The Liberian activist spoke passionately about carefully returning to traditional African education as a route to economic empowerment.
Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee spoke before attendees at the Clinton Global Initiative Monday and bravely stood behind the oft-maligned African traditional schools, calling for a return to their lessons to help today’s African youth learn to make a way out of no way.
“In Africa many years ago, they had something called the secret societies…those were the former schools,” Gbowee said in a tempered tone after prefacing her remarks by predicting they would be “controversial.”
In more recent times, the secret societies or traditional schools Gbowee mentions have come to be thought of as synonymous with the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). However, Gbowee said that FGM is but one, negative part of the traditional schools’ legacy and that African nations shouldn’t be so quick to throw out the entire custom.
“All of the women in my family that went to that school, I have never seen them hold their heads or fold their arms when they fell on hard times,” she said. “Because there was always a skill that they could exploit to make money. Is it cooking? Is it basket making? Is it weaving cloth? They all had that skill.”
Gbowee said the schools taught students basic self-survival skills, including learning a trade or a craft and basic health and nutrition.
“With or without a Nobel thing, I can go in a market and I can sell, and these braids I can do.” Gbowee said gesturing to her hair tucked underneath her colorful head wrap.
She lamented today’s problem of chronic youth unemployment, stating that if schools gave trade or craft lessons in addition to a traditional curriculum, students would have the ability to immediately support themselves after graduation while they wait for a better opportunity.
"Let's not just criticize," she said. "How can we go back and learn?”
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(Photo: Kyodo /Landov)