The African School—What Did It Teach?

BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GHANA

THE African school? Some Westerners may be surprised to know that such an arrangement actually existed in times past. Sad to say, the Hollywood image of the African as a menacing savage clutching a spear has been slow to vanish from the minds of people. Many simply cannot imagine how the African of days gone by could in any way have been considered educated.

It is indeed true that Africans raised in traditional societies did not receive book learning and formal classroom training. However, long before the European brand of formal education was brought to this continent, many African societies had effective educational systems that helped children become well equipped to function and thrive in their local culture. Consider, for example, the schooling of the Akan, the Twi-speaking people of Ghana.

Home Schooling

Among the Akan, the home served as the primary classroom. The child’s education began as he learned speech from his parents. At the same time, he also received his first lessons in proper manners. For instance, when a visitor to the house would say a greeting to a child, the child would be taught the proper, polite response. Later, when the child was sent out on errands, he would be told the polite way to deliver any messages being conveyed.

The educational philosophy of the Akan was thus not unlike that expressed in the Bible at Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a boy according to the way for him; even when he grows old he will not turn aside from it.” Parents, especially the father, took an interest in child-rearing. Said an Akan proverb: “If a child does not take after his mother, he takes after his father.”

As the child grew, so did the depth of his education. Lessons about life were conveyed, not through books, but through imaginative stories, such as those about the mythical spider called Kwaku Ananse. How children loved these tales! In the early evening breeze, or on a moonlit chilly night, they would sit around a fire and heartily enjoy these stories of triumph and failure.

One famous story tells that Ananse traveled the length and breadth of the earth to put all the world’s wisdom in a pot. His mission seemingly accomplished, he decided to hang the pot high up in a tree, so that no one else could access this wisdom. He began the difficult climb up the tree, the wisdom-laden pot attached to a string and dangling from his belly. As he struggled, his firstborn son, Ntikuma, appeared and called out to Ananse: “Ah, bah, Father! Whoever climbs a tree with a pot on his belly? Why not put it on your back and have room to operate?” Ananse looked down at his son and shouted: “How dare you teach me?”

But now it was apparent that some wisdom still remained outside his pot! Angered by this realization, Ananse hurled down the pot, shattering it and scattering all the wisdom about. Those who were the first to get there became the wisest ones. The lesson: No one has a monopoly on wisdom. The Akan would thus say: “One head does not constitute a council.”—Compare Proverbs 15:22; 24:6.

Life Skills

Akan education also included training in life skills. Most boys took up their father’s occupation—usually farming. But there were other skills to be learned, such as hunting, palm wine tapping, and crafts such as basket weaving. For more elaborate ventures, such as wood carving or weaving, boys were apprenticed to master craftsmen. And the girls? Their training mainly focused on homemaking skills such as extracting vegetable oil, making soap and pottery, spinning cotton, and the like.

Science was not left out of the traditional school’s “curriculum.” Knowledge of medicinal herbs, their preparation and dispensation, was passed from father to son or from grandparent to grandchild. A child also learned to calculate numbers, using his fingers as well as marbles, stones, and marks on sticks. Games like oware and draughts sharpened counting skills.

By attending open court sessions, the young Akan would also gain insight into the political and judicial systems. Funerals as well as festive occasions were opportunities to assimilate the local dirges, poetry, history, music, drumming, and dancing.

Community Responsibility

Among the Akan, the child was not a social island. Early in life he was made to recognize his responsibility to the community. He learned his first lessons in this regard as he joined his peers for play. In later years he would engage in cooperative activities like community labor. When he misbehaved, punishment would be administered, not only by his parents but by any adult member of the community. Indeed, it was considered an adult’s moral obligation to discipline any misbehaving child.

Such discipline was well received because children were taught to have a high regard for adults. In fact, the Akan used to say: “An old lady is not grandmother to only one person.” Respect for and service to the elderly was thus an obligation. And any child who, without proper excuse, refused to render service to an adult would be reported to his parents.

