Fishing for a New Paradigm in Development Education: Focus on Real Needs

Sharmila Pillai
Concordia University, Canada

This paper first takes a brief but critical look at a telling instance of education and development discourse as expressed by representatives of government agencies that concerns itself with assistance to the developing world.  Here the paper focuses on a frequently used key expression which points to a simplistic, singular view of the nature of development problems. The paper argues that there are many types of development problems and that the real needs must be identified for each particular setting. The paper then draws on a concrete example from Ethiopia where generalised assumptions about education and development do not fit with the local situation: the real needs are specific to that setting.


This paper guides the reader between the lines of an apparent truism that is referred to frequently in the development field. This truism is an old Chinese saying that has been used as a philosophical touchstone by government agencies, university departments, research units, and NGOs: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” An array of examples from different development related fields will be used to show how this saying serves as a motto for the development industry. Part 1 will show how this Chinese saying from yesteryear functions in the development industry in general and Part 2 illustrates how it functions in some cases in development education by giving one concrete example from the Amharic speaking regions of Ethiopia.

Part One


The full and precise reference for this saying comes from the Chinese poem or proverb written by Lao Tse:

If you give a man a fish, you will feed him once.

If you take a man fishing, you will feed him for a week.

If you teach a man to fish, he will never be hungry.

– Lao Tze, Old Chinese Proverb.

This sentiment reverberates in the communications of many of the world’s development agencies, both domestic and international, and occasionally in those of aid recipients as well. To start more or less at random, it features prominently in the following excerpt from a policy document from the United States Environmental Agency:

The underlying philosophy of EPA’s (US Environmental Agency) international capacity-building programs is perhaps best summarized by the often-quoted proverb: If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. It is based on this philosophy that the Agency focuses on establishing the legal, policy, institutional, financial, and scientific frameworks in the partner country from which meaningful and sustainable environmental results will follow. EPA often supplements such broad, institution-based work with shorter-term technical assistance, training or demonstration projects which not only achieve a specific environmental outcome, but which can also be adapted and replicated for environmental results elsewhere. (United States Environmental Agency (n.d) . Retrieved 17 March 2002, from:

It also features in many academic policy statements, such as the following example from the University of Washington’s School of Economic Geography, which is involved in ‘economic handicaps, issues and programs’ and presents these two guiding principles at the top of their web page. The first is a quotation from James Speth, the former administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP):

Poverty is not to be suffered in silence by the poor. Nor can it be tolerated by those with power to change it. The challenge is now to mobilize action – state by state, organization by organization, individual by individual. (University of Washington: School of Economic Geography (n.d) . Retrieved 17 March 2002,

The next quotation on their web page is:

Give a man a fish and he eats for a day;

teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.

This fish saying or proverb can also be adapted to slightly different aid and development concepts, where a different emphasis is achieved. The next example is from the American Population Research Institute, where the saying is applied to population control. Here it is used to support the idea of teaching individuals to teach others in their own communities about birth control principles. This is illustrated through the following policy document where the basic aim is focused on development through training, especially training people how to train others. There is an old saying that states, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” Limmat has amended the old saying in accordance with their vision: “If you teach a man to teach others to fish, you will solve his entire community’s problems for life.” (American Population Research Institute (n.d),Retrieved 17 March 2002 from: ).  In other words, teach a man to fish and you solve not only his problems, but potentially those of his entire community as well.

The fish saying is also used by NGOs. For example, MYRADA is an agency working out of South India whose main mission is to ‘foster a process of ongoing change in favour of the rural poor in a way in which this process can be sustained by them, through building and managing appropriate and innovative local level institutions rooted in values of justice, equity and mutual support’. MYRADA’s policy makers make use of the fish story to sustain their mission, although again with a slight twist on the original saying:

Give a man fish and he will eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. But what if the path to the river itself is strewn with obstacles? At MYRADA, we not only strive to teach a man to fish, but also enable him to reach the river.(MYRADA (n.d) . Retrieved 17 March 2002, from:

Helping the man reach the river suggests that there are different kinds of help needed – one being cognitive or educational (‘teach a man to fish’) and the other being material (‘enable him to reach the river’). The two seem to flow together.  However, they need not always flow together so smoothly. Is aid always a matter of teaching people in the developing world how to fish (fix their machines, heal their ill, teach their children, etc)? How “all-purpose” is this all-pervading fish dictum?

