Similarities and differences between indigenous African education and missionary type of education

Mkandawire Sitwe Benson (2005)similarities and differences between indigenous African education and that type of education which was brought by the missionaries. The discussion will start with aims, objectives, organization, administration, content and the methods of teaching.

The term education has got a lot of definitions. Different scholars in the world give different definitions in trying to capture the subject matter. Some scholars like Snelson (1974:1) defines education as
A condition of human survival. It is the means where by one generation transmits the wisdom, knowledge and experience which prepares the next generation for life’s duties and pleasure.

Although this definition may not cater or address all the issues raised in education, it helps us to have a wide knowledge about all aspects of education. This also helps us to act with more insight and more intelligence in molding the youths in an acceptable manner. As human beings, the kind of personality one becomes will depend very much on the home he/she is born into, on his parents, on his village in which they are brought up. It can also be based on his or her school and on the tribe or nation to which they belongs. The kind of personality will not only depend on the things mentioned but also on beliefs and ideas that he will encounter throughout his life.

Education existed as early as man’s history. It existed for a long time as human beings started living in societies of Africa and this education is referred to indigenous African education. We find evidence of possession of knowledge, skills and customs told by the old generation. On the other hand the missionaries of the Christian church brought modern education to Africa , who had concluded that Africans where completely uneducated. A mistake which they had.

However, there are a lot of similarities and differences between the two terms. One of the similarities between indigenous African education and the type of education brought by missionaries is that they had the same purpose of preparing of the young generation into a useful adult life in household, village and tribe. Both aimed at bringing up an individual as a responsible person in the society. This was done through the transmitting of attitudes, values, skills social understanding and the various customs of the society.

Both indigenous and missionary types of education had an aim of equipping leaders on how to perform social functions respecting of their adults and other people in the society.. For instance in the village or denomination to which they belonged, children were taught different survival skills.

Both types of education prepared individuals for employment in their own environment because they believed that people must have life. To this effect they taught people how to find food through farming. Areas which had fertile soils were identified as farms and various crops such as maize, beans and groundnuts where grown. Furthermore, they both believed that shelter was very important for people to live in. hence, construction of houses was encouraged and some of them developed the skill of building such shelters.

Both types of education believed in good morality that is how to live well. Education tended to focus on instruction as they where taught how to live in order to be accepted in the society. Accepted values and norms such as honesty, generosity, diligence and hospitality where part of civic education.

In terms of differences, we can say that, although both were agents of transmitting culture to the young generation, indigenous African education taught children their own African culture based within their own society while missionaries brought in their culture from another society specifically European to which African children were not very familiar with.

Indigenous African education was for everyone in Africa and existed for the purpose of strengthening the African community while missionaries aimed at promoting the growth of their church. The aims and objectives of indigenous African education according to Kelly (1999) were to teach or instilling of the accepted standards and beliefs governing good behaviour, creating unit and general agreement by people. However competition on practical and intellectual basis was encouraged while the education of the missionaries mainly focused on spreading Christianity

In terms of organization structure, the education brought by the missionaries was hierarchically structure from lowest to the highest level while African education according to Farrant (1980:30) states that “indegenious education had no schools or buildings or formal organization of either nation or local educational systems”.

As for indigenous African education, this clearly tells us that it had unstructured type of education in terms of hierarchy. This explains why education took place any time and anywhere in the indigenous African education. It could take place under a tree, in the bush as they where hunting or collecting fire wood or fruits. In some societies where education was largely informal parents where predominatly responsible for teaching using their house holds as the school. This house hold education covered practical skills and continued as long as the child lived with his/her parents. In short, this type of education was informal and there was no sort of organization at local or national level. In the economic sphere education depended on geographical point of location for that society to satisfy their own needs.

In terms of agriculture, Sherington (1987:8) pointed out that a person learnt how to grow crops in the indigenous African education such as finger millet, rice, wheat, sorghum, maize, sweetpotatoe and pumpkins. This was an economic system of education. Apart from this type of education system the indigenous African education also practiced technology in which they learned how to manufacture metal tools such as axes, hoes, spears, merchants, knives, arrows and bows. There was also a political stability of life among the indigenous African people which led to the political system. Society was based first of all on family relations; the smallest social unit was home stead in which a child learnt how to behave with the mother and father. Chief was recognized as a leader of all civil, military, judiciary and religious matters affecting the people in his area. This type of education had religious teachings centred on supreme beings with strong believes in the ancestral spirits. The young people had to learn when and why spirits of the departed had to be propitiated on ceremonial purification had to be performed. The value of certain charms and protective medicine.

Unlike indigenous education the missionaries had structured type of education since they had buildings where learning took place. This explains why they had an organized link between local and international institutions (outside). This type of education was formal and school building were well established. However, these established structures were divided into three categories that is lower level, middle level and upper level. They had curriculum and time table in place.

In spite of both indigenous and missionaries education having teachers, the indigenous African teachers were not specific. The teaching included any one elderly or knowledgeable person that the teachers. Missionary education had an obligation to train teachers and these were paid in kind. The trained teachers were those who could read, understand and interpret the bible. Training of teachers took place at normal schools.

On content of indigenous education, the physical environment influenced the content of the curriculum. This shows as that what was taught meant to assist the child to adjust and adapt to the environment so that the child could exploit and derive benefit from it. The child learnt about landscape, weather and about plants and animals so as to come to term with the environment. In addition, the physical situation influenced what practical skills the child acquired in order to be prepared for the future responsibilities. For instance, boys and girls who lived in fishing areas learnt such skills

In addition to what has been highlighted on above, the principle aim of the African education was to prepare an individual for self reliance, there was early introduction for adult life from six years. This was to free the infancy from dependants upon parents. To this effect, education was based on the assumption that an individual can participate in community life and benefit from the education the community had to offer. Learners were impacted with knowledge on survival skills such as carpentry, forming pottery and basketry. Unlike indigenous African education, missionaries’ type of education had a sore objective to spread the knowledge about religions among forefathers and other nations. The aim of spreading the world of God was to have people who are literate to read and interpret the bible. Most of the Christian leaders were nurtured through education in order to sing hymn songs in foreign language. 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.

To a large extent the missionaries discarded our way of life. They thought we are ignorant and know nothing. They 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.

Ocitti (1973) states that
African indigenous education, was highly centralised the powers were limited to tribal social division (family, lineage or village, clan, chiefdom). Organizations 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.

In terms of facilitation, African indigenous education administration was being managed by the elders and not youths.

In the indigenous African education, children were strictly taught about land ownership and how people were to treaty. The whole land would be administered by the kings or chiefs who used to get into the throne through the matrilineal system of kingship in which someone gets into power through hereditary.

Politically, the indigenous African education was highly organized with strong beliefs in guardians. They belied in working in groups and generally 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 as mentioned earlier.

Mwanakatwe (1974)) argues that
The indigenous type of education is not flexible. 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. 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 summary, indigenous African education was more practical than the kind of education brought by the missionaries. Indigenous type of education had a bearing to the traditions, norms and cultural being to the society to which the children belonged. African education was not well structured while western education was well structured and it was bookish. African education gave a sense of belonging to the culture while the missionaries kind of education did not.


Kelly, M.J. (1998). Origins and Development of Education 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,,

About Sitwe

Sitwe Benson Mkandwire is a researcher, teacher and writer. He is currently based at the University of Zambia, School of Education, Department of Language and Social Sciences Education.
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1 Response to Similarities and differences between indigenous African education and missionary type of education

  1. Geoffrey Kituye says:

    Thanx for your wonderful article

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