Namibia's Great Educator | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Namibia's Great Educator

In building a unified school system, Prime Minister Nahas Angula, a TC alumnus, has helped lead his country out of the apartheid era.
Nahas Angula (Ed.M., 1979; M.A., 1978) never finished his Ph.D. at Teachers College, but he had a good excuse. Instead of writing about apartheid, he went home to help end it.
Since 2005, Angula has served as Prime Minister of Namibia, a sprawling nation on Africa’s South Atlantic Coast bordered by South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Zambia. The position is the second most powerful in Namibia’s government, after that of the Presidency. Yet it is only the capstone of a career in which, perhaps more than any one else, the 66-year-old Angula has made it possible for a generation of his countrymen to become educated, and thus for Namibia to emerge as one of Africa’s most stable and democratically oriented nations.
As recently as a few decades ago, few observers would have bet on that happening. Namibia, which did not win its independence until 1990, experienced more than a century of apartheid, first under Germany and then South Africa. The country is the world’s second most sparsely populated, much of its terrain is desert, and it has been hit hard by AIDS. Yet it has made its way, and education is a major reason why.
“If you’re going to talk about equity, you have to give people knowledge, skills, understanding and learning,” said Angula, reached by phone in March. “Education can’t solve everything—but it makes a hell of a difference.”
As a 19-year-old recruit in the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the party that would ultimately lead Namibia to independence, Angula fled his country in the 1960s and earned a college degree in Zambia. He stayed on to found and teach in schools for other Namibian exiles and finally came to New York in the mid 1970s to represent Namibia at the U.N. While here, he became a fellow at the Africa-America Institute—which had previously supported his high school and undergraduate education—and, with AAI’s assistance, enrolled at TC “to learn more about school management and textbook and curriculum development.”
He earned two master’s degrees and had begun work on a Ph.D. when, with independence in the offing, he was recalled home by SWAPO and subsequently appointed the nation’s first Minister of Education. His task: to build an education system from scratch.
The logistical challenges alone were enormous. Namibia is as large as Texas and Louisiana combined, and its population of roughly two million is mostly scattered.
“We had to create different alternatives, especially through open learning, using technology to reach people in remote areas. We used the radio. Also cell phones, through short messages, and then computers.”
Though Namibia’s population is tiny, it is hugely diverse, comprising Ovambo and Bantu people, as well as Germans, Portuguese, French, Dutch and Chinese.“We were determined to integrate the schools, and to participate in UNESCO’s ‘Education for All’ goals,” Angula says.
Today, Namibia has successfully instituted compulsory education for all young people 16 and under. There is a national curriculum as well as a growing number of “school clusters”—the equivalent of public school districts—and colleges of education. Still, “our quality and student outcomes are not so good,” Angula says.
For the past decade, he has worked closely with AAI to enable many Namibians to earn higher education degrees in the United States, Europe and South Africa, and for teachers of math, science and technology to hone their skills abroad.
“In the 1990s, I thought, how will these people make their way out of this? They’re so poor, their needs are so great,” says AAI President Mora McLean. “But when I visited again in 2004, it was light years different. The light was on in people’s eyes and those who’d benefited from educational experiences abroad were determined to give back to their country.”

Published Monday, Jun. 8, 2009