To Be an African Teacher

Dr. Asa G. Hilliard, III By Asa G. Hilliard, III
Fuller Callaway Professor, Atlanta University

Former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has been criticized by right-wing conservatives—and even libertarians after her comments centering upon her book It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. Her catchphrase was, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Most North American patriots and corporate-backed propagandists argue that Ms. Clinton is asking too much of us regarding the education of our children—Asa Hilliard III moves in the opposite direction: he effectively says we are not doing enough. The words here suggest that it takes a refined and nurturing cultural foundation to raise a child—and the teachers of our children take up their task as one dutifully follows a religious calling.

…Ptahhotep, instructs the ignorant in the knowledge and in the standards of good speech. A man teaches as he acts… The wise person feeds the soul with what endures, so that it is happy with that person on earth. The wise is known by his good actions. The heart of the wise matches his or her tongue and his or her lips are straight when he or she speaks. The wise have eyes that are made to see and ears that are made to hear what will profit the offspring. The wise is a person who acts with MAAT [truth, justice, order, balance, harmony, righteousness and reciprocity] and is free of falsehood and disorder.

—Ptahotep 2350 B. C. E.
(From The Teachings of Ptahhotep, the oldest book in the world, 4750 years ago, an African book from KMT [“Egypt”]).

Buy this book at! Many of us do not know it, but African people have thousands of years of well-recorded deep thought and educational excellence. Teaching and the shaping of character is one of our great strengths.

In our worldview, our children are seen as divine gifts of our creator. Our children, their families, and the social and physical environment must be nurtured together. They must be nurtured in a way that is appropriate for a spiritual people, whose aim is to “build for eternity.”

What a pity that our communities have forgotten our “Jeles” and our “Jegnas,” our great master teachers. What a pity that we cannot readily recall the names of our greatest wise men and women. What a pity that we have come to be dependent on the conceptions and the leadership of others, some of whom not only do not have our interests at heart, they may even be our enemies. Some actually seek to control us for their own benefit through the process of mis-education.

Buy this book at! Henry Berry of the Virginia House of Congress (during the antebellum period) said this about African people:

We have closed every avenue through which light may enter their minds. If we could only extinguish the capacity to see the light, our work would be complete.

So we have two primary reasons for knowing our heritage in education and child raising, or socialization.

  1. We have the best teaching and socialization practices ever developed anywhere in the world. These practices are still good for others and for us now.
  2. The primary tool of our oppression is mis-education by our oppressors. We must regain control over the primary education and socialization of our children.

Everywhere on the African continent, from the time of the Pharoahs in Ancient KMT (Egypt) to the modern era, great African civilizations in many river valleys, from the Nile to the Niger and to the Cape, were the center of the most sophisticated education and socialization systems ever developed on the Earth. Some of these civilizations developed in Africa long before other civilizations developed anywhere else in the world. The vestiges of these brilliant African creations can still be found in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora (see Finch, 1998).

Buy this book at! We must consider our ancient traditions; traditions that made us respected teachers all over the globe. Our people must hold their heads high in all matters that pertain to teaching and learning.

African traditional teachers were and are people of high character, who have deep respect for ancestors and for community tradition. African teachers accept the calling and the obligation to facilitate inter-generational cultural transmission. African teachers also strive for the highest standards of achievement in emerging science and technology, areas that have always owed much to African scholarship.

Our genius is a part of the foundation of the revolution in knowledge in physics, mathematics, engineering and cyber-technology. Our genius is present at the deepest levels of the arts and humanities. All of this is in spite of overwhelming resistance to our learning by determined oppressors.

Therefore, for many African Teachers, tapping the genius and touching the spirit of African children is not a mystery. Not only can our children learn, they bring awesome intellects to the task. It is a routine manifestation of the African teacher’s excellence to nurture this genius. Along with teaching content, teaching good character and social bonds are our historical and contemporary strengths.

African teachers, worldwide, share in a cultural deep structure, based upon an African “world-view,” a shared way of looking at the world and the human experience. This world-view channels the focus of African teachers, providing them with appropriate patterns for thought and practice.

While it certainly is a practical necessity to get academic degrees and certification from non-African institutions, such teacher training and legitimation is really minimal preparation for African teachers. We go far beyond these things to reach our traditional higher standards, whether we work in public or in independent settings, whether we teach our own children or also teach the children of others.

