In the modern world no country can hope to prosper and advance without an educated population. During most of the colonial period, Africa’s black population was systematically denied access to quality schooling and higher education. After gaining independence, most African states made it a priority to strengthen their educational systems. That process has not always been smooth, and serious problems remain. However, many African nations made major strides in education over the past 50 years.
During the early colonial period, European powers had little interest in educating the indigenous populations of their African colonies. They were concerned with extracting the continent’s natural wealth, not with building functioning nations. Nor did they envision Africans as playing a significant role in the colonial government or economy. As a result, there were few schools of any kind for local populations before the mid-1800s.
Without government support, education in Africa was left in the hands of missionaries and other religious groups. Islamic schools had existed in North Africa for hundreds of years. They were generally small and limited to those who practiced the Muslim faith. European missionaries established schools in the coastal areas of West Africa in the 1600s and 1700s, but these early schools lasted only a short time.
When Christian missionaries began arriving in Africa in greater numbers in the early 1800s, they made a serious effort to educate local populations. The goal of the early missionary schools was to produce literate individuals to take over minor positions in local churches and become functioning church members. However, missionary schools served a limited number of Africans because they were usually located in coastal towns or near mission stations. They also suffered from lack of money and staff. As long as education remained in the hands of religious groups—either Islamic or Christian—it would reach only a small number of Africans and be restricted to certain subjects.
Government and Education
As Europe’s African colonies grew larger and more prosperous, colonial rulers began to see the need for general education. On the one hand, more and more Europeans were working and settling in Africa, and these settlers demanded schools for their children. On the other hand, European officials realized that prosperity depended on having a trained local workforce that could handle tasks in the colony’s political and economic organizations. Providing basic instruction in reading and writing and some technical training gained new importance. The need for a more educated population led to the establishment of government-sponsored schools throughout Africa.
The schooling offered by the various colonial powers had similar features. The vast majority of schools were primary schools, with a limited number of secondary schools and almost no colleges or universities. A school’s curriculum often depended on its location. Students in rural schools usually learned skills needed to work in agriculture, while children in urban areas received training to work in crafts or as laborers in industry. The secondary schooling available to Africans was aimed primarily at training teachers or preparing individuals for lower-level professional jobs such as nurses, railroad engineers, or clerical workers. A few of the most gifted students might be trained for minor positions in local government. In general, European administrators viewed education as a way to make Africans more useful to the colonial system, not to offer them opportunities for advancement.
Schooling and Segregation
In most African colonies, whites and blacks attended separate schools with separate goals. “White” schools generally were part of a well-funded educational system consisting of primary, secondary, and tertiary (college and university) institutions based in Europe. Students who graduated from one level advanced to the next and were often evaluated to determine an appropriate career path.
Colonial schools for blacks were designed to train an African workforce. Usually poorly funded and understaffed, the schools were not tied into any larger system that would allow the best students to move on to higher education. Colonial officials occasionally allowed bright African students to attend “white” schools, but this was a rare occurrence that required special arrangements.