Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.2, 96-105
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.22014
Education and Socialization in Ghana
George J. Sefa Dei
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.
Received February 10th, 2011; revised April 10th, 2011; accepted May 16th, 2011.
Africa has always been an important source of rich information for knowledge production. There has always
been a curiosity about Africa that has served different imaginations and interests. But how do we learn and teach
about Africa in ways that are informed by an appreciation of African peoples’ rich cultural knowledges, com-
plexity and historic resistance of local peoples to carve out their own futures and dreams? I would maintain that
knowing about education and socialization offer some important directions in this search for knowledge. Tradi-
tional African education has utilized a variety of instructional and pedagogic methods as well as guides and re-
sources to educate youth. Education in African communities has happened in multiple sites, formal and
non-formal. Just as West African education can benefit from a study of educational delivery in other contexts, I
would argue that a study of important aspects of West African formal and non formal education and socializa-
tion of young learners may offer significant lessons for educating youth in other societies. There is intellectual
relevance in asking such questions as: what and how do students in West African learn? What activities, stories
do students experience in their education that can be incorporated into the curriculum to enrich educating stu-
dents from diverse backgrounds in other contexts? What is the nature of the environment in which students learn
in West Africa?
Keywords: African Edu c a tion, Development, C u ltural Knowledge, Ghanaian Learners
Using West African case material this paper explores the
place of local cultural/Indigenous knowledges in African scho-
olling and education. The focus is on the relevance of teachings
of such Indigenous knowledge systems as they enhance the
education of the contemporary learner. Africa has always been
an important source of rich information for knowledge produc-
tion. There has always been a curiosity about Africa that has
served different imaginations and interests. But how do we
learn and teach about Africa in ways that are informed by an
appreciation of African peoples’ rich cultural knowledges,
complexity and historic resistance of local peoples to carve out
their own futures and dreams? I would maintain that knowing
about education and socialization offer some important direc-
tions in this search for knowledge. Traditional African educa-
tion has utilized a variety of instructional and pedagogic meth-
ods as well as guides and resources to educate youth. Education
in African communities has happened in multiple sites, formal
and non-formal. Just as West African education can benefit
from a study of educational delivery in other contexts, I would
argue that a study of important aspects of West African formal
and non formal education and socialization of young learners
may offer significant lessons for educating youth in other socie-
ties. There is intellectual relevance in asking such questions as:
What and how do students in West African learn? What activi-
ties, stories do students experience in their education that can
be incorporated into the curriculum to enrich educating students
from diverse backgrounds in other contexts? What is the nature
of the environment in which students learn in West Africa?
Informal sites and systems of education have contributed
tremendously to the education of the African child, not much
attention has been paid to the sites of traditional instruction and
pedagogies contained in local cultural resource base of West
African peoples. One example is the use of local cultural
knowings embed in proverbs, folktales and songs (see Boateng,
1990; Bascom, 1965; Opoku, 1977; Yankah, 1989, 1995 among
many others). How then do we come to re-conceptualize
schooling and education to bring about change in [West] Afri-
can contexts? Schooling has tended to focus heavily on the
formal instruction mode, with learners simply acquiring basic
knowledge, which is not necessarily relevant or applicable to
solving the local problems and challenges of everyday living.
Presenting education broadly, beyond formal schooling, allows
us to rethink ways knowledge can be utilized to address con-
temporary problems (see also Abdi & Cleghorn, 2005). Edu-
cators can utilize knowledge from several sources to educate.
Such knowledge exists in West African texts, songs, histories
as well as local customary practices and traditions that have
helped sustain communities for centuries. The local cultural
knowledge of West Africa should be looked at as a viable
source of education for contemporary learners.
Rethinking schooling and education in Africa goes beyond
the requirements and objectives of formal education. This is a
project about development in general. In his critique of the
“myth of development”, [as in unfulfilled promises] Tucker
(1999) notes that “the model of development now widely pur-
sued is part of the problem rather than the solution” and that
this Western ideology of development “distorts our imagination,
limits our vision, [obscuring] us to the alternatives that human
initiative is capable of imagining and implementing” (p. 1). The
same can be said of contemporary education. Contemporary
education in West Africa is mired in the reproduction of colo-
nial hierarchies of power and knowledge and is struggling for
local relevance. Such education addresses the needs of a global
market economy without addressing what is needed for local
G. J. S. DEI 97
contexts. In order to imagine new possibilities, West African
schooling and education must deconstruct the myth of deve-
lopment using local and Indigenous cultural knowledge. Today,
Indigenous and local communities continue to struggle to create
an education that paves the way for new cultural, economic and
political imaginings of development.
Much of on-going intellectual discussion on “education” is
located in the dominant paradigms of Western thinking. Alter-
native ideas and counter theoretical perspectives of education
are not always encouraged and struggle to disentangle from the
dominance of the Eurocentric paradigm. We must begin by
developing Indigenous, non-Western concepts and categories
for understanding African societies. This requires that we pay
particular attention to the production and the social organization
of knowledge in West Africa, and particularly, to cultural di-
mensions of schooling, education and development. The ques-
tion of who controls the “education” discourse or agenda and
why is significant, especially when we begin to interrogate
issues of power and resistance under local initiatives.
As also noted in Dei (2011a), I define “Indigenous” as local
cultural knowledge that draws on the interconnections of socie-
ty, culture and nature. Indigenous is about a relation to land as a
place of long-term, unbroken residence while local cultural
knowledge relates to how local peoples make sense of their
society-culture and nature interface (see also Roberts et al. 2004;
Purcell, 1998). The concept of “Indigenous” is NOT to be
thought of in relation to Western knowledge. The concept of
“Indigenous” simply alludes to the power relations within
which local peoples struggle to define and assert their own
representat ions of history, id entity, culture a nd place in the face
of Western hegemonic ideologies. Implicit in the terminology
of “Indigenous” is a recognition of some philosophical, con-
ceptual and methodological differences between Western and
non-Western knowledge systems. These differences are not
absolutes but a matter of degree. The difference is seen more in
terms of cultural logics and epistemologies, i.e., differences in
the making of sense as always dependent on context, history,
politics and place (see also Agrawal, 1995; Semali & Kin-
cheloe, 1999; Dei, Hall, & Rosenberg, 2000; Battiste & Hen-
derson, 2000; Dei, 2011b).
