Postcolonial education in Africa: the imperative for theory and practice

Okello Oculi
Okello Oculi is Director of Africa Vision 525 Initiative



How can higher education in Africa become more relevant in the face of the challenges and opportunities Africa faces in the 21st century? That is the theme of a conference planned for 2014 at Dakar Senegal. In the face of growing numbers of colleges and universities in Africa, organizers note, there has been too much focus on numbers and too little attention paid to quality, relevance and access.

University teachers in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and other places have insisted that these issues be confronted. How to do this?

In dealing with education African societies have in the past applied the formula of distributed knowledge and therefore shared influence and shared power. They went about it  through the ritual of age group training and learning in which everyone acquired the knowledge, the skills and values needed to become a fuctional member of society.. Depending on the particularr society one was a member of,  these included skills in craftsmanship, cattle rearing, farming and fishing amongst others. Uppermost among the values imparted were those of courtesy, courage, integrity and discipline. Cases of serious deviations such as malicious insults and injury were punished instantly. Colonialism arrived and upset this balance. 

Of course there is an element of age group learning in modern education. But colonial education used boarding schools most effectively to cut students off from time tested traditional education rituals and practices. While colonial education imparted some useful information it denied parents a voice in the content of school education. Today the substantial body of Zulu, Fulani and Masai practices and rituals for instilling courage, discipline and leadership are not included in the school curricular. Recently a BBC documentary displayed images of Japanese primary school children naked in the bitter winter cold. It was Japanese ritual and Japan’s way for training tenacity.

In Africa colonial education denied equity of access to girls. It was a ploy to curtail the modernizing influence of education. African women were the moving force in early childhood education. Once they are educated all children and society as a whole will naturally be the beneficiary. In a television documentary shot in seven African countries, Uganda’s Sarah Ntiru and Bolanle Awe of Nigeria told Debrah Ogazuma how women activists fought colonial officials to ensure that secondary schools admitted girls.

British historian and broadcaster AJP Taylor (1906-1990) reported that in the 1920s in order to enter Oxford University on a scholarship he read over one thousand five hundred books including all of the classics in British history and English literature to prepare for the entrance interview he had to pass. In Africa that culture of self education and the library resources needed to sustain it are still lacking.

It is written somewhere in Tom Brown's Schooldays that the British Empire was built on the playgrounds of the English public schoolt. Men that went out to colonize Africa and Asia were trained here in skills of working change in conquered alien societies, and embedding traps and time bombs into the fabric of future independent nations of Africa and Asia. These social bombs would as intended, explode in time with deadly consequences for the new nations, and open up new corridors of opportunities for former colonial powers.

Programs of education in independent Africa aught from day one of independence to have included training in strategies for defusing imperial time bombs colonial powers left behind.

In Uganda a good example of such time bombs manifested itself in the shape of the lost counties. This was a piece of land the British seized from the Kingdom of Bonyoro that contained Bunyoro’s royal burial grounds. They handed the same over to the neighboring Kingdom of Buganda as a reward for its cooperation in the colonial efforts. It was a time bomb that when it exploded as it did soon after independence, left trails of blood and led directly to the imprisonment of nearly the entire population of northern Uganda in mud grass concentration camps for upwards of 20 years under conditions that death in the thousands on a daily basis were inevitable; genocide in slow motion.

Colonial behavior in Africa was a replay from Spanish colonial rule in South America. The use of mita (or slaves labor) for building infrastructure and producing food for the aristocracy borrowed from Inca rulers, assumed extreme form in apartheid South Africa. The practice of using humans to carry loads, including railway engines across Congo River, was a Spanish innovation. Spain forced conquered people to buy Spanish goods at extortionist prices. 

Algerians, Kenyans, Zimbabweans, Namibians, South Africans and Angola have suffered similar fates. This tradition of governance as a tool for looting and exploitation of citizens by the people and tribes in power has persisted unabated in Africa till today. In northern Uganda the population woke up one morning to find their millions of live stocks carried away by men in uniform wielding automatic weapons.

There has been a failure in Africa to create education content for uprooting this culture of loot and impunity. One could learn lessons from the Japanese who borrowed from Buddhism, ideas and notions for running modern politics and an industrial economy. Notable codes that they took include: shaming to suicide anyone hurting national goals; valuing group excellence as opposed to exclusively to valuing individual excellence.

In Why Nations Fail, Aaron Acemoglu and James Robinson note that in Africa only Botswana followed this road of inventiveness, to create a rare African success story of postcolonial Africa. Elsewhere in Africa Robert Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy has reigned supreme with the result that we see in the continent today!

Popular and misplaced blame on military dictatorship in Africa ignores the colonial connection, and colonial dislocation and banishment of village democracy. Colonial education is at the root of postcolonial culture of governance as the looting of public resources. The recent dramatic case in Uganda where billions of dollars in donor money meant for war victims of Northern Uganda disappeared from the Office of the Prime Minister is by no means a rare occurance.

There has been lack of social frameworks and training for anticipating systemic dangers in a system inherited from colonialism. There has been a singular lack of imagination and creativity in designing corrective measures for development. Feudal habits for defending power and privilege deserve closer analysis.

Andrew Rugasira argues that Africa’s business entrepreneurs should not look at the civil services as arenas for making personal wealth.  Such entrepreneurs must use their intelligence, tenacity, pride, and integrity to fight for space to put value added products of their own manufacture, on shelves of supermarkets in Europe, Asia and North America. They must be innovative manufacturers and aggressive marketers of high quality products. Africans with a vocation for public service must create the legal, infra structural and financial environment to support the new African captains of industry. Rugasira and his ideas will need to be at the 2014 Dakar conference.