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Role of Missionaries in Colonial African Education

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: History
Wordcount: 3387 words Published: 10th Aug 2021

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The home page of Compassion Canada is that of a stereotypical Northern charity: showing pictures of suffering children alternating with those of post-intervention, happy children. Included on the website is information about the charity’s programs, such as their Leadership Development Program in which participants “earn a degree in their chosen field of study, and participate in Christian leadership training, enabling them to become a fully developed agent of change in their nation” (Compassion Canada 2011). It is interesting to note that this project is not a new concept. As a member of the Church of England, it interests me to see echoes of Christian educational efforts by organizations such as Compassion Canada in the educational efforts of the missionary branch of the Anglican Church, the Church Missionary Society, or CMS. A member of the CMS, Henry Venn, boasted that the mission schools of Nigeria would produce an educated African elite that could “form an intelligent and influential class of society and become the founders of a Kingdom which shall render incalculable benefits to Africa” (Venn cited in Bassey 1991:37). That there are parallels between contemporary Christian organizations’ efforts and the missionary efforts of the mid-nineteenth to mid- twentieth centuries is a reason for concern, considering the similar impact of missionaries of all Christian denominations on the education of Africans in the British and Italian colonies in Africa. Although it can be said that Christian missionaries benefitted Africans by bringing in the “more advanced” Western education to the European colonies in Africa, it is believed that the mission schools in fact had a negative impact on the native peoples. Not only did mission education strengthen colonial rule, but it also weakened traditional societies and implemented poor standards of Western education. The missionary impact on education would have far-reaching consequences, as their creation of a weak basis of education would slow down the political and educational development of many former colonies in Africa.

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While missionaries could sometimes clash with colonial governments, for the most part missions were important tools for colonial governments. As Sir Henry Johnston, a key figure in the “Scramble for Africa” says, “they [the mission stations] strengthen our hold over the country, they spread the use of the English language, they induct natives into the best kind of civilization, and in fact, each mission station is an essay in colonization” (Johnston cited in Sheffield 1973:10). One of the missions’ most important contributions to the colonial regimes was their role in educating the native Africans. Mission schools provided a steady stream of educated Africans capable of filling the lower levels of the colonial administration and operated vocational and agricultural schools (Ayandele 1966: 295; Foster 1965: 90-91; Sheffield 1973: 10-11). The academic education purposely did not train Africans for the higher level positions of colonial administrations, which were mostly reserved for Europeans (Ayandele 1966:295; Sheffield 1973:42), a practise which created dependency on the colonizers, as without them the colony did not have qualified administrators. In addition, while missionaries did run many academic primary schools, they provided little secondary education, a practice which prevented natives from becoming “too educated” (Ayandele 1966:286) and potentially subversive. Even if secondary education was provided, it was often reserved for the sons of local chiefs (Oliver 1952:212; Beck 1966: 120), an elite the colonial government could then call upon to help rule the colony, a common practice in colonial Africa.

The latter, non-academic form of education provided by the missions has stimulated much interest among scholars, who are particularly interested in the failure of many of these schools and the hypocritical government support for the schools, seeing as the import of cheap goods from the mother countries caused many vocational school graduates, such as seamstresses, to be unemployed (Ayandele 1966:296; Foster 1965:134). However hypocritical, government support for the schools should not be surprising, considering the benefits the colonial governments stood to gain. Even when governments discouraged domestic industries, graduates of vocational schools contributed to the economy of the colonies -and therefore indirectly the mother country’s as well. Instead of needing to import skilled workers such as carpenters, the mission schools provided colonial governments with workers capable of building and maintaining the colony’s infrastructure and basic technology, a contribution that kept the colonies running smoothly.

The agricultural schools the missions ran would have been even more advantageous to the colonial governments considering the discouragement of local industries that might have competed with the motherland. Agricultural school graduates did not compete with European industries or European farmers, as they mainly grew crops that could not be grown in European climates. Furthermore, they were skilled farmers that could grow cash crops to be consumed back in the mother country, such as cocoa from Ghana (Foster 1965: 153). Moreover, it was not in the colonial power’s interest for the natives to become too educated, as they might become self-reliant and could conceivably demand independence from the colonial power, so encouraging the less intellectual agricultural schools was in the governments’ interest. The missions’ agricultural schools were especially beneficial for colonial governments considering that governments believed that manual labour was a means to prevent “discontent and unrest” in the tribes (Hansen 1984:232). Thus by training Africans to fill only the lower levels of the colonial administration and providing skilled workers from the vocational and agricultural schools who contributed to the economy and were less likely to question colonial rule than more educated Africans, mission schools helped to strengthen colonial rule.

