Angola: Slow Recovery

LUANDA, Angola | Any discussion of the education sector in Angola cannot avoid the devastation wrought by over 25 years of civil war.  At the height of the Cold War and only shortly after the former colony won its independence from Portugal in 1975, rebels under Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), launched one of the most brutal armed conflicts of the modern era against Agostinho Neto’s ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

The war, which ended with the death of Savimbi during a clash with government troops in 2002, left entire villages and cities flattened.  The country’s education system was similarly left in ruins.  During the conflict, the government spent vast amounts of money on military equipment and war operations, leaving very little to be invested in education.  Military training became compulsory, superseding regular education for many Angolan students.

Enrollment Freefall

Statistics show that, as the civil war waned, enrollment in public schools dropped dramatically.  According to UNICEF, only 56 percent of children of primary school age attended grades 1-4 in 2001 (see box below).  A clear discrepancy in the gender and socioeconomic backgrounds of attendees was also discernable.  That same year, UNICEF estimated that at least one million primary school children were not in school, the majority of them girls.

Enrollment Statistics, 2000-2006

Percentage of primary school entrants
reaching grade 5
Male Female
Primary school enrollment ratio 69% 59%
Primary school attendance ratio 58% 59%
Secondary school enrolment ratio 19% 15%
Secondary school attendance ratio 22% 20%
Youth (15-24 years) illiteracy rate 84% 63%
Source: UNICEF

The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) has attributed the gender discrepancy to the “boys study, girls cook” mentality that is engraved in much of Angolan society.  It remains difficult to convince parents to send their daughters to school.

In addition, UNGEI cites poverty as a major contributing factor, listing the high costs of living, long walking distances between homes and schools in rural areas, and expensive transportation as the main causes of parents’ resistance to educating girls. Independent organizations also estimate that at least 45 percent of Angolan children suffer from chronic malnutrition, rendering many children too weak for school.

Furthermore, children who lost one or both parents during the war are also more likely to skip school. In such cases, the girls of the family tend to become the breadwinners – working as prostitutes, hawkers, domestic workers and so on – while boys continue to attend schools thanks to the proceedings from their sisters’ “trades”.

Left in Ruins

The physical destruction of Angola’s education infrastructure is obvious to all.  According to UNICEF, more than 1,500 schools were destroyed between 1992 and 1996 alone. Many schools were used as military supply bases and army dormitories, and have since been abandoned or burned out, still bearing bullet holes on their walls.

It is normal procedure for many Angolan children, especially in the countryside, to carry their own chairs to school, while others sit on blocks or on empty drums, writing on scraps of paper and reading from broken blackboards.

Many often register for school at a very late age and attend the grades that they should have been in years ago. As a result, it is not uncommon to see a 15-year-old still in the fourth grade, the last level of primary school in Angola.

Many classrooms don’t have windows, doors, and toilets. Others don’t have roofs and, as a result, teachers tell their pupils to rush home whenever rain and storms threaten the area. In some places, children attend classes under a tree and in outdoor school yards.

“We lack everything from school books to desks, water and sanitation facilities, computers, libraries, and other basic learning materials,” said Maria dos Santos, a schoolteacher. “The other big problem is overcrowding.”

Outdoor school in Kuita, Angola. Photo by Rafaela Printes. Creative Commons licensed.

Outdoor school in Kuita, Angola. Photo by Rafaela Printes. Creative Commons licensed.

Too Few Classrooms

In its attempt to lure more children to school and decrease the illiteracy rate, the government has instead found itself in a catch-22: there are too many pupils for the country’s very few classrooms and schools.

Over 6 million students enrolled across the country this year – an increase of over 1 million as compared with 2008 data, according to Angop, the state-controlled news agency. The government has said that the annual average rate of enrolling children without places in Angolan schools currently stands at 18.59 percent. But no specific year was attached to that figure.  Angola’s official statistics are hardly trustworthy because the government tends to manipulate them for propaganda purposes, a practice dating back to the Marxist-socialist era and the Cold War.

Andre Soma, the director of the Luanda provincial education department, admitted at a recent press conference that out of the 28,498 students who passed the 10th grade in that province, for example, only 21,904 students could be accommodated in the current educational facilities. The rest would have to stay at home.

In addition, the province has yet to find room for about 16,000 children who finished the 9th grade. Soma said that, due to this unfortunate situation, students between 14 and 15 years old with excellent marks in their main subjects would have to be given priority.

Still, progress is being made. For example, in August 2008, the provincial government of Huambo in central Angola announced that it had built 2,627 new classrooms in the province since 2002, according to ReliefWeb, which quoted Angop. The report said that about 3.5 million students are attending classes there in two shifts. In addition, the provincial government also said that it had rebuilt and furnished 841 classrooms over the last six years. Huambo was hit hard during the war and saw heavy fighting between the UNITA and MPLA.

The education ministry has promised other improvements, saying it would distribute 13 million books to secondary schools during the 2009 school term. The ministry also said that it will soon establish 21 new technical schools across the provinces of Lunda Norte, Bie, Lunda Sul, Namibe, Moxico, Luanda, Kuando-Kubango, and Zaire.

