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African indigenous education by Apollinaire Kasulwe

17 Juillet 2014 , Rédigé par patient Publié dans #education


We are going to discuss the aims, methods and content of African indigenous education in regarding to the statement which argued that there was no education in African indigenous societies until the establishment of western education in Africa.

Before going through the matter, we will start by looking at the key words which will help us to understand the topic.

Indigenous: The Oxford dictionary defines indigenous as the state of belonging to a particular place rather than coming to it from somewhere else. Indigenous can have as synonym autochthonous, aboriginal, native, natural.

Native: connected with people who originally lived in a country before other people; especially before white people came.

With this in mind, talking about education in African indigenous societies, we will be just talking about education in African societies before the arrival of white people or the pre-colonial period.

African indigenous societies were organized politically, economically and religiously, with this in mind, we will agree that there was a need to maintain the status quo,, how can they did that if it was not through education?

Moving forward, we are going to look at the aims, methods and content of African indigenous education, which will help us to stand and say that there was education in African indigenous societies. So what were the aims of education in African indigenous societies?


Sifuna. N. D states that: “Pre-colonial black had no literacy and formal schooling as they are known today: That does not mean that African had no organized educational systems to their own”.

Sifuna.N.D. Themes in the study of the foundation of education pp. 59, 60

The traditional African education was established on the basis of customs and values which were purely proper and different from one community to another and which were passing from one generation to another. So education as practiced by each community had its own distinctive features which were reflecting the particular way of life of people in that particular community.

The education systems were influenced by the environment, both social and physical

Social: how to be accepted as member in a community, the role to play in it

Physical: how to control the nature, which was also an economical source.

The desire to manage the environment (social and physical), is what made a similarity in regarding to the goal of education in most of the African societies.

The social and physical environment influences the aim and content of education in African indigenous societies. These show us that what was taught meant to assist the child to adjust and adapt to the environment both social and physical so that to exploit it and derive benefit from it. Despite the variation and differences of educational systems in each community, the goals were similar.

The social and physical environments influence the aim and content of education in African indigenous societies. This shows us that what were taught, were meant to assist the child to adjust and adapt to the environment both physical and social so that the child could exploit and derive benefit from it.

Despite the variation of the systems of education in each community as we said, but the goals were similar to teach the learner how to adapt and adjust to the environment both physical and social.

The principal aim of the African education in the indigenous societies was to prepare an individual for life, for self-reliance as education was for living; it was meant to train the youth for adulthood within the community.

Sifuna states that: “Emphasis in African indigenous education system was placed on normative and expressive goals.

Normative goal: Concerned with instilling the accepted standards of beliefs governing correct behavior of the individual within the society; the child was taught how to behave within the society.

Expressive goal: Aimed at creating unity and consensus within community members.

The basics aims were the social integration of the individual, the safeguard and the perpetuate of the customs and beliefs of the community. The conservation of the cultural heritage of the family, clan and ethnic; the adaptation of children to their physical environment and to teach them how to use it for the common good; were the points which influenced education in African indigenous societies. This entailed explaining them that their future and that of their community depended on their understanding of their ethnic institutions, laws, language, customs and values and to perpetuate them to the future generations. Indigenous African education also placed a strong emphasis on the learning of practical skills and acquisition of knowledge which was useful to the individual and the community as a whole. Education was also concerned on enhancing the religious values in the individual; Individual had to learn how to perform rites, when to perform it.

The practical skills which the learner was learning aimed to prepare him for future responsibilities and how one can control the physical environment so learner had to know about landscape and weather, plants and animals.

To sum up, we will say that the aims of education in indigenous African societies were: building of characters as well as development of physical aptitudes, skills and the acquisition of moral qualities (to strengthen religious beliefs). Let now look at what sociologists and philosophers consider as the philosophical bases of education in African indigenous societies.

Philosophical foundation of education in African indigenous societies

Education in African indigenous societies, did not develop from nowhere, it had its own philosophical bases upon which it was built.

Communalism: bring the child within the community by the community and for the community. A child becomes a communal property as soon as he/she comes out of the womb of his/her mother this was because children upbringing was a whole community’s role. The child acquired a common spirit of working and living in common.