A critical discussion of Indigenous knowledge must also fo-
cus on the construction of knowledge, access to knowledge, the
transfer of knowledge, and the application of such knowledge
as part of multiple ways of knowing. A major contemporary
challenge we face in discussing such knowledge in the academy
is to address the trivialization and devaluation of local know-
ledge. For example, one encounters even some local Indigenous
scholars so entrenched in Eurocentric ideas that they devalue
such Indigenous knowledge systems through colonial mimicry.
There is also the fact that local Indigenous Western-educated
scholars have not been schooled in the socio-cultural and phi-
losophical paradigms of their own communities. There is a need
for increased Indigenous consciousness in order to cultivate
such local knowledge and contribute to the search for local
solutions to local problems. No Indigenous cultural knowledge
is alien to its particular socio-cultural and political milieu (see
Yankah, 2004). Local cultural knowledge holds the spiritual
and cultural foundations upon which the survival of local
communities rest.
Indigenous knowledge is knowledge that arises from long-
term occupancy of a place and coming to understand the inter-
relations of history, ancestry, society, culture and nature. It is
knowledge that helps the local residents of a place through time
immemorial ma ke sense of their social and natural worlds. It is
knowledge accumulated in local traditions, cultural histories
and practices and can be learned from a study of local folktales,
proverbs, songs, fables and tales, local plant pharmacology,
plant herbal medicinal practices, local classification of soils and
vegetation, court practices and traditional cultural artifacts
among many other things.
Within communities there are certain key symbols of culture
“which by their redundancies, pervasiveness and importance
can be seen as capturing and expressing a society’s focal cul-
tural concern” (see Limon, 1991: p. 118; Ortner, 1973). Every
community chooses certain values, norms and social customs to
highlight in order to demonstrate the issues of pri- mary [not
exclusive] concern. Thus, acceding to the require- ments of
“community and social responsibility” may be re- warded in
one society as opposed to the affirmation of “indi- viduality and
individual rights” (see Dei, 1993). In other words, within dif-
ferent knowledge systems and/or world views there are par-
ticular understandings of the relationships between soci- ety,
culture and nature that can be privileged and rewarded. Such
understanding may form a legitimate basis of distinguish- ing
between different world views.
The interactions of different cultures and cultural knowledge
have always been part of human reality and existence. Such
understanding ought to be distinguished from an uncritical
postmodernist claim that what emerges from an articulation of
two or more disparate elements is often a new distinct from
such that the former disparate elements [form] often lose their
character, logics and identities. In a global context when domi-
nant knowledge forms usually appropriate other knowledge and
claim universality in their interpretations of society, there is a
politics of reclaiming the Indigenous and local identities. This
reclamation has a purpose in en-masking the process through
which Western science knowledge, for example, becomes
hegemonic ways of knowing by masquerading as universal
Hence, it is crucial to separate the politics and efficacy of
disrupting/interrupting binary thoughts and the [en]coding of
cultural differences from a positive (solution-oriented) affirma-
tion of important differences that distinguish multiple know-
ledge forms by their unique philosophies and identities. Also,
the worldviews of different knowledge may affirm some un-
bridgeable differences. For example, dominant knowledge
forms (e.g., Western science knowledge) sees the universe as
something to be controlled and dominated while other know-
ledge systems (e.g., Indigenous and local cultural knowledge)
speak of a search for peaceful co-existence with Nature. What
all this points to is that it is important to acknowledge that in
the intellectual and political project of affirming multiple
knowledge the “normalization of difference” is distinct from
the sheer rigid classification of ‘absolute differences’.
The strength of Indigenous knowledge lies in their applica-
tion to the lived realities of people. The relevance of Indigenous
knowledge is that it speaks to the practical and mundane issues
of social existence. In the face of entrenched hegemonic rela-
tions and global economic and ecological threat, knowledge is
relevant only if it strengthens a people’s capacity to live well. It
G. J. S. DEI
is concerned first and foremost with questions of survival. It is
knowledge rested in “the livelihoods of people rather than with
abstract ideas and philosophies” (Agrawal, 1995: p. 422).
Unlike Western science knowledge Indigenous knowledge
cannot be simply understood in terms of its utilitarian purposes.
Its existence signals the power of intellectual agency of local
peoples. It is symbolic (intellectually, politically and emotion-
ally) in the projection to others that local peoples can and do
know about themselves and their societies. It is about culture,
identity and political survival. Culture and language are very
central to “Indigenous” for without these the concept of “In-
digenous” is meaningless. While today we must be careful to
ascribe “Indigeneity” to all knowledge systems, we should also
note that Indigenous knowledge are not homogenous. Such
knowledge systems are demarcated by regional, class, ethnic,
gender and religious differences, as well as specific socio-po-
litical interests in articulating such knowledge systems.
