Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

Language and the contextualization of education in Africa
Mchombo, Sam [about]

KEY WORDS: African knowledge systems, language of instruction (LoI), context of learning, curriculum, formal schooling, rights in education.
ABSTRACT: A report of the cultural agency of the United Nations released early 2014 claimed that a quarter of a billion children worldwide are failing to learn basic reading and math skills in an education crisis that costs governments $129 billion annually. The comment about education in sub-Saharan Africa was even more dismal. For that region the report noted that four in ten African children “cannot read a sentence”. The report blamed this on the lack of trained teachers. In the majority of cases fewer than three-quarters of existing primary school teachers were trained to national standards. Further, an estimated 120 million primary age children across the world had little or no experience of school. In brief, the problems reduced to lack of facilities, infrastructure, and appropriately trained teachers. While these do stand out as factors militating against improved academic performance or progress, there was no mention of the role that the languages that the children received their education in might play in impeding their educational progress. This paper will highlight that aspect, viz., that the choice of language of instruction is not irrelevant to educational success.

Decontextualization of education in Africa

A prevalent view about education in Africa is that it is, in many respects, “decontextualized.” Theories of education concur that learning marks a progressive shift from the known to the unknown. In this acquisition of knowledge gained through the processing of environmental input or external conditions cultural practices constitute a relevant parameter. However, formal schooling in Africa has, traditionally, been conducted with near total exclusion of the African culture and African systems of knowledge. Nasir (2012) notes that learning crucially involves “shifts in ways of understanding, thinking about concepts, and solving problems and closely related shifts in ways of doing or participating in activities” (Nasir, 2012: 17). Elaborating on that she highlights some of the current perspectives on learning that view it as “involving not simply transmission from the teacher to the learner (as a behaviorist perspective would view learning), but as involving cognitive processes of problem-solving, transfer, reflection, prior knowledge, and the development of expertise ” (ibid.). These cognitive processes do not develop outside of social or cultural context whose relevance to learning has been central to research in education. Recent scholarship in education has also highlighted how, in addition to involving cognitive processing, learning is “deeply intertwined with social processes and ways of participating in learning activities. This work has highlighted the fact that learning always involves an interplay between individual cognition and a socially and culturally organized learning setting, where learning is, in part, indexed by changing relations between people and increasingly sophisticated use of available tools for problem-solving” (ibid.)

Crucial to the social context and cultural practice is the linguistic endowment of the society. While language may be a computational system that links perception and sound representation on the one hand with conceptual systems or thought representation on the other, in its social function as a system for communication language is crucially involved in the expression of cultural or societal values. The notion of culture is central to every society. Gollnick & Chinn provide one characterization of culture as “…a way of perceiving, believing, evaluating, and behaving (Gollnick & Chinn 1998:4). Culture “provides the blueprint that determines the way we think, feel, and behave in society” (ibid.). Cultural aspects of the society equip the individual with the knowledge requisite for attaining “functional literacy” in the morals or ethics of the society, of the shared aspects that may be embedded in human, technical, and scientific endowments, and are instrumental to the adaptive challenges of the context. A people’s conceptual outlook as well as their material and social world are influenced by their ethics and epistemology. In turn, this is influenced by their cultural ideals. As such, culture “…defines man in his own environment, and ethical plus epistemological ideals are reflections of a cultural perspective” (Kaphagawani & Chidammodzi 1983: 29). Cultural adaptation or socialization effectively constitutes the initial phase of learning or education. Knowledge systems of the society are crucially embedded in culture. Language as a central feature of culture not merely facilitates the learning process but it plays a crucial role in the cognitive development of children.

This education is distinct from that identified with formal schooling. It is education that is crucial for the development of identity with, and inclusion in, a community. Such membership identity is “shaped through involvement in the membership community and the successful performance of membership roles and responsibilities” (Peele-Eady 2011: 57). Thus, membership identity involves being cognizant of one’s role and responsibilities, and developing the pragmatic competence to discharge or perform them appropriately, as well as being versed in the normative values and conceptual outlook of the society. 