For the African teacher, teaching is far more than a job or simply a way to make a living. Students are not “clients” or “customers.” Our students and parents are our family. No sacrifice is too great for that family, for its growth and enhancement.

What is special about an African teacher? It is the world-view and the practice that comes from our world-view, even when it is a dim memory.

A teacher of African ancestry who does not go beyond certification and degrees to know or to embrace an African world-view is not an African! Cultural excellence is the essence of and African teacher. In all of our learning, we must acquire an understanding of ourselves and our heritage. This does not mean that we cannot learn from others. However, we must be critical learners, rejecting anything that is anti-African.

African teaching functions must be embedded in and must serve an African community. Traditionally, African communities have been identified by a shared belief in several key elements. It is these elements that are the foundation for African teachers.

  1. The belief that the cosmos is alive.
  2. The belief that spirituality is at the center of our being.
  3. The belief that human society is a living spiritual part of the cosmos, not alien to it.
  4. The belief that our people have a divine purpose and destiny.
  5. The belief that each child is a “Living Sun,” a Devine gift of the creator.
  6. The belief that, properly socialized, our children will experience stages of transformation, moving toward perfection, that is to be more like the creator (“mi Re” or like Ra, in the KMT language, meaning to try to live like God).
  7. Since the deep guiding principle of “living like God” is to follow MAAT (Truth, Justice, Righteousness, Order, Reciprocity, Harmony, Balance), then African teachers focus the curriculum on the real and the true, on what was, what is, and on what can be, in keeping with divine principles.
  8. African teachers place a premium on bringing their students into a knowledge of themselves and a knowledge of their communities. African people place great value on WHO each person is, on WHO the community is and the honored place that each member of the family occupies within the community.
  9. African teachers respect mastery, and seek through apprenticeship to learn from truemasters, masters who are valued agents of the African community, who are steeped in the deep thought and behavior of the community, who exhibit an abiding unshakable primary loyalty to the community and who are in constant communication with the wise elders of the community.
  10. African teachers recognize the genius and the divinity of each of our children, speaking to and teaching to each child’s intellect, humanity, and spirit. We do not question a child’s possession of these things. In touching the intellect, humanity and spirit within children, African teachers recognize the centrality of relationships between teachers and students, among students, and within the African community as a whole.
  11. For the African teacher, teaching is a calling, a constant journey towards mastery, a scientific activity, a matter of community membership, an aspect of a learning community, a process of “becoming a library,” a matter of care and custody for our culture and traditions, a matter of a critical viewing of the wider world, and a response to the imperative of MAAT.
  12. The African teacher is a parent, friend, guide, coach, healer, counselor, model, storyteller, entertainer, artist, architect, builder, minister, and advocate to and for students.

A brief sample of African socialization can be found in the work of K. Kia Kimbwandende Bunseki Fu-Kiau and A. M. Lukondo-Wamba, master teachers and authors of Kindezi: The Congo Art of Babysitting(1988):

The Kindezi can only be perceived and understood through the social context of the community it serves as an art and a big social responsibility. It is through the role that Kindizi plays in the community that one can appreciate its importance in the dingo-dingo (process) of shaping African social patterns. The quality and personality of the ndezi/babysitter, make by influence the quality and personality of the child in the sadulu (school place) and the community as well. Since it is the ndezi with whom the child stays all day long, the future of the child will greatly reflect the impact of Kindezi, the art of babysitting, not only upon the child but upon the society itself.

The contribution of Kindezi in Bantu societies in general, and the Kongo in particular, cannot be under-estimated or denied. The role it plays in all aspects of community life is so great that it merits erection of a monument. (p. 20)

…Though things are rapidly changing today in Africa, the Kindezi, in its substructure, still remains as a skill and are to be learned by all young community members, girls as well as boys, through an initiatic and practical process for, as a Kongo proverb would say, Kindezi M’fuma mu kanda (The art of babysitting is a baobab to the community), i.e., a string supporter of community economic activities… Babysitting, sala sindezi, is not instinctively acquired as some would assume or pretend. Dingo-dingo diena it is a process by which one discovers the mystery of human growth and reaches the total understanding of the psychology of the child.

