Monday, December 27, 2010

African Education System Vs Missionary Education

The essay aims at discussing the differences between indigenous Africans education and what is brought by missionaries. This will successfully be done by discussing the topic under aims and objectives, organizational, administration, content and methods of teaching respectively. And last but not the least, a brief assessment of the value to individuals and society at large of the two types of education will be made.

The origin of education can be traced back to man’s history. This means that education existed for as long as human beings started living in their societies in Africa . This type of education was known as indigenous African education or traditional African education. This type of education existed in Africa way back before the coming of the missionaries. However, the missionaries came along with what is known as modern education or western education. Each form of education had its own strengths and weaknesses. It was only looking after the weaknesses of traditional indigenous education did the missionaries conclude that Africans were uneducated. Little did the missionaries consider the merits of indigenous African education.

Before getting down to the topic of discussion, it is necessary to understand the scope of education. M.J Kelly (1999) states that “Education is not the same as schooling, but it is a life long process conducted by many agencies”. The word education has many meanings. He further stated that it could refer to a “system or institution (a school system) to a certain activity. (Education is the action exercised by adult generation on those who are not yet ready for social life) to content (that is the Curriculum and Syllabus). To this effect, education can be categorized in three types. These are formal, informal and non-formal.

The distinction between formal, informal and Non-formal is also very important to the study of African indigenous Education and Mission Education. Formal education is the hierarchy structured, chronologically graded systems that runs from primary School to University or other forms of higher education. This is the most common type of education present even today. Non-formal education is any organized educational activity outside the establishment of formal system that is intended to serve identified learning objectives. A good example is that of conducting workshops or other forms of education intended to serve identified learning purposes. Especially at social gatherings. Informal education is the life-long process whereby every individual acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experiences and other educational influences and resources in each one’s environment. This is the type of education where one 1earns how to survive in life through experiences and instructions from the elders.

From the education types, it is easier to see that individuals acquire most of their knowledge, skills, attitudes and values through informal education, that is, in the home, from the media, on the streets etcetera. Otherwise, UNESCO defines Education as an organized and sustained communication process designed to bring about learning. And learning is the relatively permanent change as a result of experiences However; this refers much more to formal and non-formal education.

Since education looks mainly at the wellbeing of an individual, it can be eloquently said that education existed in every society around the world. If education never existed, then people would never have managed to survive. However, the provision of education may have differed depending on the social needs of the people in a particular society. Thus, it would be imperative to distinguish African indigenous education and that education which was brought by the missionaries.

In Africa , before the introduction of education brought by the missionaries, there was a form of education that was aimed at preparing people for a better life in society. This type of education started from childhood until such a time when an individual attains adulthood. M.J Kelly (1999) states that “although indigenous education systems can vary from one place to another, the goals of these systems are often strikingly similar. He further argued that the aim of indigenous education concerned with instilling the accepted standards and beliefs governing correct behaviour and creating unity and consensus. This looked mainly at the role of an individual in society.

On the contrary the type of education that was brought by the missionaries was aimed at making Africans learn how to read and write so that Africans can easily be converted to Christianity. Thus, the missionaries were motivated to give formal education, (that is literacy and numercy) so that Africans could read the Bible (evangelization) and spread the gospel to others. The missionaries rejected much of tradition way of life because their desire was to convert as many as possible to Christianity religion. Thus, the education provided was biased towards religion. The more the indigenous people learnt how to read the Bible the higher the chances that they would be drown -to the Christian faith.

In terms of organisation, Ocitti (1973) argued that in African indigenous education, the powers were limited to tribal social division (family, lineage or village, clan, chiefdom). Organisations mainly describe the social relationships that existed, that are the rights and duties of husbands, wives and children. It also looks at whether a particular tribe is patrilineal, that is, Children belong to the husband or matrilineal where descent is towards the mother’s side or family. The relation between relatives (for example mothers or father’s brother) was also seen to have special importance to a child’s growing up.
The organisation on the part of the missionaries was also limited to further their beliefs.

