The nineteenth century constituted a momentous turning point in the history of Africa. Not only did it witness the end of the slave trade and the inauguration of legitimate commerce, the high tide of European imperial invasion, conquest, and pacification, but it also heralded the introduction of Western education. European Christian missionaries were the precursors of Western education. While Western education was a valuable instrument of effective colonization and pacification of Africa, ironically it was also very useful for the eventual decolonization of Africa. It is against this background that the history of Western education remains an overarching theme in African history. However, it is erroneous to assume that there was no system of education in Africa before the advent of the Europeans. The nature of colonialism resulted in the denigration and disruption of the African traditional cultures and systems of education to make way for Western education and European civilization. Although private schools were set up to reverse these distortions, they were too few to make any significant impact.

This article examines the central and pioneering role of the Christian missionaries in the introduction of Western education—specifically, the emergence of private and public schools—in the sub-Saharan Africa, and the place of Western education in the effective colonization and eventual decolonization of Africa. It is noteworthy that the mission school systems, modeled after European metropolitan institutions, became the cornerstone of future educational planning in post independence Africa. At the higher education levels, European university systems were wholly adopted with little modifications in almost all of the newly independent African states. Western education became indispensable in the formation of new identities and national development.


The concept of education in Africa was not a colonial invention. Prior to European colonization and subsequent introduction of Western education, traditional educational systems existed in Africa. The enduring role of education in every society is to prepare individuals to participate fully and effectively in their world; it prepares youths to be active and productive members of their societies by inculcating the skills necessary to achieve these goals. Although its functions varied, African traditional education was not compartmentalized. Fundamentally, it was targeted toward producing an individual who grew to be well grounded, skillful, cooperative, civil, and able to contribute to the development of the community. The educational structure in which well-rounded qualities were imparted was fundamentally informal; the family, kinship, village group, and the larger community participated in the educational and socialization process.

In his Education in Africa, Abdou Moumouni affirmed that the educational process essentially was based on a “gradual and progressive achievements, in conformity with the successive stages of physical, emotional and mental development of the child” (Moumouni 1968, p. 15). The medium of instruction was the native language or “mother tongue” through which systematic instruction was delivered by way of songs, stories, legends, and dances to stimulate children’s emotions and quicken their perception as they explore and conquer their natural environment.

The African child was taught the various tribal laws and customs and wide range of skills required for success in traditional society. Traditionally, education received by Africans was oriented toward the practical. Work by Magnus Bassey (1991) indicates that those who took to fishing were taught navigational techniques like seafaring, the effects of certain stars on tide and ebb, and migrational patterns and behavior of fish. Those who took to farming had similar training. Those who learned trades and crafts, such as blacksmithing, weaving, woodwork, and bronze work, needed a high degree of specialization and were often apprenticed outside their homes for training and discipline. Those who took to the profession of traditional priesthood, village heads, kings, medicine men and women diviners, rainmakers, and rulers underwent a longer period of painstaking training and rituals to prepare them for the vital job they were to perform.

Teaching was basically by example and learning by doing. African education emphasized equal opportunity for all, social solidarity and homogeneity. It was complete and relevant to the needs and expectations of both the individuals and society. This is because it was an integral part of the social, political, and economic foundation of the African society. However, the advent of the European missionaries and the introduction of Western education through the mission schools changed, in many fundamental ways, the dynamics of African education. Western education soon took the center stage in Africa, debasing, challenging, and supplanting the traditional, informal education along with its cultural foundations.


The history of Western education in Africa is directly traceable to the relentless efforts of European Christian missionary bodies. Missionary activities in Africa began as early as the late fifteenth century following the successful exploratory missions sponsored by Prince Henry (”the Navigator”) of Portugal. For these expeditions, Prince Henry received several letters of indulgence from the Church encouraging the propagation of the Catholic faith. Although a few Portuguese missionaries visited the courts of the oba (king) of Benin and Mani-Kongo for the purpose of conversion of Africans, their efforts did not translate into firm establishment of Christianity in these areas. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Christianity made practically no headway in Africa as the Portuguese abandoned their idea of conversion. The new and lucrative trade in slaves became a European focus; missionaries now administered prayers to the slaves on the coasts before their departure to the New World.

