Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Educating Ghanaian children in Cuba - countering some popular misconceptions

Emmanuel A. Annor

This essay addresses some of the inaccuracies in recent publications about Ghana's educational system and speculates on the reasons behind the PNDC government's acceptance of the scholarships from the Cuban government.
Perhaps one of the most persistent criticisms of the PNDC administration is its acceptance of 600 scholarships from the Government of Cuba to enable Ghanaian children between the ages of 12 and 16 to study at various levels of education up to the university level in Cuba. The extension of the scholarship program to a further 142 students has again stirred speculations as to the motives of the PNDC government other than the ostensible one of educating our youngsters. Some have even accused the government of actually intending some of the children to train as guerrillas and possibly commandos.

As preposterous as such allegations sound (mind you if such scholarships had been offered by some Western country that would have been fine; but because they were offered by Cuba our children are at risk!) the misperceptions of the government's intentions have persisted because the Ministry of Education and the Scholarships Secretariat in Ghana have not adequately defended the program to allay the fears of many obviously worried compatriots who have somehow come to believe that anything that comes from that part of the world reeks of revolution, guerrillas and commandos.

Because of this silence, some critics of the PNDC seeking to find fault in every policy of that government no matter how sanguine, have been dispensing pap in place of information and thus leaving the concerned reader more bewildered than illumined. A typical example of such inaccuracies is reflected in a recent letter by one K S Owusu-Appiah (Talking Drums, December 16, 1985).

In the first part of this essay, I will address some of the falsehoods in Mr Owusu-Appiah's letter and then speculate on the reasons behind the PNDC govern- ment's acceptance of the scholarships from the Cuban government. In the process I hope to shed some light on the remarkable achievements that the Cuban education system has brought to her people, and to suggest that rather than expending our energies on discrediting a system about which we know little, we should be open-minded about foreign systems and borrow from those which have the potential to benefit us.

Qualitative education

Mr Owusu-Appiah states bluntly that "All the least developed countries, of which Cuba is not excluded have the problem of financing qualitative education." Whatever he means by "qualitative education," is anybody's guess: is it the ability to add and subtract? to read and write? to speak correct grammatical English? to speak a local language without spicing it with English, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Sanskrit? To be a doctor or a technician?

Of course qualitative education can have all these attributes, but the point is that a considerable number of these least developed countries, particularly countries in Asia - Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand which in the 1960s were in solidarity with Africa (as partners in poverty) (remember the Afro-Asian solidarity conferences?) have literally left Africa behind largely as a result of their educational systems. Not only are these countries able to feed themselves, they produce enough surplus to export to us.

It is against this backdrop that Cuba came to help, first because there was every indication that the new government would pursue the policies of Kwame Nkrumah judged by the heavy doses of Marxist rhetoric of the revolutionary organs...

As regards his specific reference to Cuba, Mr Owusu-Appiah should be informed that barely a month ago, Cuban doctors performed their first successful open-heart surgery. Cuban soldiers handle some of the most sophisticated military weapons from the Soviet Union. Obviously, it takes highly trained technical people to achieve these feats. I shall return to the subject of Cuban education later on in this essay, but Mr Owusu-Appiah should probably be told that contrary to the notoriety that Cuba has acquired in the Western media as exporter of revolutions to the Third World countries like Angola, Ethiopia, Grenada and Nicaragua what is hardly mentioned is that a major component of this "export" consists of physicians, teachers and nurses to people who are in desperate need of their services.

Now, some factual points about Ghana's educational system which the correspond- ent appeared not to be very familiar with. The National Council for Higher Educa-- tion has been disbanded since 1983 there- fore it could not have sent a delegation to Cuba to verify the "normal standards" before accepting the scholarships (beggars sometimes can have a choice, at least according to the Owusu-Appiah doctrine!) Also the Ghana Education Service (GES) is not an entity separate from the Ministry of Education as Mr Owusu-Appiah implied.

To claim that "Cuban institutions cannot be compared with institutions in the developed countries like Britain and the US, without indicating upon what criteria such comparisons are to be made is to mislead readers who care about such matters. All educational systems have their problems. In the United States, there are people who graduate from college and are unable to read or write. In 1983, a Presidential commission lamented the 'rising tide of mediocrity" in US educa- tion. Other Western countries have reported similar problems. But that does not mean that their entire systems are rotten.

Educational leaders all over the world worry about the future of their societies and are constantly revamping their educational institutions, and finding creative ways of preparing the next generation for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Without a thorough understanding of individual societies and their systems, it is naive to embrace any one system just because we are familiar with it and condemn the other because it is new.

