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Education and Social Change in West Africa

by David G. Scanlon - 1954

As the hopes and ambitions of the Africans increased since the close of World War II, so did their frustrations. They could see the desired ends, but the means by which these ends could be attained were still obscure. To many, education was the answer. Unfortunately, in too many cases the education available was of an academic nature, suitable perhaps for some Western countries but not broad enough in method or scope to meet the challenge of dynamic cultural change.

SINCE the close of World War II, Africa has been undergoing a revolution. It is a revolution against hunger, disease, illiteracy, and domination by foreign powers. The demands of the revolutionist have, in many instances, echoed the Four Freedoms and the Declaration of Independence.

The spark that set off the revolution may be attributed to a number of causes. Many young Africans who served in the armies of the democracies returned to their homes with the realization that there are means of relieving the impoverished lives which they led. In addition, the many slogans and speeches of leaders of the democratic countries stating the philosophy of democracy were eagerly seized upon by young educated Africans and repeated until they found their way into the most rural areas. Many areas that had remained isolated for centuries suddenly found roads being constructed through their villages. Airstrips appeared almost overnight. Modern communication was introduced. Towns grew. Ports were constructed. New industries evolved. The flow of manufactured products into hitherto remote districts increased. These events demonstrated to the Africans that not only change but rapid change was possible.

As the hopes and ambitions of the Africans increased, so did their frustrations. They could see the desired ends, but the means by which these ends could be attained were still obscure. To many, education was the answer. Unfortunately, in too many cases the education available was of an academic nature, suitable perhaps for some Western countries but not broad enough in method or scope to meet the challenge of dynamic cultural change.


The experiences of Baima, a young African, are typical of those of thousands of young men in West Africa who have gone to the cities, received formal educations, and then, because of lack of employment, have returned to their villages. They find themselves floundering in a once-familiar culture that has now become alien.

The small West African village of Loboa, where Baima was born and spent his boyhood, was isolated until recently from any Western influence. The majority of the villagers had not traveled more than ten miles from Loboa and, with the cessation of tribal wars decades before, had had little contact with neighboring tribes. The mud-walled, thatched-roof houses clustered together in a manner which created among the inhabitants a sense of security against the known and unknown elements of danger from the surrounding "bush." Baima's father, who was considered wealthy by local standards, had several wives in addition to the boy's mother. From his mother and from his father's other wives, Baima received his early education. He learned that cooperation is vital to the success of village communal life. Folk stories and myths emphasized community moral values, social attitudes, and religious beliefs.

When Baima was five years old he was taken by his older brother to the rice fields. There, sitting on a platform built in the center of the field, he learned how to make rattles that would frighten away the rice birds which otherwise would eat most of the crop. When there were no birds, the, older boys would tell myths and teach chants to the younger children, each myth and chant illustrating some element of village philosophy.

A wedding celebration, a funeral, the return of the young men or women to the village after initiation into the secret societies, the visit of an honored guest, the celebration of a good harvest—any event might be provocation for an outbreak of dancing and chanting which lasted for several days and nights. Baima and the other children would join the long line of dancers weaving through the narrow areas between the houses, while chanting songs which in many cases were appeals to the spirits. Dancing was one method of communicating with spirits, but there were many others—an offering of a goat or a chicken, the making of a fetish, or the buying of a charm. In any case, gaining favor or atoning for the breaking of a taboo was a comparatively simple matter that could be arranged by the local "medicine man."

Some evenings might be spent listening to the elders discuss a legal case that would soon be brought before the chief. An elaborate system of unwritten law had evolved, and children, by listening to the elders and watching the cases that were tried in the local "palaver house," learned the laws of the village.


The Poro, a secret society for men, provided Baima's first formal education. As a young boy he had been taken into the "little bush," where a circumcision rite had been performed. He had remained in the "little bush" for two days. During this period, he had participated in an elaborate ritual which stressed the teachings of his mother, ancestor worship, and respect for the elders.

At the age of nine, Baima had been sent to the "big bush" of the Poro. In this restricted area of the forest he had been given what might be considered advanced courses in law, religion, agricultural methods, and medicine. At the end of the training period, which in Baima's case lasted two years, he returned to the village, where he was considered no longer a boy but an adult. The Poro experiences bind together all men in the village. The rites and rituals are known only to members of the society.

When Baima returned to his home, he found a road being constructed through the center of the village. This road ran from the capital of the country to a mining concession fifty miles in the interior. Within a short time, mining trucks carrying iron ore to the port were traveling through the village, and soon other trucks were converted into buses to carry passengers to the markets in the city. His village, once isolated, had become accustomed to a constant stream of people from other chiefdoms, as well as travelers and workmen from the Western nations, who were on their way to and from the mines. The few from Loboa who made the journey to the city brought back accounts of the wealth and power of men in the city. It soon became evident that if one hoped to join the leaders in the city, it was necessary to learn their language and go to their schools.