The evangelical revival movement in Europe during late 1700s reawakened missionary zeal. Encouraged by the reports of explorers of primitive, backward, and so-called ”godless” races of Africa, many evangelicals committed themselves to the task of Christianizing and ”civilizing” them. The Great Awakening witnessed the establishment of missionary societies led by a group of influential Englishmen—the Clapham Sect—who devoted their time and energy to reviewing the problems of the moment. Two major issues of the time, the abolition of slavery and extension of Christianity outside Europe, dominated the deliberations of this group. Prominent members of the Clapham Sect, including William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, and Zachary Macaulay, believed that the slave trade was abominable and repugnant on humanitarian ground and that abolition of the trade was a necessary precondition for the successful Christianization of Africa. Consequently, their struggles recorded a breakthrough in 1807 when the British parliament passed a bill to abolish slave trade in England. The passage of the slave bill gave stimulus to the growing number of Christian mission societies who were prepared to commence evangelical work in Africa.

Missionary concern for Africa was on two major fronts: first to help encourage Africans to abandon the inhuman trade in slaves, and secondly to teach African natives the noble ways of life. The reports of European travelers and their travelogues profoundly informed missionary endeavors in Africa. Their reports reinforced the myth of a Dark Continent and an uncivilized and secular people, providing the raison d’etre for the European missionary enterprise in Africa. From the start, however, Europeans were well aware that for effective conversion and civilization of Africans to occur, the introduction of Western education through mission schools was necessary. The missionary agenda was to convert Africans to Christianity through the medium of education with the Bible as the major master text. The ability to read and understand the Bible became an overriding index of success for the missionaries.

Missionaries in Benin. A group of European Christian missionaries pose with students in Porto-Novo, Benin, in this illustration from the History of the Catholic Missions (1882).

Missionaries in Benin. A group of European Christian missionaries pose with students in Porto-Novo, Benin, in this illustration from the History of the Catholic Missions (1882).

The earliest formal, Western schools were founded in West Africa, attached to the castles in the Gold Coast, modern day Ghana. There were three of such schools; the oldest was established at Elmina by the Dutch West Indian Company in 1644 and placed under the control of the Castle Chaplain for the education of the mulatto children for whom they felt some responsibility. These children were to be educated as Christians, speaking the Dutch language and imbibing the Dutch culture. It was hoped that the Dutch who held subordinate posts might be replaced by Africans of partly European descent who would be more accustomed to the climate than Europeans. Afflicted by fluctuating fortunes—staffing, funds, and public support—the Elmina School still lasted for more than 200 years until the Dutch departed.

A similar school was founded at Christiansborg (also in Gold Coast) by the Danes in 1722, and like Elmina, it was for mulattoes under a Danish Resident Chaplain. The teacher was a soldier. At first, this school admitted only boys who it was hoped would become soldiers who would form a mulatto guard for the Danish forts on the coast. Its curriculum was similar to Elmina’s. Like the Elmina school, Christiansborg was frustrated especially by the minimal support it received from the Danish government.

The third school, which was established at Cape Coast by the English in 1752, by all accounts was the first real mission school in West Africa. Its founder, the Reverend Thomas Thompson, was sent out from England by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). Its curriculum was clerical. Reverend Thompson sent three Africans to England for training, two of whom died and the third, Philip Quaque, returned to Cape Coast as a missionary in 1766. He took charge of the Cape Coast School and reorganized it for instruction in ”religious knowledge, reading, writing and arithmetic” (Priestley 1968, p. 112). Like the other two schools that preceded it, the Cape Coast schools suffered changes of fortune and continued in an irregular fashion until it was taken over and reorganized by the colonial government of Sierra Leone under its governor, Sir Charles McCarthy.