It was quite obvious that Mr Owusu- Appiah was stuck when it came to the Soviet Union. Perhaps Mr Owusu-Appiah needs to be reminded again that the decision by Ghanaian officials to let Ghanaians with Soviet diplomas "go back to school" as a condition for employment was based purely on emotions rather than any assessment of the content of what they had learnt or an evaluation of their competence. The atmosphere prevailing was during the post-1966 overthrow of Nkrumah was charged with emotions. So called statesmen who supposedly meant well, lost their heads in the euphoria and substituted vendetta and hype for policy. The result was a frenzied attempt to totally dismantle anything that remotely related to Nkrumah.

Incidentally, many of the Soviet-trained doctors have proved to be among some of our most competent physicians manning many regional and district hospitals and polyclinics. It is lamentable that some of our educated elite who ought to know better sometimes get so blinded by their marriage to their western diplomas that they fail to acknowledge that other systems have much to recommend to our peculiar environment.

Hopefully, ten years down the line, when our students in Cuba return home, we would not be as stupid as we were during the post-1966 period and reject them because they had their education in Cuba or because they had been sent by Rawlings. Let me now turn to speculate as to why Cuba offered to help Ghana, and why the PNDC readily embraced it.


Before I speculate on the underlying motivations of the PNDC for accepting the scholarship offer, it should be pointed out that Ghana has had a long history of accepting foreign scholarships to train needed technical people; therefore, the PNDC's decision should not be seen as any different from others in the past. Viewed in this light, it is possible to shift the focus of the debate on training our youngsters abroad from one of passing judgments on systems to that of how best to adapt those systems which have worked elsewhere for the benefit of our country.

In order to appreciate why Cuba made the offer in the first place and why Rawlings' government accepted it, it is important to understand the circum- stances in which Rawlings found himself at the time of the coup on December 31, 1981.

Rawlings staged the December 31 coup under the pretext of bringing about social justice in Ghana, which as he saw it, was being compromised because of the Limann administration's inability to con- which had begun as a result of the mutiny in the army in June 1979. It was a 'revolution, Rawlings claimed, and not a military coup d'etat in the conventional sense.

Many observers who thought that democracy was finally finding a foothold in West Africa were stunned. They complained that the accusations against the were unfounded Limann government since the youth wing of the PNP had almost taken over from the old guard, and had virtually excluded the Chairman of the party, Nana Okutwer Bekoe and his friend the late Krobo Edusei. Therefore the coup could not have been motivated by any larger ideals other than that a bunch of power-hungry youngsters wanted power at all costs.

Not surprisingly, the reaction to the PNDC government was very cold. Nigeria withheld oil supplies because Ghana was behind with her bill payment. Muamar Qaddafi's promise of bankrolling the new regime proved to be a mere On the educational front, promise. trained teachers were leaving in droves for Nigeria to better pursue economic fortunes.

Classrooms at the universities were also being abandoned by lecturers and pro- fessors. It is against this backdrop that Cuba came to help, first, because there was every indication that the new govern- ment would pursue the policies of Kwame Nkrumah judged by the heavy dose of Marxist rhetoric of the revolutionary organs, and second because the Ghanaian situation, on the surface at least, appeared similar to the Cuban situation in 1959.

The formation of the People's and Workers' Defence Committees was in a sense a replication of a real revolution which had occurred in the Caribbean in 1959. Since Rawlings found himself without friends, any help was welcome. I would be surprised if anybody claimed that under such circumstances, he/she would not accept aid no matter its origins. Besides, given that the professed ethos of the regime was action, doing something was preferable to doing nothing. Its commitment to the goal of achieving social justice was reflected in the selection of the candidates for the scholarships. It is my understanding that a majority of the first 600 children were the children of those in rural areas who, under our current system, would probably never have gone beyond the middle school.

It is within this context that I believe the decision to accept help from Cuba was a sound and pragmatic one. This of course should not prevent us from questioning the policies of our governments. However, I think the focus in this respect should be on the long term effect of such a program on educational policy. If the government appreciates that we cannot abdicate the responsibility of educating our children and inculcating in them the values we consider desirable, and would take advantage of such offers as a mere stop- gap respite, then there is every reason to commend them for their foresight.

If on the other hand the government is unable to enact bold policies to make preparation of the youth a fundamental objective, then we should have every reason to worry. In the meantime, I sub- mit that the Cuban education system has much to recommend it, and in the next section, I will briefly discuss some highlights of Cuban education, and what lessons we might learn from it.

Education in Cuba

Cuba, countries, like all Latin inherited her educational system from Spain. The educational heritage as reflected in the curriculum was orientated toward the elite. Curricu- lum content was heavily biased toward humanistic studies, reminiscent of the scholastic era of 16th and 17th century Spain. Rural education was given short shrift, and when the Jesuit Priests who became the principal advocates of rural education in Latin America appeared too threatening for the establishment, they were chased out of many countries in Latin America.

