What is African indigenous education? philosophical bases of African indigenous education.strengths and limitations of this education, AND relevant is it to the modern education today.

          African indigenous education was a lifelong process of learning where by a person progressed through predetermined stages of life of graduation from cradle to grave. Cameroon & Dodd (1970). This implies that African indigenous education was continuous throughout lifetime from childhood to old-age

             Mushi (2009) defines African indigenous education as a process of passing among the tribal members and from one generation to another the inherited knowledge, skills, cultural traditions norms and values of the tribe.

          In www.eric.ed.gov/../recordDetail. African indigenous education is defined as the native, locally developed form of bringing up the youngsters by the older and more experienced members of the society. Being native is by no means to deny the fact that indigenous learning goals, content, structures and methods have not been enriched, or for that matter, polluted or both by outside influences. 

      African indigenous education can generally be defined 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 instructions and practical activities.

          The main characteristics of African indigenous education included the following.

           Traditional African indigenous education was community oriented, geared to solving the problems of the community. The instructional activities were therefore, directed towards the social life of the community, so as to prepare the learners to fit into their community.

            Kenyatta (1961 in Mushi 2009) holds it that;

It was taught in relation to a ‘concrete’ situation. The boys and girls learnt about birds that were harmful, how they could be controlled, and what birds could be eaten. In the same way they learnt about trees that were good for firewood, building or for propping crops like banana and yams as well as those which resisted ants.


             It was illiterate. The learning experiences were made orally and the knowledge was stored in the heads of elders. The instructors were carefully selected from the family or clan. Their task was to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes to the young, informally at the didactic and practical levels.  Nyerere (1975) says, “at the didactic level the teaching process took the form of the stories, legends, riddles, and songs; while at the practical level individuals enacted what they had learnt didactically, by imitating and watching what their elders performed”.

                It put emphasis on practical learning and the young adult learned by watching, participating and executing what they learnt. The skills like carving, masonry, clay working, cloth making, building canoe making, cooking, and home management were insisted among the children in the community. These were the skills opened to all, as they consisted of the basic skills, knowledge and attitudes that enabled individuals to live and function effectively in their tribe.

The question of learning by doing is very important. The best way to learn sewing is to sew; the best way to learn farming is to farm; the best way to learn cooking is to cook the best way to learn how to teach is to teach and so on. Nyerere (1975 in Mushi 2009) 

             It was not separated from other spheres of community activity. This implies that it was the whole life of the community and it had no special time of a day or life when it took place. Instead it took place in the entire span of life it can therefore be viewed as a life-long process in which an individual acquired skills, knowledge and values from womb to tomb. Mush (2009) comments that in this case education was essentially part of life and not separated from the societal culture.

            It was functional. The knowledge skills and values that were imparted were relevant to the socio-economic activities of an individual. The learners learned the skills that were for immediate and long term activities. Mushi spotlights the Bena society and has the following to say;

In Bena society, the individual who were earmarked for various community roles like guards, leaders or teachers, received training around the chiefs (ntemi) residence. The compulsory subjects comprised fighting, religion, law, history, agriculture and animal husbandry. Upon completion of their training they were appointed as guards, teachers and warriors.(ibid)


           It had no paper word-testing and certificates but learners graduated ceremoniously. There were basically no formal exams at the end of a specific level of training, but a learner was considered a graduate when he/she was able to practice what s/he had learnt throughout the period of training. The ceremony was held to mark the completion o training and thus assuming more community responsibilities. This was common  especially during what Mushi referred to as ‘coming of  age’ ceremonies and ‘the rites of passage’


African indigenous education did no develop in a vacuum, it had its own philosophical bases on which it was built. Having looked at the main characteristics of African indigenous education lets examine its philosophical bases. The following should be considered as philosophical bases for African indigenous education    

            Preparedness/preparationism. This implies that the role of teaching and learning was to equip boys and girls with the skills appropriate to their gender in preparation for their distinctive roles the society. In most African traditional societies such as Sukuma, Zanaki, Kurya, masai, Nyamwezi most girls were taught how to become good mothers and how to handle their husbands soon after marriage, and boys were prepared to become warriors, manual farmers, good fathers (the heads of the family) and other male dominated occupations.(ibid)

             Functionalism. This was another philosophical base in which the knowledge, skills and attitudes imparted were relevant to the social economic activities of an individual. And so education was for utility value. It was provided for immediate induction into real life in the society. Learners learnt by observing, imitating and initiation ceremonies. Mushi has the following to say on it

   Indigenous African education was functional, the knowledge, skills and values that were imparted were relevant to the socio-economic activities of the individual … this was evident in the fields of agriculture, building, fishing, iron smelting, canoe making dancing or child rearing.(ibid)


                Communalism. In African traditional society learners learned/acquired a common spirit to work and life and that the means of production were owned communally. The education was also an integral part of culture and history. For example children upbringing was a whole community’s role. If for instance a child misbehaved in the absence of his/her parents any adult member of the community was responsible to correct him/her on spot. That implies that even children belonged to the society.

               Holisticism/multiple learning.  In this philosophical base a learner was required to acquire multiple skills. They were either not allowed to specialize in specific occupation, or a very little room for specialization did exist. When a learner learnt  about a certain skill, say farming s/he was obliged  to learn all other skills related to farming such as, how to prepare farms, hoeing, food preservation, how to fight with diseases attacking crops and so on. Also he had to learn other skills like, hunting, house building, cookery, and principles required for the wellbeing of an individual, clan and ethnic groups. The learner learnt multiple skills and mastered them all.

