Pre-colonial Southern Africa: Khoisan, Bantu, and Indigenous Education [Part Two]

Education officially began in Europe during the First Industrial Revolution. Before the beginning of formal education which, in simple words, is an established and ordered education system, European families and societies depended on informal methods of education to communicate and transfer values, ideas, skills, and information to their children and young people. Similarly, in Southern Africa, before the beginning of colonialism and the establishment of the earliest formal education system, the people of Southern Africa that is, the Bantu and Khoisan, depended on language, art, music and dance education, in addition to initiation schools, to impart and extend the values, ideas, skills, and information of their societies from one generation to the next. Even though these were informal methods, these methods did, however, hold great meaning and significance to the people of Southern Africa. Plus, although these methods of education have been lessened and devalued in the present day, they held and, still hold, great value for the people of Southern Africa.

San rock paintings.
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Language Education

Language education was a central way through which the Khoisan and Bantu passed on and extended their values and cultures from one generation to the next. While the Khoisan and Bantu had noticeably different languages, with the Khoisan using more clicks in their languages, both people groups, however, used language to communicate and spread ideas. These ideas were typically imaginatively communicated and spread through verses, sayings, and stories, normally told by elders. In addition, these verses, sayings, and stories were also told to extend the art, music, and literature of any given people group. Significantly, language education created a strong sense of belonging for all people, not only within the basic social unit, the nuclear family but, also within the extended family, and the greater community of people who shared the same language and culture. Language education was important as it not only transmitted ideas, values, and culture, from one group to the next but, it created and reinforced a sense of community.

Art, Music, and Dance Education

Art was also an important means of education in pre-colonial Southern Africa. The San, for example, recognized for their rock paintings and engravings, used rock art to share and pass on their way of life. Their rock art, found throughout the western regions of Southern Africa, usually included paintings of people dancing and people working together. Their paintings also often included animals for they believed that they were connected to the animal kingdom. What’s more, the San performed their paintings using their hands. They used animal hair or feathers and sticks as paintbrushes, ash, clay, and manganese oxide to make colours, and blood, egg whites, and liquid from plants to join colours together. On the other hand, the Bantu and Khoikhoi, largely known for their pottery, made and used pottery for cooking and keeping water. Resembling the San, pottery remains have been found throughout the eastern regions of Southern Africa, signalling the Bantu’s passage southwards of the continent. Like language education, both the Bantu and Khoisan used art education to communicate and pass on their way of life from one generation to the next.

In addition to art, music and dance education were also incredibly important means of conveying beliefs. Music and dance were used for special events like weddings, funerals, and religious or traditional practices. The Bantu used music and dance heavily during initiation rituals. Different songs were sung during different phases of initiation rituals. Similar to language learning, music and dance education created a strong feeling of community among people. Additionally, San religious practices also created a strong sense of community. For example, one practice revolved around the trance dance which included deep concentration and dancing. In this practice, older men and women would dance in circles, circling the body of a newly killed animal, while younger men and women sat, clapped, and sang. This practice, usually moving people into the non-physical world, allowed those dancing in circles to see visions. Music and dance education, because it was collaborative as language learning was, letting children and young people learn from their elders, transmitted beliefs effortlessly.

Initiation Schools

A further method of education was initiation. In pre-colonial Southern Africa, initiation was seen and respected as a rite of passage. Initiation represented a period of seclusion in a boy’s life in which at or soon after reaching sexual maturity, a boy was separated from the rest of society for a few months and put through a process aimed at preparing them for manhood. The initiation process included circumcision, physical tests, and lessons on discipline, strength, courage, manhood, and culture. When the initiation process was over, having passed all tests, boys were allowed to leave the initiation school, going back home as men. In this method of education, language, art, music and dance education played an important role for this was one of the platforms where all these different means of education worked together, helping boys and girls move through the process of initiation.

Among the Basotho, the chief had the responsibility of setting up the initiation school known as lebello, selecting the warrior, surgeon, and teachers who would lead the rituals. The chief was also tasked with supplying crucial ingredients like the bull, butterfat, and horn which usually contained a powder made up of a fusion of materials from animals, vegetables, and human flesh, seized from a competing chiefdom. Similarly, among the Tsonga, yet again, the chief had the responsibility of setting up the initiation school known as ngoma. In both cultures, boys were isolated, every few years, for a few months and taken through an initiation process, once more, moving them from boyhood to manhood. Although initiation was a common practice for boys in many cultures, in some cultures, however, girls were also taken through an initiation process. Among the Zulu, for instance, like boys, every few years, girls were also isolated for a few months and taken through an initiation process designed to prepare them for womanhood. Significantly, not like initiation schools for boys which dealt with the qualities of manhood like strength and courage, in the initiation schools for girls, however, great weight was placed on sex and marriage.

Indigenous Education

In addition, the different ways of life of the indigenous people allowed them to gain skills and these skills were, in their own right, a further method of education. The Khoisan and Bantu had different ways of life and within those cultures, there was a clear division of labour between men and women. Among the Bantu, while women worked as agriculturalists and cared for the family and home, men worked as pastoralists. In the same way, among the Khoisan, whereas women worked as gatherers of edible plants and held the responsibility of caring for the family and home, men worked as hunters and pastoralists. The division of labour created a sense of duty and order within every family and community. These skills were also taught to boys and girls by letting them help and work with men and women respectively within the home as they fulfilled their responsibilities. The importance of acquiring skills in this way is that young people were not only prepared for adulthood but, were taught how to survive within their families and communities through this process of education.

Language, art, music and dance education together with initiation schools, may not have been official methods of education but, taken together, they were important means of education in pre-colonial Southern Africa and, in many ways, still are in the present-day. Formal education may have only been introduced into the world during the earliest Industrial Revolution, however, even so, families and societies had established ways of imparting values, ideas, skills, and information from one generation to the next long before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So, although the methods of education in pre-colonial Southern Africa were informal, it would still be mistaken to view them as lesser or not as processes of education simply because they were informal methods. In pre-colonial Southern Africa, like in all societies, people chose and did what they knew and believed to be best.

References and Further Readings

Barnard, A. (1992). Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa. Cambridge University Press

Booyse, J. J., le Roux, C. S., Seroto, J., & Wolhuter, C. C. (2011). A History of Schooling. Van Schaik Publishers

Christie, P. (1991). The Right to Learn: The Struggle for Education in South Africa. Sached Trust/Ravan Press Publication

Schapera, I. (1934). The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa. Routledge & Kegan Paul

Thompson, L. (2000). A history of South Africa. Yale University Press

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