The urgency of affirming Indigenous knowledge systems for
me rest of three fundamental projects of importance. First, is
the realization of the continuing forms of colonization ex-
pressed in the imperializing and the peripheralization of
knowledges, particularly in the Western academy (i.e., schools,
colleges and universities) through official classroom pedago-
gies, curriculum, texts and knowledge representations. Second
is the fact that is the need to develop resistance to knowledge
colonization. For Indigenous scholars this calls for a political
reclamation and revitalization our Indigeneity and histories. It
also involves creating spaces for such multi-centric ways of
knowing to flourish. Our politics of reclamation Indigenous
knowledges must also be accompanied by a serious epistemo-
logical appraisal of our Indigenous knowledges. Third, is that
we need to develop Indigenous knowledge constructs through
the affirmation of an Indigenous science (see Le Grange, 2004,
2007; Solomon & Aikenhead, 1994; Jegede, 1994), one that is
validated on its own merit (i.e., focus on the understanding of
the broad existential questions of life experiences rather than
viewing science as simply a methodological tool). One ap-
proach is what I have called the creation of a trialectic space
(see Dei, 2011c; Asabere-Ameyaw, Dei, & Raheem, 2012).
This space involves a dialogue among multiple parties a sort of
“dialogic encounters” with an epistemic community. But more
importantly, it is constituted as a space for learners to openly
utilize the body, mind and spirit/soul interface in critical dia-
logues about their education. It is also a space that nurtures
conversations that acknowledges the importance and implica-
tions of working with a knowledge base about society, culture,
and nature nexus. Such spaces can only be created when we
open our minds broadly to revision schooling and see schooling
as place/site and opportunity to challenge dominant paradigms
and academic reasoning.
The Challenge of Contemporary Education
Before focusing on local resource knowledge as source of
educating and socializing young learners let me use the Ghanai-
an case to offer a brief overview of the context for West Afri-
can education while addressing some direct and general ques-
tions. I should admit to the brevity of this discussion and the
difficulty of speaking on broad terms given the complexity of
the situation on the ground for most communities. But hope-
fully a reader gets a general sense of the challenges and possi-
bilities of West African education. Historically, education in the
African context has been approached in terms of the contribu-
tion made fundamentally to national development. The educa-
tion promoted primarily served the needs of the labor market/
the global economy, resulting in the marketization of education
with the cultural trend towards a techno-fix approach to
schooling, “standardization recipes” as (Lewin, 2008) notes. In
emphasizing the goal of national integration and post-inde-
pendence, “post-colonial” education in Africa has denied hete-
rogeneity in local populations, as if difference itself was a
problem. With this orientation, education has undoubtedly
helped to create and maintain the glaring disparities and inequi-
ties, structured along lines of ethnicity, culture, language, re-
ligion, gender and class, which persist and grow. How research
on African education acknowledge difference and diversity
while, at the same time, highlighting commonalities, even
among peoples with conflicting interests is critical. Ultimately,
it is such an approach that can contribute to both national inte-
gration and social reconstruction.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest concerning
“Education for All” (EFA) by the global community. Mundy
(2008, p. 10) enthuses this resurgence is linked to two new
developments. The first is “the emergence of fragile and deeply
paradoxical consensus about international development among
G8 governments. This consensus links development to de-
mocracy, good governance and human rights in a more extensive
manner than ever before; while also strongly asserting the
primacy of markets and capitalism. Education bridges these two
sets of development ideals (see Mundy, 2008). Mundy (2008)
continues that the second is “EFA has been fed by the
burgeoning of transnational social movements that have used
education as a core venu e for advocating for global redistributiv e
justice” (p. 10). Education is the preferred choice over other
forms of social protection by the international community. So
the new focus on basic education as a strategy for poverty
reduction and alleviation. A ccording to Mundy (2008) th is ties in
also with the emergence of “a transnationally organized global
public that is critical of globalization and global economic
inequalities , and that views the ri ght to e ducation as an importan t
venue for expressing a commitment to redistributive justice on a
global scale” (p. 11). Notwithstanding the abo ve initia tives the re
is a continuing deterioration in access to education in the C21st.
Despite good intentions, Education for All (EFA) continues
to be just a dream. So what accounts for the non-participation
of children in primary school especially in sub-Saharan African
countries with free primary education policy? How do we im-
prove access to primary school among groups traditionally
excluded from free primary education and assesses the impacts
of such programs? By 2015, approximately 19 million children
in sub-Saharan Africa will still be out of school if current trends
continue (see African Population and Health Research Center,
2007). Who is at risk of being out of schooling and education
regarding so-called sub-Saharan Africa? Despite some hard
working initiatives to promote community welfare, we still
know the emerging details of street children, child labourers,
child soldiers, children from poor house-hold, children living in
rural, remote and marginalized areas, and children orphaned by
or infected with HIV and AIDS. How effective are free primary
education policies, alternative education delivery, strategic
G. J. S. DEI 99
interventions such as school feeding programs, and programs
targeting orphaned and vulnerable children; programs aimed at
improving educational quality such as improving the relevance
of school curriculum, and supplementing teachers with trained
volunteers, among others? Success in addressing problem of
out-of-school children will depend on the following: clarity and
consensus on policy issues, program objectives, and related
interventions among all parties. There must be a concerted ef-
fort to target and reach the vulnerable population. But it is not
just identifying populations for education. It is also addressing
the content of such education. Perhaps education that goes back
to the “roots” to cultivate and work with the teachings of local
culture, social history and knowledge systems can be a good
starting point to educate the contemporary African learner.
As noted in Dei (2011a) Indigenous education has been a
prevalent aspect of pre-colonial times and today it still plays a
role in the socialization of youth. Indigenous education has
been significant in the socialization of the individual to become
a productive member of society, where parents and the family
were central figures shaping/educating the child. Indigenous
form of education involved the entire community and was
passed on from one generation to another, and in a manner that
aids youth to practically and intellectually not only understand
their natural environment, but also, their particular social func-
tion in society (see Fafunwa & Aisiku, 1982; Sifuna, 1994).
