The Crisis In African Education. And How To Fix It

By Advocate Pusch Commey

Nelson Mandela once said it: Education is the greatest weapon you can use to change the world. It has often been said that if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Africa provides many lessons of the damage done by ignorance. If Africa will change, then it will be through education. And if Africa will succeed, then education must change.

From the eco- systems of Silicon Valley, the informal settlements of South Africa, and the squeaky-clean streets of Doha, experts are adamant that education as we know it is changing. No longer does a formalised structured educational system serve the needs of the globe. The game has changed to fostering creativity and innovation. The game has changed to finding creative solutions. Panel experts at summits and leading entrepreneurs have pointed to a little bit of craziness, adaptation, solutions to problems, innovation, teamwork and disruption. Most are technologically driven. After all with a little bit of craziness and innovation Apple and Google have disrupted the way we communicate and the way we seek knowledge. The internet and email disrupted postal services. All became possible through collaboration, teamwork, and competition.

Where is Africa going in the field of education? Which kind of education is appropriate to serve the developmental needs of the continent and at the same time make it globally competitive? How is Africa going to harness its vast human and natural resources in the direction where, as the Pan African icon Kwame Nkrumah said “To allow the African genius full expression” More than 50 years ago, Kwame Nkrumah also noted the need to equip students with an understanding of the contemporary world within the framework of African civilisations, their histories, institutions, and ideas. The subject African studies was compulsory in the Universities he built in Ghana.

History, and the Guinness World Records (Previously Guinness Book of Records) tell us that the first University in the world was African, Al Karaouine, in Fez, Morocco (859 AD), founded by an African woman. It was a full 229 years before the first European University at Bologna in 1088 AD, was erected. Before the disruption of slavery, colonialism, oppression, and destruction from the 15th Century, history also tells us of the great medieval civilisations of Africa and the part that higher institutions of learning played in the academic and cultural life of the African.

There is no doubt that in the 13th Century centres of learning such as Walata, Djenna, and Timbuktu had a singular impact on African education and the world in medieval times, and that the University of Sankore, with 25 000 students had already qualified to be numbered amongst the foremost intellectual inspirations of the world.

Before that the spectacular Nile Valley civilisation of BCE and the 800-year civilising influence of the North African Moors on Southern Europe is well recorded (711- 1492 CE). So why do African countries side- step all these great historical achievement in the curriculum of the education of their children?


All over the continent, governments have either settled with the legacy of colonial education or have tinkered with reform. But one country that is serious about changing the paradigm to an appropriate education system is Uganda. An old article in Daily Despatch of Uganda notes that “The African experience has been that education during colonial times was driven by missionaries. The conventional wisdom suggests that this was mainly through altruistic considerations – albeit racially tinged – to bring light to the Dark Continent and enlightenment to its natives.”

The language was the tongue of the colonists. This “western education” expanded the basic numeracy of natives, introduced literacy, and introduced new technical skills. There was the good and the bad. Most African leaders, past and present were western educated. It was elitist.

The education system had an in-built slant. That meant it suppressed local knowledge, promoted inequalities through unfair access, and helped create a mindset of blind loyalty rather than open heads to new ways of thinking- innovation. But the overriding philosophical base was a top down master /servant relationship. Knowledge was defined by the “master.” And they were fertile recruiting grounds to faith; belief in the master and what he stands for. It was further designed to serve the economic interests of the colonisers, which was the primary motivation for colonialism in the first place.

Prof. Mahmood Mamdani of Uganda argues in his article, Politics and class formation in Uganda, that the ensuing missionary education was designed as a tool of control, not one of empowerment. He points out that “The political usefulness of missionary education, it should be clear, stemmed from its dual nature: that it was technical as well as ideological, that it imparted skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as values such as loyalty to the existing order and disciplined self-sacrifice in the interest of that order,”

“This was not education, but training; not liberation, but enslavement. Its purpose was not to educate a person to understand the objective limits to the advancement of individual and collective welfare, but to train a person to accept and even administer the limits in an ‘efficient manner.”

In an uncomfortably high number of cases, the elitist products of the system were hard-wired to mimic and replicate western views and values while thumbing their nose at local knowledge and practices, including those that were progressive. But it also signalled the death of the community spirit, as the severe individualism of Europe supplanted the African spirit of collective welfare.

“Fast material progress had produced a brand of young men, who though in a sense quite educated, lacked any intellectual commitment to causes.”

They could read and write but as they were handed the monumental task of building a nation state, they could neither hear nor learn, notes the Professor.


The eminent academic Edward Said writes in his book Culture and Imperialism:

“Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations which include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with that domination.”