Religious Education

The Akan were very religious, having a reverent attitude toward nature and the unknown universe. True, they were polytheists, believing in many gods. Even so, the Akan believed in the existence of one Supreme Being. (Romans 1:20) The Akan word for “God,” any god, is onyame. However, to the Akan that word seemed inadequate to describe the Creator. So, they called him Onyankopɔn, meaning “the God Who Alone Is the Great One.”

Lesser gods were worshiped in the belief that it was the arrangement of the One Great God. In their minds this was little different from the way the paramount chief was served through lesser divisional chiefs. At any rate, every Akan child was taught this religion.

Traditional Education Today

In recent years millions of Africans have migrated to big cities where formal classroom instruction has all but replaced the traditional ways of schooling. Nevertheless, the traditional African school continues to flourish in some communities, especially in the rurals. Why, some Africans have even had the benefit of both traditional and formal educations!

Consider, for example, a Christian minister in Ghana named Alfred. In spite of having enjoyed a formal education, he has a high regard for many aspects of the traditional way of life. Says Alfred: “Most of my unlettered kinsmen, though having only their traditional training, are very good teachers on practical aspects of life. Working with fellow Christians among them has taught me many effective ways of presenting my message in simple, down-to-earth style. I can thus reach people of a traditional background as well as those with formal education. Quite often, I take a proverb or illustration used by these folks, polish it, and incorporate it in my Bible lectures. This often draws enthusiastic applause from the audience! Really, though, the credit must go to these traditionally trained men and women.”

Clearly, then, the African school has many admirable aspects and is deserving of respect, not disdain. It may not have produced technological wonders, but it did produce a strong family structure, a sense of community, and a people of keen mind, appealing sense of humor, and generous, hospitable spirit. Not surprisingly, then, many city Africans endeavor to keep in touch with relatives who live in the rurals by making occasional visits. Such occasions are not without their awkward moments. City dwellers often falter when it comes to traditional norms. Often they do not know, for example, that when you shake hands with a group, the “proper” way is to go from right to left. Still, such visits can prove to be mutually refreshing.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that while the African traditional school taught reverence and devotion, it did not impart the life-giving knowledge of Jehovah and his Son, Jesus Christ. (John 17:3) Jehovah’s Witnesses are privileged to work among the Akan and other African ethnic groups to provide this vital knowledge. They have taught thousands of Africans who lack formal schooling to read and write so that they can study God’s Word firsthand. For those who are “conscious of their spiritual need,” this is the most important education a person could possibly have.—Matthew 5:3.

 

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The Fascinating Search for New Medicines

By Awake! Correspondent in Britain

What do rubber, cocoa, cotton, and painkillers have in common? All may be obtained from plants. In addition to sugar and oxygen made by means of photosynthesis, green plants also produce an extraordinary array of substances from other basic chemical building blocks. These secondary chemicals are what give each plant its distinctive properties.

THE sting of a nettle, the sharp flavor of an apple, and the delicate fragrance of a rose are all due to different combinations of chemical substances manufactured by the plants themselves. Thus, what might seem to be a single product is in fact often a very complex mixture.

Nature’s Chemical Factories

Consider the characteristic smell of cocoa. Did you know that scientists have so far discovered 84 different volatile chemicals that combine to make up this unique aroma? The contents of cacao beans are extremely complex, and much effort has been expended in recent years to identify them. And that is just one natural product.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance, perhaps best known for its possible connection with human heart disease. Yet, in some plants it is the starting point for making a vital group of chemicals called steroids. Steroids include vitamin D, hormones (such as cortisone), and medicines such as the anti-inflammatory betamethasone. Diosgenin, a steroid used in the manufacture of oral contraceptives, is produced by certain types of wild yam. Cortisone, on the other hand, is manufactured from hecogenin, a natural steroid extracted from sisal leaf pulp after fiber making. Many of today’s new drugs were first isolated from plant tissue.

Plants and Man

Although man’s use of synthetic drugs is a modern medical development, plant extracts have been used as cures for common ills for thousands of years. Early Assyrian records describe the use of the common anemone to alleviate pain. And Egyptian medical papyri from the time of the Pharaohs reveal a widespread use of medicinal plants.

