The African School—What Did It Teach?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GHANA
THE African school? Some Westerners may be surprised to know that such an arrangement actually existed in times past. Sad to say, the Hollywood image of the African as a menacing savage clutching a spear has been slow to vanish from the minds of people. Many simply cannot imagine how the African of days gone by could in any way have been considered educated.
It is indeed true that Africans raised in traditional societies did not receive book learning and formal classroom training. However, long before the European brand of formal education was brought to this continent, many African societies had effective educational systems that helped children become well equipped to function and thrive in their local culture. Consider, for example, the schooling of the Akan, the Twi-speaking people of Ghana.
Among the Akan, the home served as the primary classroom. The child’s education began as he learned speech from his parents. At the same time, he also received his first lessons in proper manners. For instance, when a visitor to the house would say a greeting to a child, the child would be taught the proper, polite response. Later, when the child was sent out on errands, he would be told the polite way to deliver any messages being conveyed.
The educational philosophy of the Akan was thus not unlike that expressed in the Bible at Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a boy according to the way for him; even when he grows old he will not turn aside from it.” Parents, especially the father, took an interest in child-rearing. Said an Akan proverb: “If a child does not take after his mother, he takes after his father.”
As the child grew, so did the depth of his education. Lessons about life were conveyed, not through books, but through imaginative stories, such as those about the mythical spider called Kwaku Ananse. How children loved these tales! In the early evening breeze, or on a moonlit chilly night, they would sit around a fire and heartily enjoy these stories of triumph and failure.
One famous story tells that Ananse traveled the length and breadth of the earth to put all the world’s wisdom in a pot. His mission seemingly accomplished, he decided to hang the pot high up in a tree, so that no one else could access this wisdom. He began the difficult climb up the tree, the wisdom-laden pot attached to a string and dangling from his belly. As he struggled, his firstborn son, Ntikuma, appeared and called out to Ananse: “Ah, bah, Father! Whoever climbs a tree with a pot on his belly? Why not put it on your back and have room to operate?” Ananse looked down at his son and shouted: “How dare you teach me?”
But now it was apparent that some wisdom still remained outside his pot! Angered by this realization, Ananse hurled down the pot, shattering it and scattering all the wisdom about. Those who were the first to get there became the wisest ones. The lesson: No one has a monopoly on wisdom. The Akan would thus say: “One head does not constitute a council.”—Compare Proverbs 15:22; 24:6.
Akan education also included training in life skills. Most boys took up their father’s occupation—usually farming. But there were other skills to be learned, such as hunting, palm wine tapping, and crafts such as basket weaving. For more elaborate ventures, such as wood carving or weaving, boys were apprenticed to master craftsmen. And the girls? Their training mainly focused on homemaking skills such as extracting vegetable oil, making soap and pottery, spinning cotton, and the like.
Science was not left out of the traditional school’s “curriculum.” Knowledge of medicinal herbs, their preparation and dispensation, was passed from father to son or from grandparent to grandchild. A child also learned to calculate numbers, using his fingers as well as marbles, stones, and marks on sticks. Games like oware and draughts sharpened counting skills.
By attending open court sessions, the young Akan would also gain insight into the political and judicial systems. Funerals as well as festive occasions were opportunities to assimilate the local dirges, poetry, history, music, drumming, and dancing.
Among the Akan, the child was not a social island. Early in life he was made to recognize his responsibility to the community. He learned his first lessons in this regard as he joined his peers for play. In later years he would engage in cooperative activities like community labor. When he misbehaved, punishment would be administered, not only by his parents but by any adult member of the community. Indeed, it was considered an adult’s moral obligation to discipline any misbehaving child.
Such discipline was well received because children were taught to have a high regard for adults. In fact, the Akan used to say: “An old lady is not grandmother to only one person.” Respect for and service to the elderly was thus an obligation. And any child who, without proper excuse, refused to render service to an adult would be reported to his parents.
The Akan were very religious, having a reverent attitude toward nature and the unknown universe. True, they were polytheists, believing in many gods. Even so, the Akan believed in the existence of one Supreme Being. (Romans 1:20) The Akan word for “God,” any god, is onyame. However, to the Akan that word seemed inadequate to describe the Creator. So, they called him Onyankopɔn, meaning “the God Who Alone Is the Great One.”
Lesser gods were worshiped in the belief that it was the arrangement of the One Great God. In their minds this was little different from the way the paramount chief was served through lesser divisional chiefs. At any rate, every Akan child was taught this religion.
Traditional Education Today
In recent years millions of Africans have migrated to big cities where formal classroom instruction has all but replaced the traditional ways of schooling. Nevertheless, the traditional African school continues to flourish in some communities, especially in the rurals. Why, some Africans have even had the benefit of both traditional and formal educations!
Consider, for example, a Christian minister in Ghana named Alfred. In spite of having enjoyed a formal education, he has a high regard for many aspects of the traditional way of life. Says Alfred: “Most of my unlettered kinsmen, though having only their traditional training, are very good teachers on practical aspects of life. Working with fellow Christians among them has taught me many effective ways of presenting my message in simple, down-to-earth style. I can thus reach people of a traditional background as well as those with formal education. Quite often, I take a proverb or illustration used by these folks, polish it, and incorporate it in my Bible lectures. This often draws enthusiastic applause from the audience! Really, though, the credit must go to these traditionally trained men and women.”
Clearly, then, the African school has many admirable aspects and is deserving of respect, not disdain. It may not have produced technological wonders, but it did produce a strong family structure, a sense of community, and a people of keen mind, appealing sense of humor, and generous, hospitable spirit. Not surprisingly, then, many city Africans endeavor to keep in touch with relatives who live in the rurals by making occasional visits. Such occasions are not without their awkward moments. City dwellers often falter when it comes to traditional norms. Often they do not know, for example, that when you shake hands with a group, the “proper” way is to go from right to left. Still, such visits can prove to be mutually refreshing.
Nevertheless, it must be admitted that while the African traditional school taught reverence and devotion, it did not impart the life-giving knowledge of Jehovah and his Son, Jesus Christ. (John 17:3) Jehovah’s Witnesses are privileged to work among the Akan and other African ethnic groups to provide this vital knowledge. They have taught thousands of Africans who lack formal schooling to read and write so that they can study God’s Word firsthand. For those who are “conscious of their spiritual need,” this is the most important education a person could possibly have.—Matthew 5:3.
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Among the Akan, the child was made to recognize his responsibility to the community
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Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses provide literacy classes