The Virtues and Challenges In Traditional African Education

The virtues and challenges of traditional educational systems aside, it is crucially important that continental Africa implement a Pan-African educational system that will facilitate the economic, political, and cultural reconstruction and integration of the African continent.

By John K. Marah, Ed.D. (For educational purpose)

This African study examines the virtues and failures of traditional African educational systems, in the context of continental Pan-Africanism, and argues that traditional African educational systems must be complemented by a Pan-African educational system that transcends confocalisms and micro-nationalisms.

African traditional education

Traditional African education, like any system of education, had and still has its own weaknesses and strengths.

The process of traditional education in Africa was intimately integrated with the social, cultural, artistic, religious, and recreational life of the ethnic group. That is, ‘schooling’ and ‘education’, or the learning of skills, social and cultural values and norms were not separated from other spheres of life. As in any other society, the education of the African child started at birth and continued into adulthood.

The education that was given to the African youth fitted the group and the expected social roles in society were learned by adulthood. Girls were socialized to effectively learn the roles of motherhood, wife, and other sex-appropriate skills. Boys were socialized to be hunters, herders, agriculturalists, blacksmiths, etc., depending on how the particular ethnic group, clan or family derived its livelihood.

Because there were no permanent school walls in traditional African educational systems, as in the case of the Western countries, some European writers on African education tended to be blinded by their own cultural paradigms and viewed traditional African educational process as mainly informal. Some early European writers on Africa in general went to the extent of saying that Africa, especially south of the Sahara, had no culture, history or civilization. Murray (1967: 14), for instance, states that “…outside Egypt there is nowhere indigenous history. African history has always been ‘foreign’ history.”

Laurie (1907), in his Historical Survey of Pre-Christian Education, did not even include Sub-Saharan Africa in his scheme of analysis or exposition; he started with Egyptians and ended with the Romans. He equated education with civilization and culture as he knew them and, by implication, Sub-Saharan Africa was primitive.

Boas (1983: 180) defines “primitive as those peoples whose activities are little diversified, whose forms of life are simple and uniform, and contents and form of whose culture are meager and intellectually inconsistent. Their inventions, social order, intellectual and emotional life should be poorly developed.” Boas goes on to justify a civilized culture by using technical developments and the wealth of inventions as yardsticks. The types of technology he singles out as making a culture civilized are those which go beyond merely satisfying daily basic needs; thus, Eskimo techniques are primitive since they do not greatly reduce the Eskimo’s daily physical preoccupation with livelihood.

One sees that Boas is favoring West European culture as a measure of civilization; however, the academic tradition of putting Europe at the pinnacle of civilizations has now largely been addressed and refuted by both Western and nonWestern scholars and other people of ideas.

Brickman (1963: 399) goes beyond Laurie’s, Murray’s and Boas’ conceptions of civilizations and primitiveness by continuing with the Egyptian origins of African education to state, at least, that “African education dates back to ancient times in Egypt, to the establishment of Muslim mosques in the centuries following the death of Mohammed, to the University of Timbuktu in the sixteenth century, and to the missionary schools in the nineteenth century.” Brickman goes on to concentrate on the May 1961 Addis Ababa Conference of African Ministers of Education, UNESCO representatives and the other observers concerned about the development of education in Africa.

What is apparently missing in Brickman’s survey is the education provided African youth before the coming of Islamic religion into Africa, especially south of the Sahara. Even with the case of Egyptian civilization, some historians have ascertained that Africa south of the Sahara affected north Africa considerably. Diop (1978) has used archeological evidence to substantiate that Kush, or Africa south of the Sahara, influenced Egyptian civilization immensely and that the empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, etc., attest to the cultural unity of Africa. Of course, to completely determine which region influenced which, and even to what extent, are some of the problems in African history need further investigation.

In this photo, kids are seen doing the Adowa dance during a festival. The Adowa dance is the most widespread and most frequently performed social musical type of the Akan speaking people of Ghana. Adowa is largely performed during funerals, yearly festivals, durbar of chiefs, visit of international dignitaries etc, and is usually led by a female known as Adowahemma.

Traditional African Education

Watkins (1943: 666-675), Ociti (1973), Scanlon (1964), Mbiti (1967), Kenyata (1965), Boateng (1983: 335-336) and others have described traditional systems of African education prior to the coming of Islam and Christianity, using several African cultures or societies. Scanlon (1964:3) states that “the education of the African before the coming of the European was an education that prepared him for his responsibilities as an adult in his home, his village and his tribe.”

The Africa youth’s ethnic group and community were held cohesively by rules and regulations, values and social sanctions, approvals, rewards and punishments, etc. into which he was inducted. He or she was taught social etiquettes, agricultural methods and others that ensured the smooth running of the social entity of which he was an integral part. The boys observed and imitated their father’s craft and learned practical skills which they performed according to their capacities, as they matured into manhood and were now heads of their own households.

The education of girls was differentiated from that of boys in accordance to the roles each sex was expected and socialized to play for the remainder of their adult lives (Kenyatta, 1965: 95-124).

Watkins (1943: 666-675) has described the traditional process of education in West Africa; she calls the traditional African educational institution the “Bush” school, for the Poro and Bondo societies conducted their training of boys and girls respectively outside of the village or town. The training given to the youth prepared them for military, family, agricultural, and cultural purposes. Mental and moral training are also undertaken. Each youth must go through this training before he could be considered a worthy member of the society. The length of the training of boys differs from those of girls, but it usually takes several years before a boy is passed from adolescences into adulthood.

The traditional method of teaching used is what Westerners would today call ‘Mastery Learning’ (Block, 1973: 30-36) and thus failure was virtually nonexistent; every effort was made, encouragements given, incentives provided to make sure that even the most coward goes through, say, the circumcision process. Group instruction, group assignments, apprenticeship and age groupings to experience a particular significant event were the most common methods employed to instruct the young. Private instruction by one’s brother or sister, or one of the parents was also provided. Repetition, imitation, internalization and practice were the main methods used for learning, so that by adulthood, the African was a full member of the community.

Smith (1940: 64-83) has described the uses of folk-tales as educative devices in traditional African societies. Stories are used not only to amuse and express feelings, but to also teach ideal forms of behavior and morality. Children learned by listening to their elders, imitating or ‘emulating’ them. These stories are usually handed down from one generation to the next; their main concern was to induct the youth into the moral, philosophical, and cultural values of the community.

In West Africa, there were griots ‘walking dictionaries,’ historians, or verbal artists who memorized the history, legends of a whole people and would recite them and teach their apprentices or audiences, publicly or privately; direct instruction was also employed. One of the major avenues through which the African youth received his or her education was, and still is today in some quarters, during several grades or initiation ceremonies. For the Tiriki group in Kenya, East Africa, Basil Davidson (1969:81-85) has provided the following description:

Until you are ten or so you are counted as a ‘small boy’ with minimal social duties such as herding cattle. Then you will expect, with some trepidation, to undergo initiation to manhood by a process of schooling which lasts about six months and is punctuated by ritual ‘examinations’. Selected groups of boys are entered for this schooling once every four or five years. … All the initiates of a hut eat, sleep, sing, dance, bathe, do handicraft, etc. … but only when commanded to do so by their counselor, who will be a man under about twenty-five. …circumcision gives it a ritual embodiment within the first month or so, after which social training continues as before until the schooling period is complete. Then come ceremonies at which elders teach and exhort, the accent now being on obedience to rule which have been learned. The Tiriki social charter is thus explained and then enshrined at the center of the man’s life.

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John K. Marah ( is chairperson and professor of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the State University of New York, Brockport. 

Courtesy: The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 1, no.4, June 2006

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