Overcoming the Odds: Challenges and Successes of Sub-Saharan African Women Seeking Higher Education in the United States

By Gatua, Mary Wairimu | Adult Learning, Summer-Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Overcoming the Odds: Challenges and Successes of Sub-Saharan African Women Seeking Higher Education in the United States


Gatua, Mary Wairimu, Adult Learning


The purpose of this article is to describe the challenges Sub-Saharan African women, including myself, have experienced in their pursuit of graduate studies in the United States and successes strategies that have been adopted. I begin by exploring brief overview of the education of girls and women in Sub-Saharan African countries. I then explore the successes of women in achieving their learning goals by sharing my story of challenges and successes. In addition, I examine some narratives of African women as they negotiate their identity as custodians of African cultures as well as their transformation learning as a framework for change. I conclude with a discussion of how African educational policies might be changed to provide women with more opportunities in higher education and what the US universities' educators might do to support African women in their studies.

A Brief Overview of Girls' and Women's Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Women's subordinate status and inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa are explicitly connected to European colonialism. McCullum (2005) argues that many African education systems still reflect the colonial period and are failing to keep up with modern pedagogy and teaching resources. According to Shabaya and Kwandwo (2004), deep-seated cultural barriers have conspired to create and perpetuate gender disparity in access to education in many African countries. Many families in sub-Sahara Africa devote great investments in education for boys than for girls. Limited participation or girls and women in education at all levels in many Sub-Saharan African countries are reflections of traditional and societal norms. Sifuna, (2006) asserts that such norms often influence parents' unwillingness to send their daughters to school even when they could afford it. In a four-country study conducted in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Mauritania, Adetunde and Akensina (2008) found "education of girls in the rural areas is less valued compared to that of boys. Prevalent factors include: socio-cultural barriers, early marriages, cultural perceptions of boys' superior abilities, lack of parental support and many others are the constraints to female education" (p. 339).

Research conducted by Assie-Lumumba (2006) observes indisputable evidence of gender inequality in education access and opportunity and how that inequality is filtered through rigid cultural and traditional systems that continue to negatively affect women. However, educating girls translates into educated women which in turn provide benefits for the broader society. These benefits include "increased economic productivity, improvements in health, delayed age at marriage, lower fertility, increased political participation, and generally more effective investments in the next generation" (Population Council, 2005, p. 1). Kellogg, Hervy, and Yizengaw, (2008) emphasize that higher education provides the means through which women and other historically disadvantaged groups can achieve positions of leadership and increase their economic well-being, thereby, having a long-term impact on overall productivity and equality of opportunity.

In order to understand the challenges African women face in their pursuit of higher education in the United States, research on personal narratives has been conducted to illustrate their educational journey, challenges as well successes. In a sense, narratives afford participants the opportunity to reflect on their livelihood experiences and share those moments and events with the world.

The Power of Narrative

Narratives allow sharing of lived experiences while constructing meaning of those particular experiences. One constraint experienced by many African women graduate students is the need to manage the demands of a marriage, family, and graduate school. Beoku-Betts (2004) argues that men in African societies are privileged and do not expect to contribute to domestic labor and childcare. …

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