Missionary Education: Implications for Skewed and Dysfunctional Educational Foundations in Africa

Missionary Education: Implications for Skewed and Dysfunctional Educational Foundations in Africa

Benjamin N. Nyewusira, PhD

Department of Educational Foundations,

University of Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

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It is not contentious, at least,in the Western sense, that the missionaries were Africans foremost educators.But whether the mission type of education was the right model, particularly for the proper foundation and development of modern education in Africa, is veryquestionable. This paper, therefore, is a historical attempt to revisit the peculiar characteristics cum policies of missionaries in respect of the educational system they bequeathed to most African societies. The paper examined the rationale andconsequent implications of the educationalpolicies and practicesof the missions.The paper revealed that,although the policy directions of missionary education promoted religious morals as well as rich social lessons, theywere paradoxicallyresponsible for thedisarticulate education, cultural distortions, economic and scientific inertiain modern African societies. The paperidentified that though efforts were made after political independence by some countries to correct the foundational dysfunctions of mission schools, particularly with the take takeover of schools from the missions, such efforts were not sufficient to dissuade the control of education by the missions. It observed that the socio-scientific relevance of education inAfricahaveremainedelusive owing to thevestiges ofa dysfunctionalmissionary education. It also noted that it is only a deep-seatedshift from the inherentdysfunctions of mission education to a much morepurposeful and functional model of education that would revamp education and make it helpful to the overall development of Africa.Finally, the paper suggests that Africa should further leverage on the knowledge of the foundational limitations and reservations on mission education to evolve archetypal educational systems that would correct andreverse the foundational faults herein highlighted.


Keywords:  Missionary, Education, Implications, Skewed, Foundational,                          Dysfunctional, Africa.


Education is fundamentally an instrument for personal, institutional or societal development. As a result, agencies and governmentsdesign their educationalpolicies and practices in such way that they ultimately impact all the segments of society.It is equally for this reason why, from time to time, nations review and reform their educational systems with the view to steadilyrefocusing the systems for relevance.It is also instructive to note that when or where the goals of education become skewed or asymmetrical, the impact of such goals to the entire educational system in particular, and the society in general, only becomes inept.

Again, the foundations of an educational system, if faulty, would not only be detrimental toeducation but also to the majority of the othersegments and systems of the society. Even the Holy Writ pointed to the dilemma that might be encountered when a foundation is defective (Psalm 11:3). Hence, Ojigbo(2018) observes that part of educational problems of Nigeria, like in some parts of Africa, emanates from a faulty base.It is against this background thata deeper examination of the foundational problems in education vis-à-vis the upshots of mission education in Africa become worthy of appraisal.

As a matter of fact, the history, growth, development and impact of education in Africa would be grossly incomplete without copious references to the foundational issues associated with missionary education, as well the roles missions played in consequently shaping the trajectory of education in the continent. Missionary education covered from pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods.In fact, even in the paradigm and process of decolonization,missionary education did not wane but thrived and expanded.Thus, it would be convenient to remark that the mission type of education spanned through the greater period of educational history in Africa. Therefore, missionary education is a worthy phenomenon that would always be considered in the litany of educational discourses in Africa.

However, the discourse here is a historical review of the educational policy actions and inactions of missions vis-à-vis their longstanding impact in the overall development of Africa. References were made in at leastone country in Western, Central and Southern Africa. The references of what transpired in these countries were thusadopted to analyse the dysfunctional characteristics of missionary education. The discourse was understandablytaciturn on Northern African experience because early missionary education made very limited influence around the Maghreb,as a result of the dominance of Islam education in that axis of the continent. In effect, attempts here at spotlighting and analysing why and how mission-sponsored educationcould not facilitate desirable development in Africa would onlygo for as another insightful historicaldiscussion and study.

Rationale for X-Raying Missionary Education.

History of education has sufficiently chronicled how churches and missions, in different eras and places, made some verynoteworthy roles in the provision of education. However, such roles were usually and strictly dictated by the interests of the missions, in addition to the vagaries of their intents, purposes and aspirations. Much as the missions have positively impacted the development of education at some periods and places, it would be recalled that the missions, which ultimately become the major provider of education curriculum and facilities in the medieval period, were also very much responsible for what was referred to as the Dark Age in education; an age that unarguably brought about educational decline and retrogression around Europe, and by extension to every part of the globe that was under the religious cum political influence of Europe.

In effect, modern missionary education was very much associated with the spread ofeducation and vice versa. It is however erroneous to assume that missionary education was solely religious, considering that the “historiography of mission education has a strong focus on formal education” (Dujardin, 2021 p1), as evident in some Britishcolonial territories like India, Australia, New Zealand,etc. And so, it was only expected that the missionaries in Africa extended this‘strong focus on formal education’ to the type of education that was handed down to Africans. Sadly this was not the case. The rather disarticulate education, inherent in the brand of missionary education that was bequeathed to Africa, has been identifiedas one of the major contributory factors to the lingering underdevelopment in Africa.

