Exploring education differences: Life inside a Nigerian school

woman standing in mountains
Dami Gilbert found plenty of time to enjoy Nigeria’s warm weather and scenery while attending school in Lagos.
Here, I also don’t have to worry about what will happen to me if I don’t finish my homework. What kind of punishment will I get? How much will my teachers look down on me? The fear of never being good enough, that yearning for perfection but not getting close enough, created far too many anxiety attacks.

It is 7 o’clock on a Monday morning. My dogs, Fedio and Douchess, bark when my mother comes into my room to wake me up.

I peek my eyes open and look up at the smooth white ceiling. With a groan, I struggle to pull myself out of bed. Like the rest of the world, I’m unhappy about going to school.

I stretch and put on my uniform — a burgundy skirt, white and burgundy striped button-up and burgundy tie that I ironed the night before. I see the sun shine in through my bay windows, making the pink on my walls sparkle before leaving a shadow of light on the tile floor.

It’s a typical Monday morning in Nigeria, about 76 degrees as I grab my backpack, making sure to check the Yoruba homework my mother helped me with.

My parents run successful businesses and earn enough to build a big house and send me to private school. The situation has its perks. On school days, I head into the kitchen, greet our maid, and pour myself a bowl of cereal before sitting in the dining room. My dad comes in and helps me with my tie. I put on my polished black shoes and say goodbye to my parents as I dash to the car so our driver can take me to school.

Lucky for me, school is in the same gated community I live in. We drive for a few minutes down brick roads with grand houses lining each side. When we arrive at school, I politely greet everyone in the hallways. In America, it’s normal to walk into a congested hallway where girls spray large amount of perfume and body splashes as students listen to music with Beats By Dre headphones.

I walk quickly down the nursery hall and head up the stairs to my third floor classroom. I secretly wish today was Wednesday because I would have art. I love art. My art teacher, Mr. Hosanna, adores my work.

I rush to my desk and start unpacking. “IT’S TIME FOR ASSEMBLY,” I hear a younger student shout as the bell rings.

During assembly, teachers walk around, making sure that each student’s uniform is ironed, shoes are polished and nails are cut and unpainted. Girls must have their hair in braids, all back, and only use natural hair. Boys must cut their hair so it doesn’t get long.

If you disobey any of these rules, you are punished. This could range from kneeling down all day — which means all your work has to be done on your knees, not while sitting — or copying the longest verse from the Bible, which can take hours. If you don’t copy carefully, you’ll be ordered to do it again.

In American schools, you would be sent to the principal’s office or home for an infraction. Not in Lagos. In Nigerian culture and schools, shaming and physical punishment are acceptable forms of discipline.

After assembly, we head back to our normal set of classes. After Chemistry, I have English and Literature with Ms. Okoye. She’s writing notes on the board: “Get your notebooks. We are going to do dictation.”

I dread dictation. It’s like a spelling test, but you don’t get to study for it. Instead, Ms. Okoye calls out random words and students have to spell them out.

“This time, we are doing 50,” she says.

My heart sinks into my stomach. I’m a horrible speller, and I know that if I don’t do well, I won’t hear the last of it from her.

VALUING EDUCATION

Teachers in Nigeria are incredibly strict. They expect nothing but perfection. You must give your best to them. I have a decent relationship with some of my teachers, but to be honest, most of them scared me, which led me to hate their classes.

Nigerian classes are also harder than those in the U.S. It’s all about drilling information into your head. Having fun isn’t part of the routine. Students are expected to learn and get the kind of rigorous education their parents paid for.

The bell rings again. “TEA TIME.” Finally, I think to myself, a “break.” Tea time is 15 minutes to enjoy a snack. It’s also the best opportunity to talk with classmates and relax a bit.

Next up are my language classes: Yoruba or Igbo. We greet our teacher with “E ku Osan,” which means good afternoon in Yoruba. “E ku abO,” she responds. “Welcome.”

It’s onto another language class, French, then Economics before lunch. I can smell the jollof rice and chicken our “aunties” have cooked for us. We call all the school workers “auntie” or “uncle” out of respect. None are actually related to us. It’s a Nigerian custom that applies to elders and the respect they should command.

The biggest difference with Nigerian schools is that students consider it a privilege to be there. Education is valued more, plain and simple. In the United States, teens can go to public school for free. In Nigeria, even public schools cost money since you have to pay for transportation, uniforms and classes each term.

To be enrolled in Nigeria means you have to be serious. To mess around at school is to throw away the money your parents worked hard to earn. While I like that American schools provide free opportunities for education so everyone can go, there’s also something to be said about how seriously Nigerian teens take school. I came to appreciate their approach greatly.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or there aren’t similarities with American schools, either. After lunch, I had music class where we played instruments and learned songs to perform at a school show. On the last day of school before Christmas break, we also sang songs for our families and had class parties with snacks, drinks and gifts. For Valentine’s Day, the school would also be decorated with hearts and the colors red, white and pink. We’d celebrate with a big Valentine’s Day dance for the whole school. That’s one thing I really miss.

Nigerian schools also value sport clubs like swimming, basketball, volleyball, dance and soccer. On sporting Fridays, a lot of male teachers would bring their soccer shoes to play with the students. The boys were always very competitive and loved it.

A BETTER FIT

It was very easy to adjust to Nigeria during my year-and-a-half there. The grading system and routine may have been slightly different, but it was nothing that would surprise American students.

However, relationships with teachers would open their eyes. Students respect teachers in Nigeria. Here, students can talk to teachers any way they like. In Nigeria, punishment brings out the right results since teens aren’t going to risk the embarrassment again.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience both educational systems. What I learned in Nigeria has helped me in so many ways, specifically with my writing skills. I also miss living so close to school and having a driver take me around in the year-round gorgeous weather.

But I knew what I was gaining by coming back to Minnesota. Despite the winter weather and 30-minute rides on a school bus, I’m getting an education I can understand and keep up with. Here, I also don’t have to worry about what will happen to me if I don’t finish my homework. What kind of punishment will I get? How much will my teachers look down on me? The fear of never being good enough, that yearning for perfection but not getting close enough, created far too many anxiety attacks.

School in the United States doesn’t give me any of that. While I loved some parts of Nigeria, I value having a great relationship with my teachers. I value their ability to be reasonable and understanding.

Here, I have peace of mind.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dami Gilbert, a junior at Robbinsdale Cooper High School, spent a year-and-a-half in Lekki peninsula in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were born and raised in Nigeria. They lived in the U.S. for 25 years and saved their money to build a house and start businesses in Nigeria. Dami was born in the U.S. but moved to Nigeria with her mom in 2010. Dami admits that Nigerian schools were a struggle, and after enrolling in Minnesota Virtual High School to help, the stress of being in two schools became too much. With her parents’ blessing, she returned to Minnesota after the summer of 2011 and visits Nigeria during holidays.

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