Traditional African education focuses on the molding of cha-
racter and morality and the development of skills necessary for
active participation in social life. In many West African rural
communities traditional education is being transformed to offer
knowledge, skills and capabilities to youth in many communi-
ties. One area for the infusion of Indigenous local cultural re-
source knowledge into schooling, education and socialization of
youth is through proverbs, folktales and other forms of folkloric
production (Boateng, 1990; Opoku, 1975, 1977).
Case Study: Relevance of Local Knowledge
Since 2007, I have been involved in a longitudinal research
in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya examining African proverbs and
folktales for their pedagogic and instructional relevance in
youth education, specifically in the areas of character and moral
development of the young learner. The initial 2007 study was
funded through a contract grant from the Ontario Literacy and
Numeracy Secretariat (LNS) for a study on “Moral and Character
Education in Ontario”. The study has since been extended with
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)
funding for a longitudinal and more comprehensive study in-
volving Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya focusing not only on the
actual documentation of the proverbs, but also, on African In-
digenous knowledge systems in general highlighting, the values
of Indigenous stories, story forms, songs, folktales and riddles
in youth education. The on-going study has extended the initial
focus on ways of teaching discipline, moral and character edu-
cation [from the perspectives of youth, teachers, school admi-
nistrators, parents and communities] to examine the instruct-
tional, pedagogic and communicative guidelines for using In-
digenous African philosophies (conveyed in the documented
proverbs, fables, folktales, myths, songs and story forms etc.)
and how these can enhance learning for African and North
American youth.
A major learning objective of the initial 2007 was to under-
stand youth violence from the vantage point of learners and
educators and how a local cultural resource base constitutes
important knowledge for educating youth to not become in-
volved in all forms of violence by the development of strong
character, moral, and civic responsibilities. In fact, a specific
pedagogic interest in African proverbs has been to examine
how such local Indigenous knowings facilitate school teaching
and learning about self, group, community, respect for Elders
and authority, and the importance of identity and its connec-
tions to schooling and education. It is noted that West African
schools [like schools in North America and elsewhere] continue
to search for more effective ways of delivering education to a
diverse group of learners. Local cultural knowledge, when used
critically, can be important sources of information and/or be
used as tools for educational delivery.
The overarching interest of the case study was guided by five
learning objectives: 1) to examine the existing literature on
what is known about the impact of teaching character/values
education in general, and the implications for Canadian, North
American and African schooling; 2) to understand teaching
discipline, punishment and respect for authority from the per-
spectives of youth, teachers, school administrators, parents and
communities; 3) to document past, current and long-term insti-
tutional approaches for dealing with youth [in]discipline and
punishment, and respect for authority in educational settings; 4)
to examine the instructional, pedagogic and communicative
values and challenges in local Indigenous teachings (proverbs,
fables, folktales, myths, etc.) about [in]discipline, and respect
for self, peers and authority; and, 5) to suggest ways this study
can enhance learning for African and North American youth by
working with educators to develop learning and instructional
materials and to develop strategies to implement character/
values education in Ontario schools.
The reporting on my case study deals strictly with the rele-
vance of research information informing schooling and educa-
tional change in West Africa. But, to give a general overview,
throughout the entire research period, 2007-09, at least a dozen
focus group discussions had been organized together as work-
shop session with student-educators, field practitioners and
educationists. There had been a total of over eighty-five indi-
vidual interviews conducted with twenty-five educators; twenty
Elders/parents and twenty-five students drawn from the local
universities, secondary schools and community colleges, as
well local communities in Ghana (an Nigeria (in the case of
colleges and universities). The focus of the interviews was un-
derstanding the use and meanings of local proverbs and African
Indigenous philosophies, as well as the instructional, pedagogic
and communicative values and challenges in local teaching
using proverbs, fables, folktales, myths, etc.) about self, com-
munity and group responsibilities, as well as respect for self,
peers and authority. The research period has also been a time
for me as Principal Investigator (PI) to network with Canadian
educators and academic researchers on current directions in
moral and character education research.
The epistemic saliency of local subjects is embedded in an
awareness of the self and one’s place within a collective.
Knowing the self, community and culture is important in order
to appreciate the challenges and how we respond. Since Indi-
geneity and issues of identity are powerfully linked, we cannot
G. J. S. DEI
dismiss the power of Indigenous and local cultural knowledge.
In fact, as Friedman (1992) also notes struggles over identity
have serious implications when local peoples lose both their
ontological and epistemological foundations. While culture
may be negotiated, questions and issues of identity, history and
the politics of affirming local knowledge are not negotiable for
local peoples. Local knowledge contained in proverbs and par-
ables are significant for expressing the intellectual agency of
communities. Local cultural resource knowledge that allow for
a critical reflection on past experiences and histories to respond
to everyday problems and find solutions to problems is very
relevant. Claiming such knowledge does not mean a recourse to
a mythic or romanticised past. It is a realization that the past, a
people’s history and local cultural resource base have a role to
play in the search for answers to daily concerns and problems.
Study Findings
In this section, I present some narratives from African edu-
cators that highlight ways of approaching the education and
socialization of the contemporary young learner grounded in
more critical ways of looking at local culture, traditions, values,
norms and practices as dynamic forms of knowledge to be re-
claimed for positive (solution-oriented) ends.
Proverbs as Local Cultural Resource Knowings
Anaafi [all names are pseudonyms] is currently a General
Arts student in the senior high school in Ghana. At the time of
the interview Anaafi was “in the second year going to the third
year”. When asked about proverbs and how he came to know
about these cultural sayings:
I will say proverbs are wise sayings which are being said to
us to learn from … Well, I learnt them in school, at home, from
my parents, my siblings and everybody. It is just the society and
everywhere you go you hear people saying them. Even in mov-
ies and all that you hear people saying proverbs. [File 02: Text
Units 9-16]
Proverbs are part of every day life and one learns them as
one experiences life. When asked to be more specific how he
came to know of proverbs, Anaafi replies:
…… in the process of teaching, some [teachers] use them.
