From Pre-Colonial Roots to Modern Education: A Look at the History of Uganda’s Education System

Nelson Mandela made what I think is his most profound statement about Africa’s future a few months after serving 27 years for fighting against apartheid. 

At a rally on July 11, 1990, in Johannesburg, Mandela said, “Education is the most potent weapon which you can use to change the world.” These words capture the spirit of Africa’s long and arduous quest for prosperity and preservation.

Before colonialism, African societies had well-established educational systems, particularly in the area of vocational training. The pre-colonial education system in Uganda was based on apprenticeships and tutelage, where children were trained in the arts, sciences, and crafts by their parents and elders. The community was involved in the education system in a big way, and education was seen as a shared responsibility.

Pre-colonial education in African Society

Every ethnic group had their own educational system with aims, organizations, contents, methods of teaching, and places where education was imparted. One fundamental learning place, for example, was around a fireplace at night. 

Boys were to light fires in one central location in the homestead where elders sat together to warm themselves. As they sat together in this place, the elders taught the young ones the skills that were necessary for their survival. Both older women and men and women taught classes in people’s homes about what was going on in the house itself.

The African indigenous educational system covered all subjects that learners needed, ranging from science to geography, history, and technology. At the age of about 20 years, an African man or woman knew everything there was to know about his or her surroundings.

He or she knew zoology and botany by mastering the names of all plants and animals in the surrounding area. They knew their early history and geography. By this time, too, they were already mastering technology and technical skills. 

Who were the teachers?

Indigenous education had two types of teachers who were very active in imparting knowledge to their learners. The first and most important group is made up of teachers who are good at their jobs and know a lot about them. The technical teachers shared their technical skills with the members of their society. Skills included carpentry, such as making drums, stools, canoes, hoe handles, axe handles, spear handles, and all other tools that require woodwork.  

Another category of teachers were blacksmiths. They were metalworking teachers with a technical background. They made tools like spears, swords, hoes, hand axes, and all other metallic tools necessary for the day-to-day running of societal life. 

There was another category of indigenous teachers specializing in curves. They were curved statues that occupied a very important place in African religious beliefs. The statues were made of metal, wood, and ceramics. 

Pottery was yet another vocational area that carried a very important technical interest. During the day, people in Uganda cooked in pots, drank local beers out of them, and used them for traditional ceremonies.

Besides these, there were other vocational teachers who socialized in the weaving of baskets, mats, and all other kinds of ornamental materials. These provided for the societal needs of their people. 

Another type of indigenous education teacher was one who had a basic understanding of administrative laws, medicine, and religious ceremonies. They taught others what they knew through things like proverbs, riddles, games, songs, and idioms. 

An African man or woman was a well-rounded person who knew both the “dos and don’ts” of society and how to use tools and do jobs.

Missionary education and colonialism in Uganda

When Christian missionaries came to Uganda in 1877, it was a big turning point in the history of education and religion there. Not only did the missionaries pave the way for colonialism, but they also brought new ways of learning to the country. 

The invitation from Kabaka Mutesa I, facilitated by Henry Morton Stanley, who had previously visited Buganda in 1875, accelerated this development. Stanley wrote a letter asking missionaries to come to Buganda. This letter got a lot of attention from Christians in Europe and the U.S. Two missionary societies, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) of the Anglican faith and the White Fathers of the Catholic faith, showed interest in coming to Uganda.

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Most missionaries required that natives be able to read and write before they could become Christians. They thought reading was important because it let them read the Bible and other religious books, and missionaries thought that reading and talking about religion would help people learn more about religion. 

The first missionary schools in Uganda

In 1877, one of the first missionaries to go to Uganda was Alexander Mackay of the CMS. He was also one of the first people to teach technical skills. He set up a workshop near the palace of the Kabaka and taught Baganda boys how to build, do carpentry and joinery, make shoes, build boats, sew, fix cars, print, and farm. Mackay also brought a printing press and began translating the Gospels into Luganda.

In 1901, the Mill Hill Fathers were the first to open a school for prominent families at Namilyango. The school became very popular with wealthy Roman Catholic families very quickly, and several members of the Kabaka’s family went there. The curriculum was mostly academic, with a strong focus on English grammar, reading English books, geography, and math.

The Church Missionary Society opened a boarding school, Mengo High School, in 1903 for the sons of the chiefs. As an attempt to stimulate the interest of parents and, at the same time, reduce costs, the school was organized into a house system. The boys’ parents built the houses and were responsible for maintaining them while at school. 

In 1905, Gayaza High School was opened for the girls. It was designed for the daughters of chiefs and outstanding members of the community. In the same year, King’s College Buddo was established, along with Kamuli and Kisubi. 

Although missionaries intended these institutions to train clerks and interpreters for themselves and the colonial government, they found themselves teaching students some technical and vocational skills. Some of the teachers at these literacy schools had some training in technical trades.

Colonial government’s education systems

In 1918, Ugandans started to feel bad about the way they were being taught by missionaries. The dissatisfaction reached crisis proportions in 1921. A group of elite Africans wrote a letter to the colonial government asking that technical schools be set up for people of all religions, no matter how wealthy they were. 

The colonial government consequently started getting involved in the education system. In 1921, the colonial government built its first technical school on Makerere Hill. It was named Kampala Technical College. 

The college was inaugurated in 1922 and renamed Makerere College. In the same year, Eric Hussey was named Director of Education by the government to reorganize the country’s education system. 

The government came up with educational policies that favored the general development of education and technical education in particular. 

In 1927, a law called the “Education Ordinance” was passed to set rules for how education would grow in the country. In the ordinance, the director of education was empowered to reorganize the education system; it spelled out the government’s powers and procedures in education. 

By 1930, technical education in Uganda started to gain momentum, which ought to have remained on course through clear policies that could give it more ground to build more force to foster acceleration in the industrial development of the country. 

During Uganda’s transition from colonial to full parliamentary government, the first was the Ministry, which was primarily concerned with the political aspects of the educational system. The second was the department of education, responsible for the professional aspects of education and headed by a director.

By this time, the Ministry of Education and the Department of Education had become one organization. By 1961, the basic pattern of education in Uganda was primary school (6 years), junior secondary school (2 years), and senior secondary school (4 years). In 1961, there were 5,050 boys and 1,395 girls enrolled in 30 secondary schools that got help from the government. All these schools provided a 4-year course leading to the Cambridge School Certificate.

European missionaries were a big part of how Uganda’s education system developed. They brought modern education to the country. The missionary societies brought not only religious teachings but also technical skills and academic knowledge that have shaped the country’s education system into what it is today. 

From the establishment of the first workshop by Alexander Mackay to the opening of the first school for important families by the Mill Hill Fathers, the country has come a long way in its quest for a better education system. Despite the challenges it faces today, Uganda has a rich history and a promising future in the field of education, one that is rooted in the contributions of the European missionaries.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you

    Although I expected more. I thought I was going to understand the current education system, and the most recent adjustments.

    But in all, thank you

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