Traditional education


Education has been a means of transmitting one’s culture from one generation to another. It is the process of bringing about a relatively permanent change in human behaviour. As the oldest industry, it is the main instrument used by society to preserve, maintain and upgrade its social equilibrium. A society’s future depends largely on the quality of its citizen’s education.
In all human societies, education is meant to pass on to the new generations the existing knowledge of their physical environment, to introduce individuals to the organization of society, give them skills for performing their daily jobs and enjoying their leisure, as well as inculcate sound morals in them for their own benefit and that of the society. In other words, education is a process by which the society assists the younger generation to understand the heritage of their past, participate productively in the society of the present as well as contribute to the future. Based on these reasons, education draws inspiration and nourishment from a society, but in turn, it contributes to the growth, renewal and development of that society.
Sometimes rather informal, society has ways of assisting the younger generations to understand the past and often exposing them to the various values, ideals, and aspirations of the society. They may be either formal/western or informal/tradition al/indigenous.


To understand the history of education in Africa, adequate knowledge of the traditional or indigenous educational system which existed before the arrival of Islam and Christianity is needed. Islamic education was not formally established in Nigeria until the fourteenth century and Christian education came in the nineteenth century. But indigenous education persists even today, showing no sign of disappearance from the scene of education.
In old African society, the purpose of education was clear: functionalism was the main guiding principle. African society regarded education as a means to an end not as an end in itself. Education was generally for an immediate induction into society and preparation for adulthood. In particular, African education emphasized social responsibility, job orientation, political participation, spiritual and moral values. Children learnt by doing, that is to say, children and adolescents were engaged in participatory ceremonies, rituals, imitation, recitation and demonstration. They were involved in practical farming, fishing, cooking, carving, knitting and so on. Recreation subjects included writing, dancing, drumming, acrobatic display, racing, while intellectual training included the study of local history, legends the environment (Local geography, plants and animals), poetry, reasoning, riddles, proverbs, storytelling and story relays. Education in old Africa was a nitrated experience. It combined physical training with character molding and manual activities with intellectual training. At the end of each stage, demarcated either by age level or years of exposure, the child was given a practical test relevant to his experience and level of development and in terms of the job to be done. This was a continuous assessment which eventually culminated in a passing out ceremony or initiation into adulthood.
Asserting in African education: Babs Fafunwa (1991 :16) is of the view that:
“Education in old Africa was not rigidly compartmentalized as is the case in the contemporary system today. Educators are beginning to talk about Universities without walls, schools without classes and subjects without grades.
This is as it should be, particularly in Africa where only a handful constitutes the elite, and where; if a stage is missed all other chances may be forfeited.
The aim, content and methods of traditional education are intricately interwoven; they are not divided into separate compartments as is the case with Western system of education. The characteristics of traditional education in Africa are aptly summarized by (Abdon Moumouni1988:20) thus:
1. The great importance attached to it and its collective and social nature.
2. Its intimate tie with social life both in a material and a spiritual sense.
3. Its multivalent character, both in terms of its goals and the means employed.
4. Its gradual and progressive achievements in conformity with the successive stages of physical, emotional and mental development of the child. Because indigenous education failed to conform to the ways of the Westernized system, some less well informed writers have considered it primitive, even savage and barbaric. But such contentions should be seen as the product of ignorance and due to a total misunderstanding of the inherent value of informal education. When evaluating any educational system, one must determine the extent to which it is meeting the needs of a particular society at any given time. According to (Fafunwa, 1991:17). Traditional African education must therefore be judged not by any extraneous consideration or some foreign yard stick but by its performance within a given social context. Many European observers tend to ignore this important factor.


Although Nigeria consists of many ethnic groups and societies each with its own culture and tradition, they all have common educational aims and objectives. But methods differ from place to place, chiefly because of social, economic and geographical imperatives.