Functionalism: Prepare children to their future role in the community as father or mother and production unit. Base on this assumption, the knowledge, skills and attitudes imparted to the learner were relevant to the social economic activities; education was for utility.

Holisticism: Multiple learning. Prepare the children in diverse fields of life. Base on this assumption, the learner was required to acquire multiple skills and mastered them all.

Preparedness or preparationism: prepare children to become useful members of the community. Base on this assumption, the role of education was to equip the learner with skills appropriate to their gender in preparation for their distinctive roles in society.

Perennialism: ensure the continuity of cultural heritage. Traditional African societies were using education as an important and necessary tool for preserving the status quo of the tribe. It had a conservative nature. Ideas of progressive or questioning beliefs or culture were severely punished at the extreme one may be even cast out from the community.

Sifuna.N.D. Themes in the study of the foundation of education (2006)

After talking about the aims and the philosophy which was the base of education in African indigenous societies let us now look at the method and content.

Methods and content of education in African indigenous societies

Parents were playing a very significant role in the education of their children. Elders in the community were playing the role of teachers they were allowed by the community to educate, punish, rebuke a child when he/she does something wrong.

They were using the authoritarian’s method; learners were regarded as containers which Elders had to fill with knowledge and skills. Elders had to teach the youngest the deep meaning of the word live in regarding to the challenges and the need of the ethnic.

Learning was lineal; the young people were taught by elders who had experiences in social life. The young people were not given any chance to talk, question as they were considered to have no experiences that would help them to contribute in the learning process. They were just required to listen and to internalize what they were taught. They were no space of dialogue in the system.

The learning was also active; there were no class room, so education was taken place in the field where practice was required.

To teach the learner how to fish; they will take him at the river, where fishing is taking place and teach him the skill; so that learner will observe and manipulate a mistake was strongly rebuked. They were expected the learner to learn largely by seeing and imitating.

To teach a child how to cultivate, they will take him to the field. Children were learning by being useful in doing and working hand-in-hand with adults

The learning was through observation and manipulation; it was participative where children were learning through helping and working. Severe warning was also accompanying the learner when he/she was not able to accomplish what he was supposed to do.

Playing was part of the educational methods; through playing a child was socializing with others and it was also a way of practicing what they learned: songs, dance…

They were using formal and informal methods of education: informal teaching was the most prominent as the community has to work for long time so children were learning by being useful to the adults. A child was given formal teaching usually after she had made mistakes or when the outcome was found to be unsatisfactory.

Stages of education

From 0 at about 6 or 7 years, education was given by the mother. She will help the child to master language and to walk, she will assist the child to sit , to crawl, to stand…, she will help the child to distinguish people around him/her (uncle, grandma, grandfather…) the negative form is the most use, “don’t do that…” but most of the time she can’t respond to “why”. The mother was also given to the child encouragement in the physical and mental development. These too applied to language through which the child learns to identify some common objects in the house and homestead.

From around 7 to 14 or 15 years: at this stage education was given separately, the mother will be educating the girl on how to keep the house, how to do house work, her role as future women, while the father will be educating the boy on his role as man in the society. At this stage, education is given in regarding to gender; gender separation will guide education until the end.

At this stage, stress was made in the separation of tasks. In tabwa community, in Congo: at the age of 10 and above, a boy was not supposed to be seen in the kitchen, if he is seen, he will be rebuked severely because this was seen as a weakness of characters.

During this period, games occupied an important place in regarding to the goal of awakening of intense mental and physical activities. Children were left to their own. In tabwa community, if a child is bitten by his/her age mate, he/she was not supposed to report to the parents, because he/she will be bitten again because a child was not supposed to be defeated by his/her age mate as they were regarded as having the same strength because of the same age.

As children were growing, they were increasingly engaged in productive education, learning through the medium of work enabled children to acquire the right type of gender role.

The work that did a child usually increased in amount and complex as he/she grew.

The physical ability of the child was also taken into consideration rarely was a child assigned a task which was beyond his/her physical fitness.

Children started taking part in agricultural, hunting, herbing, cooking and other activities

Through apprenticeship and participation in the world of work, children developed physical endurance, skills, a sense of observation and good memory as well as self-discipline.

Parents who wanted their children to acquire occupational training normally sent them to work with crafts men such as potters, black smiths, basket-makers and others. These were largely traditional occupations within their clans.