The fish story can be functioning in aid-givers’ thinking even when the fish themselves are not mentioned. Statements from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provide an example.  In an interview published in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s former International Co-operation Minister, Maria Minna, is quoted as saying that she: ‘wants to shift the focus of foreign aid from individual projects to poverty-fighting programs worked out with local governments and other donor countries.’ For example, taking the case of developing education as a long-term solution for poverty reduction, the former Minister’s desire is to ‘fund teacher education and [help] administrators learn how to manage [their] national school systems’ rather than to ‘build them schools.’  In her opinion, this is what will give developing countries sustainability in the long term. This view, closely reflects the objectives put forth by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The approach, Minna notes, will cut down on support for some kinds of aid projects where, for example, it will be ‘harder to get money from CIDA for people-to-people projects’. In other words, Minna, and CIDA under her dispensation, is very much interested in ‘teaching people how to fish’ (overseeing their school systems), rather than ‘giving them a fish’ (building schools). The appeal of the fish story seems perennial and indisputable. (September, 2001)

Not everyone who refers to the fish tale does so with unreflecting endorsement of the assumptions that the tale is universally applicable. In an academic presentation (entitledPartnership with NGOs: Some World Bank Experience, by Katherine Marshall) concerning World Bank/NGO partnerships, the fish dictum is used, but this time to introduce some complexities. The following are speaking points from Marshall’s slides at a conference in Japan,[1] which follow the fish story and use it, less to announce a policy, than to pose some questions: 

  • Who should we teach [to fish]?
  • What methods work and who is the best teacher?
  • Do all benefit? Women, children?
  • Do the people concerned have access to the fishing waters?
  • Do the people concerned have access to the markets?
  • Who is polluting the water?
  • Who is annexing fish stocks?
  • Do the people concerned like fish?

Perhaps the fish slogan is just that – a slogan – which, while stirring in its intuitive appeal, has the ultimate effect of glossing over the differences in aid requirements of different people with different problems. As the speaker above notes, some aid recipients may know how to fish and are merely unable to reach the river.

It is well known that a phenomenal amount of money is poured every year into the developing world in the form of aid. But is this outpouring necessarily preceded by a careful assessment of where real needs lie?  According to Graham Hankock (1989), the rush to pour in money is typically not accompanied by a careful assessment of need:

[The] World Bank is in the business of lending millions of dollars for development. If it stops doing that, then it ceases to have a role. Conversely, the more lending that it does the more important its role becomes. [As a bank, it is also concerned with repayment of the loans that it makes]. This creates a pressure within the institution to make loans big and to make them quickly and, frequently, (which inevitably) leads to important little details being neglected ¾ quality control, for example, attention to usefulness of projects, efforts to establish whether they will do harm, and so on. (p.143)

Many experts with lengthy experience in aid and development argue that the emphases and assumptions implicit in the fish story are wrong. For example, development banker Jacques Attali is pioneering an Internet-based network of micro-credit called PlaNet Finance, which has scored some measurable successes in Benin, Bangladesh, and other countries. Thomas Friedman reports on an interview with Attali in the New York Times fromhis book The Lexus and the Olive Tree:

There’s an old saying: ‘”Feed a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime,“‘ says Mr. Attali. “Well, we have millions of poor people who know how to fish. They just don’t have a pole.”  Through PlaNet we might be able to get poles for a lot more of them.

Some developing countries need to learn fishing, some need a pole, and it is of utmost importance to make the distinction. Mr Attali, for example, does not see the PlaNet Finance philosophy as the magic formula for all development aid. (

While his micro-credit scheme worked in Bangladesh, it may not work elsewhere. Therefore, the need to make this distinction is little more than a truism, when articulated.

My proposed use for this fish story, going beyond its normal use as a stimulus for sentimentality about developing peoples, is to use it instead as a framework for needs analysis. Following the spectrum of twists on the story sampled above, we see two paradigms of aid (and of course permutations of the two): they need to learn to fish, vs.they need a pole. There are assumptions in the original “Give a man a fish” dictum that can mask the diversity of cases. My research suggests that Western donor country policy makers assume the main problems of development to be conceptual, as illustrated explicitly in the examples above and implicitly in the quotation from Canada’s former Minister of International Cooperation. However, it is clear that sometimes the problems of development are conceptual and sometimes they are material. Sometimes the people in the developing countries have a pole but do not know how to fish; sometimes they know how to fish but lack a pole. It is of utmost importance that both recipient and donor countries (including Canada, as we have seen) make the distinctions. This is particularly true in view of the fact that the landscape of the developing world is strewn with the wreckage of expensive and misconceived aid projects. Surely the ‘teach them how to fish’ or ‘give them a pole’ framework is a useful reminder to ascertain the real needs of aid recipients.