The advances, activities, and accomplishments of the European missionaries especially in relation to Western education before the 1800s were at best only minimal. The three schools were begun as isolated ventures rather than as coordinated beginnings of widespread educational systems. Their operations were quite irregular and their curricula were narrow as they were originally designed to serve a small percentage of the population, the mulattoes and their children. Be that as it may, there is no question that the schools influenced later education in the Gold Coast, providing an enduring educational tradition upon which others would build.

Though preceded by other groups such as the Lutheran Moravian Brethren and the London Missionary Society, the formation of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in London in 1799 was quite auspicious for evangelism and Western education. This Society subsequently provided the leadership for the European missionary enterprise in Africa. Soon, other missionary bodies became involved; it was no longer just a matter of converting Africans to Christianity as emphasis shifted to sects and nationality. In a way, it was a scramble for the souls of Africans. These missionary groups included the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS), the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and the Baptist from the (American) Southern Baptist Convention, the Society of African Missions (the Catholic Mission) from France, the Jesuits, the Basel Missionaries, and the Lutherans.

In 1804, for instance, two German Lutheran clergy, Melchior Renner and Peter Hartwig, trained in the seminary at Berlin, sailed to Freetown for missionary work, as did the Danish Basel Mission, which sent four missionaries, Holzwarthe, Schmidt, Salbach, and Henke, to the Gold Coast in 1827. Many Sierra Leoneans, especially the recaptives, were converted to Christianity.

But the death toll among missionaries was heavy from the start, reaching a peak in the yellow fever epidemic of 1823. This frustrated European evangelical missions. Recognizing that Africans were better used to the harsh tropical West African climate, the CMS, therefore, began to support a policy of training Africans as priests for the ministry.

Thomas Fowell Buxton, a prominent member of the British parliament and vice president of the CMS had urged the cooperation of the government and the missionary societies in the ”deliverance” of Africa. Joseph Shanahan, the head of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Eastern Nigeria in the early twentieth century, affirmed: ”Those who hold the school holds the country, holds religion, hold its future” (Jordan 1949, p.94). Father Wauter, a Catholic missionary in Western Nigeria pointedly stated, ”We knew the best way to make conversion in pagan countries was to open school. Practically all pagan boys ask to be baptized. So, when the district of Ekiti-Ondo was opened in 1916, we started schools even before there was any church or mission house” (Abernethy 1969, p.39). Clearly, education became central to the missionaries for the realization of these goals as underscored by Buxton and others. Such education, it was argued, would help reshape the African economy in favor of legitimate trade, making it possible for the emergence of a generation of educated African middle-class elite who would become leaders of the church, commerce, industry, and politics in Africa. It was, therefore, in response to the ferment of the time that the CMS founded a regular training college at Fourah Bay in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1827, for African clergy. Unlike the three earlier schools in the Gold Coast, the story of Western education in Sierra Leone was that of expansion, although occasionally this was frustrated by the frequent deaths of the missionaries. Fourah Bay ultimately became an important institution for Western education, where many West Africans studied for clerical or teaching profession. Perhaps the most famous of Fourah graduates was Samuel Ajayi Crowther who was ultimately ordained the first African bishop of the Anglican Church by the CMS. In 1857, following a successful private expedition up the Niger, Crowther was commissioned to establish an African mission for evangelism. He later became instrumental to the establishment of schools and missions in Eastern Nigeria. Crowther died in 1891. By 1935, however, the CMS had established schools and missions in virtually all parts of the present-day Nigeria.

In East Africa, Anglicans, Scottish Episcopalians, and Methodists had an alliance aimed at working toward a united ministry based on united training. The most enduring contribution of the alliance was in education. For instance, Alliance High School at Kikuyu in Kenya was opened in 1926, and a CMS missionary, Carey Francis, was appointed headmaster in 1940. Alexander Mackay, a teacher, evangelist, builder, and printer, was central to the educational development in Uganda. The early Christians were known as readers, and by 1880 the first translations of parts of the Bible were circulating, printed on Mackay’s own press. In the 1920s through the 1930s, almost exclusively missionaries ran East African schools.

