Africa’s renaissance starts on school benches

On a hill outside Dakar, Senegal, stands the African Renaisance Monument, unveiled in 2010. This massive bronze statue stands some 50 meters tall, depicting a man, woman and child, looking out to sea.

The idea of Africa’s renaissance is very much a dynamic reality. Across the continent, I see powerful trends of renewal and leadership to overcome the challenges of poverty, exclusion, and conflict. Africa is on the move, and the motor driving this is education – education for inclusion, for empowerment, and for peace. Africa’s renewal is starting on the benches of schools.

I saw this last week at the Al Azhar Centre of Excellence in the town of Mbao, not far from the Senegalese capital. This Centre allows students leaving Arab-Islamic schools to learn skills that will open new opportunities for decent work and foster new forms of solidarity.

This is a first motor of renewal. Living together must be taught – this is as much about values and skills for dialogue as skills for jobs. Teaching peace is key to prevent violent extremism, and a force for renewal.

Another is inclusion. In Derkle, Senegal, there is a centre that provides literacy classes for girls and women with disabilities – teaching them to read and write in Wolof, and arithmetic. These classes are another frontline of Africa’s renaissance.

Educating girls and women — especially those most marginalised – is a human right that empowers all society and drives economic growth. It lays the foundation for healthier societies, affecting maternal health and child mortality. For instance, if all girls in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia had secondary education, child marriage would drop by 64% and early births by 59%. Our goal must be to keep girls in school for as long as possible, because this is essential to success across all the Sustainable Development Goals. This is why I welcome the new laws in Chad and Niger to retain girls in school at least to the age of 16 years old.

As with the Al Azhar Centre of Excellence, the Derkle centre is the work of partnership, with UNESCO supporting the National Collective for Alternative and Popular Education and the Women’s Commission of the Association of Disabled Persons of Senegal. This is another face of renewal – governments working hand-in-hand with civil society, backed by international organisations.

This is why Senegal was awarded this year’s UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, in recognition of its efforts to advance literacy through new technologies and mobile phones, linking this with income-generation, especially for women.

Africa’s renaissance must also be environmental. Lake Chad embodies all current challenges – from environmental degradation due to climate change to poor management of natural resources, creating a cycle of poverty, migration and extremism that holds back the whole region. Managing resources sustainably and inclusively is essential – this requires building capacity at every level, including with rising generations, to protect the unique treasures of Africa’s natural environment for the benefit of all, today and tomorrow.

Africa’s immense cultural wealth is another motor driving the continent’s renaissance, and this must also be taught. The cradle of humanity is today a powerhouse of cultural heritage and diversity. This is a wellspring for the continent’s rising cultural sector – we see this in Nigeria’s outstanding film industry, and the decision of Niger to launch an ambitious strategy for cultural renaissance, with a focus on youth mobilisation. Culture provides a foundation of belonging and confidence that is essential for meaningful development.

It is also a force for dialogue and reconciliation. I saw this in July 2015, when I attended the ceremony marking the rebuilding of Timbuktu’s fabled mosques and mausoleums, with UNESCO’s backing, after their destruction by violent extremists.

In Mali, I see the power for peace that is embodied by Africa’s millennial history of exchange and dialogue around faith and knowledge. This great past must be taught in schools and universities, to remind women and men on the continent and across the world of the history they share, and as the basis for a better future for all.

In 2013, the African Union celebrated its 50th anniversary under the theme of ‘Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.’ I was honoured to attend the summit in Addis Ababa, when the Agenda 2063 was adopted, and my message then was clear – UNESCO’s cooperation with the African Union builds on shared values, on common objectives, on a vision of the future of the continent as a dynamic global leader.

This must start with Africa’s young women and men. More than 60% of the continent’s population is under 35 – empowering them means educating them, giving them tools to reach their dreams, to protect their environment, to build peace and live together.

This is happening today. In classrooms and literacy centres, in communities across the continent, Africa’s renaissance is on the move, nurturing humanity’s most powerful force for change, through education. This is the face of Africa’s renaissance.

•Bokova is UNESCO Director-General