Baima's father, one of the few wealthy villagers, determined that his son must become one of these leaders. The village had no school, nor were there any in the neighboring towns. The only solution was to send the boy to a school in the city.

The boarding school which he attended for eight years followed a traditional curriculum, with emphasis on mathematics, European history, general science, and English. But while Baima was following a curriculum that is similar to that of schools in many Western countries, he was at the same time being taught by his associates to look with contempt on anything "native." Western style of dress in any form was considered superior to the native robe. The brief introduction to science developed in Baima a scorn for all native medicines and religious beliefs. While he was working diligently to emulate those in the city, they in turn regarded him as "native" in spite of his education. As a result, he found his companions among those who, like himself, were no longer a part of the old, and yet were not acceptable in the new culture.

At the end of eight years, Baima attempted to secure employment in the city. There he found hundreds of other young men who were untrained for any specific vocation and therefore unable to find employment which would make use of their education. Discouraged and without financial resources, Baima returned to his village.


Baima found that the village too had changed in the years since his departure. Most of the young men had gone to work in the mines or in the capital as laborers. Loboa was rapidly becoming a village of old men, children, and women, who maintained farms while able-bodied men were away working.

A store selling cotton cloth and other articles such as are stocked in a notions store in the United States had been opened. Foreign currency had become the medium of exchange, replacing the former locally manufactured currency and barter. With the increased use of foreign currency, materialism grew proportionately. Food which was needed in the village was sold in the city market in order to make the money which had suddenly become so important.

The old tribal laws and the power of the Poro became weaker. Nevertheless, although the local government institutions were in a period of decline, the power of the local medicine men remained strong. Little had been done to improve the health or agricultural standards of the people. The same tropical diseases which have plagued Africa for centuries continued their destruction of body and spirit. The agricultural methods used by Baima's ancestors were still in use. For each crop, a new area of bush was laboriously cleared and burned, hoed and planted, while the land used the previous year remained fallow for seven years. At harvest time, rice was cut one stalk at a time with a small knife.

The village had changed; the change in Baima had been even more revolutionary. It was impossible for him to assume his former position in the village and there was no opportunity to utilize his newly acquired knowledge. Some villagers regarded him with respect because of his education in the city, while others looked upon him with distrust. All of the other young men his age had been married for some time, but Baima wanted a wife who had the same educational background as his, and it was impossible to find such a girl in the village or the surrounding villages. He had been educated to look with disapproval upon polygamy, yet he was living in his father's house, a polygamous household. He worked with the men in the village clearing the bush for the rice crop, performing the same task in the same way he would have if he had never left the village. Although he remained a member of the Poro, the ritual and rites meant little to him.


It was at this point in Baima's life that his village and several surrounding villages were selected by the government for an experiment in fundamental education. This experiment called for the establishment of village schools. These would be four-year schools and would emphasize literacy, health, and agriculture. The teaching staff would consist of young men like Baima, men who had some formal education and were willing to undergo training in methods of teaching reading, writing, and health. Each teacher would also receive instruction in fundamentals of agriculture, a background that would be sufficient to enable him to work with the agricultural extension workers who were being trained by an agricultural specialist. Attached to each school was a demonstration garden in which each child had his own plot. This soon became a demonstration garden for the village. Each morning the students in the school began their day by working in the garden, receiving instruction in new methods of agriculture, soil sterilization, and the making of compost piles and seed beds.

Health was taught by demonstration. All drinking water used by the children was boiled in the classroom and discussions were held on the danger of drinking "raw" water. The revival of soap-making brought about a decline of skin diseases. The use of pit latrines rather than rivers was encouraged and experiments were carried out in methods of protective covering for the feet.

One period a day was spent on oral English; all other classes were conducted in the local language. Storytelling was encouraged and, on the basis of the stories known so well, reading was begun. Gradually arts and crafts found their way into the curriculum. Rather than rejecting African products as inferior, a certain pride developed in carving some object out of native wood or designing a new bamboo mat. The old craftsmen of the village were eager to share their knowledge with the students in the schools.

In training Baima and other young men who had a similar background for their work as teachers or agricultural workers, one of the most important tasks was to stress the necessity for patience. It was emphasized that no school would be opened unless a village requested it. Leaders of the men's secret society and the elders of the village were called in frequently as advisers. To these men, change was inevitable. The road had demonstrated that fact. Now the problem was how to bridge the chasm between the old and the new. What was the best method of establishing a code of laws and religious beliefs that would fill the partial vacuum that had occurred? These men saw the school as the agent that could best perform this function, and consequently they gave it their full support and cooperation. They visited the schools and consulted with the teachers, and their approval was noted by the people in the villages.

