by Henry Griffiths
In order to teach effectively in a cross-cultural setting we must understand how teaching has traditionally taken place in the particular culture.
Today a large percentage of missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa are training national leaders for the churches. Hundreds of Bible schools, Bible institutes, theological colleges and extension programs dot the African continent. What type of teaching is taking place in these institutions? How contextualized is it? Very little, I suspect. That’s because most of our teaching methods have been transplanted to Africa, with little regard to how the people have been taught over the centuries by their own indigenous, informal, educational systems.
In order to teach effectively in a cross-cultural setting we must understand how teaching has traditionally taken place in the particular culture. In sub-Saharan Africa, formal education is a relatively new phenomenon, but informal education has been going on for generations, as parents have handed down their culture to their children. All culture is learned; the process by which a person learns and matures within a specific culture is called "enculturation." The cross-cultural teacher in Africa should study this process and adapt his teaching as much as possible to the traditional goals, characteristics, and methods of enculturation.
Traditional education in Africa was wholistic and useful, in contrast to Western education, which is often compartmentalized and theoretical." Indigenous education in Africa sought to instill traditional values and mores in children. It was character-building education that taught children to respect their elders, to speak sparingly, to master the expression of their emotions, and to follow the wisdom of the ancestors. It put great emphasis on personal relations.
Indigenous education in Africa was also intensely practical. It was vocationally oriented. It taught farming, fishing, and animal care. It taught weaving, sculpting, drumming, smithing, soap-making, carpentry, singing, wine-tapping, pottery-making, dyeing, and hair-plaiting. It also taught the priesthood, medicine, justice (police, messengers, and judges), hunting, military, chieftancy, and kingship.
In addition, many other types of practical wisdom were passed on to children: types of greetings, behavior at different functions, geography and history of the local community, local plants and animals, proverbs and riddles, games in arithmetic, and cultural heritage.
Learning in Africa before colonization was rarely formalized as it is today in the Western-style primary and secondary schools throughout the continent. It was, and still is to a large extent, informal learning at home. Children were allowed to be present at most activities of adults, and by overhearing conversations and piecing actions together, they developed an accurate and comprehensive knowledge of many areas of life. The extended family members served as teachers in this system.
In African society, most learning takes place by doing, instead of by hearing. Girls at a relatively young age share the duties of the homestead, such as cooking and gardening. Boys help build houses, hunt, fish, care for the livestock, and perform numerous other activities.
Learning in Africa is essentially experience-oriented and takes place in real-life situations, as opposed to artificial training situations. For example, a small boy watches his father and other male relatives making a canoe and will help them in running little errands, and in this way he will learn certain aspects of canoe-making.
Traditional education in Africa is not systematic, but is tied with the circumstances of life. This method may seem chaotic, but actually it is quite natural and practical. A lesson given on a special occasion or experience is not easily forgotten by a child. Any incident in life, for example, the encountering of an ant hill during a walk in the bush, can be turned into a lesson and result in the telling of a myth, tale, or legend.
Though much learning in traditional Africa is by example and by doing, other learning is by formal instruction using proverbs and folk tales. Advice by a father, a grandfather, or an uncle is an important part of the socialization process.
In discussing the characteristics of indigenous education in Africa, we should not fail to note the emphasis placed on rote memory from early childhood. Riddles and proverbs are a common way to transmit attitudes, values, and beliefs in an easy-to-remember form. As the Akan of Ghana say, "You do not give a talk to a wise child, you tell him a proverb."
In African society play and learning are intimately related. Children’s games have been worked out to convey esoteric knowledge. For example, the banangolo game in Mali is based on a numerical system related to the 266 "squiba," or signs that correspond to the attributes of God.
Music and dance also play a vital part in a child’s education. As a small child, a Gikuyu of Kenya is taught the history and tradition of his family and clan through lullabies. The older children receive much of their social education by image and ritual, the rhythm of the dance and the words of the ceremonial song.
Also, questions are a means of teaching in African society. When the child learns to speak, he is asked many questions as a means of amusement and conversation. Such questions might be: "What is you name?" "Who is your father?" "What is your age-group?"
Ridicule or laughter is another important means of socialization in many African societies. The child soon learns by this means what is acceptable and what is not.
An interesting means of education often overlooked is that of ceremonies and rites. Walter E. Procourt, writing in Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Learning, states that "initiation ceremonies and secret societies should be seen as educational institutions." In the initiation ceremony there is a "hidden curriculum."
From these indigenous teaching methods, what can we learn to help us to communicate biblical truths in training men and women of God? There is indeed much to be learned, but we must realize that Africa is changing and traditional ways are not always accepted by modern Africans. Second, many of these methods were used with children, not adults. Third, the methods mentioned here have been drawn from all over sub-Saharan Africa. You must investigate the indigenous teaching methods in your area before trying anything too innovative. Fourth, the Bible, not African culture, should be our ultimate guide as to both the content and the means of our instruction.
Despite these factors, Africa’s cultural heritage should play a bigger part in our teaching than it currently does, if we want to communicate clearly and powerfully. Teachers must relate their teaching to the world view of their students. As much as they are able, they should use riddles, proverbs, myths, and other African folklore. This helps to make their teaching clear and it encourages students to see the potential in their own culture for powerful communication of Christian truth. The students should be encouraged to use indigenous cultural forms freely in their practice preaching and other practical assignments.
Teachers should spend less time giving Western-style lectures and more time in African-style dialogue with their students. They should look for metaphors that communicate deep theological truths.
Inasmuch as Africans are particularly gifted in memorization, Scripture memory should be emphasized, even with advanced theological students.
Traditional African education has combined physical and vocational training with character building and intellectual training. Teachers should thus be sure that they give as much time to teaching spiritual truths and vocational skills, as they do to imparting biblical content.
They should also do as much situational teaching as possible. This can best be done outside of class. This method is not only a good African teaching technique, it also was one of the primary methods Jesus used. The parable of the cursing of the fig tree is an example of situational teaching.
Closely related to situational teaching is learning by doing. Teachers should take their students on frequent village trips to practice what they are learning in class. The "discipleship" model emphasized in North America should be used more often in Africa. This model is very people-centered. In that sense it seems quite adaptable to the African setting.
African communication forms, such as music and drama, should also be occasionally used. A chapel service in a pastoral training school provides an excellent setting to experiment with some of these forms. Those that work well will be picked up by the students and carried back to their villages.
One final suggestion: experiment occasionally with group projects. Africans work well together. Their culture is much less individualistic than American culture. The teacher could assign research projects to several students to do together and to receive a common grade. Group projects maximize cooperation and minimize competition.
The suggestions I have made should serve to stimulate us to seek more culturally authentic forms of communication in whatever culture God has placed us to teach his word.
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