé spent her last holiday with Jay-Z.

One student did not know what “À quelle heure” means and the others burst out laughing. “How do you say month in French?” The dissolute boy in the back asked, slumped in his chair. The smug know-it-all girl gave him a long look and said, “How can you not know how to say month in French?” The teacher looked on, smiling.

When I visited a class of ten-year-olds, the students all stood up and greeted me politely, “Good morning ma.” They do not say the popular Nigerian “God bless you,” as the government school students had. The teacher knew their names, all twenty five of them. Hands shot up in the air when their teacher asked questions about the parts of the skeletal system and there was a cultivated politeness in them, in the way they stood up to answer questions, in the way they immediately opened their books when their teacher asked them to, in the confidence with which they spoke.

“Try and find out how the circulatory system works in ten minutes and then we will discuss it,” the teacher said. They were doing what the teacher called co-operative learning, in groups of two, and from time to time, a group came to the front to make a presentation. I was struck by their boldness. One group stood in front of the class. The girl, who had an American accent, spoke first, and then the boy, with his fading British accent took his turn. “Did you know that white blood cells can do that?” the boy asked, dramatizing his presentation. “I didn’t know that until now.”

One, with an American accent, planned to become a doctor and come back and help poor Nigerians. She had the slightly manic, overly-positive, head-bobbing manner of an American certain that with a bit of hard work she would conquer the world.

Next, I visited a class of thirteen-year-olds. The students had the same knowing manner of the IGCSE exam class, but with a raw teenage sense of irony. “Don’t get over-excited that she is here!” their English teacher told them. They liked their teacher, it was clear, but they treated him with fond exasperation, a few steps short of eye-rolling. In the front row, three students exchanged notes. They read a passage about cloning, and a few were asked to read aloud. They were fluent, confident readers. An excerpt from their reading: cloning will save the NHS millions of pounds.

“Why do people live longer abroad?” the teacher asked.

“Because health care is better,” one student replied.

“Because Nigerians are wicked,” another said, the class clown, rakish in his blazer. The students laughed.

“It is disrespectful to God, to, like, make people live longer,” one student said.

“Cloning is bad because God did not, like, make that copy.”

“Every person has a soul from God and if you clone, does that copy have, like, a soul?” A no-nonsense boy at the back said, “We are bringing religion into this. I think we should clone more, like, bricklayers so that people will work.”

Afterwards, one of them told me that English is boring. Another said he did not like to read. I was struck by how often they say “like.”

Later, I talked to a number of the graduating students, and I asked them their plans. Their school, like many private schools in Nigeria, does not prepare them to take the UME or WASSCE, the exams required for Nigerian universities. Instead, they take the A levels and the international baccalaureate.

I’m going to Texas, one said.

I’m going to England, another said.

One, with an American accent, planned to become a doctor and come back and help poor Nigerians. She had the slightly manic, overly-positive, head-bobbing manner of an American certain that with a bit of hard work she would conquer the world. Another said she didn’t think she wanted to live in Nigeria after university. They wanted to know about my writing. They wanted to know, as one said, “What does it feel like to be so famous?” I thought of them as I left, a generation of privileged Nigerians being trained to exist in a No Mans Land, reading about the British NHS in school. They would all go abroad, by default, and if they returned, they would do so to attractive jobs, and perhaps to expatriate paychecks. They would survive in Nigeria without understanding it. Their gatemen and househelps would puzzle them. They would lack certain skills needed to survive in the parts of Nigeria that are not constantly air-conditioned.

It is not surprising that parents do not want their children to attend university in Nigeria. Many students themselves would leave if they had the opportunity. About ten years ago, I left after almost three years at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, not so much because of the conditions, which were not good, but because I no longer wanted to study medicine. Now, the student complaints are sadly the same—the classes are overcrowded, no books in the library, no computers, no chemicals in the lab, lecturers force students to buy handouts which are just recycled outdated textbooks, incessant lecturer strikes elongate programs, exam schedules are often haphazard. Private universities are increasing in the country, many of them affiliated to churches, many of them expensive.

“Wealthy Nigerians who do not want their children to go abroad and become corrupt send them here instead,” one of the students told me slyly.

The American University of Nigeria in Yola, a sleepy town in northern Nigeria, is run under an agreement with American University in Washington. Its founder, the former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, has a reputation for corruption and for a long time I was resistant to visit. When I finally visited, I saw, in its library full of books, its labs full of equipment, the kind of education every qualified Nigerian student should have. It represents possibility. It is, unsurprisingly, very expensive.

“Wealthy Nigerians who do not want their children to go abroad and become corrupt send them here instead,” one of the students told me slyly.

I was given a tour of the laboratories. In the petrochemical lab — many of the students study petrochemical science here — the lab instructor pointed and told me, “This is the only place in Nigeria where this exists. Even the oil companies don’t have it. We can distil crude oil here.”

In another lab, I was shown a centrifuge. I remember my years at the University of Nigeria and how I learned about a centrifuge without ever seeing one. In my imagination, a centrifuge looked like a big whirling umbrella. Here, it is a compact, defenseless thing, like a microwave.

“We import our reagents from the U.K. It’s cheaper to import than to produce in Nigeria because of the energy situation,” the instructor said. Then he told me how they once ordered oxalic acid from a Nigerian maker. It was labeled 99.5 percent pure, but because they kept getting strange test results, they checked and discovered that it was only 35 percent pure. “They dilute it to make profit,” he said, shaking his head. I thought of all the other students, in the federal universities, who have no choice but to work with substandard reagents, and I imagined their confusion, their self-doubt, as they conduct experiments and get strange results.

When I visited an African Literature lecture, the professor was talking about Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the stylish students at the back lounged in their chairs, looking bored, while a few in front answered the professor’s questions. All of the students had Blackberrys, lying on the tables in front of them. From time to time, a student picked up a Blackberry and typed or read, with a little smile.

Churches are increasingly involved in Nigerian education, as are individuals. Corporate involvement in education is also on the rise. Last year, a bank donated copies of my books to schools all over the country. I did not much care for the logo on the bank of the cover, but students who might not ordinarily have had access to books got them.

Speaking in business language has become normal—people talk often of ‘branding’ in normal conversations—and corporations often use education as yet another means of branding. I visited a school in a poor area in the outskirts of Lagos, recently taken up by a telecommunication company as part of its Adopt-A-School program.

“We were looking for a school and the first few we saw were not bad enough,” a company staffer told me. “Then we found this one. It was really bad.”

The school was small, with 250 students and ten teachers. It had only one building, the walls covered in green slimy mold, the windows mostly gaping holes, although a few had rotting wood shutters.

I imagined the dramatic PowerPoint presentation that the pictures would make in the corporate boardroom, especially juxtaposed with photos of the completed Adopt-A-School project. The company is erecting a new building, and it will provide new uniforms and books, all of them with the company logo clearly displayed. The employee said the company has sent a letter of intent to adopt the school to the state universal education board and has received approval. She complained about the bureaucratic delays, and told funny stories about the people who wanted bribes, who did not really care about the state of the children, who were not grateful enough for what the company is doing. “Just look at this place,” she said, gesturing. Because there were too many students for the small building, one class was held outside, under a tree, near enough to the building so that the wall could be used as a blackboard; a square portion of wall was smeared with charcoal, on which the teacher wrote with white chalk. The handwriting on the ‘board’ was elegant. One line read: We are in a hedonistic world without principle.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award-winning Nigerian writer. You can read her fiction in Guernica here.

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