Schooling in Africa

Mark Appiah - Strathclyde University

An ethnographic understanding of cultural rites and their impacts on schooling in Africa


Cultural rites celebration in some rural African communities in recent times has been charged with being irrelevant to the African condition and incapable of preparing the young for ‘what they are to practice when they become men and women’. Researchers are questioning the techno-cultural gap that is haunting the education and training of the African youth.

This paper reviews a range of perspectives on African cultural rites, with particular focus on two ethnographic accounts: Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro: Schooling, Community, and Gender in East Africa (Stambach, 2000) and Social Assessment of the Troxovi Institution (Eckardt, 2004).

In as much as these ethnographic accounts offer useful insight into African cultural rites, there is a good reason for concern about their impact on the schooling of young Africans. Equally important, is the need for renewed esteem for African cultural rites and traditions, in all it richness as a way of relating well with the twenty-first century world.

It is on the basis of this that the paper proposes the theory of modernisation as a functional strategy for bridging the gap between tradition and formal education in Africa.


The paper reviews studies on African rites with emphasis on two ethnographic accounts in Africa. The first is a book by social anthropologist, Amy Stambach, called Lessons from Kilimanjaro: Schooling, Community, and Gender in East Africa, and the other is titled A Social Assessment of the Toxovi Institution by Rachel Eckardt.

It analyses these two accounts with reference to cultural rites issues in Africa and their effect on schooling. It will also outline some of the reasons why various communities still hold on to these indigenous African rites even if found to be negative.

It will conclude by putting forward a case for revisiting the theory of modernisation to explore ways in which schools and communities can help people to reflect on the content and validity of their cultural rites and beliefs within the framework of mutual respect.

It is important to note that, this paper is not intended to deal with a host of issues emerging around culture and education. Instead, my intention is to do a philosophical reflection on a selection of cultural issues raised by Stambach (2000) and Eckardt (2004) in their books.

Their books should be read as a social comment to interrogate the Africa past and present, culture, tradition and history in order to learn from the sources of empowerment and disempowerment as African people search for ways towards their future.

While no one would deny that formal education is important in inculcating the skills and attitudes needed for a social and economic transformation, it has become evident that this role, far from being as straightforward as many optimist had thought, is complicated by a number of factors, of which those generally understood in Africa to be ‘cultural’ are of great importance.

Rites such as female genital mutilation (FGM), ritual servitude, and widowhood rites among others are still being practiced. These practices are inherently laden with ideologies and emotions- perhaps more than any other kind of intellectual inquiry. In fact, there have been scores of theoretical and empirical examinations of this problem. Fernandez, (1982) has indicated that cultural practices like this in this secular and pragmatic age need explanation.

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has advocated against children’s continued subjection, within the cultural context, to the harmful traditional practices. Examples cited have included ritual servitude (trokosi), female genital mutilation (FGM), widowhood rites, early marriages and polygamy (Dartey-Mensah, 2004). Stephens (1998) reports that there is evidence to suggest forcible marriages of pubescent girls to fetish priests are still found in Ghana.

The report gave an example of two school going teenage girls in parts of Ghana who were removed from school by their parents and given up for training as traditional priestess because of alleged belief of spirit possession. There is also reference to girls who have absconded from local shrines and some parents being eager for money are willing to sell their daughters to such shrines.

Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro

Stambach’s ethnographic account of life on the Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania brings together a collection and interpretation of a large body of cultural life on all aspects of one society. She draws on the works of other renowned anthropologist such as Hall (1995), Luykx (1999) and Reed-Danahay (1996) uses field work and interviews to contribute to the ongoing dialogue on cultural reformation in Africa.

There is the careful description of the mundane aspect of countryside daily life which makes the work innovative. Stambach provides helpful interpretation of countryside cultural experiences by exploring factors that are often missed in general Afrocentric studies such as marriage and sexuality, ritual initiations and kinship ties.

Given that cultural issues in Africa matters both in its own terms and as an integral part of any critical discourse about Afrocentric studies, any ideas about ancient cultural perpetuation need to be reviewed. The remark made by one interviewee in Stambach (p.75) cannot escape comment. ‘I have to learn what my mothers and grandmothers did; otherwise I will lose my culture and will become no different from you Americans’.

The quotation provides a good basis for discussing the perpetuation of some cultural superstitions in some African communities by drawing together strands of enquiries to point forward in this debate. This open admission need to be re-evaluated now, particularly in the light of the growing appeal of changing times.

Much as we all agree that culture can expand human consciousness, yet when it develops negatively as has been the case in some parts of Africa, there is the temptation to seen as backward-looking. We need to advance a cause in which the articulations of cultural issues can be understood and practiced in their historical specificity in the light of changing trends that situate them.

The case of female genital mutilation (FGM) as a theme is one of the very sensitive issues to women of Tanzania who recognise that the Lutheran church and the Tanzanian government including other African states had politicised the practice (p. 73).

The culture is not only practised among communities in Africa and Middle East, but also in immigrant communities across the world. Recent data reveals that it occurs on a much larger scale than previously thought (Lewnes, 2005).

According to Stambach, most Tanzanians were hesitant to discuss circumcision or its ritual antecedent with a foreign researcher (p. 73). While a section of the Tanzanian community calls for the abolishment of the practice, some other groups hold the belief that uncircumcised girls are ‘socially immature’ and are more prone to ‘fool around with men’ (p. 75).

Perhaps, a quick look at the origin will help to clarify the issue. Divergent views are held by people including academics as to the origin of this practice. In fact, some scholars argue that by virtue of its obscure nature, the