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Catholic education in Africa.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Kisamis, a small rural village sixty kilometers north of Kenya's capital Nairobi, Gladys Wanja is teaching a class of forty- three primary school pupils under an acacia tree. The tree's shade is not enough to shield all of them from the scorching sun and occasionally they have to cover their heads with textbooks while wiping beads of sweat from their faces.

"We are hoping that the new Standard Four classroom will have been built by next January so that we do not have to conduct classes under the sun," says Gladys, who has taught at Kisamis Primary School for six years.

The scene at Kisamis is just an illustration of what happens in other parts of Africa where schools are in short supply. According to research by the World Bank, educational facilities are so scarce that two out of every five children in Africa do not have access to education.

The Catholic Church has been playing a leading role in promoting the development of education in the continent. The Church operates many primary and secondary schools in various parts of Africa and offers financial support to governments to help them put up more schools.

South Africa

"Catholic schools in South Africa have served the common good by ensuring more equitable distribution of educational outcomes regardless of race, culture or social status," Nathan Johnstone, director of the Catholic Institute of Education, said recently. During apartheid, when the government operated two educational systems--one for whites and an inferior one for blacks--the Catholic Church defied this segregation by starting schools that embraced all races.

Today there are 342 Catholic schools in all the nine provinces in the country with over 6,000) teachers teaching 161, 000 students. Seventy-two percent of these schools are public schools on private property, and the rest are independent schools. Approximately 90 percent of the students are from black communities and 35 percent are Catholic. The post-apartheid government has recognized the role of the Catholic Church in promoting education. "Today we share the same commitment with the Catholic community as we did during our troubled past. We share commitment to the poor," says the country's Education Minister, Kader Asmal.

The Catholic Church and Education

Involvement of the Catholic Church in education in Africa dates back to the 19th century, when missionaries came to the continent to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. As they evangelized, they set up schools where the first to enroll were the new Christian converts. As more and more people converted to Christianity, formal education became synonymous with Christianity.

After African countries attained independence in the early 1960s, the Catholic Church continued running the schools. The Church also established many others with active support by governments, which were happy because they lacked the resources to establish educational institutions to serve all those in need.

"In many countries of Africa, the Catholic Church entered into an arrangement with the governments whereby the schools fell under the ownership of the government but were run by the Church mostly, with the Church making a significant contribution in terms of financing," says Chris Mboya, an education researcher at Makerere University in Uganda.

Education in sub-Saharan Africa lags far behind that most in other developing regions. One of the reasons is that the continent is dogged by poverty. Without large and growing economies, governments have very limited tax bases to finance public school systems, while the bulk of African families cannot afford the high fees charged by private schools.

Another reason is that Africa began to develop modern schools--as distinct from traditional forms of education--much more recently, to a limited extent during the colonial era, but more seriously with the achievement of independence in the 1960s. At the start of that decade, Africa's primary school gross enrolment ratio was just 39 percent. That was far behind Asia's ratio of 67 per cent and Latin America's 73 percent. By 1982, according to World Bank data, the gross enrolment ratio for primary education across Africa had risen steadily to nearly 85 percent. A number of countries were able to reach nearly universal primary education by the start of the 1980s.

The structural adjustment programs introduced in many African countries during the 1980s and early 1990s placed a constraint on educational financing, many development experts have argued. Promoted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), these programs forced African governments to cut 'non-essential' public expenditures, which included the education sector.

Catholic universities

Although the involvement of the Catholic Church in education is mainly confined to primary and secondary education, the Church also operates colleges. The most prominent is the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), which was established as a theological college in 1984. The university is administered by the Catholic bishops from Eastern and Central African countries and is based in Kenya.

"The mission of Catholic University is to discover and impart the truth in all its aspects and its essential relation with the supreme Truth: God, through academic endeavours and scientific research," says the Dean of Students Magdaline Dimba. The university has been instrumental not only in training priests but also as an alternative source of education for many young people who fail to get places in government universities.

As the Church tries to help in the development of education in Africa, it faces many challenges, of which the biggest is how to enforce Christian discipline. Over the years, Catholic schools have earned a distinction for excellent academic performance and many parents prefer their children to go there. In the process, more and more non-Catholic students find their way there. "The Church does not discriminate. We take all students as long as they profess the Catholic faith," says Anastasia Wanyama, the head teacher of St. Francis Secondary School in Tanzania. "Over the years however, we have been encountering more and more cases of students who are unable to adjust to the strict Christian discipline, which is the foundation of our school. We have even had to expel some students."

As the need for educational opportunities grows in a world where formal education is the key to self-empowerment, the Catholic Church will play an even greater role in promoting education in Africa.


When Malawi introduced free primary education in 1994, the primary student population skyrocketed from 1.9 million to 3.2 million within just a year. By 1997, girls' participation had doubled, with their net enrolment ratio reaching 100 percent, while the gross enrolment ratio climbed to nearly 125 percent.

The Ugandan government declared a policy of Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997, which entitles up to four children per family to receive free education in government and government-aided primary schools. Primary school enrolment jumped from 3.1 million to 5.3 million, an increase of 70 percent in just one year. By 1999, the number had risen to 6.6 million.

When the Kenyan government introduced free primary education in 2002, enrolment in primary schools shot up by 1.6 million to reach the 7.6 million mark. Teachers had to conduct classes outside under trees, as the classes could not accommodate the pupils--who in some cases were over a hundred per class.

Loise Mugure writes from Kenya, Africa.
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Author:Mugure, Loise
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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