Basically, some of them use them in the process of teaching and
some of the students even use them while we are in class so.
[File 02: Text Units 42-46]
He acknowledges that the school system has been important
site for educating on proverbs and would like to see more. Ba-
foah is also currently teaching core and elective mathematics at
senior high school level. He insists proverbs do teach about
responsibility. He argues that “proverbs [try] to instil a sense of
responsibility into the students. There is a lot that he normally
uses and almost always that he talks he uses a lot of proverbs”.
He reasons proverbs can be convenient for everyday conversa-
tions once a learner is well-versed in such cultural knowings.
Additionally, Bafoah sees some differences in teaching about
proverbs to students in secondary school as opposed to those in
the elementary school, particularly in terms of pedagogical
I think in the secondary school you will not have much prob-
lems because with the teenagers, a lot of them are intelligent.
And they can reason through what you say. But at the lower
forms, I think some of them … in terms of m aturi ty — t h ey a r e n ot
matured enough sometimes to understand some of these prov-
erbs. Because some of the proverbs are heavy and they carry a
lot of weight. So, I think at the lower level there will be that
problem of breaking it down for them to understand.
There must be a different pedagogical approach to teaching
proverbs in schools depending on the level the teacher is deal-
ing with. With maturity comes a deeper appreciation of pro-
verbs. Bafoah is asked to look at the school system in its en-
tirely and the effectiveness of using proverbs in schools. When
asked for specific suggestions as how to promote using pro-
verbs for direct pedagogic and social relevance, Bafoah enthu-
I would think eh … it should be done subject based, you see.
Like eh … So, that at least … eh … It should be thought in such
a way that teachers can use it as they teach. Because, some-
times for example, in English, I know that English … there is a
lot of opportunity there even in the stories that they use for
their comprehension and … I always remember this book that
we read in secondary school; “Things fall Apart has got a lot
of proverbs in there. I remember those days we used to use
some of these proverbs even in our daily lives at school. Yeah.
So, I think that when it is subject based it will help a lot. [File
04: Text Units 213-237]
In other words proverbs cannot be integrated in all courses or
classes. Certain subjects lend themselves more to integration of
proverbs in classroom pedagogy. Kessie, a Science student at
one of Ghana prominent Colleges in the Central Region claims
to know a bit or two about local proverbs. When asked for
some details of what he knows the educator responds:
I know proverbs are some short themes that are constructed
or formed by our great ancestors which are handed over to the
youth generation and helps us to know how to live. When one is
living … or because of a proverb one is able to live a very sin-
cere life. Because when proverbs are made and you take a
critical look at proverbs and you get to know the understanding
you can see that proverbs are really very beneficial to us in our
societies, in our communities, and even in the country as a
whole. So, when you live with proverbs you will go far and it
will help you in life.
Interviewer: Thats good. Who did you learn proverbs
Proverbs ... mostly, I learned from my grandmother but it is
unfortunate that she is no more. But for now, I learn proverbs
from books. When I read books I try to get proverbs there and
get the understanding. If I dont then I ask my dad or mum to
get the understanding and use it in my life. [File 05: Text Units
Faculty at a Nigerian University interviewed in a focus group
discussion also see a need for African knowledge systems to be
brought into the school system through the use of African
proverbs. They see possibilities around this in terms of teaching
about morals and character education. One educator was very
Female Educator: I think that most Africans; because
amongst my people, speaking in proverbs shows mobility. Like
we say in Africa the royal people or the royal families they
dont talk. They talk in content and are very poetic in their talk.
If you are not poetic, you understand, you are not supposed to
be a proper African. Because I am not supposed to open my
G. J. S. DEI 101
mouth wide to tell you everything I know. Just one single word,
you understand? Everyone around will know. Suppose you are
an ungrateful person, you understand and I want to tell my
chil dre n n ot t o be ni ce to y ou I will not … Because we are great
understand. … if you are a fool you will … Because my kids
already know that this is what … Any African who has grown
up properly should be able to teach proverbs whether you are
in the sciences or in archaeology or anything. Because I believe
your parents will not talk to you from the day you grow, till the
day you leave their house [File 13: Text Units 96-149].
The African learner who has been educated holistically will
know about proverbs and their value in society as a powerful
medium of communication. Patiah who is pursuing an M. Phil
program in Human Rights at a local university, also elaborates
on how educators can use proverbs to deal with some of the
issues about discipline and violence in the school system:
For example, the elders have it that if you dont stay at home,
for most of the time you will come and see that good things
have taken place in your absence. In fearing that you should be
at your doorstep to offer errands to your parents and to listen
to good exhortations from your parents as well. If you are al-
ways on the street it doesnt augur well and you will one day
find yourself in trouble. Another one, if you are a very good
parent then you demonstrate or exhibit good for your children
to emulate. So they continue telling us that a crab does not give
birth to a fish. So whatever a parent does is likely to be emu-
lated by the children. It is dangerous for example, to be getting
drunk and then to be smoking and sending your children to
concubines and others. It is a very bad example so these prov-
erbs has taught us always to be careful of our … even our use
of language at home aha because children pick up these and
they see whatever the parent does as a very good thing so such
proverbs help us to be of wherever we find ourselves. [File 16:
Text Units 91-119]
The message is clear. We cannot separate the learning of
proverbs from Indigenous knowledge. Proverbs constitute part
of local Indigenous knowledge systems. As attested to by one
of her own colleagues, family head and Senior School Admi-
nistrator of Academics, Nana Bodine, who is well-known for
his knowledge of local proverbs such cultural knowings have
powerful teachings that can be engaged by school teachers.
