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 origin is unknown (Hosken, 1994 as cited in Wiggins, 2001).

The haddith literature (words and deeds of Prophet Mohammed) recognises male and female circumcision as a pre-Islamic institution (Wensinck, 1986 as cited in Wiggins, 2001). Research suggests that the practice persists because of widespread belief that circumcision will moderate female sexuality that will assure girls’ marriageability and that it is sanctioned by Islam (El-Gibaly, Ibrahim, Mensah, Clark, 1999).

The practice is a deeply rooted tradition across Africa including countries across the borders of the Nile valley. It typically involves the removal of all part of the clitoris and part of the libia minora, although a range of degree of severity of tissue-cutting are reported across the sub-Sahara Africa (El-Gibaly et al, 1999). El-Gibaly et al have indicated that the practice is being affected by contemporary social change, including increased education, urbanisation and heightened community discussion on the topic.

It should not be assumed that the practice is dying out and therefore pretend that Africans have understood the process of change so well as to be able to predict its discontinuity. Research has shown that 90% of women in Northern Sudan have undergone circumcision, most of whom by infibulations (Almorth et al, 2001). There are equally a recorded number of cases in Kenya where modern doctors are trying to medicalise the practice as communities seek ways to maintain the tradition while reducing the likelihood of doing harm (Reproduction Health Population Council, 2002) and this in no doubt is a matter which involves a high degree of skill and expertise.

We are not concerned here to debate the merits of female circumcision or risk the tendency of throwing our support behind Bibi Muro who contends that girls were becoming more sexually active unnaturally these days by rejecting the age old tradition of circumcision (Stambach, 2000, p. 74). Emerging concerns about female circumcision is focused on parents questioning the wisdom of subjecting their baby girls to the pain and risk of genital cutting with life long consequence. Most girls are routinely cut without being numbed or having anaesthesia. Many times, one tool is used for several procedures without sterilization. These conditions greatly increase the chance of spreading life-threatening infections such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS (Nour, 2005).

Knowledgeable Secondary School teachers of Mkufi Secondary School share Bibi Muro’s view- particularly views about young girls becoming lascivious because of their refusal to be circumcised (Stambach, 2000, p. 75). It is admitted that in any civilised society there has to be some accommodation of differing point of view.

Perhaps, we must begin to reflect upon what is causing secondary school teachers who are considered in many circles as social surrogates and instruments for change to side with Bibi Muro.

It is necessary that teachers’ objectives be made clear to those who are campaigning for change and those who are to be affected by the change. Maybe, clarity alone will not be sufficient. A change, I think must not only be understood by teachers, children and the community, but it must to a crucial degree be acceptable to them and supported by them.

‘The school and the community are cultural circles which should engage in constant dialogue to promote indigenous ways of explaining what student experience and what schools should promote as relevant ways of explaining community problems…’ (Abdi and Cleghorn, 2005, p. 75). Last but not the least, of course the objectives must be within the capacity of all concerned. That’s as an old African proverb indicates ‘what concerns all must be done by all’.

Some positive lessons learnt by initiates must, however, be noted. Apart from the fact that ceremonies attached to these rites are recreational, they equally present an opportunity for girls to display their physical fitness by externalising their dancing skills in the open village market, thereby marketing themselves for life long partners.

This is also an opportunity for initiates to present and share food with other individual or group which is typical of African culture-attitude of sharing (Stambach, p. 78). Various types of instructions are given to prepare initiates for their new roles in the community.

There is also the orientation to secret lore and moral instructions, including proper sexual behaviour. Dietary taboos are often observed during the ceremony (pp. 77-79). ‘Through the initiation, a girl’s social status as a member of her natal, patrilineal clan was highlighted…’ (Lutkehaus & Roscoe, 1995, p. 50).

