Interview with Hon. Mr. Nangolo Mbumba
Minister of Education
Republic of Namibia
Windhoek, Wednesday 7th, June 2006 - The Mission of Statement of the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology is quite broad. Could you give us a little more explanation regarding the contribution that the ministry gives to the economy as a whole?
We are a country, which is independent for 16 years now. At the beginning, the mission of the ministry was to bring every group together, because there used to be much segregation due to apartheid that separated the people of Namibia into different tribes and language groups. That has been accomplished. We had integrated the schools. Our students now can attend any school, whether they come from the richer or the poorer suburbs of Windhoek. There has never been any demonstration from parents not wanting children from a certain group to join a school, or fighting among the kids themselves. We believe that the integration on the education level went much smoother than the broader society.
Do you think that is because it was a newer generation coming through?
It was the new generation, and the people willing to accept each other, and people fed up with conflicts. Then the question of making education truly national was our next challenge. We still have some pockets where the distance to school is too long. There are areas there the schools are not the quality that we want to have, like it is in Windhoek. Windhoek has very good schools. In cities and towns it is easier to organize schools, but in rural areas, where they rely on farming and cattle herding, it is very difficult to organize. So that is a challenge that we are facing, because our president is emphasizing rural development. We are a country with no history of tertiary education. Our university was created after independence. Then we have the challenge of when you are a new country, people get this concept that once you study something and learn to read and write and type fast that you don’t have to learn how to do anything with your hands. We realize that because of this misconception, we need to instill in our young kids how to do things. That is why we are introducing occupational training programs. We even have a program for those who have passed Grade 12 and above. The challenge now is to contribute to the realization of Vision 2030: that Namibia will be a well-developed country, that the economy will be knowledge-based, that the population will be well-educated and well-trained, and that the quality of workmanship and the quality of value addition will be able to compete in the international marketplace. That is our big challenge and that is why we are emphasizing that there should be one Ministry of Education – not split between one high and one low – so that the policies are streamlined from primary through secondary, through to vocational or university. That has been a good initiative by our president, and a lot of work for us here in the Ministry. At one time we were even thinking of getting two deputies, within one ministry. We even considered having two permanent secretaries. But we have many undersecretaries that are responsible for different areas and who are helping us, and then the directors. We have decentralized education; we have 13 administrative regions and in those regions each one is an educational regional director - those are basically the regional ministers of education. We have to recognize those regions where the directors are doing well, where the students are doing well. Last year the best region actually wasn’t here in Windhoek, despite a number of good schools. The best region was up in the North, in Oshikoto. And we have been analyzing how they did it, and we’ve seen that it can be credited to good management. There’s a willingness to accommodate international ideas, such as Peace Corps and other organizations, and a willingness to accept people from other regions who are better qualified to teach their children. That has helped. The worst performer was in the northwest point of the country. It is a very traditional region, and the population is very spread out - I think it is the region where formalized education came last. They don’t have the history of schools, teachers, literature, books, etc. So this is a challenge: to develop the infrastructure and the resources to bring up the level of standards for education there. The region is great for tourism, and it has a wealth of minerals, but the education will sustain the area so that must be dealt with. Anyway, our aim is to give our children consistent quality education and training, in every region of the country, and to introduce them to science and technology. We also want to polish up our language policy. Historically, we have been under the Germans so we spoke German, and then we fell under the South Africans so we had to speak Afrikaans. Now we have English as the official language. Every time I am driving in the car – which is the only time I have a real opportunity to listen to the radio – I hear the type of English we are speaking and it is very unique; we call it “Namlish” – a Namibian version of English. We must emphasize that we train our students to speak English not necessarily with an English accent, but in an internationally understandable manner; it does not help to only speak English that your friends can understand. So that’s something we need to work on, as well as the skills in science and technology. Overall we have many challenges, but one thing that I can thank the Namibian population for is the support they give us – all parents want their kids to go to school, and it’s not like they are hiding them away to herd cattle. The challenge therefore is on the government to provide proper teachers, proper schools, and proper consumables such as books and so on, and to introduce new technologies to the school. It is the government that is the corner, and the population that is pushing.
We know that you also provide certain services in the poorer rural schools, such as meals and certain facilities, so that they are well looked after in order to provide a good learning environment.
Yes, there are some places where Unicef helps us. We have help from World Food Program, and also a ministry responsible for Child Welfare, which has budget for these kinds of things. It has helped so it’s good to see that the children are not only cared for educationally but they are also healthy. Good education has to be approached holistically.
For example in the past people were trained on the job. But some of them were not fully literate and some of them did not have a secondary school level. General education was not high, but they were paid only like ordinary workers. We have tried to give these people some formal test so that they can be certified, and then the introduction of formal vocational training has opened up the possibility for people to get jobs. You can get the training and you can still go to university, but at least you can always change later. We are giving them a strong foundation for them to be able to earn a living. We want to give our people the resources to have the skills, to earn an independent living.
We were reading that the University of Namibia is one of the top 20 universities in Africa, that’s a considerable achievement, bearing in mind that the country is only 16 years old.
You know, Namibians are very critical people. They don’t appreciate things so quickly and easily, which is good – we are very democratic. We criticize everything and everyone, even our president at times. But it is true; we have made some strides that we are very proud of. We are increasing the number of doctorate graduates and the graduates with master degrees, and what really encourages me is the number of graduates in bachelors from all kinds of subjects. If this continues to increase, then these people are going to be going into the workforce in all kinds of levels, and we know that quality is going into the system.
Exchange programs are growing rapidly in Europe, to include countries all over the world. What is the ministry doing to promote international change for Namibian students?
We have a history of people running out of Namibia during the struggle for independence to get education on the outside, in East Africa and West Africa, and Russia and America, and even China. What we are basically doing is trying to keep secondary education and below at home. We even try to say that with the exception of some subjects that we don’t have, we want the bachelor’s degrees done at home, or with South Africa, and also within the region. But we want the international cooperation in terms of tertiary education to be at the masters’ level and above. We have the specialized programs and we have a special fund to assist this. We have good connections to Germany on the higher level, and also Sweden and Finland. We are starting to establish programs with Cyprus in the field of tourism. We have some young people who have studied in Cuba, in Spanish. So we can easily send them to the very best Spanish universities to study at the higher level. Also Ireland, and New Zealand and Australia. We are proud because some of our best students are studying at the best universities in South Africa, so they are not far from home.
Among the international community here in Windhoek there seems to be many Spanish and French teachers, promoting their language and cultural exchange.
It is very important to us to have the right people working with us, for example with our cooperation with UNESCO, in order to have the correct language translations and yes, in order to have that cultural exchange.
Where do you see the education sector in Namibia in three years time?
Our long-term program is 15 years. The first five years started with this year. I hope that within 5 years that at least we have changed the management of the institutions. In 1990, at independence, we tried to employ anyone who was available, who had the qualifications. We are hoping that the critical mass of expertise will be available so that the choices and appointments will be based among those who are best qualified and specialized for teaching these subjects, and not just among those who have a general education background. And in the government we need more people who are specialized in their respective fields, so that they can take the appropriate decisions or recommend the appropriate decisions to the higher officers.
What would be your personal message to our readers, who are thinking about coming to Namibia or who are interested in knowing more about the opportunities here?
We are a young nation, and we need friends and development partners to help us in improving our education system in making sure all our children are able to get a quality education. They can give us funds, technical support, equipment, but what we need most is friendship and political support. And on the tourism side, just come and see Namibia. There is plenty of room - it is too large for the two million people we have here.