Lawrence Muganga’s book You Can’t Make “Fish Climb Trees” calls for new approach to teaching African students
When Lawrence Muganga was nine-years-old, he asked his mom for money to buy a male and female rabbit to breed so he could afford to go back to school in central Uganda.
His plan worked. It worked so well that one year and 300 rabbits later, Muganga offered some animals to his school to help fund other kids who couldn’t afford school fees. Unfortunately, Muganga’s teacher didn’t share his enthusiasm.
Instead, the teacher convinced Muganga’s parents that the business easing their financial hardship was a distraction. Muganga was suspended and his rabbit farm was shut down.
“It showed me that the education system is more theoretical than practical,” said Muganga, now 43, an author and policy advisor who moved to Edmonton in 2011 to complete his PhD in education at the University of Alberta.
“This gave me the opportunity to make my contribution towards correcting a system of education that is not actually helping students to achieve their full potential. Their inner natural abilities are not being nurtured, are not being brought out by the education system.”
Nearly four decades later, it’s an experience that helped inform Muganga’s new book You Can’t Make “Fish Climb Trees”, which has just clinched a $1.3 million book deal with an international organization. The contract prevents the organization from being named.
The book calls for a new approach to teaching students in sub-Saharan Africa, which according to Muganga hasn’t changed that much since his childhood lessons, sitting under a mango tree.
Muganga advocates for a shift that moves away from theoretical learning, such as lessons in geography and history of far-off places, to realistic learning that equips students with work skills they can use.
He pointed to an example in his own family in Uganda — two nephews who graduated university are unemployed while their brother, who became an electrician, owns his own business and employs 117 people.
“[The book] is recommending something I call authentic learning that allows the students to produce a tangible outcome or product that they can share with their world, their world being their communities,” said Muganga.
He said the model of “authentic learning” was first coined by Ontario-based educator Steve Revington.
At the same time, Muganga said, it’s important to teach students soft skills such as communication, collaboration and problem-solving.
The change will help tackle high rates of youth unemployment and reduce an over-reliance on foreign expertise, companies and imports, he said.
“Africa is not poor but the approaches to developing its human capital is where they have gotten it wrong,” he said.
The book deal allows for the free distribution of You Can’t Make “Fish Climb Trees” in universities and schools in Africa but that’s not the only boon.
The money will be used to build a school in Kampala, Uganda based on the model of authentic learning. Muganga expects the project will break ground in September.
“Other schools could come and learn from this school; to see what is being done and implement it in the various schools,” Muganga said.
Inspired by his mom
Muganga’s own passion for learning was largely inspired by his mother. With a Grade 2 education, she wanted a better life for her children after the family fled conflict and persecution in Rwanda in the 1950s.
Weekdays began at 3 a.m. to give Muganga enough time to make the 10-kilometre trek to school which sometimes involved swimming across a river when the bridge washed away in the rainy season.
Through his academic success and soccer skills, Muganga managed to secure the tuition that allowed him to complete high school and earn a scholarship to Makerere University in Kampala.
Through another scholarship from the World Bank, Muganga completed his master’s degree in economic policy. In between, he returned to Rwanda, where he eventually oversaw a capacity-building program for the entire country.
Last September, Muganga completed his PhD in education administration and leadership at the University of Alberta.
His emphasis on authentic learning is reflected in the way he and his wife are raising their own six children including a daughter named class valedictorian, another one who just made lead in the school play and two children enrolled in cadets.
“I try to understand their strengths,” said Muganga. “They are totally different characters. So when I understand that, I am trying to raise them with the passion they have, with their natural abilities, and support them that way.”