Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Schooling and Difference in Africa: Democratic Challenges in a Contemporary Context. George Sefa Dei, Alireza Asgharzadeh, Sharon Bahador and Riyad Shahjahan. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2006. 331 pp.
Five decades after political independence, African countries continue to search for democratic ways of delivering social services to its populations. One of the most important but least addressed issues in this challenge is that of educational equity, specifically how schooling in Africa can serve diverse student populations in equitable ways. Although African societies are characterized by some of the most blatant diversities—for example, socio-economic class, ethnocultural, linguistic, and religious diversities, to name a few, relatively little attention has been paid to issues of diversity and difference in schooling in Africa. Attention to diversity and difference is particularly important because of how the issue impinges on power and equity as significant factors in determining learning outcomes and social opportunities for students. A review of the literature reveals some previous work on inequities, exclusionary practices, and unequal access to education in African countries. Overall, however, it is fair to say that this is an area that still needs to be explored further in research on education in Africa.
Schooling and Difference in Africa: Democratic Challenges in a Contemporary Context, by George Sefa Dei et al, makes a significant contribution to this area by researching and discussing several different aspects of student diversity and difference — ethnicity, gender, religion, class, language, disability—and how these are perceived and addressed in African schooling systems, specifically schooling in Ghana, a country similar to many other African countries in terms of the multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual nature of the society. The book emerged from a three-year empirical study in which the authors, all of whom share a passion and belief that equal access to education is important, set out to investigate how schools in Ghana deal with difference and diversity within and among student populations. Their stated objective “is to offer understanding of and engagement with African education in postcolonial times through the stimulation of critical discussion regarding the relevance of responding to ethnic, gender, class, linguistic, and religious differences within African schooling” (p. 5).
The bulk of the research employed for this book centers around analyses of data from several sources including interviews with students and other stakeholders from diverse backgrounds of difference, policy documents, and classroom observations of teaching practices. The results are reported in eleven chapters of thick, multifaceted descriptions, with each chapter undertaking a relevant and in-depth description of a specific aspect of diversity and difference in schooling from the perspectives of different stakeholders in schooling in/from Ghana. Through these thick descriptions, readers are able to feel, see, and hear the world the authors inhabited during the course of this study. This review of the book is based on how well the authors/researchers provide an understanding of inclusive schooling in an African context and whether this understanding produces possibilities for educational inclusion and equity in school settings in Africa.
Chapter 1 presents cogent reasons why attention should be paid to diversity and social difference in schooling processes in Africa, buttressing the argument around issues of equity, equal access, and social opportunities for all students. Measures which have been taken to address diversity issues in various African countries and the remissness that needs to be addressed are also provided in this opening chapter. The chapter, therefore, usefully sets the context for the study and the book. Chapter 2 describes the research procedures employed, identifying anti-colonial and anti-racist discursive frameworks as the theoretical and conceptual lenses through which the research data were examined and analyzed. While some may question the place of such methodological details in a book like this, these details lend tremendous credibility to the book as a product of a research study. Furthermore, research is not a neutral process and it behooves researchers/authors to provide readers with their own positionality within the research processes and how they come to analyze and interpret the data they collect.
Understanding notions of difference, minority, and majority in African contexts requires an understanding of how local subjects themselves perceive and articulate these concepts. Chapters 3 and 4 provide local perceptions and articulations of these concepts from the vantage points of respondents’ cultural, ethnic, gender, and class backgrounds and geographic locations in Ghana. These backgrounds are presented as clear determinants of how the respondents understood issues of diversity, difference, minority and majority locations. Chapters 5 through 10 focus on essential elements of diversity and difference considered to be of critical importance in multicultural, multiethnic societies, namely ethnicity, gender, class, (dis)ability, language, and religion. In some ways, the chapter divisions can be artificial. For example, ethnicity, class, and access to language (Standard English, the language of opportunity) often become interwoven, particularly when we consider that, in Africa, access to social opportunities is sometimes facilitated or even determined by membership of particular ethnic groups. Similarly, attitudes and beliefs about gender and sexuality are firmly rooted in religious beliefs. Still, that the divisions allow the authors to focus on one element at a time, thereby providing a closer and more in-depth analysis.
Ethnicity, in particular, brings up issues of power and privilege and, as the authors point out, although there have been some strides in the elimination of educational disparities based on race and ethnicity (e.g., in primary education in Zimbabwe and Tanzania) disparities along ethnic lines still continue in many other African countries. (p. 25). Chapter 5 examines how ethnicity and power issues are played out in Ghana’s education system. The data suggested a substantial difference in educational opportunity and resources among students who come from the provinces where the ruling elite originate and students who do not. Individuals and groups are ethnicized for rewards and punishment, with significant consequences for national development and national unity. The topic of gender, that cogent determinant of access to education in many African contexts, is taken up in Chapter 6 where respondents reflect on the gender-based inequalities in the Ghanaian schooling system. The authors’ thesis is that gender is central to schooling if education is to promote social development (p. 150). They, therefore, examine the gendered dimension of schooling with a critical lens, focusing on the social and cultural construction of power, access, equity, voice, and transformative possibilities (p. 151). Results of their analyses suggest that the gendered dimension of schooling cannot be underestimated. Economic factors play a determining role in the educational aspirations and attainments of students. In the developing countries of Africa, economic factors “determine whether one can or cannot become a student in the first place” (p. 202). Chapter 7 explores this important source of educational inequality. Poverty related issues such as access to textbooks, basic nutrition, and local transportation to school are examined through the eyes of the respondents. In Ghana’s education system, like elsewhere, students from wealthy families have better chances of school success than those from poorer families.
