African Education


I AM not going to discuss the belief, widely prevalent though it be, that the African native is not really educable, not capable of profiting by education in the same sort of way as the white man can profit. Black men are not white men; but they are men, and as such essentially educable. Like all other men and unlike any other animals, they have their being within a special self-made environment, a self-perpetuating framework of ideas and customs, that can be called, in the broadest sense of the word, tradition. The difficulty of educating the native lies in the fact that he lives enmeshed in a rigid tribal tradition, his home a windowless hut, his material background and his system of ideas extremely primitive and extremely limited. To give him an ‘academic’ education without troubling about this real core of his life is to produce an imitation article. More frequently it happens that contact with white civilization destroys the core without putting anything stable in its place; and then ‘education’ produces only a veneered and hollow sham.

We at home use the word ‘education’ generally in a specialized sense, as something superadded to or growing out of the general tradition and system of ideas which we inevitably respire from our infancy. But in Africa the major task of education must be to provide a new set of ideas for the growing African mind to breathe, to produce a new tradition which shall be stable though on a higher level than the old.

Only if we succeed in accomplishing that shall we be able to judge of the Africans’ educability. I do not imagine that it is identical either in kind or in degree with that of white men. The average black man differs from the average white in color, in features, in bodily proportions, in hair, in adaptations to a hot climate such as wide nostrils and abundance of sweat glands; there is no reason to suppose that he will not differ in the inherited potentialities of his mind. At the moment one can only give the merest opinion. Mine would be that there are greater differences in mental capacity between different African tribes than between the best tribes and the white man, some tribes being definitely stupider by nature. However, I should certainly say that any and every tribe would overlap very considerably with us, its more gifted members being a long way above our stupidest. And finally it seems clear that among the more advanced tribes, such as Chagga or Baganda, the educability or innate capacity, of some individuals at least, is distinctly high, their best brains being well above our mean capacity. Further than that one cannot venture until two or three generations of education have created a new atmosphere of ideas; but it is clear to me that, even should the average capacity of Africans prove to be somewhat lower than that of white men, yet education of the right sort will undoubtedly be able to bring about enormous changes — changes which to the average white man of to-day would appear incredible.

Do not let us forget that we ourselves are not so long emerged from barbarism. When Rome came in contact with the ancient Britons, they were doubtless in most ways a little more advanced than the African; none the less, we possess a letter from a wealthy Roman landowner to his agent in Britain (in terms strangely reminiscent of a Kenya settler talking of his Kikuyu or Kavirondo labor supply) telling him not to ship him any more British slaves, as they were so lazy and could not be trusted to work. The ancient Greeks were in some ways the most astounding of peoples. Yet, only a few hundred years before their apogee, the Homeric heroes fought and thought much like Masai or Nandi warriors — one has only to recall them, all but Achilles timorous so long as Hector was alive, dancing round him when dead and jabbing his corpse with their spears.


But enough of generalities. Let us come down to facts. To begin with, we must realize that systematized native education is only just beginning in East Africa. Government schools, government subsidies to mission schools (accompanied of course by a salutary government control of their curriculum and standards), a properly organized programme for each colony as a whole — these are all post-war births. Not until 1933 will the reorganized educational system of Uganda have turned out any native who has been from bottom to top. In the whole of Kenya, with its three million natives, there are in school only about five hundred boys who have stuck out more than four consecutive years of a general education, less than one hundred who have reached their seventh year.

But the second fact is that the natives want education. In Tanganyika, there are numerous schools which have been built and equipped by the local Native Administration, out of their own funds. In Kenya, the Kikuyu, that difficult tribe, have this year voted five thousand pounds from their native treasuries for the construction of schools in their reserve. In Uganda, the big Church Missionary Society’s boarding school at Budu recently raised its fees, not without misgiving, to twenty-five pounds a year — no small sum for a native to pay; yet the school is as full as ever. The Kenya settlers who are anxious to attract labor to their farms and keep it there find that the provision of a little school with a native schoolmaster is, with tribes like the Kikuyu or Kavirondo at least, a potent help.

There are some tribes, to be sure, who are indifferent or even hostile to education. But in general the demand exists; and the great and urgent difficulty is the provision of sufficient welltrained teachers to satisfy it.