For one, missionary education in Africa did not begin as a deliberate or contemplated policy of the Christian missions. At best, it was an incident rather than a design. The missionaries incidentally discovered and saw that secular education was more of an aid to their evangelization programme. Besides, the rivalry amongst missions made the choice of education as an inevitable strategy forresult-orientedevangelization. The idea was simply that the more schools, they opened, the more children attended and consequently the more converts for each missionary organization.

Furthermore, the shortage of clergies in the various African colonies where Christianity had gained roots also necessitated the evolution of missionary education. According to Babalola (1976), one solution to the problem of shortage of clergies was to train African converts for priesthood. As far back as the 16th century a number of Congolese youths were sent to Portugal to be educated for priesthood. At the beginning of the 17th century, an Itsekiri prince was also sent to Portugal for ten years to be educated for the same purpose. Philip Quaque, who became the first West African from Ghana to obtain a B.Adegree from Oxford University, was also a product of the quest for missions to raise Africans that they could use strictly for evangelical purpose (Kosemeni and Okorosaye-Orubite, 1995). Thus, all missionary bodies in Africa, Catholic or Protestants, Pentecostals or Orthodox, believed in the spread of western education as the best means of ensuring the optimal performance of their pastoral vocations in Africa.

Effectively, the missions realized that their activities in Africa would fail if theydidn’t create middle class of African intellectuals who could be used in the furthering of the cause of Christianity.  Bassey (1999) was more cynical on the bigoted motive of the missionaries when he remarked that it was when the missionaries painfully realized that they would not succeed in their evangelical work in Africa, without an indigenous corps of educated Africans that they helplessly began to build schools.

Again, the high mortality rate of European missionaries in African prompted the need for Africans to be trained for their replacement as they died in their numbers. To adumbrate Babalola (1976), it appeared that the religious authorities tended to retain services of their abler African members for fear of deaths.More so, the constant frictions between European missionaries and traditionalists, and with the need to negotiate with theseAfrican traditionalists, prompted for the training ofintermediary and clerical officerswho stood as the liaisonbetween the missionaries and the resistant African traditionalists.

From the foregoing, it is apparent that missionary education was never intentionally initiated to foster the growth and reward of formal education in Africa.Rather than being a carefully thought-out action or passionate activity, the foundation of education in Africa was on the whole, and unfortunately, verycircumstantial.

Skewed Policies and Control in Missionary Education.

There were no formalpolicy documents in the missionary type of education. However, where the actions and activities of the missions became cognate to policy directions, they were mostly covert andskewed. In the first place, the curriculum was extremely limited to cover 4Rs-Reading,’Riting, Rithemetic and Religion.Of these 4Rs, Religion was overtly predominant. The Bible and religious booklets in form of catechism, liturgical books, hymnals, canticles, etcwere the major kind of educational texts obtainable in mission schools. To that extent, Okonkwo (1988: p98) notes that “Education for Africans in Mozambique was no more than learning Ave Maria in Portuguese”.Mazrui (1978, p27) also notes that in Uganda and most parts of Africa, “in spite of this evidence that Africans went to school in pursuit of their skills, the accompanying values of education were still religious”.Hence, it was for these far reachingexamples that Ayandele (1966) lashed out on missionary schools as sheer‘fanatical schools’.

Moreover, it was not in doubt thatthe larger number of foundational educated Africanswaspreponderantly the products of the missions. Even with colonial governments’ intervention in education in their various African territories, and the partnershipin education that existed between the governments and the missionary agencies, the heavycontrol of education by these agencies was hardly reversed. The simple reason for this was that the actual templates and values of education before and long after independence in most African stateswere principally determined by the whims and caprices of the missions.

Consequently, and contrary to the general perception thatPhelps Stokes Commission report of 1922 signalled the massive control of education by the colonial governments, it was the missions whoheavilyprofited in the command structure of education as governments still provided grants and funds for their schools.To adumbrate Bassey (1999), in most parts of Africa, the establishment of schools was for a very long time was mostly the private and near exclusiveactivity of Christian missions during and after colonial rule. The result of this was that even after political independence,there were comparatively few literate Africans who had not received all or part of their education from mission schools.

Dysfunctional Effects of Missionary Education

Missionary practicesin education for Africa did not meet the educational needs of emerging African countries. The practices were not only religiously laden;   they were heavily bereft of the functionalcontents that facilitated speedy socio-economic and scientific development. Theprotracted problem arising from this was that, over the years, education in Africa has made limited impact in virtually every facet of socio economic lives when compared to the role of modern education in the national development of many other countries outside the continent.