Cuba's proximity to the United States did not help much with regard to educational reforms and the economic relations which divided the rich and the poor, persisted. If you throw in the right wing dictatorships which were determined to perpetuate the depressing economic systems, you can appreciate how a revolution such as Cuba's became inevitable.

Rather than dwelling on the complex politics of that embattled region, I will limit myself to the role education played in the Cuban revolution of 1959.

After Castro overthrew the Batista regime in 1959, his major objective was to radically transform Cuban society, and to create in essence what has been called the new socialist man, "the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, to whom the different social functions he performs are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers." the motivation for study was to be changed so that "coming generations" would "receive the heritage of education, that is totally devoid of selfish sentiment."

But even more important than the social relations of education, was the realisation that the economy was inextricably linked with education. Like most developing countries, pre-revolutionary Cuba con- fronted the problem of economic stagnation which was largely attributable to the low level of the nation's technologi- cal capacities, its uneducated labour force, and its outdated stock of productive and physical equipment.

Faced with this problem, the Cuban government made an unequivocal com- mitment to raising the productive capaci- ties of the population through education. As Fidel Castro put it then, "The levels of development that the country will reach can be measured only by the percentage of young people carrying on advanced studies." Consequently, there was a massive expansion in education particularly at the lower levels, just like what happened in Ghana between 1951 to 1961.

But in order to eliminate Cuba's dependence on outsiders in the scientific spheres, the government committed itself to expanding high level educational, technical, and research facilities. Educa- tion was to be a right, and in order to American eliminate the class structure, high level education was to be made available to all. According to Castro, "The revolution cannot reconcile itself with the idea that in the future there should always be a minority in society with a monopoly on technical and scientific knowledge and a majority shut out from this knowledge."

Castro's words were not mere rhetoric, for the government went ahead to imple- ment its program of building Cuba's future on a scale unprecedented in Latin American history by investing about one- fifth of its total productive capacity in formal schooling in 1968-1969. As one author described it, education rivalled sugar as Cuba's largest productive sector.

But how did Cuba finance her educa- tion? At the time of the revolution, more than 250,000 professionals including technicians, doctors, teachers and nurses had fled the country. Teachers were in short supply. There was shortages of labour to harvest sugar and this is where the ingenuity of the revolutionary leaders came in handy. In the schools, advanced students taught their fellow students who were in difficulty, just like the Lancaster monitorial system in Britain. When there was need for labour to harvest crops, the schools were moved to the countryside (escuela al campo). When it was realised that the schools to the countryside concept was not working because students were not concentrating on their studies, high schools were established in the countryside (escuela en el campo) and housed in boarding schools. A major objective of educational policy was to link work and education. As Cuban officials outlined at a UNESCO conference in Santiago de Chile in 1962, the Cuban government intended that the pupils

must be brought to have a high sense of duty to work; this is to say, they must be taught to abandon the false notion of work as a punish- ment and they must be taught the necessity of work...Our plans and programs aim at the elimination of verbalism and learning by rote and making education a living matter, in which theory is identified with practice linked with social labour... Here we see two basic aims of socialist education: the linking of education with productive labour as a means of developing men in every aspect. Educating in productive labour, making the students familiar with the details of production through practical experience, en- abling them to learn its laws and organization and processes; that is, educating them in the very root of all cultural, technical and scientific progress, and giving them ideologi- cal and moral training leading to an all round education."

As implied in this quote, for the Cuban revolution, education was not perceived as a liability whose financing had become a national burden. It was viewed as an integral part of the country's economic development.

The returns on investment

The returns on all that investment are for the unbiased observer to appreciate. Within a decade of this massive invest- ment in education, virtually all the professionals who fled the country had been replaced to a point where now the hottest items of export from Cuba to Caribbean and Latin American countries are trained professionals. The above sketch may sound like extolling the Cuban system. Far from it. There are no policies without problems, and Cuba has had a lot of problems, but the important point is that it has not served from her objective of using education as an indispensable tool in achieving social integration and econ- omic development.


What can we learn from the Cuban experience? In the first place, it should be pointed out that Cuba's strategic location makes it a precious jewel for the Soviet Union. An estimated $4 billion of Russian money is allegedly pumped into her economy annually. Therefore, Cuba's experience cannot be replicated item by item in a country like Ghana. But there are nonetheless very important lessons that we can learn. The first of these is for a government to recognize education as an indispensable facet in development, and to make an uncompromising commitment to investing in the future.