Although they were all Christians, their doctrines differed in respect to their churches. For instance, the London Missionary Society (LMS) had its own principles which were different from the Jesuit Father’s principles or doctrines. No wonder Snelson (1974) and Mwanakatwe (1974) shows that these churches would fight for areas of domination. No other missionary society was to encroach in another missionary society’s land. Thus each missionary society organized itself and therefore, organized the kind of education it felt was going to be effective in raising the number of converts.

In African indigenous education, administration was done by the elders. The entire tribe or chiefdom would be administered by the kings or chiefs who would either be elected or put in power through hereditary. The chief was mainly assisted by the council which composed of the elder men of the tribe. It was some of these elders who would play a bigger role in the provision of indigenous education. This is because the education was mainly towards the inculcation of good morals.

This was different from the administration on the part of the missionaries. The missionaries were run by the ruling government, for instance the British South African Company (BSACo) in the case of Zambia . This government was responsible for the distribution of the areas of domination for the mission society (land distribution). However, the government did not play a role In the provision of education because they did not see the benefits that would come out of it. So the missionaries were the ones who took it upon themselves as they wanted Christianity to grow.

As earlier mentioned, the content of indigenous education had much stress on the communal and social aspect rather than on an individual. This was done mainly to prepare boys and girls for adult life in households, villages and tribes. That is why the type of education provided was “static”. This means that it was unchanging from generation to generation, in other words it was rather conservative and not innovative. Thus it was the same education that was practiced over and over for years. (Mwanakatwe (1974))

The content of indigenous education had its paramount importance on the detailed knowledge of physical environment and the skills to exploit it. For instance, hunting on the part of men and farming the part of females. It also had its stress on togetherness or unity as well as understanding the rights and obligation of each individual in a particular society. The concept of togetherness would teach the indigenous people on how to live and work with others within the societies or chiefdoms. The rights and obligations will put in place the extent and limitations of individual rights. This was responsible for making sure that boys and girls understand what is required of them in a particular society.

In its content, indigenous education also included laws, moral principles obligation to ancestral spirits, to relatives and to others in groups or tribe. (Mwanakatwe: 1996). It is from these lessons that children would learn to respect elders as well as pay allegiance to the spirits if they wanted their days of their lives to be extended.

In contrast, the content of the education provided by the missionaries was only biased towards religion. Snelson (1974) argued that the education provided had stress on bible doctrines, agriculture, Carpentry, black smithering and other skills that would help people raise their standards after which they would be drawn to the Christian religion. This type of education had no appeal to the way people had hitherto transmitted wisdom knowledge and experiences from one generation to the next. This means that the missionaries did not consider the indigenous African education to benefit them in any way neither did they consider how helpful it was even to the Africans themselves.

The other point is that the kind of education that was brought by the missionaries was too bookish, that is the reason why the Phelps stokes Commission came to rescue most African nations like Zambia . It recommended that type of education that would be responsive to the needs of the African community. This is a clear indication that even though the missionaries brought their education, it did not by all means consider the best type of education to be given to the indigenous Africans. (Snelson (1974).

The other difference is seen in terms of “competion”- the Indigenous education encouraged togetherness or corporation rather than competition. In short, competing was discouraged in any way possible; instead unit was always the talk of the day in indigenous education.

Yet the education brought by the missionaries was too competitive. It had the principle based on performance. This meant that the only the best students were to proceed to he next level. Thus the underdogs will always remain behind. These principles are present even today.

The methods of teaching used in indigenous education were plain and similar because they were all based on doing. It was planned from childhood to adulthood. So children would learn through “imitations” Men would work, hunt or play and boys would imitate. Women would also do the house chores in the presence of their daughters and later tell them to do likewise. Sometimes, especially at evening time, children would learn through oral literature as elders told education stories while sited around a fire. This was actually the time when fear and punishment was used as motivators for learning and behaviour. For instance, children would be told to stand still if elders are passing and never to answer harshly if elders are rebuking them. They used to be told that defaulters would grow hair on the neck or the earth would open and swallow them. Thus the children would adhere to the instructions out of fear.

