The principle aim of this paper is discuss the assertion that “African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived”. The paper will be discussed in the light of what is known about indigenous African education. However, to discuss this topic thoroughly, a comparative approach in this discussion will be sustained in relation to the education brought by the missionaries or modern education today.
What one would say without any arguments is that education existed for as long as human beings started living in their societies in Africa. This type of education is 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. When the missionaries came, they only looked at the weaknesses of traditional African indigenous education and concluded based on what they saw that Africans were uneducated. Little did the missionaries consider the merits of indigenous African education even neglecting the fact that African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived.
Kelly (1999:1) define education as a life long process in which the older generation impart skills, values and knowledge into the young ones for their own survival. “Education is not the same as schooling, but it is a life long process conducted by many agencies”. Education is the action exercised by adult generation on those who are not yet ready for social life.
African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived because they acquired Informal education which 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 for their own survival. This is the type of education where one 1earns how to survive in life through experiences and instructions from the elders by adapting to the environment.
Survivalistic education teaches individuals to adapt to the environment by finding out means of surviving on their own void of others. It is clear in Africa and Zambia in particular today that there is no any other form of education taught for the survival of the children as it were in the indigenous African education. Individuals acquired most of their knowledge, skills, attitudes and values through informal education, that is, in the home, from the media, on the streets etcetera. African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived simply because their type of education looked mainly at the wellbeing of an individual and 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 argue based its nature that African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived in every respect.
Before the introduction of education brought by the missionaries in Africa, there was a form of education that was aimed at preparing people for a better life in the society. This type of education started from childhood until such a time when an individual attained adulthood. 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, modern education or 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 numeracy 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 Africans 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. This kind of education did not teach African children to adapt to their environments.
African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived as seen in the way their education system was organised. 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 or matrilineal 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. This strongly strengthened learners to be oriented towards what they were doing.
African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived as their education was organised and administered in the way that learners could easily adapt to it. In African indigenous education, administration was done by the elders who determined what was best for their generation and those generations to come. 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 by establishing was children were encountering in their daily lives. This is because the education was mainly towards the inculcation of good morals.
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 described as “static”. This means that it was unchanging from generation to generation, in other words it was rather conservative with little innovation. 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.
Indigenous education encouraged togetherness or corporation rather than competition as it is today. In short, competition was discouraged in any way possible; instead unit was always the talk of the day in indigenous education rather than today’s education which encourages competition.
African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived because the methods of teaching used in indigenous education were plain and similar because they were action oriented and all based on doing. It was planned from childhood to adulthood for children to adapt to their environments. 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). All these justifies that African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived
African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived due to the fact that 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.
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).

In a recap, indigenous forms of education served the needs of the community as a whole justifying that African children in pre-colonial period learnt what they lived. Hence, indigenous education theory hold that each of the individual’s relationship affects and is affected by all the other members of the community. There is need to harmonize and integrate the best elements of both indigenous and today’s education system 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

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. marwa says:

    well done, under such situation it is true that tradition education is more important than western education even though it beneficial,

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