However, in African education, when identified with formal schooling, has, by and large, been treated as in a “disjunctive” relation with the traditional one largely because of its colonialist origin and bias. The advent of colonialist-inspired education placed emphasis on curricula that effectively eliminated the culture, languages, or knowledge systems of African societies. In effect, formal education ignored and/or actively suppressed the cultural context in which it was established, replacing the epistemological as well as ethical and political systems of African societies with those of the colonizing western nations. Western knowledge systems and culture were imposed as superior, and identified with enlightenment and civilization. Western knowledge systems were presented largely as culture-free, objective, universal, and backed by “scientific” practice that embodied universal and objective knowledge, free of mythology, superstitions, cult doctrine or “primitive” religious influence. Africa continues to feel the impact of the legacy of the colonial presence, with African epistemology and culture getting marginalized when acknowledged at all or simply ignored or eliminated outright from the academy. Within that context of western colonialism in Africa, “African epistemology was degradingly deemed irrational and unscientific because it was allegedly opined to be muddled with emotions, religious beliefs, intuitions and myths” (Ani 2013, 296). Formal schooling thus brought a form of “decontextualized” education, where the schools became centers for indoctrination of foreign ideologies and values, imparted in foreign languages. The consequences have been profound and continue to plague educational policies in Africa.      

Languages of instruction and curricula in African education

In many parts of the world education is delivered to children in their mother tongues. However, the situation is decidedly different in classrooms in Africa. There, the prevalent situation is that of instruction “given in a language children do not normally use outside of school, a language they do not command and often hardly understand” (Brock-Utne, 2012a: 147). The reasons for this have traditionally been attributed to the legacy of colonialism in Africa. The introduction of formal schooling currently dominating the notion of education came with literacy requirements and, with that, the languages of the colonialists. However, the impact of colonialism was far more wide-ranging than is signaled by simply the non-use of African languages as languages of instruction (LoIs) in schools.

Colonialism did not merely provide for direct involvement of colonial Europe in African affairs, with emphasis on exercise of imperial power over the Africans and exploitation of raw materials; it also aimed at total subjugation of African cultural values and knowledge systems, adorning the enterprise in the garb of civilization of the “savage” or “primitive” cultures. The indirect rule strategy adopted by the British, where the traditional leaders or chiefs were made agents of the colonial authorities rather than being responsible to their own people, retained the facade of showing respect for African culture. This differed from French colonialism in that “French colonial policy always contained a much more explicit ideology of cultural assimilation (the policy was renamed ‘association’ in 1905), which reached its symbolic apotheosis with young African school children being taught songs about ‘our ancestors the Gauls.’” (Wiseman 1990:19). In this assimilationist policy the assertion of French language and culture was of paramount concern to the French officials. Thus, “French political officers believed in France’s civilizing mission and the thrust of their assimilationist policy was to substitute French language, culture and nationality for indigenous social and cultural systems” (Cammack, Pool & Tordoff 1988:22).

The replacement of African social and cultural systems with those of the West was equally carried out by the missionaries who “strove for the complete destruction of African worldview, thus turning Africans into little Englishmen or into subjects of another European nation” (Jagusah 2001: 116). Colonization achieved its goals through the elimination of democratic practice considering that “colonial rule is inherently undemocratic…It is logically incompatible with democracy. The political supremacy of an alien ruling elite is government “of” the people but it is doubtfully “for” the people and however one twists the meaning of the word, it can never be “by” the people” (Wiseman, 1990:18). This was accompanied by acculturation achieved through education and religion. Thus, “colonial education and the Christian missionary enterprise became the main agents of perpetrating these racist images of the ‘native’. Both these exercises were intended to elevate the culture of the colonizer and debase the culture of the colonized. The process of education led African children to identify with the European explorer, the missionary, ‘the bringer of civilization, the white man who carries truth to the savages—an all-white truth’ (Fanon, 1967a: 147)” (Mazrui & Mazrui, 1998: 58).