Ableness is another area where, historically, people with disabilities have faced serious and persistent forms of discrimination and exclusion and, among some African ethnic groups, elimination. Interviews with physically disabled students in Dei, et al’s study revealed deep feelings of alienation and marginalization which are reported in Chapter 8. Constructive solutions are suggested by the students for schools and policy makers. Language issues in education in Africa bring up historical questions, among others. Chapter 9 challenges the dominant role of the English language in both the Ghanaian society and its education system. While the authors acknowledge the challenges embedded in developing fair and equitable language policies in multilingual African contexts, they nevertheless urge the continuation of a search for viable African solutions to the problems and concerns emerging from linguistic plurality. Chapter 10 takes up notions of religion and spirituality which are presented as distinct although inter-related aspects of human life. The perpetuation of a religious hierarchy in Ghana, which privileges and gives pride of place to the colonial missionary Christian religion to the exclusion of Ghanaian indigenous religions and students who practice them, is deplored in this chapter. As religion and spirituality play an important role in the learner’s engagement with the learning process, educators and school administrators are urged to consider ways of delivering education that allow learning to happen in the context of religious and spiritual education in the schools (p.254).
Chapter 11, the final chapter, concludes the book with a comparative look at issues of diversity and difference in the Ghanaian and Canadian education systems, arguing that African schools are well placed to learn from strategies for inclusive approaches to education in other pluralistic contexts, while understanding their own unique contexts and histories (p.305).
Overall, the book does deliver on its twin objectives of interrogating existing approaches and practices that alienate minority students in Ghana’s education system, and providing research-based educational knowledge that could be used effectively to inform debates on educational change and guide policy initiatives on fundamental structural changes. It is interesting that the book remains almost silent on sexual orientation as a marker of difference in African schooling. Views about sexual differences, which have roots in religious and cultural beliefs, would have enriched the discussions on religion and gender (including the sexual harassment of girls by teachers and male students) and thrown much needed light on this topic in an African schooling context. Also, in comparing the multicultural scenes in Canada and Ghana, I question the authors’ claim that Canadian multicultural policy “allows all its citizens to flourish as individuals….,” considering Canada’s woeful failure to deliver on the social equality dimension of multiculturalism. (p. 300). Castles points out that multiculturalism as a public policy has two key dimensions: recognition of cultural diversity and social equality of members of minorities. Clearly, education has a central role to play in both. With regard to the first, multicultural education is based on the idea that students come from diverse cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds which should be respected and maintained by building diversity into school curricula, classroom practices, and the organization of the school. The second aspect, social equality, requires that students are not disadvantaged or isolated due to differing cultural and social backgrounds. This requires measures such as special instruction in the main language for students from other linguistic backgrounds and measures to compensate for differences in educational experience due to migration and other factors. Recent studies conducted by this author on the educational needs and barriers for Canada’s Aboriginal and African refugee students and school drop-out among Black students in Canadian schools revealed that schools in Canada have failed to meet these responsibilities on both fronts due to reductions in the state’s funding to schools, among other reasons. One can hardly refer to citizens (students) as “flourishing” under such conditions.
In a similar vein, the authors are invited to reflect on this question: To what extent is the lack of attention to diversity and difference in schooling in African countries due to (a) leaders’ or policy makers’ limited understanding of what constitutes inclusion and (b) the lack of resources to address the needs of diverse students, as opposed to the authors’ perception that diversity and difference are ignored or seen as a problem or as a pernicious disease in African schooling contexts? (p. 7; p. 12). Where resources are severely scarce it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to provide inclusive education even when understood and desired. As the authors themselves admit, state cuts in educational funding throughout the world have been “at the expense of issues of equity and social justice” (p. 9). One can only imagine how Africa, which has still not benefited from the spread of economic globalization and information technology, would respond to demands for inclusive education.
These concerns notwithstanding, the book is a major contribution to the field of diversity and schooling in the African context, a context that is still largely under-researched in terms of diversity and difference in education. By exploring diverse and salient aspects of inclusive education in an African setting in a single volume, this book significantly extends and broadens educators’ understanding of the construction of inclusive educational environments, especially in light of the limited African perspective in the available scholarship on this important aspect of contemporary education. It is based on sound research, informed by a broad scholarship on its subject matter, and is a timely addition to contemporary curriculum and pedagogical discourses of educational reform. The parallels and intersections between Ghanaian and Canadian understandings and practices of inclusion/exclusion in schooling make this book highly relevant for education in these two contexts and beyond.
Yatta Kanu University of Manitoba
 See, for example, Obanya on inequality in Obanya, P. (2004), Promoting basic education for women and girls: A survey of structures, programs, and activities in Africa. Paris: UNESCO; Mukudu on socio-economic class differences in Mukudi, E. “Education for All: A framework for addressing the persisting illusion for the Kenyan context”. International Journal of Educational Development, 24 no.3(2004a):, 231-240; and Lorenzo on disability in Lorenzo, T. “No African renaissance without disabled women: A communal approach to human development in Cape Town South Africa”. Disability and Society, 18, no.6 (2003):, 759-778.
 Castles, Stephen. Migration, citizenship, and education. In Diversity and citizenship education: Global perspectives, ed. James Banks (Jossey-Bass, 2004), pp.18-48.
 Kanu, Yatta. “Educational needs and barriers for African refugee students in Manitoba”. Canadian Journal of Education (in press for fall 2008); George Dei, et al., Reconstructing dropout: A critical ethnography of the dynamics of Black students’ disengagement from school (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
Castles, Stephen. Migration, citizenship, and education. In Diversity and citizenship education: Global perspectives, ed. James Banks (Jossey-Bass, 2004), pp.18-48.
Maiga, Hassimi. “When the language of education is not the language of culture: The epistemology of systems of knowledge and pedagogy”. In Black education: A transformative research and action agenda for the new century, ed. James King. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005, pp. 159-182.