Africa Day and the AU’s Year of Education: Prioritizing Foundational Learning for a Brighter Future

Africa Day and the AU’s Year of Education: Prioritizing Foundational Learning for a Brighter Future

By: Kirstin Buchanan

Each year, May 25 marks Africa Day – a time to celebrate the rich culture, traditions, and diversity of the continent and its people. As a member of the African diaspora raised in the Caribbean, Africa Day is an opportunity for me to celebrate the strong cultural identity and common heritage that intricately connect us and an important reminder that together, we can lay the foundations for a brighter future.

This year, the African Union declared 2024 the “Year of Education,” calling on governments to accelerate progress toward achieving regional and global education targets.

With nearly 90% of 10-year-olds in Sub-Saharan Africa unable to read and understand a simple text, this declaration brings renewed hope for unlocking Africa’s immense potential, emphasizing the critical role of education. For the Luminos Fund, it underscores the importance of our education mission: to ensure all children have equal access to joyful, foundational learning.

Luminos student in The Gambia writes in his student workbook during class.

In The Gambia, Luminos student Ebrima practices his handwriting during class. Learning to write is a critical part of foundational literacy. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund) 

A Day of Celebration and Reflection

Africa Day commemorates the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on May 25, 1963. Since its founding, the OAU, known today as the African Union (AU), has served as the pillar of regional cooperation, focused on achieving shared development goals and promoting peace and stability through unity. Africa Day has become a day of both celebration and reflection on the region’s progress toward these goals.

Education is a crucial piece of the puzzle on Africa’s path to continued prosperity. The Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25), adopted by AU heads of state and government, provides the framework for transforming education systems and equipping Africa’s youth to become agents of change for advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The theme for the AU’s Year of Education, “Educate and Skill Africa for the 21st Century,” is a timely reaffirmation of these commitments. Multiple years of compounding crises, from pandemics to climate change, have reversed much of the continent’s progress in education and underscored the urgency for building more equitable education systems that are resilient to future crises.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, one in five primary-school-aged children are still out of school. Even beyond access, one in four children does not complete primary school, and most children enrolled in school are not learning. At most, only one in five children achieves the minimum proficiency level in reading upon completing primary education (UNESCO).

Prioritizing foundational learning for all children is one of the most important tools for addressing the learning crisis. With strong foundations in literacy and numeracy, children and youth are empowered to access a world of knowledge and ideas that will enable them to build higher-order skills and unlock pathways to improved livelihoods. For the most marginalized children, the ability to read, write, and do math builds belief in their own potential, resulting in the confidence and motivation to succeed in future learning environments.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Luminos is helping out-of-school children get a second chance at education. I fondly remember one of my first experiences entering a Luminos classroom in Ethiopia – students’ faces lit up with joy as they practiced counting play money through a song, sung to the tune of a local nursery rhyme. Throughout the room, an array of colorful artwork, including numbers and the letters of the alphabet, bring life to the otherwise barren thatch and bamboo walls. By focusing on joyful, foundational learning, we provide children with a safe and inclusive environment where they can feel comfortable and enjoy the learning process. This, in turn, helps develop a love of learning in students that continues well beyond their time in the Luminos program.

Indeed, this was the experience of Luminos alumna, Degnesh, who is now proudly enrolled in grade 4 at her local government school. After many years out of school, Degnesh enrolled in the Luminos catch-up program in 2021. There, she built foundational reading, writing, and math skills, as well as her love for learning.  “When I entered the Luminos classroom, I could not identify letters,” says Degnesh. “Now I’m reading at home and at school. The program made me love education.”

Luminos alumna Degnesh outside her classroom holding her school books.

Luminos alumna, Degnesh, says, “I was sad to leave [the Luminos program], but at the same time, I was very proud of myself. Now I have the attitude that I can achieve anything I want.” (Photo: Michael Stulman/Luminos Fund) 

Beyond the individual impacts, strong foundational learning systems serve as the cornerstone for building flourishing societies by promoting productive citizenship, sustainable development, gender equality, improved health, social cohesion, and stability. In the words of the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, “Investing in education is the greatest investment we can make in our common future, in peace, and sustainable development, and particularly in gender equality.

 A Critical Inflection Point

Addressing the learning crisis has long been an expressed priority for African governments. Many governments have endorsed the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning, a global initiative launched at the 2022 United Nation’s Transforming Education Summit (TES), signaling their commitment to ensure foundational learning for all children and advance progress toward SDG 4 targets. The AU’s declaration of 2024 as the Year of Education presents an opportune, yet critical moment for governments to further build on these commitments and prioritize foundational learning in national policy agendas.

African governments and ministries of education can chart a path to a brighter future for generations to come by investing in strengthening education systems. While this takes many forms, evidence-based strategies include prioritizing implementation of structured pedagogies and instructional methods, ongoing teaching development and coaching, and robust monitoring and evaluation.

In addition to strong political leadership, substantial collaboration will be required.

SDG 4: Quality Education

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Targets:

  • 4.1 Free primary and secondary education
  • 4.2 Equal access to quality pre-primary education
  • 4.3 Equal access to affordable technical, vocational and higher education
  • 4.4 Increase the number of people with relevant skills for financial success
  • 4.5 Eliminate all discrimination in education
  • 4.6 Universal literacy and numeracy
  • 4.7 Education for sustainable development and global citizenship
  • 4.8 Build and upgrade inclusive and safe schools
  • 4.9 Expand higher education scholarships for developing countries
  • 4a Increase the supply of qualified teachers in developing countries

Education leaders and experts from Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia during an inter-ministerial exchange facilitated by Luminos in Ethiopia. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund) 

Through my experience at Luminos, I have learned that there is power in unity – no one country can solve the learning crisis alone. This notion of strength in unity was the impetus for a recent inter-ministerial exchange facilitated by Luminos, which convened a range of education leaders and experts from Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia for a series of discussions on advancing foundational learning in Sub-Saharan Africa. This power in unity is also the very pillar on which the African Union was formed.

 This Africa Day, let us celebrate the unity and collaboration that has paved the way for the continent’s progress to date. Let us also unite in our commitment to work together to unlock the light of learning in every child through joyful, foundational learning, so they may bring to fruition the AU’s aspirations to transform Africa into the global powerhouse of the future.

Kirstin Buchanan

Kirstin Buchanan is the Communications and Advocacy Manager at the Luminos Fund where she amplifies student voices and program stories, in addition to helping drive content, messaging, and fundraising strategy. Kirstin leads the development and implementation of the communication strategy relating to the organization’s advocacy and government engagement work. She also leads engagement with the Luminos Fund Advisory Board.  

Africa Day: A New Dawn

Africa Day: A New Dawn

By: Kirstin Buchanan

Each year on May 25, Africans and others around the globe celebrate Africa Day. The day commemorates the 1963 founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), known today as the African Union, which was Africa’s first post-independence continental institution. For Africans on the continent and in the diaspora, Africa Day signifies unity, pride in being African, and an opportunity to celebrate the continent’s progress while reflecting on the common challenges yet to overcome.

Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka,
Former Minister of Education, Zimbabwe

In honor of Africa Day, we are sharing the story of a true African visionary and luminary in the education sector: Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka. Dzingai served as the first Minister of Education and Culture for Zimbabwe upon its Independence from Britain from 1980 to 1988, and as Minister of Higher Education from 1988 to 1989. He currently serves on the Governing Board of several institutions and is also a member of the Luminos Fund’s Advisory Board.

When the charter that created the OAU was signed in May 1963, several African states had not yet won their independence. This was the case in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), the home of Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka. Dzingai, who grew up against the backdrop of colonialism and racial segregation, describes his childhood as very challenging. He was raised by his maternal grandmother in a very poor household and credits his success to the core values she instilled in him: values that remain with him today.

“She would say to me: it doesn’t matter how poor you are or what your stage in life is. If you are hardworking and determined, you can achieve anything,” Dzingai says.

Although he was just a teenager at the time, Dzingai recalls the great significance 25 May 1963 held for Africans everywhere and for ushering in a tide of change across the continent and beyond. The formation of the OAU called for unity among African countries that transcends ethnic and national differences. Additionally, the OAU promoted cooperation in pursuit of a shared goal to rid the continent of colonialism and apartheid and create a world where Africans control their own destiny.

“The idea of uniting was to make sure that never again would Africa be colonized. The idea was that slavery came because Africans were divided. Colonialism came because Africans were divided. If we were to maintain our newfound freedom, it was important that Africans fight as one.”

– Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka

Since ending colonialism and apartheid in Africa, there has been significant progress with governance, economic growth and inclusiveness, infrastructure development, health, and education across the continent. For instance, Africa has made steady progress in increasing life expectancy at birth over the last 60 years and improved infant mortality by around 30% over the past 20 years (AFDB). Furthermore, the continent has made considerable progress in boosting primary and lower secondary school enrollment (World Bank).

There is much to celebrate, but also still much to overcome. As power and wealth still largely remain concentrated in the hands of a few, deep structural and systemic inequalities continue to beset African societies.

“I think the link between decolonization and economic wellbeing was a stretch, and it remains a stretch today in Africa,” says Dzingai. “This is an important frontier for us, and it immediately leads to the question of education. Because, as Mandela once said, education is the most important tool with which you can change society.”

Dzingai’s journey is a testament to this. Unlike so many other boys and girls across the continent, he was given an opportunity: thanks to an anonymous donor, Dzingai was able to complete his secondary education when his family could no longer afford to send him to school. In spite of the inevitable roadblocks presented by a segregated education system, Dzingai excelled in school, earning scholarships and awards that enabled him to go on to pursue higher education. These experiences would later inspire his work as Zimbabwe’s first Minister of Education.

“When I became Minister of Education at independence, I wanted Zimbabwe to be different. I wanted the quality of education in Zimbabwe to be different. I did not want the average child growing up in Zimbabwe to go through what I went through. I wanted every child to have access to the best education that was possible.”

– Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka

When inheriting a system built on structural inequality, transformative action is required to achieve greater equity for all.

“The system needed radical reform and radical change in order to prepare young people for a healthy and productive future to end the crisis that Africa faces today,” says Dzingai.

Regrettably, the continent has struggled to ensure quality and universal education for all.  Without urgent action, the situation will likely worsen as the region faces a rising demand for education due to a still-growing school-age population (UNESCO).

But there is hope—Africa has overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges and continues to demonstrate resounding resilience and strength. There is incredible power in unity and committing to invest in the region’s collective future, and with the right African leadership, Africa’s future is bright.

When we come together on May 25 to celebrate solidarity and Africa’s collective progress, let us also remember this as an opportunity to unite to solve the common challenges that the continent still faces in a global environment. For Dzingai, Africa’s most transformational progress is yet to come. The potential for transformation hinges on its youth and future leaders, and importantly, the willingness of current leaders to prioritize investments in their people, especially young people and their education.

“If these young people are given space to really implement some of their wild ideas,” Dzingai says, “it will not take time before we see changes in Africa that we never thought were possible.”


To hear more from Dzingai, visit his page from Luminos’ “Education Leadership through Crisis” series.


Kirstin Buchanan serves as the Development & Communications Associate at the Luminos Fund where she amplifies student voices and program stories, in addition to helping drive content, messaging, and fundraising strategy. She holds a MA in International Affairs and BA in International Relations from Boston University, as well as a certificate in Latin American studies.

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The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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