Such identification with the European explorer got entrenched in the educational system that post-independence Africa inherited. It was an educational system that had imperial languages as mediums of instruction. With such Eurocentric education, both in medium of instruction and curriculum, neither African languages nor African systems of knowledge were incorporated into formal education. Where African perspectives contributed to the wealth of general knowledge they seemed to have got tactfully incorporated into western knowledge systems. This, apparently, may have been the case with the contribution of North African knowledge systems to Greek civilization (cf. Bernal, 1991; Diop 1989; James, 1988). As such, there was considerable loss of indigenous knowledge that occurred through formal education that had been “constructed by the Europeans in their languages and their interpretation of the written form of African languages” (Roy-Campbell, 2006:3).

The assumed inferiority of African languages, culture, epistemology, etc., galvanized a racialized conception of their suitability to, or integration into, formal education. The racialized view is that African languages lack the grammatical structure or lexis requisite for embodiment of systems of knowledge that are central to education. This is especially so with respect to science, mathematics, and philosophy. Such a prejudicial view about African languages virtually got elevated to established fact or proven dogma. It practically got deeply ingrained in the African psyche. In tandem with the view about the inferiority of African languages for educational purposes was the assumed inferiority (or non-existence) of African indigenous systems of knowledge. These, when acknowledged at all, got contrasted with the philosophical and scientific outlook characteristic of Western knowledge.

According to Mazrui & Mazrui (1998), colonial education and Christian missionary activities became the main agents in propping the political legitimacy and hegemonic status of the colonizers and perpetrating racist images of the African “native.” These were evident in the curricula introduced in the schools. Formal education, despite its locale on African soil, practically excluded any connections with African culture, epistemology or the “context of education,” as the term is ordinarily construed. The learning process was demarcated from the cultural context and constituted an insulated domain for indoctrination of, and conversion to, Western social and religious values, cultures, history, political organization, knowledge systems, and all delivered in European languages. It was education that made for the de-culturalization or “conceptual incarceration” of the African. The term “conceptual incarceration,” introduced by Wade Nobles, refers to “the state of intellectual imprisonment in European value and belief systems occasioned by ignorance of African and Native American philosophical, cultural and historical truths” (Hotep 2003: 6). The de-culturalization went so far as “asking students to change their names, dress code and/or religious beliefs; punishing students for speaking their native language within the school premises; and pressuring students to avoid eating local delicacies” (Jagusah op. cit.: 120). While the enforcement of avoidance of African languages on school premises contributed to the elevation of the colonizers’ languages as fit for advancement and enlightenment, it also acted as an impediment to the children’s attainment or reinforcement of the wealth of cultural knowledge requisite for personal and societal development. The knowledge deemed fit for civilized outlook reduced to what the curriculum incorporated, and this was decidedly European. In itself, this highlights the extent to which school curricula reflect, or are dictated by, political objectives.

Education policies in Africa

While an education system has the goal of preparing individuals to assume responsible mature roles in society there is the perennial question, especially for education in Africa of whether education should be just about cultural transmission (cf. Strouse, 2000) and, more importantly, whose culture is to be transmitted (cf. Spring, 1997). The response to this question that colonial education offered, with its imperialist agenda of elevating western knowledge systems, culture, politics, religion, etc., reduced to the view that the culture was that of the colonizers. The existence of African philosophy, epistemology, religious beliefs and practices, capacity for rational thinking etc., had been written off or excluded from the court of credibility. What there was pertained to “primitive” or “savage” customs that eighteenth century missionaries, explorers, and social philosophers used to examine as “…affording a window on a human world of savagery” that had since gotten surpassed by “enlightenment and progress in Europe” (Knight, 1987: 30). In brief, African culture and knowledge systems could not conceivably constitute an aspect of modern education. The curricula introduced into African formal education reflected that belief or conviction, and implemented the agenda of inculcating western values, philosophies, and systems of knowledge. This shows how the curriculum is not free from ideological tension. On the contrary, “the educational curriculum is by definition the terrain of ideological struggle” (Ramose 2003: 6).