A Social Assessment of Troxovi Institution

The work of Eckardt (2004) has been insightful and relevant to the discussion of ritual servitude in sub-Sahara Africa. Fetish shrine operations in Africa are in secret and researchers struggle to get accurate information. Thus the dilemma of documenting ritual servitude and human rights abuse based on research is difficult.

Eckardt admitted that ritual servitude is a complex issue and governments and non-governmental organisations involved in human rights and advocacy working in countries where this practice exists confront many difficulties. Her project draws on various research reports from non-governmental organisation such as International Needs Ghana (ING), Anti-slavery International in England (AIE) and Fetish Slave Liberation Movements (FESLIM) among others to remind readers that ritual servitude otherwise known as ‘Trokosi’- the ancient cultural heritage of Ghana- is alive and well.

Equally important, is her project designing an influential and a powerful framework for studying the problem of women’s subordination in Africa.

Two main themes emerged from her project, viz; ritual servitude and human right violation. The commitment to place girls and women at the centre of concern also runs through her project.

In some parts of the Volta and Greater Accra Regions of Ghana can be found a dehumanizing traditional practice known as Trokosi otherwise known as rituals servitude which means “Slave wives of the gods”. The practice requires that young innocent virgin girls are sent into fetish shrines as reparation for misdeeds of their family members.

These women and girls suffer all forms of abuses. The abuse includes sex, physical molestation and violence, and gender discrimination (p. 6). While such cultures can be rationalised as ‘traditional’ in that they have existed for a long period of time and that they are of considerable importance in understanding the contemporary nature of modern African states, I do not see it as cultural imperialism to suggest that time is long overdue to define these practices as outmoded.

Eckardt’s ground breaking project does not only ‘open windows into the past’ but set up a new line of debate as to whether human rights issues in Ghana in particular and Africa in general are being compromised. The possibility of human rights violation is evident in the United States International Religious Freedom Report (2003) ‘a Trokosi woman generally has few marketable skills and, depending on the customs of her village, may have difficulty getting married’.

This is clearly not welcoming. To critically discern the gender marginalisation of the situation, one must realise that those girls by virtue of patriarchal superstition have their dignity drastically reduced, especially with the infiltration of social vices such as sexual exploitation and abuse, forced labour and denial of formal education evident in these fetish shrines (Ben-Ari, 2001).

These are issues of human rights abuse which present an overwhelming need that demands a collective action of all Africans to deal with and resolve.

The other dimension

Of considerable concern, is that in spite of external pressures and internal transformations to abolish these rites: female circumcision and ritual servitude, the Africannia Mission: a faith based organisation in Africa, does not agree to breaking the cultural mystique and the behavioural code built over time (Eckardt, 2004, p. 8).

It is one of the few missions in Africa which strictly hold onto tradition. Their view is that ritual servitude is a practice that trains young women to be role models for their family and the community. They equally hold the view that to serve at a shrine is an honour for both the child and the family (p. 8).

The view of the mission purports the inculcation to African traditional values in the school going child. In fact, the mission hold the contention as to whether there is any difference between the role of the school in the community and what has always been achieved by the celebration of these rites, considering the fact that we tend to require our schools today to pass on to rising generations the attitudes, values, skills, social understanding and practice of the societies to which they belong, to socialise them and to enable them fit usefully and harmoniously into their society?

There is also the question as to whether the indigenous traditional rites cannot be built upon to provide a pattern of education which would serve modern purposes whilst retaining a good relationship with the traditional culture.

There are many characteristics of socialisation procedures in cultural rites celebrations in many rural African communities which closely resemble techniques of education which leading African educationist such as Sefa-Dei (2004) and Nwomonoh (1998) have for years been advocating as appropriate for schooling in Africa.

One common feature of the way in which children are brought up in traditional African society is the process of learning by doing, whereby through imitation, identification, practice and co-operation a child learns the principles of adulthood. Associated with this process is the modern principle that what a child learns in school should be related to his immediate environment and to his immediate needs at his particular stage of development in that environment.

