Though education is as old as humanity is in African societies, imperialists like to insinuate that missionaries found Africans in the tabula rasa state: blank, being nothing, knowing nothing. The opposite, however, is true.
Since time immemorial, Africans have possessed massive bodies of knowledge ranging from survival and life skills, food production to conservation.
This system of education is called Traditional African Education (TAE). Fafunwa defines TAE as, “the form of learning in Africa traditional societies in which knowledge, skills, and attitudes of the tribe were passed from elders to children by means of oral instruction and practical activities.”
This was done so as to produce an individual who is honest, respectable, skilled, cooperative and conforms to the social order of the day.
TAE had no formal schools and teachers were mainly volunteers and thus unpaid. It was mainly concerned with helping young ones transition smoothly into adulthood. Children were given essential skills like, “provision of food, shelter, clothing and general mastery of the environment.” (Farrant).
Some objectives of TAE are: “to develop the child’s latent physical skills; to develop character; to inculcate respect for elders and those in position of authority; to acquire specific vocational training and to develop a healthy attitude towards honest labour; to understand, appreciate and promote cultural heritage of the community at large.” (Fafunwa).
From the objectives above, it is clear that Africans used education to prepare children for life, a belief held closely by John Dewey who said, “Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but life itself.”
The success of TAE was hinged on inherent perspectives, experiences, language, and customs, teaching from the known to unknown.
TAE teachers used the schema that the child brought from home as the basis for whatever they taught them. What boys were taught was based on what they learnt from their fathers especially in areas of farming. Girls were taught taking over from what their mothers taught them in areas of crafts, cooking, food preservation and child rearing practices, something that has been inculcated into modern day Home Economics.
Since TAE was a way of protecting, preserving and developing indigenous knowledge, skills and culture, other scholars refer to it as indigenous education.
Philosophical bases of TAE according to Mushia are: preparationism, functionalism, communalism, holisticism and perennialism. Mushi writes that preparationism implies that the role of teaching and learning was to equip boys and girls with skills appropriate to their gender in preparation for their role in the society. Africans gender children from birth, education consequently, follows the same route.
Functionalism he says was a base through which knowledge, skills, and attitudes imparted were relevant to the socio-economic activities of an individual. That thus made education a utility of value. This was demonstrated through farming, fishing, building, smelting and even child rearing practices.
The communalism base means that, learners acquired a common spirit to work and life. Also, the means of production were owned communally. Compassion and cooperation were taught as communities pulled resources together to help the less fortunate.
In Botswana communalism played out through: mafisa, molaletsa, motshelo and majako. Communalism protected the less fortunate from poverty and lack. On this Farrant writes, “it is seen as a collective activity and mutual help that extends from family to community at large.”
Raising children was the responsibility of the whole community. The responsibility to correct a child that misbehaves was for all.
Holisticism was a philosophy that emphasised multiple skilling. When for instance a learner learnt about farming, they were expected to learn other skills like how to prepare farms, hoeing, cooking and food preservation. The learner was expected to master all the skills learnt. The skills were
Children were also taught about the different seasons and their impact on both animals and the environment. As adults, they would then know for instance, the importance of capitalising on the early rains for food production, given they would know what happens when winter catches crops not yet mature and ready for harvest. The young were also taught how to study nature as nature always communicates. Africans didn’t need the weatherman to tell them whether there will be floods or draught, they read nature.
Conservation was taught through taboos. It was a taboo to cut certain trees at a particular time and some trees were never cut as they were said not to be good for firewood. In Botswana examples of such trees are monato and mosetlha.
Some animals were not hunted. Also, hunting was seasonal, done off the ploughing season. This ensured game multiplies. The idea of totem animals is a conservation strategy, as tribes are banned from eating animals said to be their totem.
The religious aspects of TAE were taught by elders and priests. This is because Africans believe that spirituality is a key. It was also believed a person not in sync with their spirituality can’t relate. Also, children were taught the tribe’s oral traditions that in most cases carried deep spiritual lessons. Values like the respect for the sanctity of life were taught under religion. Also taught was the importance of traditional and religious ceremonies, dances and initiation rites. Discipline was emphasised as a way of teaching self-control. Bad behaviour was punished to deter a repeat and good behaviour was rewarded as motivation. Marriage was taught and encouraged as it was treasured as that which is foundational to community life.
TAE believed that teaching a child strengthened the community and as such it did not have dropouts, progression was automatic and testing was done practically and a learner repeated until they mastered the skill.
The selling point of TAE was its use of mother tongue and total reliance on cultural norms values and practices. A child came as they are and education added to what was already there. Also, TAE was never about competition but uplifting humanity. Learners helped each other grow. Pedagogies were pragmatic and learner centred: games, riddles, folklores and acting were used. Summing this as Nyerere said, “At the dictactic level the teaching process took the form of stories, legends, riddles and songs; while at the practical level individuals enacted what they had learnt dictactically, by imitating what their elders had performed”.
Learners for instance, could be asked to build a hut for a less fortunate member of the community as a way of displaying skills gained and giving back to the community. The latter has been infused into modern day Development Studies and in some instances Design and Technology.
In a nutshell, TAE if strategically beefed up with parts of Western education can remove Africa from its state of desperate and desolate poverty. Africa’s problems started when colonisers thought they could teach an African the Western way.
An example of TAE in Botswana is bojale and bogwera.
“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” (G.K. Chesterton).
*Mmaotho Segotso is an educator and former teacher. She is a new contributor to Mmegi and readers can expect more of her insights on education