The ideological slant of the curriculum is an aspect of education in general. Since learning involves a concrete change in what one knows or can do (cf. Nasir 2012), and children are impressionable hence susceptible to indoctrination, education becomes an effective means to shape and influence what the “educated” individuals know or can do. One educationalist has gone so far as to remark that “…the ‘child’ is not a natural phenomenon, but a political space for the production of categories, distinctions, techniques, and reasoning” (Baker, 1998: 138).

With political independence and the thrust to make education serve the needs of the society, it becomes imperative that African nations critically re-evaluate the content of the curriculum. Development cannot be construed merely in terms of attraction of increased investments, production, and marketing of material goods, the development of infrastructure requisite for trade, etc. (cf. Mchombo, 2006), it has to incorporate the production of culturally informed youth or citizens, endowed with the knowledge required to contribute to the overall development of their countries. African education has a duty to realize those goals. The de-contextualization of education has, according to the various score sheets, contributed to the endemic problems of academic success currently topical in various countries. The educational policies need to address these issues. On October 18, 2014 the newspaper The Nation Online in Kenya had a headline that ran as follows: “Schools Challenged to help promote Kenya’s cultural heritage” (http://mobile.nation.co.ke/counties/promote-Kenyan-culture/-/1950480/2490798/-/format/xhtml/-/fdmgbxz/-/index.html).

The realization that schools provide the proper arena for the promotion and preservation of cultural heritage is a step toward the “contextualization” of education. Educational policies need to address this.

Along with the re-evaluation of the curriculum is a critical examination of the languages used in instruction. The Eurocentric curricula that African education inherited went hand in hand with the use of western languages as mediums of instruction.  The connection between the curricula and the choice of languages of instruction was not incidental or accidental. Expression of western cultural values, epistemology, science, etc. effectively required the use of the language that expressed those cultural values. Thus, it became a matter of necessity that formal education be conducted in European languages.

Unfortunately, the connection between language and culture, and the virtually intrinsic necessity to have Eurocentric education delivered in European languages resulted in the illogical conclusion that African languages were not suited to expression of educational concepts. This is a case of what Mugane has referred as “linguistic incarceration” (Mugane 2006). African children who went to school did not merely have to adjust to the foreign content but also to having that delivered in foreign languages that they had no command of. The fact that this might contribute to impediments in their intellectual development or negatively impact their academic success did not feature in the relevant calculations. This should be self-evident. The research-inspired view is that children learn better through their most familiar language. The view has been stated repeatedly and for various world communities. A strong argument in support of using the vernacular or a community’s own language in its educational system is that “it provides a means by which the linguistic and cultural wealth of the community can play an essential role in the formal education of its children, thereby enabling knowledgeable members of the community to participate in ways which might not otherwise be open to them” (Hale, 1974: 3).

The proscription of African languages as LoIs in African schools did not merely negatively impact the African’s self-esteem but it made formal schooling come into direct conflict with the culture in which it was conducted. Such circumscription of the context of formal education from the society’s culture made for veritable culture clash. Dennis Banda, a scholar from Zambia, provides insight into the nature of the disconnect that existed between formal education and local culture. Here is his account:

“My struggle began when I was told I had to stand when talking to my teachers. This was a contradiction because when in the community, kneeling was the sign of respect and standing when talking to elders was a sign of rudeness. Speaking in my mother tongue, the language of my community, was a punishable offence as such languages were said to be primitive, which meant that everybody in my community was primitive” (Banda, 2008:12)

Those problems got compounded further. He states that  

“I also learnt that while keeping quiet and looking down and listening when an elder is talking are ways of showing respect and signs of being attentive, they did not mean the same at school. The teacher would describe you as a passive learner and possibly dull” (ibid.)

