As students prepare to return to school for the 2015/16 academic year, this week’s article, originally published in October 2013, is a powerful reminder that the youth are the future of this nation. If Malawi is going to emerge as a nation free from corruption, our young people are the ones who are going to make the difference.
In 1999, Patrick Awuah embarked on a brave adventure. A multimillionaire by the age of 30, he left a lucrative career as a programmer at Microsoft in Seattle, USA, to return to his native Ghana. He was chasing a dream.
Like many Africans, Patrick was disillusioned with the state of affairs in his motherland. And like so many when faced with the magnitude of problems that need to be tackled on the continent, he became overwhelmed. On a visit to Ghana, he discussed issues with family and friends, and gradually came to the conclusion that every one of Africa’s problems could be traced to leadership, or the lack of it. People in power were letting their citizens down. People in positions of influence were either corrupt or ineffective.
As Patrick chatted with peers whom he had left behind to go and study in America, he learnt that fellow computer science students in Ghana had studied computer programming by writing code on paper and being graded for it. They had never touched a machine. Their learning had been purely theoretical with no practical application. Patrick began to get a clue that something was seriously wrong with Ghana’s education system.
Patrick visited several public universities. He saw crowded lecture theatres. Students had to queue early to get a seat, or else spend the entire lecture peering through a window. Laboratories were not functioning, and serious incidences of academic dishonesty were rife. Education consisted simply of memorising information to pass exams. Attitudes of graduating students conveyed a sense of entitlement rather than a sense of responsibility.
As Patrick continued his research, he discovered that less than 5 percent of college age youth in Ghana attended university. By definition, or by default, this elite group of young people were the future leaders. Looking at the cohorts of 20-year-olds on the campuses of Ghana, Patrick realised that in 30 years time these young people would be lawyers, doctors, bankers and heads of corporations. They would be the ones responsible for making policy, allocating resources, building infrastructure, spearheading development. Was Ghana raising a generation of leaders that could be entrusted with the keys of the nation?
Patrick decided to get engaged. Education was about developing the intellect but also about developing character. Education was about empowering young people to think critically and creatively. Education was about fostering values of integrity and compassion. Education was about inspiring young people to have a sense of purpose and realise their full potential. Education was about producing excellent, responsible citizens who create a society that is worth living in.
In 2002, with an investment of $700,000 of Patrick’s own money, Ashesi University was born. Ashesi’s mission is to produce ethical, entrepreneurial leaders with the courage to transform the continent. At Ashesi the focus is not just on what students learn, but how they learn. They are encouraged to approach problems with an open mind, analyse information, challenge assumptions, ask the right questions and reflect on the views of others through independent research, debates and class projects.
Students apply theory to practice, and are taught not only to be technically competent but also socially aware. They are encouraged to produce real solutions for real life problems through compulsory community service. Like student Alhassan Abdulai, who set up a system to provide microloans to petty traders in Pokuase market. Or Araba Amuasi who graduated top of her class and could have chosen any job in corporate Ghana, but instead chose to work at Village of Hope orphanage in rural Ghana after community service showed her the difference she could make in the lives of disadvantaged children. Nigerian graduate Alan developed an app to bring the constitution of Nigeria to everyone’s mobile device, thus empowering fellow citizens and doing his bit to strengthen the rule of law in his country.
Every student attends a series of leadership seminars from first year through to fourth year, but perhaps the most ground breaking aspect of life at Ashesi is the Honour Code. In 2008, students at Ashesi voted to adopt a code of ethics for exams. They determined to hold themselves individually and corporately responsible for ethical behaviour. Faculty members no longer invigilate exams at Ashesi. Students take exams in exam halls by themselves.
Ashesi University believes that, in the same way computer science students learn computer programming by practically designing, implementing and testing software, students learn ethics by practicing ethical behaviour. The Honour Code at Ashesi provides an opportunity for students to practice ethical living. It helps them develop a habit of honourable behaviour that is internally driven.
Ashesi now has a student culture that strongly disapproves of dishonesty. Students who cheat are reported to the Ashesi judicial committee. Senior student Nana Ama Akosa says, “Being ethical means doing the right thing even when no one else is watching. We feel good about the Honour Code. We stand out because of it. And we walk with our heads held high because we truly believe in it.”
The Honour Code seems to have taken root. In 2009, a student cheated on a quiz, then later reported himself to his lecturer, apologised for his actions, and faced the consequences.
Africa needs leaders like this.