The expansion of mission schools in Africa was quite dramatic, and missionary societies were at the center stage of this development. In Nigeria, for instance, the CMS, which started with 6 schools in 1849, increased the number to 150 by 1909. Similarly, the Wesleyan Mission schools increased from 3 (with 255 pupils and 9 teachers) in 1861 to 138 schools (with 5,361 pupils and 285 teachers) in 1921, while the Roman Catholic Mission increased their schools from 2 in 1893 to about 127 in 1922. The Basel Mission Society in the Cameroon enrolled about 100 students in 1904 and 6,600 by 1914. The trend of growth was also evident in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, especially in East Africa. For instance, in Uganda the CMS expanded the number of its schools from 72 (with 7,683 students) in 1900 to 331 schools (with 32,458 students) by 1913. In Nyasaland the Dutch Reformed Church set up 111 schools (with 10,000 students) in 1903, and by 1910 the figures went up to 865 schools with over 25,796 students.

From the start, European missionaries and their mission schools were contemptuous of African indigenous cultures. Instructions provided to Africans were designed to impart foreign (Western) cultures and values. Africans were persuaded to abandon their own culture and tradition. While the older people proved more reluctant to change, the younger ones readily succumbed to the new teachings of white missionaries, denigrating and rejecting their own cultures and tradition. Yet, the commoner and the oppressed classes were more inclined to discard the traditional ways that offered them little or no advantage. In other words, conversion depended upon the personal benefits, real or imagined, that Christianity conferred. In Things Fall Apart (1959), Chinua Achebe showed how the osu (outcasts) of Umuofia were the first to abandon their customs and tradition, seek conversion to Christianity, and receive Western education. However, in Western Education and the Nigerian Cultural Background (1964), Otonti Nduka noted the contradictions of missionary education for Africa: While the school taught them one set of values based on European culture and values, the home and the environment taught them African ways of life.

Soon, earlier African converts began to feel the yoke of a religion that was closely tied to European culture and colonialism, and they challenged not only the teachings of the missionaries but mission schools’ curricula and instructions. As early as the 1880s in South Africa, the African Christian clergy had rebelled against European domination of their churches. Consequently, they formed their own independent Christian churches, a movement that later spread across central Africa in the wake of European imperialism. African Church leaders saw the Bible’s notion of justice and equality as applicable to all humankind; they also considered the Second Coming of Jesus Christ as signaling an end to oppression and colonialism. Similarly, the idea of private schools began to gain ground in order to check cultural alienation and to include secular education in the curricula.

In East Africa, as in other places, trouble started when the Church of Scotland missionaries (CSM) demanded that all African church elders and schoolteachers renounce female circumcision. As a result, the CSM lost 80 percent of its students as Kikuyu established independent, private (community) schools under their control. By 1933, there were 34 such schools with 5,111 students, and by 1936, the figures had increased to 50 schools. Similar private schools emerged in many parts of Africa. They include the Majola Agbebi’s Agbowa Industrial Mission School in Nigeria established in 1895, John Chilembwe Providence Industrial Mission in Nyasaland established in 1910, John L. Dube’s Ohlange Institute in Natal established in 1900, Eyo Ita’s Independent School in Nigeria established in 1920, and Aggrey Memorial School established in Uganda in 1935. In a sense, the African independent church movement and private school initiatives were both an early expression of nationalism.


The successful imposition of European colonial rule on Africa between 1890 and 1900 challenged and redefined the purpose of Western (commonly referred to as colonial) education in Africa. For quite some time, tensions existed between the missionaries and the new colonial governments over who should control of the schools. The missionaries jealously guarded their schools. Although they were in dire need of African auxiliaries for the colonial service, the ecclesiastical focus of instruction at the mission schools troubled the colonial administrators. In his article ”Educational Policies and Reforms,” Apollos Nwauwa argued that, while missionaries used education as an instrument for effective conversion of Africans to Christianity, colonial governments saw education as means of socially and politically controlling the subjects. This marked difference meant that a clash between the missionary bodies and colonial officials was inevitable. The establishment of public, government schools in many parts of Africa was a consequent of this face-off. In Nigeria, for instance, two government schools—a Muslim school and King’s College both in Lagos—were opened in 1900, and by 1930, the number of government schools had increased to 51, and that of assisted schools increased to 275 while unassisted (mission) schools were 2,413. In comparison to the mission schools, government-run schools were too few. Yet, colonial governments were not prepared to commit their meager budget toward the complete takeover of education in Africa.