Another negative impact of mission education was that it weakened traditional societies, which in many ways further served the colonial cause. The weakening of traditional societies was not simply a consequence of the efforts of missionaries but one of their main objectives, stemming from their belief in the “civilizing mission.” Supporters of the “civilizing mission” believed that European colonial enterprises were justified as the Europeans were imparting their “superior” Western culture and ideas to the ignorant heathens of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australasia. For this reason, missionaries believed they were doing their students a favour by discouraging traditional practices and promoting Western ones. One method of discouraging traditional practices was to give students a fully Western education. As a mission school graduate noted, “local history was almost totally ignored. We were expected to accept the European language as the superior one, and this was reinforced throughout my school career” (Abu cited in Berman 1974:536). Being ignorant of one’s history causes one to lose part of one’s identity and pride in that identity, and one is therefore more vulnerable to attacks denouncing one’s culture as inferior, especially if at the same time one is being taught the “noble” history of another culture. Furthermore, mission schools discouraged traditional ways of life outside of the classroom. One Liberian student recalls that “we were taught to dress properly, to eat properly, to speak properly. ‘Properly’ meant by Anglo-Saxon standards. In short, it was a very successful mission in making us little black Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Cultural deprivation is what many of us suffer from […]. After a time the idea becomes ingrained -it is heathen and unchristian to be an African culturally” (Awori cited in Berman 1974:536). Through academic lessons and lessons on Western etiquette and hygiene, mission students were isolated from their traditional cultures, a traumatic experience that would continue to trouble many students for the rest of their lives.

It is interesting to note that while in many ways missionaries sought to isolate students from their cultures, missionaries often insisted in teaching in the native languages. Some earlier scholarship on mission education has taken this as a positive impact of the missionaries. For instance the scholar E.A. Ayandele (1966:283), writing in the 1960s, says, “By their [the missions’] efforts the main languages of Nigeria have been preserved as a lasting legacy to the Ibo, Yoruba, Efik, Nupe and Hausa.” However, this practice was in fact probably more due to stereotypes of African ignorance than an interest in being culturally respectful: missionaries may have believed that it would take too long to teach a “superior” European language to the unintelligent natives when the natives’ souls were in such desperate need of saving. Indeed, once the souls had been saved and since the students must have been considered clever enough, European languages were almost universally the languages of instruction in the later primary years and in secondary schools (Beck 1966: 120; Foster 1965: 159; Miran 2002:127). Teaching in the vernacular had an additional use as it further strengthened colonial rule, of which missionaries were often agents, for as the Kikuyu people of Kenya were aware, “[the] inability to communicate in English would be a crucial factor in the perpetuation of their subordinate status in the colony” (Berman 1974:531). It is much easier to interact on an equal basis or even challenge the authority of another group when one is able to communicate in that group’s language, instead of having to rely on an interpreter or non-verbal gestures, which undermine one’s ability to show authority or express one’s beliefs. In short, the impact of teaching in the vernacular was more negative than positive, as it reinforced colonial rule and no doubt did very little to preserve native cultural identities, seeing as missionaries promoted European languages as “superior” and only used the vernacular because conversion and religious instruction were such high priorities.

That missionaries used the vernacular illustrates the fact that missionaries were principally evangelists, and that they considered their other roles, including their role as educators, as less important. Given their priorities, it should thus come as little surprise that missions often provided poor education to the African pupils. There were several reasons for this poor education, some intentional and some not. First, missions saw education foremost as a means of conversion (Ayandele 1966: 286; Bassey 1991: 36; Berman 1974:527; Foster 1965:85; Sheffield 1973:11). The missionaries believed that “in order to stabilize the faith of converts and to assist in character development, it was necessary that they should be able to read the scriptures or other books of religious instruction, translated by the missions. This involved learning to read in the vernacular” (Hadfield cited in Bone 1969:7). Missionaries were no doubt also aware that Africans “came to associate European technological achievement with Western education” (Bassey 1991:45) and therefore offered Western education as a means to attract Africans of this belief and then convert them. However, the motivation behind teaching Africans basic literacy and mathematics might not have been a cause for concern if not for the fact that the religious motivation curtailed education. As Ayandele points out (1966:285), “the ideal of many of the missions was to make their converts …live literally as the ‘unlearned and ignorant’ apostles of old.” This ideal, combined with the fact that many missionaries discovered that Africans with only basic education were best at spreading the Gospel, meant that missionaries were reluctant to provide higher primary or secondary education (Ayandele 1966:286). Seeing as missions in the British and Italian colonies had monopolies on education for the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, this reluctance meant that there were few secondary schools at all (Ayandele 1966:287; Beck 1966: 120). As long as the Africans could read the Bible, the missionaries were satisfied that they had had enough academic education. A second reason for the poor education of the mission schools was that in many cases the teachers in mission schools were unqualified as teachers, but were instead preachers by training. For instance, in the Salisbury region of Rhodesia, it was reported in 1924 that no male teachers had educational qualifications (Bone 1969:28).