The arrival of a child in a Nigerian family is a great occasion. It is celebrated with fanfare and merriment. The naming ceremony is conducted in full view of all the members of the extended family, relatives and friends. Special rites are performed by the head of the family and the child may be given as many as half a dozen names. In terms of special event, period or special circumstances surrounding the birth of the child.
The education of the child in Nigerian society starts from infancy just as in any European, Asiatic or American society. The baby is fed regularly, mostly through breast-feeding, and weaned at the appropriate time. Of course, practices differ from one ethnic group to another. All societies train their children in toileting, eating, socialization and general behavior. At this initial stage the child is more intimately involved with his mother more than his the father. In a polygamous family, there are other ‘mothers’ who take it as part of their duty to minister to the needs of the child; but even then, the real mother carries the final responsibility. Many anthropologists and sociologists have written extensively on the mother-father –child relationship in African society but basically the situation is no different from elsewhere. The father is out most of the day and the mother stays at home with the child. As his protector, she is sensitive to everything that happens to him and ministers to all of his needs.
Every child between the ages of 1 and 6 is curious and watches his mother’s gestures and expressions. He learns his language from his mother and knows what she means when she smiles, frowns or weeps. As the child learns to walk all breakables are moved away from his path, lest he stumbles on them or breaks them while playing. The mother carries him or her on her back wherever she goes; tends him when sick; and puts him to bed.
As the child grows older he becomes even more curious about things around him; he gradually realizes that there are other worlds outside his mother’s own. He notices others around him and watches their activities. He learns to manipulate things, plays with toys or any other object that is easily accessible to him. To restrain him from doing certain things, outright threats or taboos may be introduced by the parents or siblings.
Between the ages of 4 and 6 sometimes earlier, in some families, the grandparents, uncles and aunts become involved in the education of the child. They send him on small errands, tell him stories, teach him obedience and respect for elders (a very important aspect of African education), code of behaviour, and history of the family or the ethnic group.


The African child likes to explore his immediate environment; observes adults in their activities, and imitate them – he enjoys discovering new situations. Here there is no cultural difference between the African, the European or the Asiatic child, but the modus operandi may vary in terms of method and equipment. In traditional African society the child intuitively jumps, climbs a tree, dances or performs a balancing act because his siblings or his elders do the same. Every child discovers his limbs and in no time at all he also discovers their uses. It is a natural process of growth and the physical environment, no matter how limiting, challenges the child to try out new things. The African child, unlike the European child, has unlimited access to the stimulating world of African music and dance. He observes the adults and other children and naturally falls in step. The infinite variety of African dance movements offer the child one of the best media for physical exercise. The dance and the music also serve as cultural vehicles, which encourage team-work.


Indigenous African education places considerable emphasis on character-training. Indeed it is the corner-stone of African education. J.A. Majasan in his study of Yoruba education identified character-training and religious education as the two main objectives of Yoruba education and showed that other objectives were pursued through the latter.
The parents, siblings and other members of the community participate in the education of the child. Everyone wants him to be sociable, honest, courageous, humble, persevering and of good repute at all times.


Closely related to character-training is the respect for elders or those who are in authority, particularly the chief, the cult leaders, the diviners, relatives (especially uncles) and other neighbors. Greetings play a major role here. The African has a complicated greeting system. There are special polite greetings or salutations for parents, elders, peers, and chiefs. There are morning, afternoon and evening greetings; there are greetings for various situations – playing, dancing, drumming, sitting, standing, farming, fishing, weaving, swimming, walking, convalescing; and there are special salutations for different kinds of festivals and ceremonies on such occasions as birthdays, burials, marriages, yam festivals, observance of ancestor worship, and others.


If by intellect we mean the power to integrate experience, and if intellectualization is the process of reasoning abstractly, traditional African education can be said to encourage intellectual growth and development. Observation, imitation and participation are some of the major learning processes even in this modern age. The African child learns the local geography and history of his community. He is very familiar with the hills and dales, the fertile and the non-fertile areas; he knows the rainy season and when to expect a dry spell; he knows the time of the hunting and fishing seasons. Local history is taught by the elders in each household and the songs of praise which accompany many of the historical events make the oral traditional history a stimulating experience which is hard to forget.


