History teaching in Africa


Par Bahon Jessica Gbalé.

A well know African adage says: “If you do not know where you come from, you cannot decide where you are going.”

Since the wave of independence of African states in the sixties, the latter have had to take responsibility for the education system and reform all of its levels accordingly to their need. Given that education is a sine qua non condition of development, investing in this sector was, and remains today, essential.

As Amadou Hâmpaté Bâ emphasized: « The oral tradition is at the heart of Africa’s history, of the heritage of all kinds of knowledge, patiently by word of mouth and master to disciple, through the ages« . This statement from the Malian writer and ethnologist is all the more relevant, considering that the history of French West Africa (FWA) has essentially been written down from oral sources transmitted by the natives.
Moreover, the anthropological and ethnological researches that led to the collection of the African oral traditions were initiated by the Western colonial powers in order to strengthen their expansion on the continent. At the time, having a better knowledge of the conquered and to be conquered societies would enable them to better establish the basis of their domination, and satisfy their intellectual curiosity, even scientific.
Thus, in 1935, the Governor General of the French West Africa rose the question of oral archives’ collection. Marguerite Verdat, first archivist of the French West Africa, was then in charge of this operation. The collection of oral sources was based on oral testimonies (old men and griots), life stories of oral history, speeches, conferences, round tables, audiovisual programs, tape recordings, written notation, publication of collections, oral texts, or the exploitation of all these elements in terms of research.

Did you know?
The Fundamental Institute of Black Africa (IFAN) of Cheikh Anta Diop has an « Islamology » department, mainly made up of sound archives and whose collection was made from oral sources with certain families of Senegalese marabouts.

The General History of Africa

In 1964, at the request of the newly independent African states, the UNESCO (cultural organisation of ONU) undertook the tremendous project of piecing together again the General History of Africa (GHA). This project consists of 2 phases:

– The writing and publication of the GHA actually started in 1970. Gathering 39 members for the creation of an international scientific committee, two third of whom were African experts. They were in charge of the developing the intellectual and scientific content of the work.
– Since 2009, the implementation of a plan to make a pedagogical use of the GHA. This project is at the heart of “Priority Africa” and is part of the Second Decade for Education in Africa (2006-2015) which focuses on strengthening the links between education and culture and the quality of educational content.

One of the main objectives of such a project is to rectify the widespread ignorance and misconception of Africa’s history. This situation is in part due to the (very) euro-centric vision of the continent’s past. Truth is, although the colonial period represents a small (but still impacting) fraction of the continent’s history, this period generally shadows down the others. Thus, the aim is to write again Africa’s history, free from prejudices inherited from colonization, and deeply inserts the continent’s destiny in that of humanity by highlighting relations with other continents, and the place of Africans within the dialogue of civilizations.

By the ambition of gathering and compiling the history of the African continent in its entirety, from its prehistory to its contemporary period (1935-1999), the 8 volumes of the General History of Africa establish a pioneer piece of work, which is so far unequalled.
To this day, approximately $ 5,702,000 of cumulative expenditures have been dedicated to the project.
Since 2013, a ninth volume is in preparation, and will deal with the recent history of the continent since decolonization, the end of apartheid, and the place occupied today by the continent in the world.

Report on the current state of history teaching in Africa

In 2010, Professor Zakari DRAMANI-ISSIFOU wrote a report for UNESCO on the current state of history teaching on the African continent, as well as on the pedagogical use of the eight volumes of the General History of Africa.
The questionnaire highlights structural and pedagogical features of history teaching in the studies countries, to help determining the importance given to history as a subject. Out of a total of 53 States, 52 received the questionnaire and 44 States responded, more or less rigorously, namely 84.4%. 8 months, from august 2009 to march 2010, were needed in order to collect responses to the questionnaires.

The study starts by defining the main educational system structure implemented by African countries. Most of them have 4 educational levels (47.4%), 36.84% have 3 levels, 13.15% have 5 of them, and only one country has 2 levels. Among the structures of education levels, primary and secondary come out top, each with 88.6% of choices; the preschool and nursery levels account for 54.5% of choices. These figures show that efforts should be made to extend these in order to give greater opportunities to children. University education comes close to 66%, whereas technical and vocational education only amounts to 11.4% of choices. This substantial gap can be mainly attributed to the more elitist general type of education privileged by former colonial powers.

In 2010, history was taught as a single subject in 16 countries, combined with geography in 34 countries, and taught as a social sciences subject in 11 countries. History is taught as a compulsory subject in most countries. It accounts for 88.6% in primary, 81.8% in lower secondary and 61.3% in higher secondary. Moreover, 41 countries out the the 44 respondents could confirm that the place of history and its related subject was clear and evident.