Thus, despite the continuing tension between them, the missionaries and the new colonial regimes recognized that they needed each other. While the various colonial governments protected the missionaries from, sometimes, hostile African groups, the missionaries were very useful agents of colonial pacification and acculturation. Since the sheer costs of running schools independent of the missionaries worried colonial administrators, some compromised solutions became necessary. Both the missionaries and colonial administrations shared similar interest in the role of education in the civilization of Africans and in creating a body of literate, obedient, organized, and productive Africans for the benefit of European imperialism. Not surprisingly, by 1925, as Roland Oliver and J.D. Fage noted, the British embarked on a far-reaching education policy ”whereby colonial governments would spend their limited funds in subsidizing, inspecting, and improving the schools already operated by the Christian missions instead of founding rival and far more expensive systems of state education” (Oliver and Fage 1979, pp. 214-215). Therefore, for financial reasons as well as for a marriage of convenience, mission schools not only co-existed with government and private school, but also surpassed the latter in their rate of expansion and African patronage. As many sub-Africans became Christians, mission-run schools continued to be attractive.

Nevertheless, the nature of colonial involvement in education depended on the administrative style of each colonial power. A common feature was that in the early years of European occupation, the education of Africans was left to private, missionary initiatives, with occasion colonial government subsidies. The various colonial governments eventually became more involved through far-reaching educational policies and reforms, providing broad guidelines for the schools. The French assimilation policy dictated the nature of its education policy in Africa. Since assimilation was based on the assumption that Africans were primitive and should be transformed and absorbed into the so-called ”civilized” French culture and way of life, education became a veritable instrument for accomplishing this objective. Assimilation accorded qualified Africans the rights to French citizenship with all its subordinated privileges.

To qualify for assimilation, however, the acquisition of Western education that meant the adoption of French culture was a prerequisite. Since the religious focus of the mission schools was not adequate in accomplishing the assimilation’s objectives, the French colonial administration intervened to realign education accordingly. Fluency in French was a prerequisite. School administrators and teachers were directed to replace the mother tongue hitherto used by the missionaries as a medium of instruction with the French language. The use of French at all educational levels was a key element in fulfilling the policy of assimilation. It was a powerful instrument in the dissemination of French culture among the natives. The policy of association that later replaced assimilation also targeted the elite classes of Africans who met the criteria for French citizenship and who would become assimiles through adoption of French culture and education.

The French educational scheme for Africans was quantitatively limited and elitist. The educational focus was in the provision of primary, secondary, and vocational training meant to fit Africans to their physical environment as well as subordinate positions in the colonial service. As Ralph J. Bunche acknowledged, the French colonial educational policy was shaped by a preconceived notion of what Africa was to be, of what his status in the changing world should be, and hence the need to provide education for them ”along his own lines” (Bunche 1934, p. 71). The sweeping changes of the post World War II (1941-1945) period did not result in significant shift in the French colonial educational policies. The educational system adopted by the Portuguese, Belgium, and Germany followed the French pattern very closely. Like the French, assimilation constituted the cornerstone of the Portuguese colonial policy in Africa. Believing that the African was primitive, the Portuguese designed their colonial educational system to impact Portuguese culture and values. Consequently, they regarded their colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and the islands of Sao Tome and Principe as overseas extension of Portugal, merely physically separated from Portugal. This notion gave a misleading signal that they were genuinely dedicated to the principle of equality with Africans. The selective and restricted educational practices of the Portuguese colonial governments contradicted their declarations on assimilation. In his article ”Portuguese Africa” (1961), James Duffy observed that the Salazar’s regime envisaged the formation of a devout, semi-literate, hardworking, and conservative African population.