The newspaper article further notes that “So, African pupils and students learnt that explorers Mungo Park (Scottish) and John Speke (English) discovered River Niger and the source of River Nile respectively despite the fact that the people who lived around these rivers already knew of their existence and had names for them. Something was not true, was not real knowledge until it came off English lips, eyes and ears. And what came off the colonial office was meant to justify colonialism. Thus, through education, Africans were fed an inferiority complex.”

And as many have noted, confidence is half the battle won. The pattern of brainwashing the minds of Africans to subservience was replicated everywhere and illustrated in the last African country to obtain independence, South Africa, where the infamous Bantu education was designed to make blacks aspire to be bus drivers and labourers.

The brilliant Malcolm X, as a kid, wanted to become a lawyer. His white teacher impressed upon him that he is best suited for a carpenter.


On attaining independence, some post-colonial thinkers and politicians have embarked on the decolonisation of the education system, to serve the needs of Africans other than the now-gone colonialists. It has had varying degrees of success and failures. Most failures can be attributed to the colonial mindset of African policy makers and implementers, fostered by the departed.

Arguing for the abolition of the English department and establishment of the African Literature and Languages department at the university of Nairobi many years ago, Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote:

“We want to establish the centrality of Africa in the department. This, we have argued, is justifiable on various grounds, the most important one being that education is a means of knowledge about ourselves. Therefore, after we have examined ourselves, we radiate outwards and discover peoples and worlds around us. With Africa at the centre of things, not existing as an appendix or a satellite of other countries and literature. Things must be seen from the African perspective.”

Several steps to decolonize the education curriculum have been undertaken to date in Uganda. At present, learners in Primary One to Three learn about their immediate environment, through the oral strand. They learn about the family, the home, school, neighbourhood and sub-county. This is called the thematic curriculum, and they study in their local languages, with English studied as a subject.

It is at Primary Four that learners transit to studying in English. Under Social Studies, learners are taught about the district in which their school is located. They learn about its location, physical features, vegetation, people, leaders, and how to meet people’s needs in the district. In Primary Five, they look at Uganda; Primary Six, East Africa, and in Primary Seven, Africa. There is no doubt that the curriculum is very contextual up to this level.

The textbooks in use are almost all locally produced. The textbook industry in the country is booming because materials produced from outside can’t be used to teach the new curriculum. Thus, where John Speke would have been praised as the one who discovered River Nile, the Primary Five textbook says that the river was called Kiira by the Basoga, who live around it, and John Speke was the first European to see it.


Very few will dispute that in the quest for an appropriate education, best practice should form an integral part of an African agenda. And that means shopping around the world, and adapting best practice to one’s special environment and circumstances. Be it from England, China, India, South Korea, Singapore or Malaysia.

Leading African educational experts on the continent and in the US are adamant that the right direction and foundation in education for the African child must be African centred. Similar principles have been the best practice of developed and developing countries that are making great strides. Chinese education is China centred and so is Korean, Japanese or German education.

Already African parents in the diaspora are sending their children to African centred schools or doing African centred home schooling for the very reason that the status quo has a massive impact on the self esteem and confidence of the African child. What does African-centred education mean?

An African centred education is defined as education designed to empower African people. A central premise is that many Africans have been subjugated by limiting their awareness of self and their indoctrination with ideas that work against them. In a 1992 article by US Anthropologist Linus A Hoskins he wrote, “There is a vital necessity for African people to use the weapons of education and history to extricate themselves from this psychological dependency complex syndrome as a necessary precondition for liberation… If African peoples (the global majority) were to become Afrocentric (African centred), that would spell the ineluctable end of European global power and dominance. This is indeed the fear of Europeans. … Afrocentrism is a state of mind, a particular subconscious mind-set that is rooted in the ancestral heritage and communal value system”

Beyond these confidence building values, the creativity of the African child must be unleashed in schools to focus on solving problems, creating stuff, making stuff and selling stuff to the whole world. Technology must play a key role. Own technology should be a strong component. For, after all, when the Gross National Products and pathway to the wealth of nations are measured, it is precisely the harnessing of the human and natural resources of that country to deliver goods and services. The natural resource is just an enabler.

As the global educational paradigm shifts like the desert sands of the Sahara, so should African policy makers and blacks all over the world rethink the idea of designing an appropriate education system and curriculum that is in their best interest; and resist influences designed to entrench a neo-colonial education. Anything short of that will be slow suicide.

Ghanaian born Pusch Komiete Commey is an Advocate of the High Court of South Africa, author of best-selling historical books, and an expert on Africa. Find books on Recommended is the highly educational book 100 Great African Kings and Queens -Volume 1. A revised edition, and Volume

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