One may argue that we do not have to go to Cuba to learn such lessons. After all Kwame Nkrumah during the late fifties and early sixties made such a commit- ment. In fact, most of the GUPPIES (Ghanaian urban professionals) who are now the main policy makers within the PNDC were all beneficiaries of Nkrumah's educational policy. That is a valid argument, but if it takes Cuba to reinforce that lesson, all the better.

The second lesson is the concept of education and work since it bears directly on financing our education. A lot of lip- service has been paid to this idea, but we have been short on implementation. And even where some effort has been made to let students, particularly college graduates serve the nation, the implementation has appeared as though they were being punished. In Cuba, there is no question in any student's mind as to the integrative nature of education and work.

Again, it must be pointed out that we need not go to Cuba to learn all this. As Dr Ephraim Amu pointed out to Acheam- pong during the centenary anniversary of the Presbyterian Training College at Akropong, the much touted "Operation Feed Yourself" programme had been known by PTC since its inception. Mawuli Secondary School used to have the lowest boarding fees in the country because earnings from its agricultural programmes made high boarding fees unnecessary. A similar programme at Ghana Secondary in Koforidua under the dynamic leadership of the former headmaster Mr Danquah also lowered student fees. The point of all this is that we certainly have a rich infrastructure to build upon, but if it will take a foreign country to jolt us to appreciate what we have, fine.


But perhaps the greatest lesson we can derive from the Cuban example, is the role of leadership in making things happen. Unfortunately, the PNDC administration has not applied as much energy in educational recovery as it has with economic recovery. About the only mention of education in the document outlining the PNDC economic recovery programme of April 1983 was to the effect that research scientists should publish or perish. The rhetoric on social trans- formation has curiously left out education as a critical factor in the equation.

Leadership at the Education Ministry has been gingerly. The first Secretary for Education started by dismantling "inter- national" schools without clarifying in her mind what she wanted as a substitute. She left quietly without leaving a mark on policy. The second Secretary of Education did not make much of an impact either. The third Secretary of Education has been concerned with the financing of schools, but her focus at the secondary level has been on 'deboardization', a neologism which means abolishing boarding schools.

The second lesson is the concept of education and work since it bears directly on financing education. A lot of lip-service has been paid to this idea, but we have been short on implementation. And even where some effort has been made to let the students, particularly college graduates, serve the nation, the implementation has appeared as though they were being punished.

The attraction of this safe policy is that it is economically more viable and will make it possible to spread the education cedi more equitably. Such a theory is based on mere conjecture, and is contrary to available empirical evidence from Kenya, Uganda, and the United States, and of course from Cuba which indicates that students learn better, develop better and acquire the best attitudes in boarding school environments.

And do we need research evidence to confirm our own intuitive knowledge from our experience in boarding high schools? Given the housing shortages in the country, the squalor in most homes, and large families, there is hardly an alternative, in the foreseeable future at least, to nurturing the minds of the future other than in boarding schools. The issue of financing these high schools, as the above analysis has shown, takes leadership and commitment to innovation.

At the elementary school level, the third Secretary of Education has strangely lapsed into histrionics. Whatever the substitution of drums for bells in schools will do for education in Ghana is beyond anyone's imagination. The fact is that drums have been used in many element- ary and secondary schools since the early sixties, therefore to make a big deal of such a peripheral issue smacks of shortage of new ideas and initiative.

Finally, as can be deduced from the above, the PNDC's current process will be a non-process if it fails to provide the leadership to make education the corner- stone of social change. There is no question that a viable economy is crucial for educational regeneration. For all the good things said about Nkrumah's educational policies, one important fact is that he had plenty of money to spend. The weird situation has drastically changed since those halcyon days.

The PNDC has had to deal with unprecedented crises in our national history. Combating the devastating hunger of 1983, and welcoming 2 million Ghanaian refugees from Nigeria within a period of one year are feats worthy of commendation. The renewed international confidence in Ghana's ability to manage her economy, as reflected in the lending countries' willingness to provide $500 million to help Ghana find her feet, is also unprecedented in history. (Note that in 1971, the Busia Government wanted only $100 million, but was refused by the lending agencies!)

However, economic recovery efforts will come to naught if education is ignored as a non-productive enterprise. This writer believes that concepts like 'deboardization' are really not the issue. Imagination and leadership are the issues. Those who have taken it upon themselves to shape the future of Ghana have the responsibility to take bold new decisions that will assure a better future for our children and our children's children. If the Cuban education system has any lesson, this is the crux of it.


Epigram: If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

talking drums 1986-03-03 Vatsa sentenced to death in Nigeria - Educating Ghanaian children in Cuba