Approval by the secret society meant approval by the medicine men, as they are important members of the society. In many areas, the treatment offered by the local medicine men was rational according to Western standards, and no attempt was made to interfere with such treatments. Midwives, who were leading members of the women's secret society, were invited to assist the doctor in the local clinic. Many of these women were very efficient, and once good will was established they were willing to have their patients turn to the doctor if a difficult delivery was anticipated.


Baima's participation in the project gave him and the other young men who had been selected a means of constructively using their education for the betterment of their people and villages. The education which had been acquired primarily for the purpose of developing themselves had now been turned to serving the community. Through this service they had gained not only self-respect but also a sense of achievement in the knowledge that they were among the first of many young Africans playing an increasingly important role in the progress of their countries, for Baima's is by no means an isolated case. Nationalistic trends in West Africa have stimulated a demand for education. Hundreds of Baimas are assisting in teaching, agricultural work, road-building, and other phases of mass education designed to raise their countries' economic, social, and educational level.

Recent experiments throughout West Africa, such as the Joint UNESCO Liberian Educational Project, United States Point-Four Operations, and the efforts in fundamental education in the Gold Coast, Nigeria, the Cameroons, and other countries, have proved that formal education designed only for the few who become professional men must be supplanted by methods designed to educate large masses of people to assist in the development of these nations—the mechanics, road builders, nurses, teachers, accountants, carpenters, fishermen, housewives, farmers, and other workers so vital to the progress of a nation. While the various educational projects have been confined to relatively few towns or areas in each country, the success of these projects points the way to conversion of the entire educational systems of these countries.


This new education must be based upon certain principles which have been demonstrated in the various projects and by the many cases such as that described above.

In establishing village schools, full use should be made of existing cultural agencies. In the West African village, this would include the secret societies that are concerned with initiation rites, as well as the council of elders and chiefs. Every effort must be made to have representatives from the above-mentioned groups consult with those responsible for the schools. If the change is to be effective in the culture, it must come about by the voluntary cooperation of the people. Education can then proceed as fast as the people are willing to accept change. The school should be the agent to help people in a rapidly changing and often confusing culture. It will then be a stabilizing influence rather than one which introduces irrelevant elements.

Formal education must be carried on within the social and domestic milieu of the young African. Village schools where the child remains in his own home while receiving his early education are imperative. Too often in the past, children have attended boarding type schools and thus have become alienated from their homes and villages. Through village schools it is possible to help the entire village develop. From the village schools, those who have evidenced outstanding ability could be selected to attend secondary schools and schools of higher education.

The curriculum of the village schools should be designed to meet the needs of the community. In many communities, the needs are health, agriculture, and literacy as a means rather than an end. In others, animal husbandry will play an important role. Each area should be studied before constructing a curriculum for the school. Too often, curricula are copied from countries whose needs and cultures are vastly different from those of Africa. Such a curriculum, usually of an academic nature, contributes little toward helping the child in his culture.

Teaching materials should be produced 'which will be meaningful to the children in the village. There is urgency for books and teaching aids which will be within the understanding of the young African. Reliance on foreign texts has encouraged memorization and verbalization. There is little in these texts that is within the frame of reference of a child in an African village. Too few materials are available in the vernacular, although great strides have been made as a result of the Laubach and other methods. Owing to this dearth of materials for African schools, students very often know the history and geography of Europe and the United States, but know little of their own social and governmental structures or of the practical skills and measures which will enable them to eradicate disease and poverty or assist in the economic advancement of their own areas.

Young Africans should be encouraged to retain pride in their own cultures. Identification of civilization with "Westernization" has meant that many young Africans regard with shame the arts, crafts, and mythology of their people. Revival of interest in the handicrafts and arts of Africa should be stimulated. African art is a living art; Africans should be encouraged to keep it alive.

Education must raise the hopes and ambitions as well as the skills of a people. The proper education will enable Africans actively to participate in programs designed to raise the entire standard of living. Those who have been selected to work on such projects have shown their countrymen that the future of Africa lies in the hands of Africans; that education is not without purpose but can be put to use in the remotest village; that poverty and disease are not the heritage of their people.

Inspiration has been given to countless people who were once without hope. Much of West Africa has achieved or is in the process of achieving self-government. Few changes in history have been as revolutionary or have covered as much territory as those which are taking place in Africa today. The success with which Africa is able to attain not only political freedom but freedom from want, hunger, and disease will depend upon how rapidly mass education can be introduced.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 56 Number 3, 1954, p. 129-134
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4726, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:46:07 AM

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