Education in colonial Sub-Saharan Africa varied over the course of the colonial period and by the nature of different colonizing cultures. The colonial period in Sub-Saharan Africa lasted about seventy-five years for most countries, with the colonizing powers including France, Portugal, Britain, Belgium, Italy, and Spain.
Within each colonial power, opinions diverged as to the role that formal education in African contexts had performed, could perform, or should perform in the future. Sharp contrasts in views often occurred within the Christian missions, between missions and the colonial offices, between the metropole and officials in the field, and within colonial political parties. Some of the debate centered on whether education should follow the Western model or should be adapted to the realities of African societies and cultures.
In general, the object of education in colonial Africa shifted from the spreading of European civilization (assimilation of Western ideas) to Africanization of education (or “development from within”). Most colonial powers in Sub-Saharan Africa attempted to “Africanize” schools after World War I (Sivonen, 1995). Teachers introduced subjects into the school curriculum which reflected the child’s natural environment and their own community, stories and folklore, tribal and traditional dances, and instruction in local handicrafts. These attempts were largely unsuccessful for various reasons: lack of desire to effect this transformation, limitations in resources, well-based African opposition, and social changes outside the schools. The period from 1918 to 1930 was marked by confusion regarding the aims of African education and government disinterest.
Overall, the pattern of educational provision during the colonial period was very uneven. Colonial education in Sub-Saharan Africa was elitist. The vast majority of
African people did not attend school at all, and most of those who did attend had only a few years of primary schooling. They were very unevenly distributed in terms of regions, sex, locality, ethnic, and social background.
Foreign missions (Christian and Islamic) with interests in Africa pioneered and dominated the educational sector for many years. Islamic religion had considerable influence on African education in western Africa, and some countries in eastern and central Africa. Islamic schools and universities flourished centuries before the arrival of Christian evangelism and colonialism. By the early 1950s, Sub-Saharan Africa held as many Christians of all denominations as Muslims.
The vast majority of schools and colleges opened during the colonial period were run (and mostly financed by) European or American missionary societies. The first schools resulted from coastal trading contacts in the fifteenth century, but most were established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the 1790s numerous Christian organizations formed themselves into missionary societies including the Baptist Missionary Society, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, and the Church Missionary Society. Others followed in the early nineteenth century, including the Wesleyan Missionary Society, the American Bible Society, and the Church of Scotland Missionary Committee. Throughout the colonial period, the development of missionary education was spatially uneven.
Bringing Christianity to the non-Christian world was the central objective of mission education in colonial Africa. The language of the Europeans was used as the medium of instruction. Schools inculcated students with Christian beliefs and attitudes on marriage (monogamy), lifestyle (a rejection of traditional beliefs and practices), and work (discipline). The missionary dominance of educational objectives limited the curriculum of most mission schools to the essentials of the Christian or Muslim life, while other schools followed a basic academic curriculum similar to those used in European schools at the time. Overall, the nature (as well as quality) of education offered by mission schools varied greatly, with different emphases placed on vocational training, literacy, obedience, and religious instruction.
The educational activities of these missionary societies had a profound effect on the long-term development of many African societies, particularly those not already under the influence of Islam. The value of missionary influences on education is highly contentious. Some researchers depict missionaries as noble altruists bringing enlightenment, literacy, useful new skills, and superior health care. Other writers portray them as agents of an oppressive and exploitative foreign presence, alienating Africans from their traditional culture and beliefs by imposing inappropriate values, school curricula, ambitions, and expectations on unwilling and powerless colonial subjects.
In general, for most of the nineteenth century, mission education operated without much government intervention; then missionaries cooperated with colonial governments (to varying degrees) after 1900, and particularly after World War I. This mirrored a curriculum change from a purely religious education to a diluted semi-secular education, though the curriculum remained relatively narrow.
Missionaries and colonial governments did not always share the same aims. Colonial rulers tended not to give education a high priority. Education was viewed as a way of training people to meet colonial expectations rather than a way of bringing about social change or getting greater social equality and justice. Governments needed some local people to read and write in the European language, do numerical calculations, know European practices and traditions, and be trained in particular skills. Graduates assumed lower-ranking positions within the colony, trained as mechanics, nurses, teachers, tradespeople, and administrative assistants. Education was based on racial segregation. For example, in Kenya and Tanzania, different schools were established for Europeans, Asians, Arabs, and Africans.
The colonial rulers officially neglected education at the tertiary level. Only a few universities existed in colonial Africa, including the Lovedale Institution (South Africa), Gordon Memorial College (Khartoum), Makerere Government College (Kampala),Yaba Higher College (Lagos), and the Prince of Wales School and College, Achimota (Ghana). These university colleges have been criticized for a narrow curriculum, training an elite to occupy government positions, and exacerbating class differences.