Recent government data shows that 34 percent of the financial resources from the Public Investments Programme (PIP), the government’s plan for public spending, was allocated to the education sector in 2008. However, since official statistics are notoriously unreliable, it uncertain whether or not the money was received.

No Political Will

Even with these improvements, many believe that the government should be spending more of its resources on education.  Angola, a country of 15 million people, is Africa’s second biggest oil producer behind Nigeria.  According to the most recent data available to the World Bank, Angola spends a mere 2.6 percent of its GDP on education though its GDP has been growing in recent years, due to high oil prices.

However, few critics of the education system are willing to speak on the record. Freedom of expression and diversity of opinion are virtually non-existent in Angola and those who dare criticize the head of state or expose the government’s misdeeds face arrest, torture, and lengthy jail terms.

One education analyst and outspoken critic of the government, who feared to be named, said that there is no political will to take Angolan education to greater heights.

“Look, there is no social justice in Angola,” he said. “Most of the kids who belong to the ‘big guns’ and ‘untouchable’ families [members of the ruling party and corrupt businessmen allied to the government] attend schools and universities abroad, in places like Namibia, South Africa, European Union countries, Canada, the US, and even Australia.”

“So, it does not bother the politicians that our education system lies in tatters. And fed-up with this hopeless situation, even middle-class families are now raising money to send their kids to study abroad.”

Searching for Teachers

Part of the problem is finding enough skilled teachers in a country ravaged by war and emigration. “Most teachers are poorly qualified and inadequately trained, making it difficult for pupils to get a better education and having a negative impact on their learning outcomes,” said dos Santos, the school teacher. “Don’t even talk about children with special needs. Their place is at home – illiterate, useless, and doing nothing.”

In November 2008, Angolan Education Minister Antonio Burity da Silva told a gathering of ministers of Portuguese-speaking countries meeting in Portugal that the government would implement a Teacher Training Master Plan from 2008 to 2015, which would ensure that teachers, headmasters, and supervisors undergo intensive training.

But the details of the plan are still sketchy, and the past performance of related programs is not cause for optimism. In 2002, for example, the education ministry drafted a seven-year plan (2002-2008) to increase the number of teachers by 120 percent, but experts said the results are still not convincing.

“We need action and less talk and red-tape,” said education expert Carlos Lagrimas, a former school headmaster who is now doing consulting work.  “Sadly, some of our teachers have succumbed to HIV/AIDS and other related diseases, so we must employ more teachers – foreign and locals – and train the existing ones and also improve teachers’ living standards and working conditions.”

Lending a Helping Hand

International organizations, foreign governments, and even wealthy individuals have chipped in to provide assistance over the past few years. In 2005, UNICEF pledged to work with the government to either build or reconstruct 1,500 schools under the Schools for Africa (SFA) initiative, in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Foundation.  The lack of recent statistics, however, make it difficult to assess what has already been done. German businessman Peter Kramer, who visited Angola in 2005, also donated 1 million USD to fund the SFA project in Angola.

UNICEF has supported the training of more than 20,000 teachers under the Back to School Campaign since 2002.  According to its website, the organization furthers innovation in primary schools, through the development of teaching and learning materials to implement educational reform at the national level.

The government might soon turn to international organizations for assistance is in the recruitment of English-language teachers. While Portuguese is Angola’s official language and main language for teaching, the authorities have said that English language instruction will become compulsory.

That comes on top of teaching of seven vernacular languages in the first grade countrywide (Kikongo, Cokwe, Umbundu, Kimbundu, Ngaguela, Nhaneka, and Oshikwanyama), which will also necessitate the printing of new books in these languages. The aim, according to the government, is to forge a strong relationship between education and local cultures, as well as facilitate education within those communities. In Africa, teaching in a vernacular language is often seen as a tool for safeguarding and entrenching cultural values in local communities, especially among youth.

Politicized Higher Education

Established in 1963, the Agostinho Neto University is Angola’s first and main public higher learning institution. The university has campuses in 10 of the country’s 18 provinces, and operates faculties such as agronomy, science, law, health sciences, economics, and engineering, as well as six higher learning education institutes. State-sponsored, the university has also benefited from donations by Angolan diamond and oil companies.

But the connections with the state have also had their negative side. Writing in 2003’s African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook, Paulo de Carvalho, Victor Kajibanga and Franz-Wilhelm Heimer concluded that higher education had been marred by interference from officials from the ruling party, who dictated formally or informally who should be hired or fired among teaching staff. For a time, there were reports of a “party members only” practice for those appointed to the governing and teaching body of Agostinho Neto University

While some claim that the practice has since been abandoned and that the institution has regained its autonomy and independence, insiders believe it is going on behind the scenes. The university’s top management and governing bodies declined to comment on the issue.

The Obvious Impact

The impact of the sorry state of schools during the war and in the time since is painfully obvious. In Luanda alone, more than 70 percent of adults are illiterate, according to Alfait, an NGO promoting adult literacy in the capital city. Illiteracy is especially prevalent among women (51 percent of the total population), with seven out of 10 women not able to read or write.

“Our education system has been in tatters so long that children, parents, and teachers alike have lost confidence, enthusiasm, and passion, so we must start re-building these three aspects in our communities now,” said Carlos Lagrimas, the education expert.

“The money is there, but we cannot resist the temptation to put that money into our own pockets. That is the problem.”


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