The content or subject matter of traditional educational systems emanated from the physical, social and spiritual situations of pre-colonial African societies. The physical environment influenced the content of the curriculum in that what was taught was meant to assist the child to adjust and adapt to the environment in order to exploit and derive benefit from it. As Castle (1966, p. 40) argues, “Whether the child’s habitat was dominated by mountain, plain, river or tropical forest, he had to learn to combat its dangers and to use its fertility.” To come to terms with the physical environment, the growing child learned about landscape, the weather and also about both plant and animal life. As the child grew, he/she learned to understand the uses of both plants and animals in his locality, in addition to the taboos associated with them.

The physical situation further influenced what practical skills the child learned in order to prepare him or her for future responsibilities. Boys and girls who lived in fishing areas, for example, learned such skills as were required to catch, preserve and market fish, and manufacture and mend fishy traps, nets and canoes. In wooded areas, like the north-eastern part of Zambia, where the “cut and bum” system of agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, children from the age of six acquired much knowledge of trees and their household uses (Rodney, 1972). In either way, the educational practices of each society were influenced by the physical environment and were meant to prepare the learner to live and work in and profit from the given environment.

If the physical situation had a bearing on the subject matter, so did the social environment. The survival of most traditional communities was to a large measure dependent upon a network of reciprocal relationships that knit the family, clan and tribe together. Traditional educational systems were meant to reinforce such relationships. It is therefore not surprising that parents and other adults in the community ceaselessly gave their children instruction in social etiquette that upheld reciprocal ties. Children were taught to respect elders, to appreciate their social obligations and responsibilities and above all, to subordinate their individual interests to those of the wider community.

The content of traditional curriculum also derived from the spiritual environment. In pre-colonial Africa, where every event (like the birth of a child, death, sickness, flood or drought) was accorded spiritual significance, education tended to focus on religious teaching or instruction. Young children received instruction on the influence of both malevolent and benevolent spirits, and purification practices; they were also taught the value of propitiating the spirits to avert such disasters as sickness, death and pestilence. It may indeed be argued that a greater portion of indigenous education in Africa centred on religious training. Religion played a key role in the life of children and adults alike: it provided a rallying point for the community and backed up socially-accepted values and norms such as honesty, generosity, diligence and hospitality (Castle, 1966; Ocitti, 1971). The contents of traditional African education are intimately tied to their cardinal goals, as identified by Fafunwa (1974, pp. 9, 20-49).


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