The Development of Education in Africa
By “Awake!” correspondent in Nigeria
EDUCATION in Africa has a history reaching back many centuries. Certainly the achievements of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Ethiopia are well known. Then, early in the first millennium of the Common Era, the Moors and other peoples on the northern fringe of Africa made notable contributions to world education and culture. And during the past 1,000 years the Saharan and sub-Saharan peoples had several centers of learning—Timbuktu, Agadez, Gao, Katsina and Borno, where books written in Arabic were in great demand.
More than 800 years ago at Timbuktu, in Mali, colleges provided advanced education. Katsina, in northern Nigeria, has been a center of learning since before the sixteenth century. It was there that, about 200 years ago, Muhammed ibn Muhammed became noted as a specialist in numerology.
The aforementioned cities were dominated by Moslem culture, and mosques were the centers of learning. However, the cost of learning under the tutorship of the mallams was very high and so few persons could afford it. The educated minority exercised tremendous influence, and were the key administrators, lawyers and clerks. But the majority remained illiterate.
In the non-Moslem, sub-Saharan cultures, education was largely nonliterate, by oral instruction rather than by use of reading material. Educational systems varied from tribe to tribe, and there were different degrees and levels of training, depending on the social and cultural development of a particular tribe. The training covered a fairly wide range, with specialized instruction at different age levels. Each educational system had specific forms of preparation for the roles of individuals in society. A look at the system of education among the Yorubas in precolonial Nigeria illustrates this.
The Yoruba System
Among the Yorubas, training in obedience, etiquette, speech and counting came early in the child’s life and was given within the family circle. Children quickly learned to express themselves in their language. Progressively, they mastered the proverbs, poetry and folklore of the community or tribe. In this way they learned the history and the moral and philosophical attitudes of their people. They had to learn a variety of greetings, recognition of levels of social seniority and the proper etiquette in connection with these. Religious education included training in rituals, sacred festivals and the roles of diviners.
At an early age, children were taught to count up to 20 on their fingers and toes and to do simple addition and subtraction with the aid of stones. As they progressed in knowledge, they were taught weights and measures, the use of cowrie shells (which served as money) and the art of bargaining.
Specialized training for boys focused on farming, working in metals and wood, hunting and the use of herbs and drugs in medicine. Skills were passed on from father to son. Inclination and natural abilities also were considered, and children were encouraged to develop their aptitudes. Therefore, many were apprenticed to artisans outside the family clan.
Girls received training in weaving and dyeing cloth. They learned to make pottery, to plait mats and baskets and to produce cosmetics for use in beauty treatments and hairdressing. They were taught the art of cooking, of brewing beer and of extracting oil from the kernels of the palm nuts. Thus they were prepared for their role as women in the family and the community.
The tribes that had a rural, pastoral or bush culture concentrated more on farming, herding and hunting or fishing. Some educational systems restricted progress into new fields of knowledge by preserving a closed society. Membership usually was restricted to those of certain ethnic origins or religious beliefs. This circumstance contributed toward a stagnation of knowledge. Nevertheless, the education that was provided amply served the needs of those societies.
The Colonial Era
In the wake of the missionary explorer David Livingstone, European missionaries began to increase their activities in Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mission schools started to be set up in towns and villages, and right out in the bush, where students attended in simple loincloths or were completely naked.
These schools were set up on sectarian lines, with Catholics having their own schools and the Protestant religions theirs. This tended to segment the people religiously, and whole areas came to be regarded as the province of a particular religion. Divisions in social levels developed between the literate and the nonliterate segments of each community, and there was a gradual undermining of family influence. Other imbalances were created because traditional patterns of education were being uprooted and were not replaced by any uniform standard.
Still, a start had been made toward widening the horizons of knowledge in Africa. As more people learned to read and write, the knowledge of the world, contained in books, became available even to the remotest tribes. The literate history of non-Moslem, sub-Saharan Africa began to be revived.
Although the people showed aptitude in learning, there were obstacles to overcome. The missionaries usually had to learn the local languages first. Then they had to teach the children in their own European languages, in which books were available. Some did good work in formulating alphabet systems and compiling dictionaries so that many of the local languages could be put into writing. This provided the basis for translating the Bible into many African languages.