The girls particularly learnt feminine responsibilities, which included helping out in the kitchen, fetching water collecting fire wood and taking care of young siblings, this was meant to prepare them to their roles as mother.

They were development of abilities for abstract thought and reasoning as well as development of personality. Children became more and more closely associated with increased production and participation in social relations and public life. At the same time they were given a certain amount of independence in the family alongside increased responsibilities in many spheres of life.

Adolescence education 15 – 18 years

It was a continuation of the same process of the same of learning skills and shaping character. At this stage, the most important event was the initiation rites period

The initiation rites had as goals: Physical exercises (development of one’s physics aptitudes) sex education and awareness of responsibilities. To mold of character and development of the spirit of companionship through physical and moral tests for example: “they can put in water the clothes of one of the initiate to know how he/her can react, how he/her can control himself/herself when he/she is upset. The outcome of the initiation was the harmonious acceptance of the initiate into the community.

Rendered him/her capable of facing the hard struggle and challenges for existence. Some communities associated this period with circumcision, which was seen as the point of passage into full members of the community.

The rite of circumcision was normally accompanied with formal lessons; they took the form of songs, proverbs, tales, religious formation…. The acquisition of both theorical and practical knowledge during the period of initiation were imparted by elders but in most of the community they were specific elders who had the role of instructor during the initiation and this were referred to as teachers.

The initiates were warned against such things like incest, adultery, assault and theft and also and were taught rules and how to behave in the presence of elders and other senior people.

The period of initiation was generally hard and challenging, but was helping young men and women to become mature and self-reliant as they continued to learn throughout their life. They were using formal and informal methods of education during this period.

The curriculum

The content of African indigenous education included;

The physical exercises, this includes: wrestling, games which required strength. This was meant to enhance physical fitness, to strength them so that they can be the defender of the community in case of external attack.

Economic: children were taught how to be productive and useful to the community; this includes the teaching of art, potteries, basket making, metallurgy…

Teaching of religious beliefs, morals, ethics, how to perform rites

History was taught orally (story of the family, clan…), this was meant to help children to understand why they had to keep things, beliefs…, as they are.

The teaching of history, ethics, morals and religions was done through tales, legends, riddles, proverbs. They were frightened the learners in order to make them obey and respect rules, laws and mystics beliefs which were the base of the community.

Merit of African indigenous education

Indigenous education stressed on togetherness or unity as well as understanding of the rights and obligations of each individual and working together within the community.

It involved children in real life. Indigenous preparation was guides by the principle of learning by doing “theories come from practice”, children received functional learning which largely prepared them to live and to work.

Educators had as responsibility to make sure boys and girls understand what is expected from them by the community and to give them the necessaries.

I would say contrarily to the topic’s statement by saying that: “Despite the weakness of the systems in education such as conservative character, not flexible, static no innovative, there was education in African indigenous societies which was meant to give learners the sense of belonging to their community, to prepared them to life and to their roles in the community to teach them how to conserve to beliefs and rites of the community. African education in indigenous societies had values which are important in modern societies, values such as: “sense of belonging, togetherness, protection of the common goods and the spirit of serving the community.


Sifuna.N.D; Chege N. Fatuma; IBRAHIMO o Oanda, (2006). Themes in the study of the foundation of education. Nairobi: Jomo Kenyatta foundation.

Sifuna.D.N; Otiende. J.E, (2006). An introductory of history of education. Revised Edition. Nairobi. Nairobi University.

Oxford dictionary. Eighth Edition.(2010). Oxford. Oxford University press

Abili Likimba, (1981). L’education traditionnelle en Afrique et ses valeurs fondamentales. Communication presentee au colloque du Centre de Recherche et de Pedagogie Appliquee (CRPA) sur le theme: “Valeurs et anti-valeurs des traditions Zairoises”. Kinshasa. Roneo

Ngoma.N, (1981). Initiation dans les societies traditionelles Africaines, le cas de Kongo. Kinshasa. P.U.Z. press Universitaire du Zaire

Ocitti.J.P, (1973). African indigenous education. Nairobi. East Africa Literature Bureau. http// www.sitiwe.wordpress.com, wwwsitiwe.blog.com

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