Four times in recent months, the photonews Facebook page Kampala Express, has reported on graduation ceremonies at Sir Nelson School of Languages in Wandegeya.
I was intrigued, because the student community looked surprisingly pan-African. I can understand Somalis and Sudanese (North and South), coming to study English in Uganda, but did not expect that there would be a good number of students from the Comoros.
Alive to the fact that if you ambushed many Ugandans on the street, several wouldn’t know about Comoros the Kampala Express editor helpfully wrote; ‘Most students at the language school come from the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros’.
The school does not have a website. And it is not a big campus. Its main information portal is its Facebook page. This raises the question how so many students from Comoros, and other parts of the continent, would end up travelling to Uganda to study English at a private school in Wandegeya.
The answer is that Africa, like the rest of the world, is changing, and because of the way technology has shifted access to knowledge, especially young people do not get their information from legacy institutions. And few “establishment” institutions are offering knowledge for the future.
If you are a foreigner and wanted to study in Uganda, then went to the Ministry of Education and Sports website, you would not end up at Sir Nelson School of Languages.
The website does not even have a section on “Studying in Uganda”, which ideally should be the most important element in this global age.
This is not meant as a criticism, but to point out that it is just not part of the new reality. For starters, the young men and women in Comoros, while they know about Uganda’s (old) reputation for “good English”, would not look to the Ministry of Education.
Part of this is understandable because in Uganda, we start studying formal English in nursery school, and after secondary school, the next stages are advanced.
It would be considered insane to teach “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” in a college. Yet this is probably where the money is.
To diversify their audiences, languages have become very important for people whose main form of distribution is digital and online. At the very basic level, you see this on Twitter, where someone translates and puts a Spanish twist on your tweet, and it gets 1,500 retweets, when your original managed only 50.
Another element of this, is that many young people see that if they are to build a future business, they need to build a community. It helps if you are going to grow your blog, if you have people who will share it on social media because they are part of a community you have built offline – at college, or even on a bus trip. This community is part of the “capital” that these days can determine your success. It’s more valuable, if it’s less provincial.
Also, the lucrative market is not just national. The Internet has not only brought down the cost of distribution to near-zero, but has also enabled a less “tribal” market, one based on interests, to emerge.
The weekend match between Manchester United and Manchester City trended for hours in nearly every country in Africa. However, a clash between Express FC and Villa FC would almost never make it outside Uganda. If you are looking to become rich from your football website, you have to cross borders.
The Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, seems to understand this better than most others in Africa. It keeps sprinkling its few high quality movies with stars from other African countries where “Ki-Nigeria” is popular.
Some of the current crop of musicians do it too, but they are still far away from the golden age of “Lingala” (more accurately soukous) bands like Mangelepa or Super Mazembe, which brought the best musicians from east and central Africa together.
All this is, therefore, an important tip of a wave to watch in Africa. Many people in Africa will tell you that its students are dying to go and study in the West. No.
According to a recent authoritative report, while France is the top destination for African students, the numbers are declining. Otherwise, the second leading destination for African students is not the US or UK, it’s South Africa. Nearly 20 per cent of African students studying abroad study in South Africa.
Some countries like Mauritius have smelt the opportunity. Mauritius has set itself a goal of attracting 100,000 foreign students by 2020. They would comprise nearly 8 per cent of the island’s population.
If some policy person in the Kampala government wants to understand what is fuelling a connected Africa, well, the answer is not far away – it is in Wandegeya.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3