Beyond Western Shadows: Upholding African Heritage In Global Education

The role parents play as co-educators in educating African children

By Lebogang Mbhiza

It may be a uniquely African view but the rich, vibrant cultural heritage and tales that are so rooted in our communities are usually stored in the minds of elders. Migration across the continent by young urbanites has meant that people (usually black people) and their children tend to move to cities in pursuit of better employment and education opportunities. Usually, though, the elders stay behind at cultural rural homes, thus breaking the tradition of transferring knowledge through storytelling, rituals and values from one generation to another. This threatens both cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge transfer as these conversations are just not happening as much as they used to. Typically, these elders also struggle with low levels of literacy themselves, so it becomes difficult for them to document this indigenous knowledge for younger generations.

As a parent, I have realised the importance of intentionally helping my child develop his identity as an African including, but not limited to, teaching him about his heritage and historical traditional values. It is no secret that the educational journey for many African children is often overshadowed by Western paradigms, moulding minds to align with Western ideologies and conform to Westernised narratives. This Western dominance in education systems can sometimes overshadow the rich tapestry of African heritage, making it imperative to strike a balance between global, predominantly Western, perspectives and our indigenous knowledge.

So, how can African parents start to take a more active role as co-educators in teaching African children about a world heavily influenced by Western ideologies, combining their traditions and heritage with real-world, high-tech knowledge, and helping their children succeed in an environment where Western hegemony is prevalent? It is about intertwining our vibrant traditions with the realities of a world where Western thought and practices often take centre stage, ensuring our children are well-rounded, informed, and true to their roots. 

If anything, the role these parents play has proven to be more important now than ever before. 

In a recent study, it was found that the partnership between parents, teachers and school leaders, (particularly in a rural context) is complicated, but that it is important to assure parents of the critical role they play, irrespective of their own level of education.1 The research also noted that parents felt unwelcome in classrooms because they viewed it as a teacher-only space. Despite this, they found that parents have context-specific knowledge they could pass on to their children so long as the opportunities are created for them to do so.

What has come out of recent studies is quite revealing, with young people saying, for example, that mathematical concepts they’re learning in urban schools simply don’t make sense to them in the manner they are currently being taught.2 But when they go back to their traditional homes their “Gogo” or other elders are at times surprisingly better able to weave an African story together to explain the concept. When “Gogo”, who in some cases has little to no formal education, contextualises the concepts to align with what their grandchild’s reality is, the child understands in a deeper way and is more likely to retain and apply that knowledge.

It’s time to be intentional about considering the way African kids are taught. The approaches that are accepted as the norm are heavily influenced by Western pedagogical styles that make use of ideas and examples that might not resonate with our children. It’s like explaining ice to someone who’s only known the sun! It’s important to start encouraging teaching with stories and examples that feel like home. It doesn’t change the essence of what we’re learning—just the way we’re learning it. It’s about making learning relatable and engaging. 

And what about our teachers? How much freedom do they really have to bring in their own flair and style to the subjects they teach? Subjects like English and Maths are foundational, but there’s room for creativity in how they’re taught. If we, as parents, can support our teachers, they might feel more encouraged to innovate and make learning more relevant and exciting. So as long as parents push, teachers will inevitably rise to the occasion.

However, there’s another side to this. Sometimes, we parents might unintentionally hinder progress, derailing teachers’ best efforts to make the content more relatable to their students. Consider, for example, parents who’ve grown up in rural settings, faced and overcame numerous challenges, and then entered the corporate world. Again, western perspectives dominate in this arena, perhaps even more than in our schools. It can be a struggle to merge one’s roots and heritage with new professional norms. How much are we, as parents who’ve successfully assimilated to corporate standards and norms, influencing teachers to emulate the status quo? It’s a complex question, especially when there’s a perception that education in places like Europe is superior, and therefore, should be emulated here in Africa.

Experts, like Maren Seehawer, suggest that it’s crucial for both parents and teachers to blend ‘Western’ and African knowledge. It’s about creating a balanced and inclusive learning environment!3 

So, how do we spotlight the stories of those who, whilst having grown up in rural settings, have carved out successful careers in fields traditionally influenced by Western norms? How can we use these dual-life narratives to inspire African children? It’s also very important for us to showcase the many faces of success. Opting to stay and make a difference in one’s home community isn’t a lesser achievement; it’s just a different path to self-realisation. This path is vital, reflecting the essence of our societies and serving as a beacon of our diverse African identities and histories. It’s a path that should be celebrated just as much as a corporate career, underscoring the importance of embracing and sustaining our communities and our rich, multifaceted heritage.

As Africans, we hold varied perceptions of the Western world. We have witnessed and celebrated numerous Africans who have soared to remarkable heights in the West or in traditionally western dominated arenas, all while maintaining the essence of their African identity. It’s imperative that we elevate these stories with the same enthusiasm as we do those of conventional corporate success, as each narrative plays an important role in the tapestry of our global society.

The essence of nurturing children in Africa for a world that is increasingly globalised and technologically advanced lies in the pivotal role parents play. It’s about fostering a sense of pride in our children about their roots and heritage, allowing them to carry their African identity with honour and dignity. Whether they are celebrated as global ambassadors of Africanicity or they are navigating the corporate world adhering to professional norms, the ability to be their authentic selves is critical.

Diversity is the catalyst for a thriving world. The ability for our children to infuse their authentic African selves into diverse environments is not just a matter of pride; it’s an invaluable asset, now and in the future! It’s about creating spaces where African children can be proud of their heritage and feel empowered to be their authentic selves, contributing to the global dialogue with their unique perspectives and rich histories.

And that is why the role of parents as co-educators is so much more vital than ever before. It’s about modelling, encouraging, and fostering an environment where our children can embrace their roots while flourishing as global citizens. It’s about ensuring that our children can navigate the world with their heads held high, proud of their heritage, and confident in their ability to contribute meaningfully to the world, bringing the richness of their African identity to the forefront of global progress.

  1. Mbhiza, Hlamulo & Nkambule, Thabisile. (2023). Reimagining the Needs of Rural Schools: Teachers’ and Parents’ Experiences of Parental Involvement in School Activities Reimagining the Needs of Rural Schools: Teachers’ and Parents’ Experiences of Parental Involvement in School Activities. Africa Education Review. 19. 1-16. 10.1080/18146627.2023.2181727.
  1.  Mbhiza, Hlamulo. (2020). Reclaiming Hope: De-normalising Rural Parents and Learners. 10.1007/978-3-030-57277-8_8.
  1. Seehawer, Maren. (2018). South African science teachers’ strategies for integrating indigenous and Western knowledge in their classes: Practical lessons in decolonization. Educational Research for Social Change, 7(spe), 91-110