The World Health Organization has recorded the use of about 20,000 medicinal plants worldwide. In Britain alone an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 tons of herbs are used annually as ingredients in some 5,500 different herbal products, and in the United States, it has been reckoned that over half of all doctors’ prescriptions are for medicines derived from plants.

Finding New Medicines

With as many as 250,000 known species of plants in the world, each possessing a potentially unique chemistry, scientists constantly look for clues to find useful medicines. One of the obvious ways is to study how people treat ailments using plants growing in their locality.

The discovery of cocaine started with the observation that chewing coca leaves deadened hunger pangs and eased fatigue. By isolating and modifying the structure of the cocaine molecule, chemists produced a synthetic derivative for use as a local anesthetic. If your dentist has given you an injection to “freeze” part of your jaw to save you from a painful experience, then you may well have benefited from this research.

Much valuable information on the use of plants is still filed away in botanical collections. Scientists who spent over four years examining 2.5 million specimens in the Gray Herbarium and Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University were able to pinpoint more than 5,000 plant species previously overlooked as potential sources of medicines.

Another line of inquiry compares the chemical contents of plants. If one species contains useful compounds, related species may also be valuable. When work on a north Australian tree, the Moreton Bay chestnut, isolated castanospermine, a poison displaying antiviral activity, botanists searching for related trees suggested looking at the South American Alexa.

Anticancer Research

Sometimes clues can be misleading and then yield unexpected results. It was claimed, for example, that extracts from the Madagascar periwinkle could treat diabetes. Canadian research workers began testing it, but to their surprise the periwinkle extract suppressed the immune system by lowering production of white blood cells. This gave doctors the idea of testing the extract against leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.

Eventually about 90 substances were isolated, of which two, known as vincristine and vinblastine, proved medically useful. They are present in the plant in such small amounts that about one ton of plant material is needed to produce .07 ounces [2 g] of vincristine. Today these compounds and their derivatives provide a chemotherapy used worldwide in the treatment of childhood leukemia.

In the late 1950’s, the U.S. National Cancer Institute initiated a 25-year screening program, during which 114,000 plant extracts from 40,000 species were tested for antitumor activity on cancer cultures. About 4,500 of these produced a noticeable effect, worthy of further study. But consultant pharmacognosist Dr. W. C. Evans points out: “It is highly unlikely that broad-spectrum anticancer drugs will actually be found” as a direct result of such research, important as it is. Cancers vary enormously, and only a few fast-growing cancer-cell cultures were used in these tests.

New Medicines from Old Plants

Well-known plants are providing researchers with more food for thought. Ginger, for example, is now being used as an antiemetic, particularly effective against motion sickness. More significantly, ginger could prove to be valuable in relieving sufferers of the tropical parasitic disease schistosomiasis (bilharzia). Tests on infected schoolchildren in Nigeria, using tablets of ginger powder, have stopped the occurrence of blood in their urine and lowered the schistosome egg count.

Researchers have hardly begun the task of examining the vegetable kingdom in the search for more medicines. Even those plants relatively well-known still retain many secrets. Licorice is now in demand since chemicals discovered in it are effective anti-inflammatory agents and their derivatives can give relief to some persons who suffer from arthritis. Scientists are also looking at the common garden pea for antifungal and antimicrobial effects.

The wanton destruction of plant species in certain areas of the world, before those plants have been recorded, means that the search for new medicines must continue on apace. Careful chemical analysis of plants and their genetic conservation remains a top priority, even for plants that are well-known. But there is one puzzle still to be solved: Of what use are many of these extraordinary chemicals to the plants themselves? Why, for example, does the purslane plant produce such a high concentration of noradrenaline, a hormone found to be essential to human welfare?

Really, our knowledge of the complexities of plant life is still extremely limited. But what we do know points to an overall design, with credit to a Grand Designer.

[Footnotes]

See page 31 of the July 22, 1982, issue of Awake!

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