A Task as Large as Africa Itself ; an Academic Struggles to Tell the Story of Higher Education on His Continent

Article excerpt

Damtew Teferra knows firsthand the many kinds of adversity that can overwhelm African academics. A native of Ethiopia, he watched as his alma mater, Addis Ababa University, was torn apart by civil war in the 1970s and '80s. Like many of Ethiopia's best and brightest students, he was finally forced to flee.

But Dr. Teferra never gave up either his studies or his hope that he could somehow make a positive contribution to education in his homeland. It was while he was working toward his PhD in higher- education administration at Boston College that he conceived of pulling together the world's first handbook detailing the conditions of colleges and universities in Africa.

At every turn, he found the publications on African higher education to be woefully lacking. "Most of what was written," says Teferra, "was too fragmented, and out of date."

But it didn't take Teferra long to discover that he was taking on a challenge as enormous, complicated, and troubled as the African continent itself. Civil wars, repressive regimes, poverty, and broken-down lines of communication were among the many obstacles to be overcome as Teferra worked to edit "African Higher Education," a book now finally complete and due to be published by Indiana University Press this spring.

Teferra began his project three years ago when he secured a $98,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.

One of his first goals, Teferra says, "was to make sure that the voices of the Africans be heard."

He was dismayed to discover that the limited material available on African higher education was largely written by Westerners and utterly failed to reflect a genuinely African perspective. "So we pledged that the authors would come from Africa," he says.

This proved, however, an easier promise to make than to keep.

First, authors had to be found to write chapters on the state of higher education in each of Africa's 54 countries. Many of those nations are beset by civil war, poverty, and a complete lack of academic freedom.

Some scholars - particularly those in Arab or Islamic states in North Africa - wouldn't even consider writing for a Western publication, for fear that they would lose their jobs or perhaps even end up in jail.

Other potential authors proved simply too hard to reach. E-mails got bounced back, and many phone calls never went through.

Teferra says he spent days in front of a fax machine, trying to send messages to potential contributors.

But the challenges didn't end there. Even after authors were found, the harsh reality of life in many African countries dealt continual setbacks to completion of the handbook.

Even in less dangerously repressive regimes, many of the contributors felt the need to massage the truth in order to avoid trouble at home.

"They had constraints - governments which are 'reasonably' repressive," says Philip Altbach, director of Boston College's Center for International Higher Education and a co-editor of the handbook. "To get people to write objectively and frankly about the problems faced in their countries wasn't easy."

Political turmoil also played a central role. In December of 2000, Teferra received an e-mail from a contributor in Sierra Leone. At the time, the nation was still in the midst of a brutal civil war, and the author was explaining why his chapter was late.

"Circumstances occasionally get out of our immediate control," the author wrote in the e-mail. "The rebel war frequently impose [sic] unexpected responsibilities and technical difficulties, such as computer brake-down [sic] and clerical employee tardiness ... we regret any inconvenience this causes."

In the end, however, Teferra's diligence paid off. Seventy-five percent of the handbook's chapters were written by authors in- country.

Most of the other submissions came from native Africans living abroad, mostly in Europe and the United States. …