Notably, missionary education brought about thedecimation of some progressive cultural practices in African societies. That missionary education condemned most departments of Africanautochthonousculture is the reason African finds itself in a cultural labyrinth. That was what Mbiti (1969, p219) meant when he said that missionary education “alienates him (the African) from the traditions of his societyand from his root so that he became an alien both to traditional life and to the new life brought about by modern change”.  It is only in contemporary times that most Africans are making dogged efforts to rediscover their lost cultural values. Even so, the frantic efforts to re-invent the waning cultural ethos in Africa has been hampered by anotherpervasive phenomenon called globalization.

According to Anene (1968) Western education which the missions spread and their abolition of many time-honoured harmless practices were among those forces which tended to lead to complete disintegration of indigenous African leadership. In Bostwana, missionary education was used as a massivetool to confuse the people's minds, rather enlighten them. It facilitated European dominance over Africans and consequently hoisted the tenets of colonisation. Hence, most ofthose educated in missionary schools were for the most part subjected to an educational system which poorly prepared them for political leadershipin their countries as opposed to the bourgeoning religious leaderships and mass congregations that blossoms in Africa (Nkamazana&Setume, 2016)

Another major overbearing character of missionary education was itsexcessive emphasis and biasfor morals, ethical conduct and concepts of virtue. According to Duncan (2003), character formation was the most pervasive subject in the curriculum of mission schools despite the fact that it was nowhere to be found on the time table. Moral studies was a major tool in the christianization, education and civilizing process of the missionaries, with a view to forming a compliant Christian whose commitment to moral standards should be unquestionable.

Stemming from the vested religious, moral and ethical contents of mission education, it would have been expected for Africans at their political independence to leverage on such contents and usher-in political leadership with high moral rectitude. This was not the case as Nduka (2017) observes paradoxically that the then newly independent nations which were built on the foundation of bribery, corruption and other forms of unethical practices were all headed and governed by the products of these mission schools. Missionary education therefore could not establish or account for the missing links between ethics, patriotism, citizenship and leadership. In fact, rather than have and entrench forthright political leaders, Africa is replete with incidents of religious leaders who collude with politicians to squander the commonwealth of the people. 

Levis and Stew (2003) note that in South Africa, Christian missionary education negated indigenous people’s educational identity. The missionaries pursued such axiomatic character that Christianity reigned supreme over African learning systems and practices. This attitude was thus extended to the kind of education provided by the missionaries in South Africa. Priorto the introduction of Western education, indigenous tribes of South Africa, and indeed the rest of the Sahara, practiced an informal type of education which was generally not recognized by Western missionaries as relevant. Consequently,indigenous educational practices wereeclipsed and almost thrown into extinction.

Suffice to mention thatAzikiwe (1934) in his usual nationalist and afrocentric manner attacked mission education for offering inferior and hollow curricular to Africa.Evidently, science,industrial, technical and vocational educationwere not preponderantly part of the scope of missionary educationThe consequent result of this to African education is the inability of the emerging educational systems in providing the launching pad for scientific and technological revolution. Besides, the several gaps in the curriculum of mission-laden education partly prompted Chinweizu(1978) to assert that Africans were rathermiseducated with the initial form of education that came their way. In fact, no better description would capture the dysfunctions in the curriculum of mission education than in words of Saayman (1991):

As Western civilisation was for most missionaries so obviously superior to African civilisation, they introduced the Western school system without giving much thought to intercultural implications. This resulted in a clash between African and Western concepts of education. This was one of the causes of the upheaval in Black education in South Africa, which ultimately led to the call for 'people's education' 

Missionary education in Africa stressed the study ofEurocentric literature and language rather than African literature. Kosemani and Okorosaye-Orubite (1995) noted that in early missionary schools in missionary schools in Nigeria, vernacular literature was scanty and that Christian teachings were not related to local background.This type of tilted anddistortededucation did not only disable the African dialects,it stunted their growth and in some extreme cases erased the dialects completely. In Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and SoaTome Principe, the story was worse. According to Okonkwo (1988, p95) Portugal’s Decree No. 77, which was particularly to advance missionary interests, clearly stated in Article 2 that:

It is not permitted to teach native language in mission schools. The use of the native language in written form or of any other language besides Portuguese, by any means of pamphlets, leaflets or whateverkind of manuscript, is forbidden in the religious teaching of the missions, in their schools or in whatever relation with the natives.

The implication of the foregoing is that, with exception to Tanzania where Swahili was instituted as national language and language of education, most other African countries at independencecould not do away with the linguistic inheritance in the educational sector (Ezeanya-Esiobu, 2019). English, French and Portuguese havebecome timeless languages for Africa.