In some areas an obstacle was posed by the custom of barring girls from institutional education. When, over 40 years ago, one of the emirs from northern Nigeria visited England, he was impressed at seeing a large girls’ school. He desired a similar provision for the girls of his people. Since the custom was to keep women away from public life, he realized that this would be opposed. So he told his council that he was opening a school in his palace for educating the girls in his household. Within a year the school had 30 pupils, and many of the leading citizens were petitioning the emir to allow their children to attend. A year later, on the pretext that he could no longer tolerate the noise of a school in his palace, he “turned the pupils, teachers, and equipment out into the open town and lodged them in a house adjoining the boys’ school.” (African Challenge, p. 63) Now every primary school in that section of the country is coeducational.
Since children were part of the labor force in each farm family, there was reluctance to lose them to the schools. Gradually, however, as the people recognized the value of the printed page and the advantages of reading and writing, more children were sent to school. So it was in mission schools that many of the outstanding educators and leaders throughout Africa got their early training.
The colonial governments, and the later sovereign governments of each independent state, encouraged the establishment of mission schools, giving financial and administrative help. Provisions were made for more uniform systems of schooling, and additional public and secondary schools and universities were established.
New Education Policies
Since 1970, in a further effort to ensure a more uniform standard of education, the Nigerian government has taken over control of private schools, including mission schools. This has given rise to the problem of adequate moral education in a totally secular school system. Therefore, the authorities have encouraged parents and teachers to provide moral guidance. Efforts have also been made to coordinate the Moslem and indigenous traditional systems of education with modern methods. It is hoped that this will stem the growing tide of unrest, immorality and drug abuse among youths.
In 1976 the Universal Primary Education scheme (UPE) was introduced to provide for free universal education throughout Nigeria. This will give children the opportunity to receive free primary schooling for six years, as well as junior secondary and senior secondary schooling for three years respectively. More schools are, therefore, being provided, and immediate plans are afoot to increase the number of universities to 13.
Because the majority of the adult population is illiterate, the various governments are giving increased attention to adult education. In Nigeria, where the literacy rate is 20 percent for a population of 70 million, the government has established adult education centers in most villages and towns. Many men and women are availing themselves of this opportunity to learn to read and write.
Much progress also is being made in adult literacy programs operating in Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses. By means of such classes, between 1962 and 1976, in Nigeria alone, 15,156 persons have been taught to read and write. Many of these were elderly and thought that they no longer had the ability to learn. They were mostly people from rural areas—farmers, hunters, fishermen, housewives. Their determination to obtain Bible knowledge and to be able to impart Scriptural instruction reawakened their desire to learn. Now they can read and write, and can help in teaching God’s Word to others in their own language and also often in English.
For example, Ezekiel Ovbiagele was trained according to the traditional system of education, but was not taught to read and write. After he received oral Biblical instruction from Jehovah’s Witnesses and was baptized in 1940, he saw the value of learning to read. He enrolled in one of the literacy classes and soon was reading the Bible to others. With further specialized training, he was qualified in 1953 to serve as a traveling overseer, having the responsibility to instruct many congregations in the territory assigned to him. Many others have made similar advancement.
When Jackson Iheanacho first attended meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he was literate only in Efik, his native language. He saw the need to learn to read in English, too, since the meetings were conducted in that tongue. With the aid of the congregation’s literacy class, he achieved this and went on to learn other languages as well. He is now able to read and write seven languages!
The literacy rate among Jehovah’s Witnesses is better than 77 percent. Most of the remaining 23 percent are attending literacy classes, either at their Kingdom Halls or at government centers, and so are in various stages of learning to read and write. They appreciate this program, which is reaching out to more and more people.
The value and necessity of education cannot be denied. An editorial in the Daily Times of December 29, 1976, spoke of education as “the greatest investment . . . for the quick development of . . . economic, political, sociological and human resources.” However, not just education, but purposeful education is essential. Modern methods have tended to establish materialistic goals, rather than productive ones. To many youths, the purpose of schooling is to obtain a certificate that will guarantee a prestige job and great financial reward. Parents should guide youths in carefully evaluating the purpose of their schooling. The goal should be to acquire real skills and thinking ability so as to ensure productivity in their adult careers.
It should be remembered, however, that the period of formal schooling is not all there is to the process of education. Parents can make use of preschool and out-of-school periods to instruct their children morally and in other ways that will build their personalities along wholesome lines. Much good can be achieved by using the Bible in inculcating decency, honesty and loyalty in the children.
Beyond this, youths, by allowing day-to-day experiences to mold their personalities and skills in beneficial ways, will continue their education after completing formal schooling. In this way they will pursue the goal of being responsible and productive men and women, and their education will prove to be truly purposeful.