Christian missionaries were the first to introduce European-style education in sub-Saharan Africa. Mission societies often expanded into territories before colonial powers did, and providing education only cost them a little more.
Missionaries continued to be the main providers of education even after colonial powers established control during the so-called Scramble for Africa which occurred between 1884-1914. Initially, their activities focused on coastal areas. But with colonial conquest and antimalarial drugs, they moved further into the continent. Schools were deemed important. They provided missionaries a way to spread Eurocentric norms and attract new converts.
A large body of studies show that missionaries had a lasting impact beyond their early years. Today, local communities and ethnic groups that were more exposed to mission schools, still achieve higher levels of education, when compared to communities where there were no schools.
Some of the positive development outcomes of former British colonies are arguably the result of a permissive attitude towards mission schools.
Pushing the research frontier
Yet, the relationship between European missionaries and African populations had some contradictions. These contradictions are surprisingly absent from contemporary research. And that’s why I decided to look deeply into this issue.
In my study, I explored how colonial era conflicts – and disagreements over marriage norms – lastingly affected educational development. By focusing on the African demand for education, I showed that Africans were not just passive recipients of mission schooling. Their personal and family choices influenced the expansion speed of missionary education.
I compared data on the historical locations of mission stations since 1924, in 26 sub-Saharan countries with recent education data between 2008 and 2018. I found that while educational outcomes are generally better in places that were exposed to Christian missions in the colonial era, traditionally polygamous societies benefited less.
This finding was supported by two types of analysis. First, I looked at how educational outcomes depended on the distance to historical missions. Unsurprisingly, the level of education increased as one moved closer to the missionaries. But that increase was greater in monogamous societies.
I also matched up locations that differed in proximity to the mission stations, but otherwise had similar preconditions for educational development. This allowed me to estimate the impact of mission schooling directly. In traditionally monogamous societies, primary school completion increased by about eight percent, but only four percent in polygamous societies.
Making sense of the colonial struggle over polygamy
Mission schools were popular because of the new skills and opportunities they offered. Being able to speak and write in the coloniser’s language was considered a privilege. It offered the most direct path towards prestigious jobs in colonial administrations and European enterprises.
However, attending mission schools also meant exposure to colonial indoctrination. This conditioning was focused on norms that missionaries deemed incompatible with a Christian way of life. While they frowned upon bridewealth, female genital cutting, or matrilineality, they held a special grudge against polygamy.
In 1910, a prominent report of the World Missionary Conference concluded:
[T]here can be no ‘question’ of polygamy. It is simply one of the gross evils of heathen society which, like habitual murder or slavery, must at all costs be ended.
In addition to promoting a monogamous lifestyle in their schools, missionaries often insisted on divorces before polygamists or their children could even enrol.
This [the insistence on monogamy] caused a great confusion, for the African could not understand how he could drive away his wives and children, especially in a community where motherhood is looked upon as a religious duty; the children are regarded as part and parcel, not only of the father, but of the whole clan (mbari), and without them the mbari is lost. It was also terribly hard for a woman to be driven away, and to lose her status in the society where she is respected as a wife and a mother.
In an ironic twist, the more Africans became versed in the Bible, the more they began to challenge missionaries. They discovered that the holy book did not clearly prescribe monogamy, and contained several examples of renowned Christian polygamists. However, accustomed to monogamy, few European missionaries were open to such arguments.
Despite the skills and opportunities mission schooling afforded, many Africans were not willing to pay the price. They preferred to hold onto polygamy, even at the cost of illiteracy.
What would have happened if missionaries had not insisted on monogamy? The statistical evidence suggests that education would have spread more evenly. And traditionally polygamous societies would have higher educational outcomes today.
The struggle over polygamy is well-known to historians and anthropologists. This study simply offers systematic, long-term evidence of it. Although there were many disagreements between European missionaries and African populations, antagonising polygamy is probably the best-documented norm conflict.
In addition to studying the impact of these struggles on education, we also need to understand how they influenced gender inequality. In fact, most of the norms opposed by missionaries concerned gender relationships. Efforts to change these norms were often aimed at women.
Finally, education affects many other aspects of people’s lives, including economic opportunities and political attitudes. The consequences of norm conflicts are likely to manifest beyond educational pursuit. There’s still so much to be learned from the history of education in Africa and its long-term consequences.