Editors Give Voice to African Scholars
© 2003 The Boston Globe
March 23, 2003, Sunday
By John McElhenny, Globe Correspondent
In Ethiopia, home to 63 million people, there are just enough college students to roughly fill the campuses of Boston College and Boston University.
That statistic so alarmed Damtew Teferra, a BC assistant professor and an Ethiopian, that he has spent the last 2 1/2 years compiling a book he hopes will promote higher education across Africa.
The book, "African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook," coedited by BC colleague Philip Altbach, covers higher education in Africa's 54 countries, along with themes ranging from gender issues and e-learning to student activism.
Altbach, director of BC's Center for International Higher Education, said the idea is to create a community of scholars in Africa - an "Invisible College," one in which specialists think, address, and write about higher learning.
"We want to get away from most of the people who are writing about these issues being in Washington or London," said Altbach, 61. "We're in this game to improve African higher education - to make that aspect of African life better."
Seventy-eight authors contributed to the book, most of them professors or specialists working in Africa or native Africans who left to work abroad. The editors had difficulties finding authors in countries where civil society and free expression are not fully developed and where university unrest has been known to topple governments.
"University professors are under constant watch, so they have to be careful what they say or to whom they say it," said Teferra, 40, who was a boy in 1974 when his country's emperor was overthrown after student protests.
The danger to outspoken scholars was highlighted in the case of Egyptian sociologist and rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of tarnishing Egypt's image. He was freed Tuesday after his conviction was overturned.
Some of the scholars in the book also feared that by speaking out they would face retribution. Teferra said one author was nervous about discussing the project because he worried that his phone might be wiretapped and officials would find out about his work.
There were other - some dangerous - challenges to completing the book. Teferra said he was badgering one author in war-torn Sierra Leone for missing a deadline, until the man explained that gunfire in the streets because of a civil war had knocked out his power. In another case, it took a week to fax a single document to authors in 10 countries.
Africa, with 700 million people, has fewer than 300 colleges and universities. Several tiny countries, including Cape Verde, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Reunion, and Sao Tome, and Principe, have no institutions at all, Teferra said.
By contrast, in Greater Boston, there are about 50 colleges and universities.
Ethiopia has about 10 times as many people as Massachusetts, but had only two universities until five years ago. Now it has six.
Teferra grew up in a family of nine children with a father who repeatedly emphasized the importance of education. Even so, Teferra and one brother made it to college.
Africa's dearth of colleges and universities stems from the colonial powers that controlled Africa until the 1960s, he said. Those powers discouraged higher learning for a cruel, yet simple reason.
"With education comes resistance," said Teferra. "There was a deliberate policy of not expanding higher education."
Other factors contributed as well, including policies by the World Bank and other agencies to focus exclusively on basic literacy while neglecting universities. Widespread poverty and poor governance in many African countries were also factors, he said.
Teferra and Altbach plan to distribute their book for free to government agencies and major universities throughout Africa. It will also be available in the United States after its June publication.
Teferra, who left the University of Stirling in Scotland to work with Altbach at Boston College, also plans to start a quarterly journal on higher education in Africa.
Around the world, people are increasingly recognizing that higher education is a key to the development of modern nations, Altbach said. In a small way, he and Teferra say, they hope their book and upcoming journal contribute to improving Africa.
"We have this odd view that knowledge is power," he said with a smile. "We hope it works."
GRAPHIC: PHOTO, Boston College professors Damtew Teffera (left) and Philip Altbach say their book on higher education in Africa will cover topics ranging from gender issues to student activism. / GLOBE PHOTO / CHRISTINA CATURANO