The purpose of Portuguese education in Africa, as outlined in the Regulation of 1899, was to prepare Africans for their future roles as peasants and artisans. Thus, the type of education provided for the masses was for psychological and cultural assimilation with limited political integration. The school fees were quite high. White children were privileged over blacks. As a result, only a handful of Africans received sound primary and secondary training that prepared them for university education. This was hardly surprising because Portugal was a poor country and could not afford the educational promises based on mass education, civilization, and assimilation. Nevertheless, the limited instruction provided became a tool for the spread of Portuguese culture, language, and civilization that was essentially non-African in character.

The Belgian educational policy in Africa can be described as Platonic; it emphasized the transmission of certain unquestioned and unquestionable ethical values to Africans in relation to predetermined status and function. The policy favored primary school to the complete neglect of postprimary and university education as the case of the Congo demonstrated. For the Belgians, as George Kimble intriguingly stated, ”It is better to have 90 percent of the population capable of understanding what the government is trying to do for them . . . than to have 10 percent of the population so full of learning that it spends its time telling the government what to do” (Kimble 1960, p. 115).

As a result, by 1951, even though there were about 30,000 students who were enrolled in Belgian schools in the Congo, no one qualified for college entrance. At independence, there were less than twenty university graduates in the whole of Congo to run the country. No doubt, the Belgians had the worst record in the provision of education for Africans. The German educational policy was also designed to train Africans as laborers. General Von Trotha was the principal architect of the German education policy, which allowed Africans to receive practical training as laborers to ensure the regular supply of workers for the colonial system.

Under the British indirect rule system, which, in principle, preserved the African indigenous political system, basic and vocational education—and not higher education—was privileged. This was simply because there was no role for a highly educated African in a political set up that depended on the use of traditional political institutions under the kings or chiefs. The report of the Educational Committee of the Privy Council of 1867, which was quite critical of the literary education provided by the missionaries, advocated a strong vocational education for Africans. Yet, for a long time, the British left education to the discretion of the missionaries only to increasingly intervene as colonial rule became firmly established. For instance, in 1872, as work by David Abernethy (1969) notes, the government of Nigeria instituted a system of grant-in-aid, whereby mission schools meeting certain minimal secular standards received a bursary to help defray expenses incurred in running the schools. Similar practice was also introduced in the Gold Coast, according to Foster. However, notwithstanding the increasing involvement of colonial governments in setting the policies and guidelines for education, a total take-over of mission schools did not occur before independence. The logistics for such a complete take-over proved daunting for the British colonial administrators.

On the eve of independence, therefore, government and private schools, comparatively fewer in number, co-existed with the mission schools. By 1945, there were comparatively few literate Africans who had not received all or part of their education in mission schools. Missionary control of education throughout most of the colonial era meant that the colonial rulers paid only lip service to the education of Africans. It was not until 1948 that the British established four universities in four of their African colonies after resisting the pressure by African educated elite for almost one hundred years. Inadvertently, however, the coalescence of doctrines of the Bible, the preaching of missionaries, the teachings of the mission schools, and colonial education had ingrained in the African the formidable and liberating ideas that would shake the foundations of European colonial rule.


The enduring impact of Western education produced its own contradictions. Early enough, the colonial governments had recognized that their power over Africans depended not necessarily on physical but mental (psychological) control through the school system. Deficient in scope and content, colonial education promoted vocational studies and neglected technology, pure and applied sciences, and engineering. African studies were excluded from the colonial education curricula. For instance, the history syllabi emphasized the history of European activities in Africa instead of the history of Africa and Africans. It praised the Europeans who supposedly discovered Mount Kenya and Rivers Niger and Congo as if Africans who lived in the areas did not know about these rivers. In almost all instances, no mention is made of Africans who led the European explorers to their targets. Unquestionably, colonial education resulted in the erosion of African identity and imparted a limited sense of the African past.

The novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (1981) noted the isolationist and alienating influences of colonial education in Africa, including contempt for their African names, languages, environment, heritage of struggle, unity, and mental abilities. Educated Africans not only became deluded hybrids alienated from their cultures and tradition, but individuals who longed for alien and “more civilized” cultures of the West. It was on this score that Walter Rodney argued that colonial education in Africa “was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment” (Rodney 1972, p. 264). By killing the communalist spirit in Africans and replacing it with a capitalistic one; by corrupting the mental sensibilities of Africans; by providing selective training to fill auxiliary positions in the colonial service, by emphasizing vocational rather than a well-rounded education; and by disregarding the peoples’ cultures in the educational curriculum, colonial education, according to Rodney, fostered the underdevelopment of Africa’s intellectual resources. However, despite its limited and misplaced purposes and negative effects, Western education produced some unintended positive consequences for Africans. It served as a catalyst to African nationalism.

Following the successful European invasion and imposition of colonial rule, Africans had been disconcerted by their humiliation and loss of sovereignty. European Christian missionary evangelism and religious instructions, embraced by many Africans mainly for their implicit benefits, gradually became perceived as agents of European imperialism. African suspicion increased. Revolt became imminent. From the discontent of the earlier African converts who founded their own independent Christian churches through the establishment of private schools, slowly but surely, Africans began to protest against not only European occupation but also the concomitant cultural dislocation and alienation.

Many mission-educated Africans, a number of who became teachers and members of the clergy, were not satisfied with their limited education. Consequently, they began to seek for advanced training. Because the various European colonial powers refused to establish universities in their colonies, Africans who could afford it proceeded overseas (especially the United States and United Kingdom) for further studies. Completing advanced (university) training in various fields abroad coupled with exposure to the deep cultures of the West—politics, economics, social issues—and various powerful concepts such as liberty, self-determination, equality, it was only natural for them to relate these notions to their own conditions in Africa. As the work of J. F. Ade Ajayi (1965) has affirmed, educated Africans began to use those same ideas as a standard by which to judge the intentions and actions of the European administration. Empowered and emboldened, they returned home to confront the colonial situations that would force them to question not only the very basis and justifications for European colonial rule but also other intriguing imperial notions, including racial hierarchy, colonial differential salaries for Africans, and employment discrimination.

Unfortunately, European colonial officials were not prepared to accommodate or address the aspirations of the new but potent elite. Initially, some of these educated elite only demanded appointments and salaries in the colonial civil service commensurate with their training, with the hope of working their way up the political ladder, but European colonial officials who saw them as a threat to the status quo frustrated their hopes. This was a tactical error. African elites consequently felt marginalized. Decolonization became their ultimate goal. Implicitly, Western education had become instrumental in helping Africans in their articulation of imperialism as a global phenomenon.

By mid-1950s, graduates of African universities joined the ranks of their overseas-trained counterparts in pressing for political reforms toward the ideals of self-government. It was from the graduates of these universities that the currents of nationalism flowed across much of Africa. Yet, the effects of World War II on European powers and their colonies ultimately provided African-educated elites (nationalists) with the raison detre for mass mobilization against colonial rule. They readily employed political concepts, tactics, and slogans of sovereignty and self-determination, as tested in the West, not only to mobilize the masses into action but also to launch major onslaughts against European colonial rule. European retreat from the empire soon resulted in outright decolonization in Africa by the late 1950s to mid-1960s. Without a doubt, Western education remains relevant in any analysis of the rise and fall of European empires in Africa.

Without a doubt, Western education also provided the necessary tools needed by African nationalists to dislodge European colonial rule. In a sense, Western education created a kind of Frankenstein Monster for colonial rule. It was introduced by the Europeans to consolidate their imperial rule in Africa, but it ended up assisting Africans in the liquidation of colonial rule. However, the departure of Europeans from Africa did not result in the dumping of neither Western education nor European cultures and value systems. Rather, what followed was the wholesale adoption of European customs, political systems, and other ways of life through what has popularly become known as neo-colonialism. A contradiction remained. While empowering to Africans, Western education was also alienating.

Next post:

Previous post: