Interview with Estelle Fomeju, the creator of ROPAS, a Racial Orientation Program for African Students
Estelle Fomeju, former School Launcher at Enko Education launched an antiracist course for high school and university students called ROPAS®. The program aims to prepare students living in Africa to navigate the transition from life on the continent as high schoolers to life outside Africa as college freshmen when it comes to racism, oppression, and resistance. The global unrest for justice and change in 2020 reminds us that we need to create spaces to address those issues with our students.
Estelle tells us about her professional journey, the genesis of her project and how she came to create this program.
Tell us about your professional journey in education in Africa.
My professional journey in Africa started in Ivory Coast. I worked for a tech NGO and incubator called Akendewa, whose primary purpose was to use technology to alleviate social challenges. I worked on the initial stages of a coding and social entrepreneurship training program for girls and young women. I visited several schools in Abidjan to pitch to school leaders and share our vision. That was in 2014, and I was still a student at Sciences Po Paris at the time. Eventually, I moved back to the continent four years later, in 2018, and worked as a Project Manager and School Launcher for Enko Education for over two years. I opened two international secondary schools, one in Bamako, Mali and one in Gaborone, Botswana. I also conducted feasibility studies in Botswana and Niger.
How did you come up with the idea of creating ROPAS?
2020 is particularly fit to attract the attention of teenagers on issues of race and oppression. The recent murder of George Floyd made global the 7-year-old Black Lives Matter Movement. However, since race relations play out differently in our countries, many African teens or teens raised in Africa do not have an in-depth analysis of why Black people face such injustices and may not be ready to face them themselves.
Every year, at least 250,000 African high school graduates decide to leave the continent to pursue higher education in North America, Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. I wonder how many are prepared to become a “minority” suddenly? How many are ready to engage in racial dynamics that attack and belittle their intelligence, ambitions, and lives? My sister was among them this year. I started thinking about how she can enter that space more confidently? The idea of the course came to me. I then pitched it at the ALGroup Annual gathering amongst the eight finalists and realized that this was relevant for more people than my sister and her friends. So to prepare African students for this aspect of expatriation, Tissi designed a Racial Orientation Program for African Students®, ROPAS®, for short.
What are the contextual issues with curricula today?
I went to French schools all my life, in three different countries: Guinea, Mali and Chad. You can imagine that French schools on the continent follow almost entirely the same program taught in France. So whatever you learned in France about Africa is about the same as I learned in those three countries about Africa. What happens in national schools? In elementary school, there is contextual info on history and language arts. For example, in Mali, students learn about Sundiata Keita and the Kouroukan Fouga (Manden Charter). However, as students progress on their school journey, there is less contextual information in the curriculum. At the same time, this would be an ideal time to delve in debates, investigation, group work that engages higher-order thinking skills. But overall, the real issue is that culture and identity matter in the classroom for students’ success. It’s not fundamentally ideological, in my opinion. You learn better when you care about what you learned. You learn better when you can make connections with your daily life. And to bring solutions to challenges faced in your everyday environment, or to seize the opportunities it holds, you need to develop a deep understanding and care for the matters at stake. It makes sense; we need humans who care and want to make change happen. Otherwise, generations to come will acknowledge the problems but not consider that they have a part to play in fixing them.
Tell us about some of the solutions you bring forward.
I created Tissi, a consultancy in Education for social change. We help individuals or organizations create educational projects, enhance existing educational projects, and Africanize their curriculum. On Africanizing the curriculum, we design modules on African geopolitics, history, identity and culture. We create modules for students and teachers.
For high school and university students, our flagship program is called ROPAS®, Racial Orientation Program for African Students®. ROPAS is a 14-hour online or in-person course. It uses the Black Lives Matter movement as a gateway to address the history of racism, the history of Black resistance, the collateral damages of racism in our societies in Africa and elsewhere, and the commitment to antiracism. The course is student-centered, with a maximum of 12 students per session, to allow an interactive and constructive exchange.
In collaboration with Africa Learning International (ALI), we developed a teacher training program called TWICE®, Teaching With Inclusion and Culture Embedded®. We reflect on personal identity, culture, and how they can influence our teaching practice, either leading to the cultural inclusion or exclusion of students. The idea is to bring about self-awareness and a sense of responsibility when it comes to culturally-responsive teaching, also highlighting the benefits for both teachers and students.
What are you hoping to achieve?
We created ROPAS® as a space to inquire, analyze, and think critically about racism and oppression. ‘Ropas’ in Spanish means clothes. While this is purely coincidental, we aim to shield your students with a cloth of knowledge and power that will remind them to rise and thrive, always, regardless of circumstances.
How do you deconstruct systems of oppression and injustice? The same way they were constructed: by dismantling racist policies and racist ideas. Our main objective is to use the power of education to dismantle racist ideas and prepare a generation to advocate for antiracist policies.
Beyond antiracism, the goal here is cultural inclusion, on our continent and abroad. As Estelle Hughes, President of ALI always reminds me: students should grow African roots and global wings. And everyone should play a part in that vision.
At age 16, I left Mali to study at Science Po in France. During my second week there, I was sitting in a quiet student lounge, surrounded by White peers, when one of them asked me loud and clear: “So, Estelle, were you living in a hut before you came here?” Little did I know, this was just the beginning of a five-year journey of racial confrontations with students and professors. No one had prepared me for this at school. We can no longer tolerate it. Our students need strong cultural roots and a deep understanding of oppression and power to navigate the world freely. Being rooted helps when you seek to change the world.
What role can international schools in Africa play?
How do international schools define the word “international”? Does it mean euro-centric with a dash of ‘other’ here and there? Who is teaching in international schools in Africa? There are 54 countries on the continent. Are international schools seeking to attract those profiles as much as they seek Europeans or North Americans? Is international reflected in languages spoken, in ethnicity represented, in literature, history, and so on? These are some reflections that should be happening in international schools on the continent. The tough conversations must happen now. The international schools in Africa have the potential, resources, and capacity to present a unique model to support their students’ complex identities. They should lead the way.
Do you have any advice to give to the younger generation?
To all my African people all over the world, joy, spirituality, and excellence are real and critical. Let’s create change by investing in the dominant sectors such as science and technology, and arts and entertainment, and make sure that we support each other along the way. Create a cluster of friends with various expertise and interests. . My friends come from all over: Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, Botswana, Mexico, Spain, Mauritius, South Africa, Benin, Togo, Dominica, Ghana, Martinique, the US, France, etc. That’s power in diversity, strength in unity, and excellence in skills. Be proud of who you are, learn from others, never belittle yourself or others. Continue to seek, and you will find how you are to make a difference in this world. In all things be confident, open-minded, and rooted.
How can we find you?
You can find everything you need to know about Tissi and ROPAS on our website: http://tissiconsulting.com/ropas. You can register a group of students to ROPAS or specify your need regarding the Africanization of the curriculum in your school. All our social media handles are @tissiconsulting. You can send me a WhatsApp message anytime at +22377689084 or shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.