Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

What It Means to Become Somebody: The Power of Perception and Girls' Educational Choices in Benin, Africa

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

What It Means to Become Somebody: The Power of Perception and Girls' Educational Choices in Benin, Africa

Article excerpt

This article is based on a study that investigated the ways in which a group of female secondary school students in Benin narrated their perceptions of the value of schooling and how these perceptions influenced their decisions to stay in or leave school. It unravels the message-"go to school to become somebody"-that the participants received from their parents and their teachers. Embedded in that injunction is the understanding that going to school leads to a decent job, money, and good social status. Using the girls' interpretations of their parents' social standings, their teachers' failure to achieve a commendable social status, and their construal of the high unemployment rates among degree holders, the article reveals that when some of these girls perceive school as failing to deliver on its promise, they will "leave" school to find other ways to achieve their goal of "becoming somebody." The article finally interrogates the efficacy of the major paradigmatic understandings within which African girls' educational experiences are generally theorized.

One day, my mother was fussing at me for not doing well in school. I told her that if I wanted to, I would drop out of school and get into some apprenticeship [. . .]. I have never seen my mother so angry in my life. I thought she was going to kill me. A few days later, she called me into her room and explained that she wanted me to become somebody and that I had to go to school if I wanted to do so [. . .]. It was then that I understood the value of schooling. Now, I want to make her feel like, "yes, my daughter is somebody." (Ola, 16 years old)

Ola sees schooling as a means to "become somebody." In Benin, where this study was conducted, to become somebody entails among other things, having a job, achieving a certain social status, owning a car, and living in a Western-style house. Like Ola's mother, people throughout the world, from rural peasants to government officials to the multitude of experts employed by international development agencies advocate self-fulfillment and financial freedom through schooling. Schooling has, therefore, been relentlessly and aggressively promoted to African populations, in general, and to African girls, in particular.

The perils of not sending girls to school, as well as the strategies put in place to combat such perils, have been thoroughly researched, documented, and widely publicized. Examples of common newspaper headlines or press release headings are "When girls go missing from the classroom" (Guttman, 2001); "African girls' route to school is still littered with obstacles" (Sengupta, 2003); "25 by 2005: Accelerating progress in girls' education" (UNICEF, 2002a); "UNICEF to pick up the pace on girls' education" (UNICEF, 2002b). At the core of all such documents lies the credo that schooling leads to a better and more pleasant life for self, the family, and the nation.

Meanwhile, in contemporary Africa, most school-age children are surrounded by poverty, corruption, failing governmental structures, and high unemployment rates. These children live in an era where teachers or other academic degree holders seldom own the luxury cars, the big houses, the villas, and apartments in France, England, and the United States that make an individual "somebody." On the contrary, those who are somebody(ies) seem to be either unschooled or hardly literate. This phenomenon, not lost on school-age children and their parents, certainly arouses concerns in some and, undoubtedly, confirms for others that one does not have to go to school to become somebody.


This article reports the findings from an investigation of the paradox of persistence and early exit from school as they both relate to the individual's perceptions of how quickly and how best she might become somebody. I interviewed 10 secondary school continuing students (cs) and 10 secondary school leavers (si) to gauge their perceptions of various factors that influenced their early exit from or persistence in secondary school in Benin. …

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