Nana Bodine explains the uses of proverbs and why he uses
proverbs in his own classroom teachings:
I use them to illustrate points. Now, when you are in a situa-
tion and you are able to use examples or illustrations it actually
throws more light on it. And, the listener is firmly grounded in
the know of the expression that you are giving the person. It is
just like writing an essay or English composition or composi-
tion in any language and then you use examples or illustrations.
[File 09: Text Units 19-41]
Educators who utilise proverbs in their teaching enthuse that
they reach the students more directly because it gets them to
think and to use their analytical skills to solve problems. This
may be a shift away form rote learning and regurgitation which
has been the standard educational practices in most traditional
African education contexts. I produce here a lengthy extract of
responses of students interviewed in a focus group at a Nigerian
College of Education as they share their understandings of the
pedagogic and instructional importance of proverbs as cultural
forms of knowing:
Female Student: It [proverbs] teaches morals.
Interviewer: Can you speak a bit about that?
Male Student: It teaches morals … What the bible is talking
about is that when your child is in your house; in your own
presence; you rebuke him immediately and not say dont cover
him and say I love him let me not say anything about it. That is
not what the bible is saying. It says that you should correct him
immediately in that act while he is doing it in your presence.
Not in your absence. Proverbs … train up a child because if
you do not train up the child it is your fault that you did not
train up the child. I dont know if any of you have heard the
story? The mother was leaving the son to steal and every time
he will steal money, then when he was caught outside being a
robber, he was sentenced to death by hanging so before they
hang him he said please I want to talk to my mum. When they
called the mum, he removed her ears so that was her own pun-
ishment and he told the mum that Mummy … you did not train
me”. So if a parent fails to train a child he or she is going to
receive the repercussion later. [File 12: Text Units 636-656]
Female Student: What I see about proverbs is that proverbs
is good because in this our Nigeria, the Yoruba, we believe in
proverbs; anything that happens they speak up proverbs. In any
situation, even you can use proverbs to punish. My mum that is
why I cherish my mum. If she wants to tell me something she
will use proverbs. I will sit down and think on it and ask what
does my mum mean”? You know, through that I will be able to
or at times I will think about that proverb I will go out, I will
reach out to people and ask them to please tell me the meaning
of that proverb. If they tell me and if I get the message … for
that proverb then I will be able to apply it to my personal. [File
12: Text Units 661-687]
Female Student: I think everybody should apply proverbs,
you know. I believe in my culture. I am a Yoruba. As our pa-
rents use proverbs, lets cultivate the habit of using proverbs.
Male Student: It should be on individual basis.
Female Student: I think the issue of proverbs and moral edu-
cation; I think we all need to sit down and then we need to re-
view our curriculum because there are some things that are not
supposed to be added to our curriculum that are added. So they
need to like sociology … has long … to teach morals and some
other things about morals. So I think that one should come. And
I think the issue of proverbs like we did in Nigerian education
in the first semester. And in Nigerian education, teaching is
about traditional education. There are some things about prov-
erbs we are short off so I think there is the need. We just need
to review our curriculum to suit us to cover those lapses. [File
12: Text Units: 714-737]
In the above discussion the students are stressing the moral
education as well as socialization component of proverbs. They
point to their instructional relevance in the homes, schools and
other social settings. Fiifi, an Arts Design instructor in a Gha-
naian college strongly believes proverbs have something to
teach especially in instilling in youth a deep sense of moral
discipline, probity and accountability:
With proverbs for instance, in teaching, now you may teach
something which students may seem not to understand. But as
soon as you introduce a bit of the proverb, whatever you have
in our society, as soon as you put it there clear it tends to tell
the student this is what the teacher means. Now, proverbs more
or less are not profane words or lets say they are unique on
G. J. S. DEI
their own. As soon as you put it there; you say it; people who
understand will understand. And, there is no need to use words
which are ruthless. So I think the proverbs; it has so many links
with teaching. It helps even understanding, in some cases you
want to tell a student—a particular student who is misbehaving
in class; you want to tell the student something but if you go all
the way talking a lot, you may end up insulting the student. But
rather when you use the proverb straight away the student him-
self will reason quickly and say no, what I am doing is wrong
that is why the teacher used this proverb. I think they are good.
[File 15: Text Units 123-166]
As argued in Dei (2011a) education is about creating a whole
person as a member of a collective. Proverbs offer cultural
expressions of moral behaviour that is approved and sanctioned
by the wider community. Proverbs regulate moral conduct,
something vital to any learner.
The Question of Language and Interrogating Culture
To understand these proverbs and apply them in school
teachings and classroom learning, it requires that both the
learner and teacher become adept in the local Indigenous lan-
guages through which these proverbs are conveyed. Many edu-
cators have attempted to rephrase local proverbs in the English
language and through that process a great deal is lost. An
awareness of this ‘lost in translation’ is itself critical to empha-
size why school ought to teach Indigenous language if proverbs
are to be incorporated in school curriculum and instructional
pedagogies. Similar cautions must also exercised in the whole
area of understanding local/Indigenous cultures through the
reclaiming of positive traditional cultural values. In a focus
group discussion with final year student teachers specializing in
Social Studies at the University of Education in Ghana, the
students highlight respect for the Elderly, authority and school
leadership as critical for moulding one’s character and perse-
rance. They point to cultural sanctions that can be applied in
local communities to help cultivate in youth a sense of respect,
discipline and responsibility to themselves, peers and authority
figures. While is it debatable the effectiveness of some tradi-
onal sanctions and modes of enforcing discipline such as the
use of the whip [cane it is important that we acknowledge the
power of such sanctions in the socialization of youth. When
asked specifically about the place of culture in schooling the
following conversation ensured:
Interviewer: So how do we bring culture back in education
or in school?
Student: All of us agree that our culture has been gone and
we have integrated ... but we have forgotten one question.