The proscription of the use of African languages in the school environment or incorporation of African culture and knowledge systems into the school curriculum clearly undermines relevance of African education to African children or the goal of empowering them academically, culturally, or socially.3

The issue of the choice of LoI is connected to the preservation of rights in education (cf. Babaci-Wilhite 2012; 2014). The requirement that children eschew the use of their languages and adjust to instruction in foreign languages in their early stages of development amounts to denial of a basic human right. The child is subjected to the twin disadvantages of mastering foreign knowledge while, simultaneously, trying to understand the foreign language in which it is delivered. As noted by some scholars, education should adhere to the productive method that “involves locating students within the context of their own cultural references so that they can relate socially and psychologically to other cultural perspectives” (Asante 1991:170). Naturally, this requires major re-orientation of the educational program, something that requires political backing as well as revision of entrenched ideas concerning the nature of knowledge obtained in school, the methods employed in obtaining it, the mode of its preservation and transmission, as well as the ideological view of the universality and superiority of Eurocentric knowledge and education (cf. Meyers 1988; Nobles 1986). The political backing that is mentioned here relates to formulation of educational policies that address the question of LoIs in, especially, initial stages of education. The program does not argue for the elimination of European languages. It merely advocates their delayed introduction as LoIs, while children develop and get systematically introduced to those as foreign languages.


Recent trends in educational policies in, especially, eastern and southern Africa, continue to manifest issues associated with the “Inheritance Problem” that has to do with “…how the colonial experience continues to shape and define post-colonial problems and practices” (Bamgbose 1991: 69). In Malawi, there are essentially retrogressive steps being taken to introduce English as LoI from grade 1, eliminating the possibility of mother-tongue education at any stage of schooling. In February 2014, the Minister of Education in Kenya issued a directive that teachers should implement the policy that has been there for more than thirty years, yet hardly ever paid attention to, viz., that children should receive instruction in their first languages during the first three years of education. Inevitably, there was resistance to this from, primarily the teachers. Through the Teachers Union, they cited the usual excuses of lack of instructional material, of appropriately trained teachers, as well as the seemingly politically charged issue of plurality of ethnic groups and languages. Such a policy, the argument goes, would undermine the goal of building national unity or identity (http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2014/02/kenya-teaching-mother-tongue/).

This underscores the realization that policies that will address the contextualization of education in Africa and the restoration of rights in education through examination of the issue of LoIs will require massive lobbying. However, if academic success in African education is not to remain forever elusive, African nations cannot afford to continue postponing these issues. They are as crucial to success in education as the facilities, infrastructure, and appropriately trained teachers mentioned above, the lack of which was attributed to the “education crisis” that accounts for the dismal results where four out of ten of African children “cannot read a sentence”. 


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  1. I am indebted to Zehlia Babaci-Wilhite for stimulating discussions about rights in education in Africa, and for providing the occasion to reflect on these issues. I thank Claudine Carlisle, David Kyeu, Patricia Kwok, Joy Brenda Obiri, and Kennedy Mugo for seminar discussions that have influenced my views. I am grateful to Jarvis Givens and Na’ilah Suad Nasir for their interest in my work, and to Monica Kahumburu for constant feedback from, and information about the situation with respect to education in, Kenya. I thank the anonymous reviewer for useful comments on an earlier draft of the paper. None of the individuals mentioned above bears any responsibility for the views expressed in this paper. Those are entirely subscribed to only by the author. Finally, thanks to Janiya Banez for indefatigable efforts to keep me focused on my health and fitness.
  2. Mchombo, Sam, Ph.D., Professor, Department of African American Studies, University of California, Berkeley, CA.
  3. Brock-Utne (2012b) noted that the Tanzanian newspaper Majira, on 18 May 2010, had an article with the shocking heading ‘Mwanafunzi afa akifanya adhabu’ (A student dies while serving punishment). The article reported about a Form II student (high school sophomore), Charles Wabea (16) from Luchelele secondary school who died while performing a punishment meted out to him by his teacher for speaking Kiswahili in class. He was to dig 20 buckets of soil from a pit and the pit collapsed on him.

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