               Perennialism. This philosophical base ensured that the traditional communities in Africa use education as a necessary tool for preserving the status quo of the tribe. Based on this fact it did not allow the progressive influence of on the mind of young people and so it was viewed as conservative in nature. Learners were viewed as passive recipients and could not contribute anything to the learning process. Mushi says on this that, “criticism about what they were taught was discouraged and knowledge was not to be questioned. Questions seeking clarification on aspects not clearly understood were encouraged” (2009:39)


     African indigenous education displayed the following strengths to its recipients and the society at large.

           Every member of the community was employed. Children learnt the skills that prepared them to immediately utilize their physical environment for self-employment. The skills acquired by watching, and imitating the elders were immediately put into practical use. And thus the children became productive and useful members in the society.

           It was successful in maintaining the socio-economic and cultural structures of the society. The learners were taught among other things, to preserve their own culture and to get rid of external influences. Also the skills like masonry, clay working, carving, cloth making, building canoe making and tinsmithery, were taught in the view of maintaining the socio-economic and cultural heritage of the society.

           The learners/recipients acquired communal attitudes rather than individual. From communalism philosophical base point of view, learners were taught to respect the properties of the whole society, and they used their acquired knowledge for service of the society. The Masai moran for example protected the whole society and the properties therein.


Despite its strengths, African indigenous education did not go without limitations. Below are some of the limitations that befell African indigenous education.

         It was confined to a particular clan or society and covered that aspect considered being of immediate relevance to them and it did not go beyond the borders of the society. Worse enough the elders who were teachers hardly entertained any challenge. That is what Mushi expresses in this paragraph; “traditional education had a specific body of knowledge to be learnt which never changed, and which concentrated only on the transmission of cultural heritage, i.e. of traditions, values, and norms among the members of the tribe from childhood to adulthood…”

        The accumulated knowledge and skills could not be preserved in written form. It lacked proper methods of storing knowledge and relied on the memories of the elders. Because it was not documented it was difficult to spread from one place to another. Mush says “it was not easy to describe, compare, and estimate distance, volume, weight, and size of different objects because figures or letters were unknown to traditional African societies” (ibid).

          Intellectual training occupied a very small place in traditional African education. This means that greater emphasis was placed on the ‘concrete’ rather than the ‘abstract’. It ignored other cognitive abilities like reasoning, which although it was imperative, was insufficiently developed. So sometimes, everything happening, be it good or bad was attributed to God’s will.

  It is correct to argue that traditional African societies had their own ways of reasoning, but to some people this kind of reasoning could not enable them to imagine alternatives to decision arrived at, a factor that was partly attributed to the emphasis placed on traditions i.e. beliefs and their threats”(ibid)


        Learning was lineal; the young people were taught by elders who had experiences in societal life. The young people were not given chance as they were considered to have no experiences that would help them contribute in the learning process; they were required to listen and internalize what they were taught by elders. That limited their creative and innovative mental development, thus leading to slow development of a traditional society.

             In traditional society some members were prevented from eating certain types of food, such as eggs, fruits, chicken, fish, and milk. In those societies if the forefathers did not eat such types of foods it was generalized that even the subsequent generations should not eat. Some beliefs were attached to such foods for example if eggs were to be eaten by expectant mothers it was believed that she would give birth to a bald-headed child. This was a big misconception since it was not realistically true.

              In traditional societies, women were seen as the source of labour, they did not own means of production neither did they take part in decision making, but men heavily exploited their labour. Even in learning segregation took place as womwn were isolated from men and were supposed to learn skills realated to home management, mid wifery, healthcare weaving and farming. On the other hand men attended to those skills considered irrelevant to women, these included; masonry, building, or fishery.{ibid)


          African indigenous education is relevant to the modern education today in the following cases.


          African indigenouos education is the basis for the foundation of Education for Self-relience in modern education. During the establishment of ESR in 1967, Nyerere recalled how the traditonal education was relevant to the community life-especially learning by doing, and included it in modern education. Learners pareticiation in learning is highly encouraged by morden educators.

          Furthermore, it prepared its recepients  for life duties in their societies, likewise modern education is no exceptonal. It prepares the learners to enter the world of work, and more specifically it changes with time. For example the introduction of information and communication technology course in colleges and universities responds to the current demands of information and communication technology, traditional education also changed in response to societal problems, like how to combart the emerging diseases, wild animals, enemies etc.

           African indigenouos education has also greately influenced the need for development of more appropriate problem solving educational curriculumand the promotion of life-long education. Some aspects of African indigenouos education have continued to feature in policy and practice of education.


             Basically African indigenouos education managed to provide education to all members of the community, althogh it differed from tribe to tribe. With the coming of western education however African indigenouos education was seen inadequate to contribete to modern world’s demads and the need for new skills. The isolationism of  African indigenouos education was broken up as societis were now introduced into a larger world of modern knowledge and technology.

















Cameroon, J. and Dodd. W. (1970) Society, Schools and Progress in Tanzania 1919-1970.

                       London: James Currey 

Kenyatta, (1961), Facing Mountain Kenya. The Tribal Life of the Kikuyu. London: Secker

                     and Warburg Ltd


Mushi PA K. (2009) History of Education in Tanzania. Dar-es-Salaam: Dar-es-Salaam

                    University Press


Nyerere, J.K(1975)Education Never Ends, the 1969 and 1970 New Years Eve address to

               the Nation in NAEAT Adult Education and Development in Tanzania.



  Nyerere J.K (1979a) Education for Self Reliance in Hinzen, H and Hundsdorfer, V H

                (Eds) Education for Liberation and Development. The Tanzania Experience Hamburg

                      and Evans


www.eric.ed.gov/../recordDetail visited on 10th Jan 2011




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