There are some aspects of the culture which was very bad and
was very inhuman like the female genital mutilation”, … Tro-
kosi … and other things which has gone. So as for that I think it
is good. But there are some too which we could have retained
but those one too are gone. Now looking at our culture as
maybe when an older person comes in a bus you stand up and
greet; I think that if the bus could have been partitioned.
Interviewer: Thats the thing about no culture is immune to
criticism. Every culture should be interrogated but the point
you are making is a very important because there is the ten-
dency to throw away … about indigenous culture and just
adopt … So on the question about how do you bring back into
the schools?
Student: I said that formerly they had something in school
called culture studies. This in particular teaches about culture
in the Ghanaian society and teaches both the good aspect and
the bad and tells to show the bad and tells us maintain the good
aspect but as time goes on culture studies has been taken away
from the syllabus and has been replaced by other European …
(What do you call it) which we are being forced to learn. Be-
cause they said the world has become a global village and by
so doing we neglect our own culture, so the generations coming
forth, their minds are being polluted with the Western Euro-
pean style so they dont normally conform again to that part of
the society that we are in. By so doing our culture is lost be-
cause it is the youthful generation that replaces the older gen-
eration. So until we are able to find that part of culture of our
society and inculcate it in the curriculum, from the junior
stages so that we can have people to teach and bring resource
people from the society to really give examples, then if we do
that then it means that we can bring our culture. [File 20: Text
Units 1443-1513]
The students are lamenting about “lost culture”. They also
recognize that there are sites of empowerment as well as di-
sempowerment in local cultures and cultural traditions. The
students do not bring an unquestioned faith to the reclamation
of culture. Every culture is dynamic and culture moves with the
times. Their call to “bring back local culture” is grounded in a
form believe that some aspects of traditional cultures have been
helpful in socializing learners into responsible adults. No par-
ticular culture is an island unto itself. Cultures influence each
other but one cannot discard their culture and traditions simply
in favour of an alien culture. What learners can be assisted to
do is to integrate values and ideas that have proven to work
effectively in the socialization and education of youth in their
own culture and cultural practices. The critical teaching of cul-
ture and cultural studies may be a good starting point.
Respect and culture can be context-bound. They are both part
of the socialization process for youth. Socializing a learner is
also teaching about respecting oneself, peers and authority. Lasi
who attends the School of Ghana Languages and currently has a
diploma in Akan reflected on questions of the school curricu-
lum. When asked about the relevance of local cultural know-
ings and the curriculum, he offers some ideas that point to his
views of teaching respect in schools:
Ah well, [local cultural knowings] like proverbs are normally
not said in a vacuum. So we say asem mba ye a ye nbu be.
Ye ndae a ye nso dae.” [literally one cannot claim to have
dreamt without sleeping] So, if you want to actually teach
proverbs and you are good at it you do not necessarily line up a
long list of proverbs; copy them on the blackboard or whatever
and teach the children. You teach them in context. As you teach
lets say grammar, as you teach reading you come across the
proverbs then you deal with it and because it is in content the
students will know the meaning better than when you have just
put them there and then … [File 22: Text Units 271-283]
Teaching respect and local culture is integrated practice. If
one knows about their local culture and its values such know-
ledge cannot be separated from everyday educational practice.
Such knowledge is grounded in everything one does. Local
cultural knowings can be infused in school/classroom teachings
as educators go about their everyday teaching. If socialization
and education is to proceed the way African communities have
G. J. S. DEI 103
impacted knowledge then it will be seen that local cultural
knowings are infused in the vary processes of knowledge pro-
duction, validation and dissemination.
On the relevance of gender and gender values in such discus-
sions on schooling, culture and society final year social studies
student teachers at the local University of Education in Ghana
noted issues of gender bias, disparity and the absence of critical
gender analysis in school curriculum:
Student: It is also very common … especially seeing the fe-
male being highly marginalized in terms of curriculum in the
performance of leadership roles. That is the topic on which I
am writing on now. You see them as being sidelined when it
comes to the performance of leadership roles in the classroom.
Always women are somewhere and that trend has continued.
Student: When you get out to the field in politics; in all the
executive sectors of the economy. We find men throughout. At
times too most of them are being ridiculed and the few ones
who will like to fight boot to boot with their men counterparts
are nicknamed devil, witches and whatnots. I went somewhere
and the lady was a carpenter roofing and thousand and one
people were gathered looking at her and some calling her
names. Beyiefoo wei” [witches] and what nots … all nasty
Student: It all boils down to the values. In our society it is
said that even if the woman buys a gun it is the man who is
supposed to keep it. It boils down to what the society perceives
the woman to be. [File 20: Text Units 755-776]
In reclaiming culture the place of gender in society must be
taken serious to interrogate social and political structures that
marginalize women in society. Schools contribute to the pro-
blem by the lack any critical focus on gender issues to allow
learners complete grasp of the complexity of social interactions.
If culture is to claimed then the sites of empowerment as well
as disempowerment for certain groups (e.g., women, children
and religious, ethnic and sexual minorities) must also be ex-
posed and addressed.
For critical educators the question of what knowledge we
teach, and why we teach these knowings is as important as how
we teach (see also Dei, 2011a). These questions relate in part to
the social organization of knowledge in our schools, as well as
a realignment the social settings through which education hap-
pens. As correctly noted by (Mundy, 2008), the “hierarchical
nature of many African school systems, as inherited from the
colonial era, further entrenched inequalities…[and more so]…
administratively, African school systems tended to be organized
in a top-down, centralized manner, with little room for partici-
pation or innovation” (p. 6). Thus, external political and institu-
tional factors lay at the root of African educational crisis. Po-
licy weaknesses as far as African education is concerned can be
summarised as a reluctance to introduce necessary in-depth
reforms; weak public administration and institutions, an aver-
sion to the institutionalization of bureaucratic practices (see
also Ward et al., 2003). There is usually a lack of clarity and
consensus on policy issues, program objectives, and related
interventions among all parties involved. No concerted effort is
made to target and reach the most vulnerable population.