Essentially there is a body of knowledge and information which the child must learn traditionally and remember through an intellectual process- the legends, folk tales, lullaby, riddles and proverbs which orally communicated, encapsulated much of the inherited wisdom of the society. This is a corporate work of both the school and the community which is being advocated by the Africannia mission.

While, no one denies the relevance of cultural values in the upbringing of the child, this should not be done at the expense of his/her formal education. Sefa-Dei (2004, p. 101) reiterates this by advocating for the engagement of family and community cultures in school. He further indicates that this by implication has impact on many aspects of education.

Community participation is essential for ensuring that local cultures are reclaimed and used as knowledge resources in the process of education. Such views held by the Africannia Mission are the general perception of most rural Africans and is considered a reinforcement of archaic ideologies by some sections of Africans.

It cannot be disputed that cultural emphasis of girl’s domestic roles and functions are further reinforced in schools in Africa. Schools’ distribution of student roles are reinforced by gender roles-girls are in charge of sweeping the classrooms, whiles the boys water school gardens and run errands for teachers (Abdi and Cleghorn, 2005, p. 204).

School impact

A number of scholars, most notably Sefa-Dei (2004) and Nwomonoh (1998), have looked at schooling and education in Africa and more recently, Dearling and Kigongo (2005) have explored African tradition and culture using games, activities, rites and contact with African oriented organisation to demonstrate ‘beauty and diversity’ of African culture into a positive agenda for youth work and multi cultural education in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Lives of Kigongo and Dearling give one an explicit idea of the differences of schooling in a typical African community and the United Kingdom. While Kigongo grew up in a small countryside African village called Busu in Uganda, Dearling was born in Sussex in the United Kingdom.

Kigongo share his personal work experience as author, youth worker and teacher to demonstrate knowledge of African youth activity while portraying the feeling that the work make African culture, traditions and aspect of cultural diversity, relevant and fun for young people in the UK.

Of particular relevance to this paper, is Kigongo’ school life in Uganda as a growing child. Kigongo is one of the few fortunate children who grew up in a less serious initiation rites community but predominantly peasant agricultural community.

There is a strong community support for farming, hunting and land ownership at the expense of schooling. Kigongo’s father, a teacher by profession told him ‘Education is your only way out of the village’ (Dearling and Kigongo, 2005, p. 4). Clearly, Kigongo’s father’s view is on the basis of his background as a teacher and his desire to offer formal education to his children.

In most African communities today, cultural rites take precedence over schooling. Nwomonoh, (p. 30) refer to some religious centres in the Republic of Benin in Africa where children are pulled out of schools some for periods ranging from twelve to eighteen months to train as priest, mediums and diviners to manage cultural centres and local shrines.

Certainly, the conclusion must be that even though schools are agents of change (Stambach, 2000, p. 2) most African communities use their commitment to traditional values and practice to interfere with schooling of the child in Africa.

The context is crucial to understanding the broad parameters and potential for social change. Kingogo’s father’s view reinforces the fact that a change in attitude result from parents feeling part of the change process rather than being simply onlookers. In Africa, like most part of the world, parents are responsible for their children’s destiny and are given the ability to educate their children and at the same time maintain the farm and shrines which support the family.

This forces the parents to look beyond the present into the future and see a potential for social change for their children. What is needed in Africa is a sociological perspective on educational policy in traditional African societies. Here I want to build a case for a broader collective cultural renewal in education approach to policy that draws upon rich sociological and ethnographic evidence about emergent cultural practices across increasingly multicultural communities and stratified educational systems.

In so doing, I draw on the work of Sefa Dei (2004) to argue that we need a rigorous sociological analysis of how culture can make a positive difference in communities and institutions in relation to other forms of available economic reforms.

Personal reflection

This review has raised interesting and disturbing issues about African cultural rites, their impact on young women and their education and the need for immediate reforms.