It is fair to say that the aim of education in traditional society is character-training and job-orientation. We can roughly divide the various traditional vocations into three groups.
1. Agricultural education: for example farming, fishing and veterinary science (animal care and animal rearing).
2. Trades and crafts: for example weaving (baskets and cloth), smithing (iron, silver, gold, etc), hunting, carving (wood and bronze). Sculpturing, painting and decorating, carpentry, building, barbering, drumming, dancing and acrobatics, hair plaiting, dress-making, leather-working, soap-making, singing, pottery-making, mat-making, bead-working, gold-washing, Iron-ore working, threshing, glass-making, brass-working, dyeing, Esusu—collecting (banking), catering (frying, baking, grinding), food-selling, wine-selling, wine-tapping and trading in all kinds of merchandise (manufactured goods and agricultural products).
3. Professions: for example doctors, priests, witchdoctors, civil servants, village heads, chiefs and kings, tax-collectors, heralds, judges, councilors, police and messengers, shrine-keepers, soldiers, etc.
Vocational training in traditional society is largely run on the apprenticeship system and is a time-honored device for educating millions of African youths and adults. Usually the children are not trained by their parents but by relatives, master-craftsmen in particular fields or friends in order to ensure discipline and concentration.


This has been defined by A.S. Hornby as the ability to read and write (2006:679). On the above, it is the ability of reading out any written thing and also the power to write out things that can be read. Trying to buttress the point in literacy, John Salmon was of the view that the ability to read and write is not restricted to a particular language. (1978:22).
From the above, literacy can be environmental and epochal. One can be literate according to the matrix or ambience of a given society.


This is the opposite of literacy and it is the inability to read and write. Whenever one is not able to read out things written or write things that can be read, such a person is said to be illiterate. But in his own assertion, Kebull Brown(1995:10).is of the view that literacy or illiteracy should include hearing and understanding of a thing written or read.