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Third, rivalry between the various Christian denominations also contributed to the poor standards of education. Edward Berman notes that contemporary critics of the missionaries felt that “missionaries were more interested in increasing enrolments in their respective churches than in pooling their resources for the benefit of African education” (Berman 1974:533). Because of rivalry, instead of building one common, multi-denominational school in a village that really only needed the one school, missionaries each built a school for their particular denomination and competed for students (Berman 1974:533). Furthermore, each denomination had differing policies on education, so standards in education fluctuated across each colony, depending on what denomination had schools in each area. For instance, in southern Nigeria, the CMS policy was to teach in the vernacular at the primary level, while the Roman Catholic Mission’s policy was to teach in English (Bassey 1991:42). In addition to contributing to fluctuating educational standards across the colony, inter-denominational rivalry caused a disparity in access to education. In regions where a denomination felt threatened by another denomination, the denominations were more likely to establish more schools in an attempt to gain more converts than their rival, while in regions such as northern Nigeria, where colonial policy prevented too much rivalry, schools were scarce (Bassey 1991:45). Thus, because of the motive of proselytization, unqualified teachers, and inter-denominational rivalry, missions frequently provided poor education.

Indeed, the quality of the education could be so poor that the colonial governments complained, as in the case of the Nigerian government, which complained that the secondary school graduates provided by the missions were “illiterate and ignorant” and therefore poorly suited to fill the lower levels of the administration (Ayandele 1966:294-5). However, as Jonathan Miran (2002) argues in his work on the roles of missionaries and the Italian state in Eritrean education, missionaries should not be held solely accountable for the poor standards of education. As much as the governments liked to assign blame to the missions, they were also accountable for the poor education through their educational policies. As one Eritrean student remarks, “Our sisters [the Italian Sisters] would have undoubtedly taught better and more, but the Italian government in the colony did not permit Eritreans to get good instruction” (T.T. cited in Miran 2002:128). The colonial Eritrean government ensured that native Eritreans received poor education by permitting them to only attend school up to the fourth grade (Miran 2002:127). Governments are also not free from blame even if they had a laissez-faire educational policy, as in Ghana, where “until 1944 the registration of schools was not required and no attempt was made to exert detailed control even over the activities of grant-aided [by the government] institutions except for a series of minimal registrations” (Foster 1965:114). If a government fails to regulate schools at all, they have no right to complain that the education in their colony is poor. Therefore, whether through their rigid educational polices or lack thereof, colonial governments contributed to the poor education, though there is no denying that missionaries also contributed to the quality of education to a great extent.

In conclusion, the educational enterprise of the Christian missionaries in the British and Italian colonies of Africa during the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries was primarily negative for the African pupils. Both the academic and vocational forms of education the missions provided served to strengthen the rule of the colonial powers, so that the native inhabitants were second-class citizens in their own land. Furthermore, missionaries, believing in the “civilizing mission,” attempted to disintegrate traditional society through education by choosing academic subjects, such as the histories of the Western colonial powers, that illustrated the “superiority” of the Western culture, as well as by teaching about the superiority of the West in non-academic matters such as hygiene. These attempts were traumatic for the students and threatened the survival of unique cultures. Last, missionaries provided a very poor education, causing their students to be ill-equipped for social or material success, as they believed education to simply be a means for proselytization, were unqualified teachers, and allowed inter-denominational rivalries to interfere. As negative as all these impacts of the missionaries undoubtedly were for the African pupils, the long-term consequences are arguably as serious. The reservation of high-level positions in the colonial administrations for Europeans and the corresponding mission education that provided education fit only for lower positions meant that the withdrawal of European rule could cause serious political instability in the newly independent colonies. While colonial administration in colonies such as Kenya attempted to some degree to provide training for Kenyans to fill the high-level positions (Sheffield 1973:86), the attempts in many cases fell short, and when the European administration left, Kenya, for instance, had few sufficiently educated replacements (Sheffield 1973:88). Thus missionaries, by imparting education that promoted dependence on colonial rule, arguably contributed to the political instability that continues in the present day in many former African colonies, such as Kenya and Eritrea. Moreover, mission education formed a poor foundation for future educational conditions in the former colonies. Given the fluctuating standards between schools and regions and the lack of qualified teachers in the mission schools which had monopolies in well into the mid-twentieth century, it should come as little surprise that the quality of education continues to be a concern in many former colonies. For instance, in Nigeria in 2006, approximately only 51.2% of primary school teachers of either gender were trained as teachers, and the enrolment rate in primary education for both genders in 2000 stood at about 62.7%, compared to 99.5% in Canada (UN Data 2010). Therefore, considering that the impact of mission education continues to have serious repercussions today, one must question whether the First World should continue to interfere in African education. Volunteers and donors to organizations such as Compassion Canada believe that they are being humanitarian when they build schools in Africa, volunteer as teachers or “help” in other ways to improve the quality of education in African nations, yet missionaries and colonial governments were similarly lauded as performing a “great work of humanity” (Beck 1966:117) and likewise believed that they were “helping” their African pupils. However the superficial motivations and ideologies have changed, at the most basic level both contemporary Northern charities and nineteenth century missionaries share the belief that the North must come and “save” the suffering natives, which in the case of the missionaries, has been proven to have inflicted more harm than provided relief. Thus, despite what the images of suffering African children on websites such as that of Compassion Canada might lead one to believe, it is time for Africans to educate their own, without any interference.


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