In São Tomé, the first step off the plane involves us in the heat and humidity that are felt throughout the year in the island, while the wind blows and with it comes an intense smell of sea and forest, unmatched anywhere in the world. We arrived at the island of the famous “leve-leve” spirit. During the quick trip from the airport to the city of São Tomé, the country’s capital, we quickly realize that the roads have already seen better days. Between potholes and bumps, we begin to descend to Ana Chaves Bay where we have the first glimpse of a city where time has stopped, framed between the immense green of the Obô and the small fishing boats that arrive from their daily activity.
We start driving along the promenade, the school day ended minutes ago, and the streets are filled with thousands of students trying to find their parents, find a ride home, get to buses, or join other children to make their walk home easier. In a country with just over two hundred thousand inhabitants, and where the average age in 2020 was 18.61 years, the end of the school day easily becomes the rush hour in the cities and towns all around the country.
As we drive by the Liceu Nacional, the largest school in the country, our driver meets a familiar face and decides to stop and greet her – we were surprised by the stop, but it seems that these unplanned events are common. Lucky for us she was a teacher, who had just given her almost 50 students their last class of the day – we took the time to ask some questions about the state of education in the country and the future perspectives on the current generation. We are not surprised to learn that increased government investment in education has brought positive results for São Tome. Official data from UNESCO tell us that the literacy rate among the youngest is practically 100% and that the number of out-of- school children and adolescents has decreased over the years, leaving just over 9,500 people illiterates in the country. Despite all the improvements, around 60% of teachers are still not properly trained for the job meaning that there is still a long way to go.
The car’s dashboard read a humbling 27ºC, but with the humidity the real feel is close to 35ºC. Even so, we continued talking to the teacher who was beginning to open up and share her concerns about the future of her students. She tells us that the majority of the country’s workforce operates in the informal market, which makes the population more vulnerable to economic and political instabilities. She fears that most students do not have opportunities in the formal market – which would help the country build a stronger and much needed economic foundation, to face and overcome the challenges of the near future. The conversation starts to get emotional, and she finally shares with us that she dreams that the children of São Tomé can be better equipped to seize the opportunities that the country and the world have to give them. “They exist” she tells us, “But we need to turn to the world and bring new knowledge and skills that contribute to the development of São Tomé and Príncipe, so it can have a prominent place in the African and global economy”. Time flew by and as our conversation ends, we say goodbye with the belief that the next time we meet her, it will be in a different space, in a place where all this desire to embrace new opportunities is one step closer to becoming a reality.
The sun has practically set, the children have arrived home and the night begins to take over the capital, which falls asleep in profound silence. We follow our path through the rutted streets while looking around us in reflection – “what if it is in São Tomé and Príncipe that we find the first space tour guide or the first telesurgeon in the world?” – we need to encourage confidence, to contribute so that students can identify their strengths in subjects they like and allow them to become almost experts in these subjects. Today we are already able to provide an education of excellence in a democratized way, using available technology to guide students towards their passions. The future of work will require exceptional social skills and confident critical thinkers that have the knowledge to solve problems and come up with solutions to overcome the challenges of the future.
June 18, 2021, Cascais
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