From the above definition of illiteracy, it is an established fact that any African who is able to read and write is literate while any African who cannot read and write is illiterate. Against this assertion, Rechard Geman said literacy or illiteracy is not restricted to one’s matrix or a particular language. One may be literate here and will not be literate there.
In Gehan’s view, one can be literate in Igbo cosmology but when taken to the Jewish cosmology, he becomes illiterate, since he cannot speak, read or write Hebrew language. In the same vein, a Jew that does not know Igbo language cannot write or read Igbo is said to be illiterate in that area. Therefore, the question of literacy and illiteracy can only be justified within a given world view or spectra of a given society. In buttressing this point, Jonathan Iko(1978: 14) infers that People make a lot of mistakes by measuring literacy and illiteracy with English language. What of some Chinese and Germans that cannot read or write English language. Are they not literate and useful in their own areas. In the above citation, Iko is of the view that the measurement of literacy and illiteracy cannot only be done with the lingua-franca-English language. But if one is useful in his area or can serve his area rightly, the person is said to be literate.
Basically, literacy implies the ability to read and write a given language. African know how to read or write before literacy was introduced through Western or Islamic education.
The idea of not being literate was orchestrated by the oriental mind which has done us no good, but has instead put a knife in the things that held us together and things fell apart. It is the same mind which says that Africans cannot philosophize, at the same time ascribing every good thing to the white while a whole cascade of evil is believed to have come from us and lives with us. The question now is, were the early African literate or illiterate or can it be rightly said that this people who are of the hinterland of Africa were literate? In trying to proffer an answer to this all imposing question, the writer is of the view that if literacy can be measured in reading and the usefulness of one in reading and writing in a particular language, then early Africans were literate even before the advent of the Europeans into the hinder land of Africa.
It should be on record that the academic doctors and professors were the parents, surrogates and brothers and sisters whose onus it was to pass societal values. It should also be on record that the writing materials then were the “Nzu” or “Odo”, the walls and the Earth were the chalkboard. They also made use of the leaves with sticks or broom as their pencil or pen. In African cosmology, if one owes or is indebted to someone, straight lines will be made on the walls. The length of the lines will indicates how much owed by the debtor. Long lines represent big debts while small lines represent small debts.
It was also the custom to remember dates with the market days especially in Igbo world view. Dates were remembered with Eke, Orie, Afor, Nkwo which are the market days. Chinua Achebe(1960:19) in Things Fall Apart, asserts that Ogbuefi Ezudu went to Unoka who was a weakling to reclaim his money. Unoka has made marks on the wall of his hut; lines, representing those he was owing. When his creditor came in and declared his intention which was not funny to Unoka at that time of the day, Unoka laughed him to scorn with these words.
My friend look at the wall, those long lines represent big debts. I think the sun will first of all shine on those standing up before shinning on those sitting down. I will first of all pay my bigger debts before thinking of my smaller debts
The above has shown that though Unoka did not attend any formal education, he was able to write, remember the state of his debt. Every traditional community has a sign and a symbol that are peculiar to them.
This was brought to a better limelight when in his master’s work; the writer Amaechi(2000:10-11) presented a work on the socio-religious significance of traditional signs and symbols. He saw sign as gestures, facial expressions and body movements while symbols are objects acts, relationships or linguistic formation that stand ambiguous for a multiplication of meaning .
These signs and symbols are all there in the traditional cosmology, pregnant with meanings that are easily decoded by an on looker who knows them. The signs and symbols originated from the traditional soil and can be decoded by people who have eaten crops of the same soil. From the foregoing, our forebears were educated. On this note, Babs Fafunwa (1991)on African traditional education, highlighted seven goals of African Traditional Education.


The aim of Traditional African education is multilateral and the objective is to produce an individual who is honest respectable, skilled, co-operative and conforms to the social order of the day. Although the educational objectives cannot be neatly distinguished, according to Fafunwa (1991) seven aspects can be identified:
1. To develop the child’s latent physical skill.
2. To develop character
3. To indicate respect for elders and those in position of authority.
4. To develop intellectual skills
5. To acquire specific vocational training and to develop a healthy attitude towards honest labour.
6. To develop a sense of belonging and to participate actively in family and community affairs.
7. To develop, appreciate and promote the cultural heritage of the community at large .Suffice it then to say that this education was aimed at training a child physically, developing his character, intellectual training, vocational training and respect for the elders and peers
This piece has shown that Africans before now were literate enough as to be relevant in their communities. Since they wrote in their native style, and read with meaning in their style, they were indeed literate.
If literacy connotes the ability to remember memorized words, the writer is of the view that early African were not far from the word literacy.
They were able to rehearse off hand the leaves in the Bush, Rivers and neighbouring villages around them. Peradventure one was sent to buy things from the market the person was able to buy without missing any. What other marks of literacy are we looking for? To be simply put, early Africans were literate.
Achebe, C. (1960) Things Fall Apart: Onitsha: Heineman.
Amaechi, N.M (2002) “M.A. Thesis: department of Religious Studies University of Calabar, Calabar.
Brown, K. (1995) Literary world of man. Calabar; Proper Ventures.
Emenyonu, Ernest. (1987) The rise of the Igbo Novel. Ibadan: University Press.
Encyclopedia Britannica (1962) Vol 1 New York. William Benton Pub.
Fafunwa, Babs (1991) History of education in Nigeria. Ibadan: NPS. Pub.
Gemman. R (1987) African traditional religion in Biblical Perspective; Narobi; Kesho publication.
Good, C.V. (ed), (1945) Dictionary of Education.London: Mc Graw.

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