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Making Ethnic Studies Compulsory in African Schools: A Blueprint

Teaching students respect for every ethnic group in a country is foundational to the crafting of a curriculum in Ethnic Studies. At the core will be an appreciation of the contributions of different ethnic groups to national advancement, as well as debunking any form of stereotypes.

There is a growing awareness that the colonially bequeathed structure and curricula of education still obtainable across Africa today are unable to produce a critical mass of change-making citizens. What are now crucially and urgently needed are viable discourses on meaningful Africa-centred curricula that can make nation-builders out of a significant number of Africans.

The necessary curriculum should be able to squarely tackle inherited, contemporary, emerging and anticipated national challenges. Take the issue of ethnocentrism, more popularly known as tribalism, for instance. Students across Africa will benefit from being systematically educated on the underlying nuances and untruths that have fuelled divisions in their individual countries. The aim of such an educational programme is not to eliminate ethnic identities, but to raise students’ awareness of the higher ground of embracing multiple identities, as well as to help them appreciate the strengths possessed by the different ethnicities that inhabit their national space.

Decades after the end of colonialism, the colonially entrenched contempt for other ethnicities has continued to thrive across Africa. This condescension of other ethnicities was founded and has fed on fear and exaggerations. A question was posed to participants, drawn from different African countries, at a conference. The conference speaker asked participants to raise their hands if they felt strong contempt for any ethnicity in their countries, to which most participants raised their hands. A follow-up question was posed on whether the participants have had any close and sustained interaction with any member of that ethnic group. No hand was raised. Another question that followed was why the unease with that ethnic group, if there is no history of a negative experience with any member of that group. Many members of the group had no answer to that, while some made vague references to what they read in history. At that point, it dawned on many participants that whatever strong feelings they held towards any particular ethnicity had been built and sustained by perception and not reality. 

That tribalism has decimated Africa is uncontested. Incompetent leaders have ridden on ethnic sentiments to rise to national leadership positions. Inept public servants are hired and retained on the basis of their ethnicity rather than on any measures of competence. To stand a chance of obtaining government service or employment, citizens outside of favoured ethnicities often resort to bribery and other corrupt practices. Foreign countries with interests in Africa’s wealth consider ethnic divisions a useful pedestal for hoisting themselves atop the assets of the continent. The numerous illegal activities, tax evasion and corrupt activities of these foreign countries and corporations often go unnoticed because Africans are busy fighting each other. The copious advancement obstacles facing countries in Africa can logically be addressed when different ethnicities come together and, with mutual respect, explore possibilities for solutions. In the place of that, however, citizens expend energy on ethnic-based bickering, hate and animosity, resulting in the continent’s present predicament.

Introducing Ethnic Studies as a compulsory subject of study across African schools and colleges is one way to fundamentally transform the mindset of citizens. Ethnic Studies in Africa must be differentiated from Ethnic Studies in the United States, where the course discusses issues that are not in any way related to the needs of Africa. The envisioned Ethnic Studies curriculum in Africa should cover theoretical issues of ethnic identity, historical realities of the different ethnic groups in the state, cultural awareness of different ethnic groups within the state, geographical locations and terrains of the different ethnicities as well as their contemporary realities. We shall address these proposed components of the curriculum in more detail in the next few paragraphs.

Theoretical underpinnings for the proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum in Africa will focus on social constructions of identity. Experts have long noticed that human civilizations have a penchant for arranging and voluntarily identifying themselves along dimensions of diversity and commonality. Research has shown that people have a tendency to identify with groups, no matter how arbitrary or even nonsensical the group borders are, and to consider members of their own group as superior. Emphasis should be paid to the concepts of “Belonging” and “Othering.” The result will be an exposition of the subjective aspect of group-based identities, the fallacies of stereotypes, the dehumanization of the “Othered” and the damaging effects of prejudice on innocent victims.  As part of this theoretical foundation, there will be empirical instances of the many colonialists and postcolonial leaders in Africa who have incited hatred or fear of the “other” in order to prop up or consolidate their own support.

Another dimension worth emphasizing in the proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum in Africa is an appreciation of the indigenous knowledge of different ethnicities in the nation. The aim of this focus will be to reverse the Eurocentric narrative that undergirds education across Africa in order to entrench Afrocentrism from a place of mutual validation of the continent’s multiplicities.

Theories of diversity will also be taught in a way that shows that difference does not mean deficiency or inequality. The emphasis will be that there is strength and a wealth of knowledge in diversity, which must be harnessed for nation-building. This wealth of knowledge spans different fields, such as traditional herbal knowledge, indigenous food systems, traditional architecture, technology, arts and other such fields.

The historical background of the different ethnicities will be taught as part of the proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum. The history of different ethnic groups in Africa is replete with accomplishments that have been muted for the most part. A historical study of ethnic groups within a country will afford learners the opportunity to mine the wealth of realities of Africa in unprecedented detail.

A cultural awareness component is necessary for the proposed Ethnic Studies course. The emphasis here will be on looking at the cultural similarities and perhaps differences among ethnic groups from a positive lens. Students will be taught that no culture is superior or inferior to the other, but every culture should introspectively build on its strengths. Under this component, the benefits of unity in diversity should be clearly stated and rehashed until understanding is gained.

Another component that should be a part of the proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum in Africa is geographical terrain as well as contemporary realities of the different ethnic groups. The idea behind this component is to proffer an understanding of the lived, real-life experiences of various ethnicities within a country. This component could include video presentations, real-life online interviews with members of the other ethnicities etc. This aspect will serve to demystify other ethnic nationalities in the eyes of students.

The list mentioned above is by no means exhaustive. In all, teaching students respect for every ethnic group in a country is foundational to the crafting of a curriculum in Ethnic Studies. At the core will be an appreciation of the contributions of different ethnic groups to national advancement, as well as debunking any form of stereotypes.

Africa’s challenges demand a logical and well-strategized response that can take the form of short-, medium- and long-term responses. The introduction of a compulsory Ethnic Studies curriculum in schools and colleges across the continent is one way of working to transform the mindset of Africans towards building a stronger continent.


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