Not under dispute is the discursive position that local knowledge is crucial and relevant to both the celebration of tradition and the potential for implementing effective change.

My point is that we need a critical discursive lens to imagine and construct viable educational alternatives for Africans and for that matter Ghanaian education. I am aware we do currently have a small but growing number of indigenous scholars in Africa seeking not only to write and publish about the philosophical, literary, scientific tradition of their places but also in their local languages and about the culture (Sefa Dei, 236). This could be seen as a moving force of the indigenous cultural heritage in Africa.

The preservation of cultural autonomy has been a powerful resource in providing the ideological context in which the indigenous people of Africa are framing their new world. One of the most significant issues is that there is a strong communal support for learning local histories, traditional cultures and languages in schools across Africa because of the widespread recognition that by doing so the resistance to the imposition of colonial education is strengthened.

The intention to permeate cultural studies in the curriculum of schools across Africa and for that matter Ghana leads to one main question. Is this helping to shape individuals and the community in which they live or is it reinforcing traditional practices that keep young women enslaved? At least the introducing of cultural activities such as dance and traditional song for instance, into the life of the school has the tendency to become semi-recreational and peripheral.

We witnessed a school (Tamale Experimental Junior Secondary School) in the northern part of Ghana years back in the late 1990’s which modelled itself on ‘tribal’ organisations and the tribal elders were required to accompany the boys to school to instruct them in their traditions. A board of resident councillors was formed to guide the head master and help him base his work on native institutions and native ideas. Clothing, buildings and furniture were of modified local design and the curriculum focused on both academic and traditional cultural matters.

Twice a week, the boys practiced spear-throwing and dancing in place of football of other neighbouring schools. This is not an isolated case across the continent of Africa today. While this training enhances true cultural integration, attention must be paid to the general content and potential danger of this instruction and teachers must also be made to understand the historical and sociological aspects of this training.

We need to examine further the authenticity and modernity largely in terms of the twenty-first century structures for integrating the school with community, the development of the school as a productive community, and the introduction of the curriculum rooted in the environment rather than simply in the disciplines of knowledge. This is one of the main reasons why I propose the theory of modernisation as a functional strategy for bridging the gap between traditional cultural rites and schooling in Africa.

Revisiting modernisation theory

It is worth noting that, although the case for the validity of some African indigenous rites in today’s world is strong, the task to bring innovation need not be viewed as overwhelming and distant. The path to long- term change goals can begin through tasks that are within easy reach and close to home.

The modernisation theory came up after the cold war in the 1960’s when America and her allies embarked on foreign AID programme to transfer technology and subservient development to the third world countries. This development was designed with the assumption that through the input of information and technology, underdeveloped countries would advance to the level of the western world (Durden & Nduhura, 2003). Stambach (2000, p. 11) finds the modernisation theory welcoming.

According to her literature, she had originally been working from ‘predicted greater empowerment for underprivileged groups’ in Africa. This, according to her, was in anticipation that the theory would provide more information and access to knowledge to disadvantaged groups, including women, with new economic opportunities and greater market access. Had this really been the case? Perhaps, we can start to think directly about the possibility of re-introducing the modernisation theory and using it as a catching up strategy to development path of the west.

This strategy is not new in Africa. The 1990’s brought with it the establishment of the National Education Policy Investigation (NEPI) in South Africa and subsequent policy development agencies in Africa which drew on the skills and expertise of eminent researchers who were keen to providing radical vision of cultural and educational changes in South Africa and for that matter Africa in keeping up with the trend of development in Europe and America.

Faced with ‘near-to-nil’ success, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) equally came in with the policy of ‘functional literacy’, which aimed at a carefully targeted literacy and vocational training for Africans across the continent. This development equally brought unimpressive result (Morrow & King, 1998, p. 32). What has emerged at the end is that lessons from these works have helped to shape assumptions about criteria for success for the next generation of literacy workers (NEPI, 1993, pp. 33-4 quoted in Morrow & King, p. 32).