And finally there is the fact that, in spite of everything, natives are being educated to do — and often to do well — things which only one generation back were not even dreamed of by the African. I have seen dressers in charge of dispensaries, clerks keeping the records of native courts, girls running maternity and infant-welfare stations with white inspection only once a month, men in charge of a power station on a big estate, schoolmasters who taught well and had their heart in their job, foremen who could be trusted in sole control of building operations — all blacks. I have seen black nuns (one I shall always remember for the beauty, and indeed saintliness, of her expression); black school prefects who seemed to be all that prefects should; black drill sergeants; black students who were dissecting a cadaver with commendable thoroughness; a black choir singing Bach motets, and singing them well; black health workers who, unsupervised, can and do produce admirable malaria surveys and maps.

But to what end is all this native education? Or, to put it in another way, what education ought we to give the native? The great mistake of the past has been to give our subjects of other races a dose of our own already over-academic school curriculum in diluted form, and to call that education. Many of the missions have been to blame in this respect. They have imagined that repetition of a creed and attendance at church will promptly turn a pagan into a redeemed Christian soul, with the right or even the duty to reject and look down upon all ancient institutions and customs of his tribe, and that the three R’s with a little of a fourth — religious instruction — will give him a European or at least an educated mind. In reality the new religion has too often been embraced because it conferred a higher social status, and the new learning because its possessor imagined it would be the key to clerical work in an office, from whose vantage manual labor could be agreeably despised. The Phelps-Stokes report on African education gives abundant chapter and verse for these assertions; and shows that governments too have by no means always been blameless.

Gradually, however, a new conception is coming to the front. Education is conceived of as a training adapted for a particular kind of human being in a particular environment. If it does not fit him better to his environment, and at the same time help to make his environment better, it is no education.

In East Africa there are about three hundred blacks to every white. However much we may encourage white settlement, there will always be a huge black preponderance; and the prosperity of the country and its economic value to the British Empire and to the world will depend more (this is what so few imperialists seem yet to have seen) upon the natives’ production and their demand for manufactured goods than upon white farming, however successful. But it is only through education, in the broad sense, that this can be brought about. It is through education in proper methods of agriculture that the natives will stop their system of shifting cultivation, will learn to use ploughs, and will cease taking plant food out of the soil without ever putting any back. They must be educated to stop cutting down forests and to plant trees. Education alone will make them want to build cleanly little houses instead of filthy huts, will reduce disease and cut down infant mortality from its present appalling figure of 30 to 50 per cent in the first year of life — and this will mean an increase of population and new supplies of labor. Education will awake new ideas, new ambitions, new needs. Only education will provide natives to fill the huge number of posts which the Government rightly wishes to see filled by Africans — medical, agricultural, veterinary, forestry assistants; schoolmasters and clerks; artisans and mechanics; engine drivers and chauffeurs. Only education will enable the native to compete, as trader or as skilled workman, with the Indian.

With these ends in view, every effort is now being made to put an end to the education that is all books, and to prevent the native from thinking that education is merely an avenue of escape from hard work; to insist on hygiene, drill, and practical agriculture as part of every curriculum; to encourage instead of discouraging respect for tribal history and customs, and the practice of native handicrafts; to begin with general education in which, after a grounding in the three R’s, emphasis is laid on the natives’ own environment — African geography, African history, local nature study, hygiene, agriculture; and to build on this foundation by special, vocational training for the great majority of boys and girls, reserving anything in the nature of a higher academic education for the exceptional few who can profit by it.

This new movement is yet in its infancy; but the educational machine is now definitely set in this direction. If it works successfully, it will give the native inhabitants of East Africa (there are already some twelve million of them; and there is ample room for double that figure) an opportunity to develop an East African culture, no mere copy of the European culture with which it is in touch, but something in its own right, something new in the world. And note well that education can never achieve this unless it is successful in making the native prosperous. Quite apart from its direct effect upon production, education will pay for itself over and over again by raising the natives’ demands upon life, reducing the wastage of life and health, cutting down the proportion of expenditure on military and police, replacing many alien cogs in the administrative machine by indigenous ones.

As one Director of Education said to me, ‘There ought really to be no Education Departments in East Africa; the very title is misleading. What we want is Departments of Native Development.’ This development of the native, this refusal to allow him to become a poor copy of the white invader, this attempt to transform his old traditions into something equally solid, yet new and progressive, is the best hope for tropical Africa.