By babysitting, one learns the wonderful skill of being responsible for another life and how to become a new “living pattern.” A “living pattern” is a model through which cultural values are transmitted from generation to generation. Through Kindezi, Africans acquire this skill, a skill that has made the African not only one of the most religious human beings on earth but, also, one of the most humanistic.

African parents, mothers in particular, have a great concern about their children’s childhood because they are aware that Kimbuta kia muntu, bonso kimuntu, ga mataba–“One’s leadership, like one’s personality, finds its roots in the child-hood.” Earlier events in the childhood life play an important role in adulthood. As such, great attention is paid to whoever has a role to play in the life of a child—the human being with the quickest copying mind. This basic understanding that childhood is the foundation that determines the quality of a society is the main reason that prompted African communities to make Kindezi and art, or kinkete, to be learned by all their members. Thus Kindezi is required in societies that want to prepare their members to become not only good fathers and mothers, but above all, people who care about life and who understand, both humanely and spiritually, the highly unshakable value of the human being that we all are. (p. 4–5)

Buy this book at! Typically the African teacher leads a social collective process, one where social bonds are reinforced or created. In this social process, the destinies of the students are connected to each other, to their families, to their communities, to their ancestors, to those who are yet to be born, to their environment, to their traditions, to MAAT as a way of life, and to their creator.

From these few thoughts, one can see that the popular use of the African proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child,” is interpreted in a very trivial way, and is taken out of context. Africans who use the proverb understand it. It is a part of their world-view, their value system, a world-view and value system that may not be shared by those who quote Africans out of context. As Fu-Kiau and Lukondo-Wamba show above, the proverb is really about raising a village, not merely raising a child. It is not a matter of welfare as it is understood in the West. It really takes a whole village to raise itself, a village that values every member as a “living sun,” a village to which the child belongs, a village where every child is shown that he or she “will never be given away.” Clearly, this is a different order of “child care.” This is African teaching/socialization, and the incorporation of the child into the community.

Africans never take teaching lightly. It is a sacred calling. The long night of slavery, colonization, apartheid, and White supremacy ideology ruptured the traditional bond between African teachers and their nurture, and even their memories of that nurture. We have been reduced in our expertise, lowered in our expectations, and limited in our goals. We have even been dehumanized and de-spiritualized. We must return to the upward ways of our ancestors. We have forgotten our aims, methods and content.

We must not bring shame on ourselves and upon our descendants. We must bring light to the world again.

Selected References and Bibliography

Ainsworth, Mary (1967). Infancy in Uganda Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Anderson, J. D. (1988). The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Callaway, H. (1975). “Indigenous Education in Yoruba Society” in Conflict and Harmony in Education in Tropical Africa (Studies on Modern Asia and Africa : , No. 10), G. N. Brown and M. Hiskett (Eds.). Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Carruthers, J. (1995). MDW NTR Divine Speech: A Historiographical Reflection of African Deep Thought from the time of the Pharaohs to the Present. London: Karnak House.

Erny, Pierre. (1973). Childhood and Cosmos: the Social Psychology of the Black African Child. New York: New Perspectives.

Erny, Pierre (1981). The Child and His Environment in Black Africa: An Essay on Traditional Education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Finch, Charles. (1998). Star of Deep Beginnings: The Genesis of African Science and Technology. Decatur, Ga.: Khenti Inc.

Fu-Kiau, K. Kia Bunseki and Lukondo-Wamba. (1988). Kindezi: The Congo Art of Babysitting. New York: Vantage Press.

Geber, M. (1958). “The Psychomotor Development of African Children in the First Year And The Influence Of Maternal Behavior.” Journal of Social Psychology, 47, 185-195.

Hilliard, Asa G. III. (1998). SBA: The Reawakening of The African Mind. Gainesville, Florida: Makare Publishers.

Pearce, Joseph Chilton. (1977). Magical Child: Rediscovering Nature’s Plan. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Webber, T. L. (1978). Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831-1865. New York:W. W. Norton

Wilson, Amos (1991). Awakening the Natural Genius of Black Children. New York:Afrikan World Infosystems

Woodson, C. G. (1968). Miseducation of the Negro. Washington, D. C.: Associated Publishers (first published in 1933)

Asa G. Hilliard, III is the Fuller Callaway Professor at Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. He may be reached at