In fact, one of the key factors in that ‘bridge up’ strategy was seen to be the issues of reading and writing to effectualise positive attitudinal change in Africans and this led to many campaigns to address these issues (Morrow & King, 1998. p.32).

The modernisation theory also focused on the need for cultural transformation in areas like traditional values, family, religion and social structures in order for the third world to achieve modernity (Berger, 1994, p. 4). Of course this discussion did not go without opposition. The theory has since been criticised by the international scientific community. For instance, in the 1980’s, a group of sociologist began to interrogate the connection between individuals and social modernisation (Hwang, 2005).

Criticism by other scholars included the wrong assumption that all countries can follow only one single path of evolutional development, disregard for world historical development of transitional structures that constrain local and national development and the reification of the nation-state as a sole unit of analysis among others (Halsall, 1997).

Another fundamental issue of concern raised by the adversaries of modernisation theory is the African traditional way of thinking. While most academics widely recognise western scientific thought as having a potentially important role to play in the modernisation process; they are convinced that a large proportion of Africans are not helping much with their readiness to think along western scientific reasoning. This in one way could be due to the high illiteracy rate in most African communities (Nwomonoh, 1998 p. 158).

The success synthesis of the modernisation theory will largely depend on breaking the barrier of high illiteracy rate in Africa.

It is understandable, given South Africa and other African countries failure to bring to bear the modernisation paradigm on the policies of their education and cultural set up in the 1990’s. Past studies have shown that other theories such as the development theory; post modernism, post structuralism and the dependency theory which were developed and prescribed for Africa did not achieve good result (Nafukho, 2003).

The success of the new development deal: neo-liberal trade theory is equally in doubt (p. 4). In fact all these theories were largely informed by the modernisation theory. Any research on modernisation theory that fails to take into account the uniqueness of African traditional values not only does an injustice to Africa culture, but also does an injustice to the African society. How can we engage in serious debate about cultural transition when there is no imperative educational planning based on sound and workable philosophy?

How can we deeply think about modernising our culture when illiteracy rate is high and governments in Africa are giving very little attention to the development of education? When our most progressive African leaders in the continent are not concern with effective utilisation of public resources, we know we have a problem that runs deeper than just lower test scores.

We need to bring effective utilisation of educational resources more overtly back into the discussion. Cultural modernisation theory brings much greater theoretical specificity to these arguments about how to frame and transform African cultural values.


For those self-reflective practitioners willing to explore sentimental issues in African cultural rites, these ethnographic projects are eminently useful in many regards. There is genuine concern for how to preserve what is good in our tradition and at the same time allow ourselves to benefit from the twenty-first century education.

Whatever the case, if education should seek to raise the capacity of African men and women to cultural change and to respond purposively and positively to the twenty-first century times, it must seek to develop in young people the capacity to enquire, to challenge, to question and to weigh evidence before arriving at independent conclusion.

This is the kind of people the modernisation of Africa demands and it takes all Africans to bring this to fruition. Africans in general, including students and scholars of Africa, potential future teachers on the subcontinent, people who live and work in Africa and abroad-but also to wider spectrum of scholars in gender studies, anthropology, education, and international studies must remain united in this front and as Thompson (1981, p. 13) advocates, we must be made aware constantly that we are destroying the future of many African youth and that whether our main concern is with conserving our traditions, with stimulating desirable change or, as is true of most of us, with a selective combination of preservation and innovation, we all have one thing in common-the wish to direct and control the processes of change to create the kind of society which we wish to see and that is development.

To achieve this, I recommend the complementary form of schooling and culture, structured within a nationwide twenty-first century learning system to the extent that mobility between the two (culture and schooling in Africa) would be possible.

Importantly this means that whilst a diversity of provision should be created, bridges should equally be built between them over which individuals will pass.


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