Global University Rankings are like comparing potatoes to coco-yam or peaches to agbalumo (White Star Apple)
I remember arriving at Lancaster University to start my Master’s Degree. Everywhere I turned, there was a toilet, running water in the toilet, toilets supplied with tissues, doors that closed and all the works. I am sure that I was never 5 yards away from a functioning toilet. If I was not careful, I was more likely to end up in a toilet than in my seminar room. Bowland North probably has as many toilets as it has seminar rooms. This was far removed from my undergraduate experience in Nigeria. On our very massive campus, there were about 8 functioning toilets for the whole student body. 4 for the guys, 4 for the gals. Never let it be said that OAU Ife did not promote gender equality. These toilets were only functioning when there was running water. That was about twice a day. At about 9am in the morning, and 2pm in the afternoon. At other times, you had to be the master of your body. Woe betide you if your body won that contest. We had a beautiful campus (in my humble and unbiased opinion, the most beautiful campus in the world), absolutely brilliant academic staff (for the most part), a ingenious, entertaining and inexhaustible student union, but no toilets. So we learnt a skill that is taught in very few places. We learnt to keep in what nature suggests should be expelled. For days or even weeks, we would resist nature. With a lot of discomfort, admittedly. But we succeeded, for the most part, at this endeavour.
This got me thinking about the various skills we learnt across the many, many years (story for another day) we spent in Ile-Ife. I began thinking about how world university rankings forget that our universities should be made for us and not for the rest of the world. I thought of how the measures used to rank universities worldwide are obtuse. Like using cutlass to shave hair. Essentially they look at whether universities in the global South are as good as those in the global North, but never do the rankings go the other way. They do not rank how good the students are at surviving without toilets. Because we learnt to live without toilets. We learnt that skill. And who is to judge whether or not it is of value?
We learnt many skills, and these should be recorded against our names.
We learnt to resolutely return to rigorous studies in the aftermath of a bloodbath. We learnt to live on blood-soaked land. After July 12, 1999, life was always tinged with the images of broken bodies, the sounds of gunshots, always at the back of your mind, always threatening. But we learnt to live with the shadow of death. We survived.
We learnt the fortitude required to finish our degrees in the face of lecturers who take personal possession of marks and reserve others for divinity (i.e. A is for God and B is for me). Even when the graduation gown seemed like a distant impossible possibility, a dream at the end of a path strewn with barbwire and landmines, we forged ahead. We learnt that impossibility and possibility are variables. We survived.
We learnt the ability to attend funerals and candlelit processions and hospital bedsides and still smile into the following day. We lost classmates to sicknesses that should not kill, to roads supposedly built. We lost them to death, that seemed to dwell more with us than anywhere else. We learnt to live with death. We survived.
We lived in the middle of a war zone, and still passed our exams. Mostly. Heaven knows how long the conflict between Ife and Modakeke has been waged. We were caught in the middle of historical disputes, between ancients who have long ago shaken the dust of this craven earth from their feet. Battles over land and pride, broke into our classrooms and our dwellings with Molotov cocktails and the stench of hate and war. We survived this too.
We had some of our lectures under the hot sun, some in the rain. Most in the midst of thousands of other students. No public address system. If you wanted one, you had to buy it and risk it being stolen. We had classes from 7am till 7pm. I once fell asleep in class and continued taking dictation. Don’t ask me. I don’t know how that happened either. We survived that too.
We survived teargas and bullets, student rampage and disease-ridden water. We faced closure after closure, we were everyone’s pawns – the government’s, the students’ union’s and the university management’s. And we learnt to be brilliant. We learnt to be absolutely, unquestionably, unconditionally, irrevocably brilliant! We studied by candle light and moonlight and lamplight and sunlight and every kind of light known to man and some as yet unrecorded. We lived on so little sleep our beds disowned us. We found weird and unexpected solutions to problems that were very unique.
We learnt to smile into the fire.
I am not saying that Nigerian universities are in an acceptable state. Not in the least! However, the assessment of whether or not the agbalumo is fit to eat, should be based on whether or not it is a good agbalumo, and not how different the peach is. Many a person has sucked on a maggot-filled agbalumo. However, we cannot say that an agbalumo is bad because it is not a peach. Not matter what we do we cannot turn an agbalumo into a peach.
It is not the first person to get to the finish line who is the better runner, but the one who has come the furthest. We have run through unbelievable obstacles, we have scaled walls designed to defeat us, hurdles placed specifically to trip us up.
You enter into the Nigerian educational system at one end, a questing child, unsure, uncertain, trepidatious – you emerge at the other end (God willing you escape with your life) you emerge a lioness. Nigerian students are people of deep resolution who learn to adapt to unimaginable situations. We learn to pick ourselves up again and again and again. We should be feared. Because ultimately, we are the ones who learnt to live without toilets.