Education is a life-long process that transforms the life of an individual from that of a helpless and dependent creature to a self-reliant, rational, and skillful person who can contribute to the development of his society.
It is the aggregate of all how human beings develop the necessary skills, attributes, and socially acceptable values (Akinbote, 1988: 2)
Bearing this definition in mind, it could be argued therefore that whatever people are living, there must be a system of education through which the individual life within the society is transformed from that of a helpless and dependent creature to a self-reliant, skillful, and socially efficient person.
It does not matter whether the society is large or small, complex or simple, literate or illiterate. Thus, it is right to say that Africans had their system of education which made a significant impact on the lives of all members of the society before the advent of Islam and Christianity.
This is evident in the pre-colonial achievements of Africans which compare favorably with those of Europe and Asia, particularly in the areas of Arts and Crafts, agriculture, medicine, religion, and political systems of government, among others.
Even in modern African societies, the impact of traditional education is still being felt among individuals and groups in different parts of the continent.
The nature of traditional education
The essential characteristics of traditional African education can be summarized as follows:
Reading and writing
It does not involve reading and writing. This is probably one of the main reasons why traditional education has often been misunderstood and often erroneously referred to as primitive, haphazard, useless, and aimless by some Europeans.
No fixed place and time
It has no fixed place and time for learning. As far as traditional education is concerned, the whole community serves as the classroom. Therefore, learning takes place anywhere and at any time as the need arises.
No written or uniform syllabus
There is no written or uniform syllabus and regular teachers as we now have in the formal school system.
Nevertheless, children in the traditional society still acquire the necessary skills, attitudes, and values for their successful living in society.
The parents, relations, and adult members of the society usually serve as the teachers. Similarly, the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be inculcated in the child could be dictated by the prevailing situations.
This however does not mean that traditional education has no focus as we shall see in the section on the objectives of traditional education.
It provides a life-long education with learning integrated into life and work. That is, traditional education is a practical and job-oriented system of education that starts from infancy till adulthood. It prepares individuals for a particular skill with which they could fend for themselves in life.
Objectives of traditional education
Traditional education has some specific goals and objectives which are designed to provide all-around development of individuals within the society. Fafunwa (1974:20) has identified seven such objectives as follows:
- To develop the child’s latent physical skills
- To develop character
- To inculcate respect for elders and those in the positions of authority
- To develop intellectual skills
- To acquire specific vocational training and to develop a healthy attitude towards honest labor
- To develop a sense of belonging and to participate actively in family and community affairs
- To understand, appreciate and promote the cultural heritage of the community at large.
In traditional societies, the toilet and bladder training of the child begins very early in life. As a result of the mother’s closeness to the child both during the day and the night, she can watch out for signs of bladder and bowel movements of the child.
When it is observed that the child is about to ease himself, the baby is held in the appropriate position with the mother in some cases making the ‘hiss’ sound as an inducement of the child’s bladder or bowel. In recent times, the child is often placed on a small plastic bowl popularity known as ‘putty’.
By the time the child is about three years old, he is expected to be able to control his bladder and bowel and thus say he wants to ease himself.
Usually, the provision of space is made for the young ones to use as a toilet within the compound. However, as the child grows older, he is expected to go to the designated places in the village (eaten in Yoruba) to ease himself.
Bedwetting is tolerated in many cases for children up-till about four or five years after which it becomes a matter of great concern. Various remedies are often introduced to control the situation either by parents or relations.
The development of language among children all over the world follows the same pattern. They naturally pick the language that is most frequently spoken to them.
However, some environmental factors such as the presence of other children within the family, the maturation rate of the child, and the general stimulation received from parents among others affect the language development of the child.
Among Nigerians for instance, it could be said that the traditional home environment provides much stimulation for the child.
There are usually many children and older people in the family compound to interact with. The mothers who are naturally closer to their children than even the fathers provide great stimulation in language development.
For example, the mother speaks to them even when the child is still too young to comprehend verbal communication. Thus, even when the child is crying, eating, or bathing, the mother speaks to him.
In this way, the child later starts picking some words which he then repeats either after the mother or any other person that speaks to him. Initially, the child may not get the correct pronunciation but gradually through corrections and practice, he masters the language.
Although the language is never consciously taught, everybody in the child’s immediate environment helps him to develop his language.
By the time the child is six or seven years old, he has mastered the use of the mother tongue or the language of the immediate community in his day-to-day interactions with people. He can use the correct tenses and speak the language fluently.
Social and emotional development
Traditional education places much emphasis on moral and character training; hence Fafunwa (1974) refers to it as the cornerstone of African education.
The ‘we-feeling’ among Africans makes the inculcation of the appropriate and culturally approved behavioral patterns in the child a joint responsibility among the parents and the adult members of the community.
However, despite the cooperative efforts in the development of the child socially and emotionally, the immediate family members still carry the highest responsibility for the moral upbringing of their children.
In Yorubaland for instance, the immediate family is usually attacked (verbally) when a child misbehaves publicly.
Therefore, to prevent such insulting or embarrassing attacks, every family ensures the proper moral upbringing of their children early in life.
Through practical examples and oral precepts, simple courteous behaviors such as modes of greetings and respect for adults are imparted into the child as early as possible. Any form of misbehavior is appropriately punished by the parents and relations alike.
Generally, Africans cherish high moral discipline, hence parents do everything possible to give good moral examples to their children.
Many of the moonlight stories are aimed at enhancing the moral, social, and emotional development of children. Thus in every story told at least, one important lesson is taught.