Education in Africa means native development; that is my main thesis. If it is to be of any real and permanent good, it means development, not toward a transplanted imitation of Europe, but toward its own local, African civilization, whose features no man can yet discern, but which must be essentially different from our Western civilization, because its economics will be based on agriculture and not on manufacture, because its component units are blacks and not whites, because its ideas will in part have grown out of African tribal ideas.

I will end by giving some concrete examples of what is now being attempted.

In the Masai reserve in Kenya, I visited the school at Narok. The slender athletic boys were playing football. After the game, they filed up and bent their heads before me, upon which I, hastily prompted, laid my hand upon each close-cropped pate. This Biblical gesture had to be repeated by each of the five Europeans present for each of the sixty boys. (I found myself trying to visualize the practice adopted at Eton or Harrow — a fag rushing up to a beak as if to butt him in the stomach, a member of Pop with bared head awaiting the Headmaster’s benediction!)

Besides an elementary general education, games, and drill, these Masai boys are taught dairying and how to make the clarified butter which finds such a ready sale among the Indians; and they are taught the elements of agriculture — an occupation which the Masai tribe, warriors and raiders all, have never yet deigned to practise.

There are only two Masai schools as yet, and they are very new. But if they are successful, they will be the beginning of a change in the tribe’s whole way of life.

At the moment the Masai, no longer permitted to be warriors, are in danger of degenerating into specimens in a human zoo, their herds of cattle valued for their number and not for their quality, and of negligible economic value to the country as a whole. Their old pride of race survives in the prejudice which finds all agriculture, and indeed all work save the tending of cattle, degrading; their old system of warriors living in the special villages, enjoying free love with the uninitiated girls, has no longer any meaning within the Pax Britannica, and is said to be leading to moral and physical deterioration.

But if the boys trained at these schools continue to cultivate the soil and to produce milk and ghee for money, they must cease to be nomadic and they will begin to think in terms of quality and not quantity of cattle. The Masai can never be anything but anthropological specimens so long as they live within the cast-iron framework of their old and now inevitably out-of-date tribal customs; these schools may provide the magic solvent which will release them from immobility.

Now I will take the other extreme — an old-established school among a progressive people. King’s School, Budu, is a Church Missionary Society school for the sons of the better-class Baganda. It aims at getting boys as young as possible; at providing a really good education for head and hand, physique and character; at encouraging initiative and at helping the natives to discover in themselves new capabilities, new sources of interest and enjoyment.

In addition to the ordinary academic curriculum, which seems to be taught with more imagination than usual, the boys cultivate their own plots of ground and make agricultural experiments. Each boy is required to take up some hobby — simple metal working, carpentry, collecting insects or flowers, knitting, shoemaking, and so forth. There is a troop of Scouts, admission to which is a coveted honor. The drill is good, the football excellent, the standard of the annual sports quite high. Prefects look after minor discipline as in an English public school. In addition the boys are responsible for the cleanliness and tidiness of the dormitories.

The result was extremely interesting. Even the casual visitor could feel that there was something of the atmosphere of an English school about the place. The boys were not alien creatures painfully absorbing a readymade but foreign system of ideas; they were young human beings growing up in an environment which, however new, they were making their own. (This, I was told, was especially the case with boys who came young, at six or seven, and stayed on for eight or ten years. The moral is that, if you wish to build up the inner framework of morale and ideas which alone can take the place of the old tribal system of customs and sanctions, you must do it thoroughly; beginning late gives you incomplete organisms.)

I went to the school concert on their annual speech day, and found myself recalling similar occasions in my own youth. There were the enthusiastic old boys, the timid little fellows sent on to recite, the cheerful buffoons who enjoy the footlights, the serious-looking seniors bearing their responsibilities. There were Elizabethan madrigals, performances on traditional Baganda instruments, English recitations, native dances. The pièce de résistance was a play, written (in English, with some assistance from the masters) by the boys themselves, on the subject of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; and comic relief was afforded by a masterly skit in Luganda, entitled ‘The Policeman,’ which no member of the staff had seen beforehand.