As noted in Dei (2011a) Berthelemy (2006) studies found
that African countries pay, relatively little attention to primary
education, to the benefit of secondary education concluded that
there exist bias resulting from institutional characteristics of
Africa, which are deeply-rooted in its history (in particular its
post-colonial legacy), its demography and its geography. Afri-
can cultural resource knowings, embedded in local proverbs,
parables, fables, myths, mythologies and folklores hold some
useful ideas for schooling and educational policy for African
youth. This case study offers us a way to rethink schooling and
education through knowledge production, effective and mean-
ingful classroom pedagogy and instruction, informed by com-
munity cultural resource knowledge base. In documenting local
proverbs, parables, fables, myths, mythologies, and folklore the
educative interest lies in the pedagogic, instructional and com-
municative significance for African students. The research
findings help inform debates about educational change. Educa-
tional change must work with local knowledge, start from what
local communities know, how they use their knowledge base
and how such knowledge offer poignant lessons for educating
the contemporary learner to be a responsible citizen for member
of community.
The successful integration of local cultural knowledge into
schools teaching and curriculum will depend on how African
schools promote indigenous languages and cultures. As already
noted, the teaching of local indigenous language is key to the
survival of indigenous knowledge systems. Curricular initia-
tives in schools must seek to promote the teaching of local lan-
guages to all students. The diversity of local languages is not an
excuse not to teach local languages. There must be an active
promotion of local languages in schools. Many times educators
do not employ proverbs and local cultural knowings in schools
because they themselves are not well-versed in these languages.
Schools do not only need teachers trained to teach specifically
in indigenous languages,. We must also ensure that there is staff
professional development for all educators that takes the teach-
ing and promotion of African Indigenous languages and cul-
tural knowledges seriously (see Brock-Utne & Skattum, 2009).
School curriculum must be expansive enough to integrate
and work with local cultural knowledges. This may require that
we have effectively curricular, instructional and pedagogical
approaches that infuse local cultural knowings in the areas of
science, mathematics, arts, literature and social studies. African
schools must change the rigid curricular structures. This ap-
proach will mean educating with a transformed school curricu-
lum that places learners [their histories, experiences, cultures
and knowledges] at the centre of their education. This enables
the learner to feel a sense of self worth, collective responsibility
and ownership of the learning process. Schooling must high-
light the centrality of culture to knowledge production (peda-
gogy) and emphasize the importance of reaffirming and rein-
forcing the myriad identities of learners. By working with the
ideas of community, solidarity, social responsibility, mutual
interdependence, and collective histories young learners and
educators begin to value and appreciate each other as contri-
buting to the education of all. The idea of “schooling as com-
munity” can ensure that students, parents, Elders and local
communities all develop a sense of collective ownership of the
schooling process. The idea of “community education” may be
engaged to ensure a close relations and bonding between
schools, parents, Elders, families and communities. Educators
G. J. S. DEI
working with knowledges from and about the different cultures,
histories, heritages and intellectual agencies of all learners and
centering these experiences in lea rning provide a needed se nse of
learners’ ownership, control and responsibility over their own
Contextualized learning is about grounding education in lo-
cal practice and experience. Through this approach learners are
able to grasp knowledge when fully anchored in everyday ex-
perience as well as local understandings of the workings of
culture, society and Nature. When student are able to relate
classroom teachings to their own lived experience or everyday
social practice that can learn better. By grounding teachings in
local contexts, environments learners can easily identity with
education and the production of knowledge. In the area of local/
Indigenous knowledge young learners affirm how proverbs and
story forms have impacted knowledge to them from Elders and
adults. Educators who lace their teachings with such local
knowledges make an impact of their students as these students
are assisted to think through the import of the message being
delivered and to relate it to everyday experience, including
local culture and the surrounding environments. The nexus of
local culture, society and nature constitute a body of knowledge
that educators can utilize in school teachings to deliver impor-
tant educational message.
Thanks to Marlon Simmons of the Department of Sociology
and Equity Studies, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) for helping me address
reviewers’ comments on a draft of the paper. Many individuals
have assisted in this longitudinal study research in Ghana, Ni-
geria and Canada. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of
Dr. Meredith Lordan, Munya Kabba, Jaggiet Gill, Camille
Logan, Rosina Agyepong, Paul Adjei, Dr. Anthony Kola-Olu-
sanya all of OISE/UT who at various times worked as graduate
researchers with me on various aspects of the project. I am
forever grateful to Professor Kola Raheem and the staff of the
Centre For School and Community Science and Technology
Studies (SACOST), University of Education, Winneba, as well
as Mr. Paul Akom, former Dean of Students at the University
of Education at Winneba for their invaluable assistance on my
research project. My Visiting Professor ship for the 2007-08
school year at SACOST and the University of Education in
Winneba afforded me the opportunities to make contacts which
ensured success for my study. Similarly, I am indebted to Mr.
Tola Olujuwon and the Provost, faculty, staff and students of
the Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, Otto/Ijanikin,
Lagos State, Nigeria where I was a Visiting Scholar for a short
period in the Fall of 2007. Also, many thanks to Messrs Ebe-
nezer Aggrey, Alfred Agyarko, Isaac Owusu-Agyarko, Martin
Duodo, Kwaku Nii, Stephen Asenso, and Dickson K. Darko, all
who served as my local research assistants on various aspects of
the project. My sincere gratitude goes to the many Ghanaian
and Nigerian educators, students and parents who gave their
time for the interviews during my fieldwork. The Social Sci-
ences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)
provided funding for this study.
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