The study reveals that the concern for national unity and cohesion seems to be one of the main preoccupation of African states. In fact, 41 states out of the 44 recognized taking responsibility for devising the official history teaching curriculum of the country. Moreover, the part undertaken by the government into the curriculum drafting is rather extensive as in 79.5% of cases, the ministry of education is in charge, while in 25% of cases, specialized pedagogical institute are in charge.

The study also shows that most of African states considers some of the main stakes of history teaching to be, firstly, to develop qualities of intelligence, a sense of responsibility and high moral values in relation to others, and secondly, to emphasise patriotic qualities and a sense of African citizenship. However, it is clear that due to the disparities in the duration of classes dedicated to the subject, pupils, whether is primary or secondary education, do not enjoy from the same benefits. Indeed, the study shows that the duration of weekly history lessons varies between 3h and 15h, which creates a substantial gap. Overall, the study points out that on average, weekly hours are of 2h10 for primary; 2h45 for lower secondary and 3h50 for higher secondary.
The scope of focus of history as taught subject depends on the education level. In fact, in primary education, local and national history arouse more interest than sub-regional history or that of the African continent (or others). This tendency seems to be reversed in secondary education, as sub-regional history, that of Africa, and that of other continents, range from to 68% to 84% of the curricula.

With regard to the themes addressed in history classes, they are a plenitude of them, going from prehistory, to major empires, Islam, including socio-economic themes such as democracy and poverty.
Although it arouses some interest at primary level, in general, prehistory is not much approached, and its part within the curriculum declines in lower and higher secondary education. We can also observe that, pre-colonization and European colonization are favoured in higher second education, while in lower secondary education, history curriculum lean towards European colonization and contemporary Africa. Moreover, themes such as the decolonization as well as apartheid are more are less overlooked at the primary level, since they were respectively studied by 15 and 4 countries.
Theses notions and themes can be taught with different approaches, namely thematic, chronological, or the two combined. Most of the respondents opted for a supple pedagogical practice. However, we can note that English-speaking countries tend towards a more chronological approach in secondary education.

With reference to history teaching material, although states overtake a significant part of textbook production (68%), we can notice that non-African publishing houses overtake 38.6% of textbook production, which can be considered as rather high.
Furthermore, figures show that history textbooks are given for free to primary, lower, and higher secondary students in respectively 50%, 11% and 20% of the countries. Thus, the purchase of textbooks effects more than 38% of pupils and their parents in primary, 56.8% in lower secondary and higher secondary. Considering that 36 out of 44 countries declared that the main pedagogical material used by primary and lower secondary pupils are states’ elaborated textbooks, governments, for reason of fairness and justice, should ensure better supply history materials. Solving this issue would also promote a practical continuity between classes and out-of-school learning experiences. Moreover, African oral traditions are used as pedagogical materials in primary, lower secondary and higher secondary, by respectively 24, 21 and 22 countries.

When it comes to the use of the General History of Africa volumes, only 19 countries out of the 44 participants declared that these publications were known among their core of history teachers, and 30 countries declared that the GHA volumes were not available to history teachers. Moreover, 45.45% of countries responded that they were not familiar with this work, while certain countries asserted that they had never heard of it. These figures attest to the scarce availability of the GHA volumes on the continent, which greatly hinders its pedagogical use.

In a context of fostered unification, and a rising Pan-African spirit among the nations (cf Continental Free Trade Area negotiations, and the ongoing negotiations for a unique currency for the west African economic community), it appears that African states are ready to work towards the renovation of their education system. Indeed, 80% of African countries agreed on the relevance of the UNESCO General history of Africa collection, and on the need for a common curriculum for all of primary and secondary levels. However, as highlighted by Professor Zakari DRAMANI-ISSIFOU, a dual attitude is necessary for this project to be successfully implemented. The states’ institutions will have to adopt a single history curriculum, and adapt to the sub-regional and national specificities. This step should be done without calling into question the very essence of the project, which is to rise for children and students, a Pan-African perspective of African history, above the many artificial frontiers that separate them. Therefore, consultation and coordination sessions between African states will have to take place in order to jointly define the fundamental themes to be addresses within the common history curriculum.
Finally, the extent to which Africa’s history is made valuable will depend on the willingness and capability to decolonize minds and mentalities, and create a healthy bond to be able to “think Africa, act Africa”.


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