In quite another sphere, the Native Industrial Training Department in Kenya is equally impressive. Here are some five hundred lads learning trades. They must complete a five years’ course in their chosen trade, be it smith or tailor, carpenter or mason. In the workshops of the department many jobs are undertaken for the Government and for certain private corporations such as missions; and the boys receive an essential part of the training by going out in gangs to erect and equip government buildings all over the colony. At the moment, Europeans act as technical instructors and foremen, but the policy is to replace as many of these as possible by the pick of the trained native workmen. In a few years the leaven of skilled and efficient native artisans, self-respecting and earning good wages, should be stirring throughout Kenya; and the same end is being pursued in Tanganyika and Uganda.


Now take a piece of native development which has depended mainly on adult education. The Digo area on the Kenya coast was a hotbed of hookworm. A medico-educational campaign against this insidious sapper of human energies was undertaken by the Medical Department in 1927-28. Over 90 per cent of the native population of 50,000 were treated; what is much more remarkable, nearly 9000 latrines were built, — the Native Council has now made it compulsory for every hut to have one, — and, more remarkable still, the latrines are being used. In the year since then, an increase in the energy and efficiency of Digo laborers, and in the total amount of land under cultivation in the area, has already taken place, and the Digo are anxious to learn and apply other lessons of Western science.

Such work may be helped on through the schools. In Zanzibar I saw a native medical orderly demonstrating hookworms and hookworm eggs to the children in a little out-school; and their answers to his questions showed that the village schoolmaster had already made the hookworm story quite clear to their minds. Since practically every native in East Africa is infected with intestinal worms, or malaria, or both, — and is therefore always below par, though he may not know it, — the importance of such measures is enormous.

In almost every girls’ school, much attention is paid to cleanliness and sanitation, food and cooking, and the care of children. In the Kikuyu reserve I was assured that as the result of such teaching infant mortality was definitely less among the children of educated mothers, and that little houses were here and there taking the place of huts.

The native does not live in a dirty, windowless, floorless grass hut by innate preference, but because he has not been brought to the level at which he prefers something better. In Buganda, this level has been reached by a large section of the population, and the countryside is well sprinkled with little twoand four-roomed houses, boasting windows and often a little garden.

One could multiply examples. There is the school of Tabora, where the sons of chiefs are educated to fit them for their future duties of helping in the government of the country. A very fine new building has just been put up to house the growing school, — stone, two stories, with an arcaded quadrangle and a hall which is the largest room in the territory, — and the place more than ever begins to merit its nickname of the Eton of Tanganyika.

There is the Jeanes School outside Nairobi, where picked teachers and their wives come to bo trained. After two years they go back into the country districts and become responsible for a group of elementary out-schools. There is Makerere College in Uganda, destined inevitably to become in time a university for East Africa. There are the hospitals where native dressers are being trained, the laboratories which are turning out native agricultural assistants.

In brief, thirty years ago the East African native lived unquestioningly within the bonds of rigid tribal custom, in a barbaric twilight of the intelligence. Superstition was mingled with sound tradition, magic with common sense, blank ignorance with valuable knowledge, to form a whole which had to vanish, either by extinction or by evolution, at the white man’s contact. To-day, hundreds of black boys and girls are being let loose over the country every year charged with new knowledge, new practical arts, new thoughts and ideas.

There is no stemming the tide. We are told that the remedy for democracy is more democracy. Very certainly the remedy for education is more education. To make native education to the fullest extent the instrument of native development, to continue worthily what has been so well begun, there are certain needs. There must be a strong Department of Education, with adequate control of missionary educational policy. There must be a supply of white teachers, government and missionary alike, who do not think of the natives merely as ‘niggers’ to be taught useful trades or as ‘heathen’ to be converted, but as human beings who have a culture of their own, albeit a primitive one, who are and always will be the major and most important part of East Africa’s population. And they must come out equipped with some special knowledge of agriculture as well as of educational method. There must be a big supply of well-trained native teachers. There is great need of textbooks and readers, adapted to local conditions (sometimes they are peculiarly ill-adapted: one of the first reading books to be translated into Swahili for Tanganyika schools was Treasure Island!). There is need to keep on with agriculture, hygiene, local geography, and history; but the old academic outlook leaves these subjects uncorrelated; we need a more biological approach to make an African curriculum vital. And we badly want the coöperation of every other government department with education. Above all, we need to persuade the native that to pass, say, London Matriculation is not necessarily an ideal aim in Africa — however desirable it may (or may not) be in England.

If we can secure all this, we may perhaps produce an educational system better suited to the African than is our English system to the English.