The colonial approach to education varied by nationality. For example, the Portuguese and French systems aimed to create a very small class of officially “assimilated” Africans who were given an elite education (sometimes including a study period in Europe). The British developed secondary and higher education much earlier than the French, and were relatively more supportive of missionary education. Enrollment rates were generally much higher in British than in French territories, partly because missionary activities began earlier in the former, partly because most of the French territories in West Africa were highly Islamicized. British colonial administrations prohibited the expansion of missionary activities into Muslim areas, mainly to avoid conflict with the traditional rulers of these areas. The French pursued a more aggressive policy against Islam which resulted in much bloodshed and the closing of many Quranic schools.
As the colonial period progressed, the various European administrations became more and more involved in education, both as builders of schools in their own right and as supervisors and subsidizers of mission schools. The main impetus behind this increasing involvement was not the desire to expand educational facilities for Africans, but the desire to restrict the expansion of schools, particularly of academic secondary schooling, which was deemed to be inappropriate to African needs.
Mungazi (1983) argues that the quest for education has influenced the struggle for independence in southern Africa. Prior to 1965 (when almost all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa had obtained their independence), Africans began to ask for more education, particularly for higher education, and for a redefinition of the goals and purposes of education. There was general discontent expressed against colonial education, especially in British Africa. They demanded an educational system that reflected African conditions. After independence, Sub-Saharan African governments began to transform education to promote national awareness, economic productivity and political consciousness. Some countries, such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria, embarked upon free compulsory primary education.
Education in colonial Africa remains a contested subject. One approach holds colonial power responsible for an unthinking transfer of Western formal educational institutions into Africa, resulting in the destruction of the cultural inheritance of African peoples. For instance, Taiwo (1995, p.891) argues that indigenous modes of knowledge production were “profoundly altered for the worse,” if not “utterly destroyed” by “Islam, Slavery, Christianity, Colonialism, and Capitalism.” Certainly, indigenous African education was relevant and closely linked to the spiritual and material aspects of social life before colonization by European imperial powers. This educational process reflected the realities of African society and produced people with an education that equipped them to meet the material, spiritual, and social needs of the society.
The “modernization” approach, according to Kuster (1994), views education as a precious gift of civilization, benevolently bestowed on colonial subjects. For instance, Summers (1994) argues that in Southern Rhodesia “civilization” was a social ideal first developed by the missionaries, which then became the ideology of the ruling race as a whole.
The “underdevelopment” approach (according to Kuster ) sees colonial education as an instrument of European cultural imperialism. Mugomba and Nyaggah (1980, p.1) argue that the colonial system of education “both subordinated and relegated to a peripheral role the African educational systems and the existing political, economic, and social orders.” The newcomers introduced alternative theories of education and imposed a new set of educational institutions that either partly or completely replaced previous forms of learning. Colonial schools aimed to instill deference to the foreign authority, unquestioned acceptance of hierarchy, the full embrace of Christianity, and emphasized the “superiority” of everything European and the “inferiority” of everything African. African culture was synonymous with superstition and backwardness and uncivilized. The colonizer’s culture, history, religion, and way of life were thus promoted in the curriculum as well as in the discipline itself.
Some researchers argue further that education in colonial Africa was an effective means of achieving social control. Ajayi et al. (1996, p.28) argue further that education policies were “the most effective instrument for the colonial administrations to try to control the pace and direction of social change.” Yet others question the influence of education as a tool of social control and point to the small proportion of the population with access to schools.
Ajayi, F. F. Ade, Lameck K. H. Goma, and G. Ampah Johnson. The African Experience with Higher Education. Accra-North, Ghana: The Association of African Universities, 1996.
Kuster, S. Neither Cultural Imperialism nor Precious Gift of Civilization: African Education in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890-1962. Munster: Lit., 1994.
Mugomba, A. T., and Mougo Nyaggah, eds. Independence without Freedom: The Political Economy of Education in Southern Africa. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1980.
Mungazi, D. A. To Honor the Sacred Trust of Civilization: History, Politics, and Education in Southern Africa. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publication Company, 1983.
Sivonen, S. White-Collar or Hoe Handle? African Education under British Colonial Policy, 1920-1945. Helsinkei: Suomen Historiallinen Seura, 1995.
Summers, C. Civilization to Segregation: Social Ideals and Social Control in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1934. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994.
Taiwo, Olufemi. “Colonialism and Its Aftermath: The Crisis of Knowledge Production.” Callaloo 16, no. 4 (1993): 891-909.