The cultural transformation of Western education in Sierra Leone

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41 Scopus citations


The introduction of European schooling into West Africa in the late eighteenth century set in motion a profound cultural transformation. The Mende of Sierra Leone, the target of some of the earliest educational experiments in West Africa, began to reinterpret the Western ideals about the free dissemination of knowledge that were imposed on them. Focusing less on what is taught than how it is taught, the article shows that the Mende have transformed ideals about imparting knowl-edge according to local cultural tenets about secrecy and the control of knowledge. These tenets hold that, since valued knowledge is a key economic and political commodity, teachers, as proprietors of knowledge, deserve compensation for imparting it: a model of education manifested most strikingly in the region's famous secret societies. As was the case with more ‘traditional’ knowledge, the chief cultural idiom by which children acquire ‘civilised’ knowledge in school, and thus advance in the modern world, is through ‘buying’ or ‘earning’ blessings from those who teach them. By addressing ideologies of knowledge, power, and secrecy, the article sheds new interpretive light on the evolution of education in a country—indeed, among the very ethnic group—that comprised a keystone of nineteenth century British educational experiments in Africa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)182-202
Number of pages21
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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