The other methods used were through social ceremonies and initiation ceremonies. The later is where a boy or girl was taken in seclusion after attaining puberty. The men were taught to work hard and provide for their families while the women were taught to care for their husbands, children and the entire family. It was during this time that men and women were taught to participate in adult activities fully (that is, fishing, hunting, housekeeping etcetera). (Kelly 1999).

However, the type of education brought by the missionaries was all formal. Africans would be taught how to read and write in a classroom setup. Even some practical skills like carpentry, building would require someone to give formal instructions. This kind of education today shows the kind of methods they wanted to use even in olden days. Hence their constraints were that they were just setting up this kind of education. This kind of education was too bookish, therefore was not conforming to the needs of the indigenous people even at community level.

M. J Kelly (1999) argues that both forms of education had their own strength and weaknesses. Indigenous Africa education was said to be weak because it was static, conservative and not very open to change or innovations. This means that its world’s view was restricted because it could not cope with the dynamic needs of the modern world. Kelly further stated that, “indigenous education was orally based, without any written record”. This form of education only conformed to the past traditions rather than the spirit of inquiry. Thus had a limited understanding of scientific processes, innovativeness or change.

However, it was recommended for its strength as Kelly puts it, “ traditional education was meaningful, unifying, holistic, effective, practical and relevant to the individual as well as the community at large. It created strong human bonds because it involved the whole community. It was also recommended for the fact that there was separation between education ands the world of work. Thus, it reached out to and educated the whole person.

On the other hand, western or the education brought by the missionaries was seen to be biased towards missionary work or the spread of religion, it worked much against the demerits of indigenous African education. Thus, it was said to be useful as it encouraged innovativeness and competition so as to attain modernisation of an individual and in turn modernize the whole society or chiefdom.

African indigenous education was valuable to both the individual as well as the society. An individual benefited in that emphasis was much more concerned with instilling the accepted standards and beliefs governing correct behaviour. In addition, indigenous did not encourage competitiveness in intellectual and practical matters instead it created unity consensus among members of a particular society or tribe. Thus indigenous education was not only concerned with socialization of younger generation into norms, religion, moral beliefs and collective opinions of the wider society, it also laid a very strong emphasis on acquisition of knowledge which was useful to the individual and society as whole. (Kelly 1999).

Western education is also seen to be useful to an individual as well as the society. Western education promotes innovative thinking. Change is the very nature of life therefore, an individual needs to develop. This will in turn develop the whole society or country. Since the nature of indigenous education did not allow change or was said to be static, it was said to discourage both the individual and the society at large. Thus, western education encouraged competition which goes in line with innovative thinking. (BRAY, M)

In a recap, indigenous forms of education served the needs of the community as a whole. Hence, indigenous education theory hold that each of the individual’s relationship affects and is affected by all the other members of the community. While western education was used was said to be too bookish and somewhat divorced from the life and culture of the wider community. No wonder M.J Kelly concluded that there is the need to harmonize and integrate the best elements of both indigenous and western form of education in order to create more viable system of education in Africa .


Blakemore and Cooksey (1980). A Sociology of Education for Africa . London Allen and Unwin Publishers.

Bray M and Stephens (1986). Education and Society in Africa, London : Edward Arnold

Kelly, M.J. (1998). Origin and Development of Schools in Zambia , Lusaka : Image Publishers Limited.

Mwanakatwe M.J. (1974). The growth of Education in Zambia Since Independence, Lusaka : Oxford UNZA Press.

Ocitti, J.P (1973). African Indigenous education. Nairobi : East Africa Literature Bureau,,

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