It should also be noted that missionary educators secured partnerships with their home governments at the detriment of equal educational opportunities and spread. In virtually every part of Africa, the missionaries towed the policies of their home governments, no matter how absurd. Lewis and Steyn (2003) observe that in South Africa, government policies of segregation, as well as prevalent theories and practices on race were but a few examples which formed the backdrop for mission education. In Nigeria,missionary educators co-operated with Lord Lugard in ensuring that their ingress into the Northern Nigeria was limited so as not toalter the indirect rule arrangement with the vast Moslem communities in the North. The consequent result was that even the mission schools could not be rooted in Northern Nigeria.This restrictive posture of missionary education set the pace for geographic dichotomies in African education (Ocho,2003). In the case of Nigeria, since independence, efforts to tackle the sharp educational dichotomy between the North and South of Nigeria have not yielded the desired result.

Similarly, the rivalry amongst mission educators set the pace for segregation attitudes and religious bigotry amongst their products. Rather than foster unity of purpose amongst its African students, missionary education trained them alongdifferent denominational persuasions. The end result is that the products of this system of education, after graduation, continued to layemphasis on denominational agenda and creed rather than advance the principles of national cohesion and nation building. This cast doubt on the ability of such education in engenderingcitizenship, patriotism, national integration and development. (Miracle, 2015).

One other effect of the characteristics of missionary education was its bias for boys’education. The missionary agencies responsible for the early instruction of the African youth invested in upgrading the formation and training of the boys to the detriment of girl-child education. Consequently, the male population attained faster and higher level of solid advancement. The missionary policy of education therefore encouraged a systematic reduction of educated African woman (Selhausen, 2019). Bytheir lackadaisical towards the education to African women, missionary education undermined and delayed the chances of women’s participation in policy making and political leadership role in the continent.

Finally, in post-independence Africa, some attempts by government to take over schools from the mission were met with resistance and protests. In South-Eastern Nigeria, for example, the missions were vehemently opposed to the Universal Primary Education (UPE) Scheme that was initiated by the Regional government at the twilight of colonial in Nigeria for fear that the Scheme would end their dominance of the proprietorship of the Region’s primary education. Of course, the rallies, defiance and opposition of the Missions to the Scheme accounted for part of the reasons why the UPE Scheme ran into serious hitches (Abernethy, 1969). The very implication of this is that “the missionaries monopolized the policy formulation, control and practice of education” for much longer time in Africa(Okorosaye-Orubite 2017, p8).

Anene (1966) argues that some remarkable socio-economic transitions in African societies would have been completely impossible without the gains and instruments of mission schools.In other words, despite the limited objectives of the pioneers of missionary education and their reluctance to embark on a broad-based education, their education brought about certain fundamental changes which in turn created almost unquenchable thirst for western literacy education among many sections of the African population. Thus, irrespective of the flaws of missionary education, it undoubtedly gave Africans the much needed bearing for the pursuit of a wider modern education.



This work has taken time to examine the components of the formative characteristics and policies of missionary in Africa. The work concludes that missionary policies towards education in Africa were not broad-based. Missionary policies for education in African were put in place according to the desire of the mission, and by extension, for the benefit of the colonial masters. The policies of the mission were cautions, conservative, clerical, and ill-equipped to provide the launching pad for development in Africa. Thecontents and practices of mission schoolswere not only narrow; the pace of educational spread was equally slow and restricted.



The foundational deficiencies in missionary education should be a wake-up call on Africans and their leadersto evolve and sustain functional educational systems that will help in actualizing the political, socio-economic, and technological aspirations of the continent. Thus,the focuses of African educational systems should be reviewed in its entirety. Now that Africans can make their own education policies, they should develop and engage systems of education that should be vast andutilitarian.Contemporary education policy formulators in Africa must realise that it is time to have a shift from theintrinsicdefects of mission schools to some well-designed models of education as sine qua non forjump-starting development in African education.

Christian missionary education may have been skewed in its characteristics and policies, but it paradoxically helped in producing nationalistswho moved doggedly against westernization, colonialism whilst they vigorously canvassed for Pan Africanism and political independence of nation-states in Africa. As such,the campaign by missionary educationagainst African culture and native valuesironically ignited thespirit of African nationalism. Africans should further leverage on this spirit to tackle the adverse effects of globalization on Africa.

Finally, most advocates of return of public schools to missionsshould have a rethink because missionary interests in education have not fundamentally changed fromwhat they were beforehand. Therefore,ultimately and more importantly, African countries shouldleverage on the knowledge of the foundational limitations and reservations of mission education to constantly rethink their educational policies, programmes, process and products.












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