Part Two

As an elaboration of the proposals above, I now summarize my own thesis study, which concerns education in the African nation of Ethiopia. Implicit in donor countries responses to countries like Ethiopia is the assumption that the impediments to progress are primarily conceptual. There are clearly many facets to development in a country like Ethiopia. The facet, which this study investigates, is in the area of educational development concerning education and culture in four schools in the Amharic speaking regions of Ethiopia[2]. Within these limitations, my findings suggest that the problems in Ethiopian education stem from the lack of infrastructure or ‘the lack of a pole’ more than a lack of knowledge on how to conceptualize and run their educational system.

The World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal(UNESCO2000, p. 26) gathered representatives from the regions of Sub-Saharan Africa to meet the challenges of education through the following measures: 

  • Community involvement in school decision-making and administration
  • Employment of native teachers
  • Curriculum reform towards locally relevant subjects
  • Affordable teaching materials and textbooks
  • Use of mother tongue as the medium of instruction
  • Use of schools as community learning centres

The Dakar conference made many proposals for the future of African education, some of which fall under the category of ‘teach a man to fish.’ One that is of primary interest is the following joint statement from the Ministers of Education for Africa, who recognize that African indigenous knowledge systems, languages and values should be the foundation for the development of African education systems. (EFA,UNESCO2000, p.27)


The words ‘should be’ suggest that the Ministers believe it is presently not the case that such knowledge systems are the foundation for educational development in their home countries. Rather, educators need to be taught to value and utilize the knowledge systems indigenous to the cultures of their own citizens.  In other words, the ministers believe that missing concepts of indigenous knowledge systems are the impediment to the development of effective education systems in Africa, not the lack of infrastructure. My interpretation of the joint statement, then, is that it shows a bias for new thinking over more resources in the assessment of the continent’s educational needs by its own representatives.

The Ministers are particularly concerned about “curricula often irrelevant to the needs of the learners and of [their] social, cultural and economic development” (EFA, UNESCO, 2000) when they propose anchoring education in indigenous knowledge systems–which presumably would be relevant to the needs and cultures of learners. Here the Ministers may be thinking of the education systems of former African colonies, where education systems are often the remnants of French, British, Belgian, Portuguese, and other colonial powers’ thinking and have little integration in the life of the students they serve. However, not all African countries were colonies or were deeply influenced by colonial thinking, and once again there is a need to draw distinctions when making needs assessments.

In my thesis research, I decided to test this recurrent idea that indigenous knowledge systems are a major need in African education, with regard to one subject (science), at one level (Grade 2), in one country that was but briefly colonized (Ethiopia). The study is an exploratory one, but is undertaken within the prior conviction that it cannot be taken for granted that ‘learning to fish’ is automatically the major need in every developmental problem.

The Dakar objectives were put forth mainly because in many parts of Africa, during the colonial period, education was shown to alienate children from their own cultures. At worst, this alienation contributed to the disintegration of ethnic communities.  It is now necessary to reverse this process. What has long been needed, according to Urch (1992), was an African tradition that would regenerate social unity and promote what was good and respected in the culture. Such a tradition would assert the rights and interests of the people, help to reject foreign ideologies and provide a foundation for continuity. It would promote what was unique in the African personality (p. 1).

A key part of this vision is inevitably the implementation of a system of education that will reintegrate young Africans with their own environments and cultures. But is every African country in need of such an implementation? And if such an implementation is seen as valuable, are there no African countries that might serve as local models for it? If we want to go beyond plausibility, we have no choice but to look at specific countries and cases and build up a database of descriptive evidence at grass roots level—classrooms, teachers, classroom interaction, learning material, tests, and so on. Ethiopia, coming to modern education late and pressed to catch up with neighbouring countries, would appear to be a very good test case for this investigation.

It is often said that education started in the fourth century in Ethiopia and the basis of education was the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Wagaw, 1979). The church education that “students” received prepared them for clerical duties: priests and monks or those who would perform civic duties: judges, governors, administrators etc. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained the guardian of education in the country, formally marrying church and state until the end of the nineteenth century[3]. The students were also instructed in Fitheha Negist(Judgment Of Kings),the Ethiopian traditional code of law, the computation of the calendar, which needed mathematical training, other secular subjects like languages, history, astronomy, literature, music, fine arts and law were also taught. After all this instruction the scholar, now about thirty-five years of age continued to serve community, society and country (Alemayehu, 1985; Tedla, 1995; Wagaw, 1979).

Absent from the foregoing account, of course, is any mention of science education. Wagaw (1979) explains that this omission was deliberate as “works of science do not exist in Abyssinian literature. […As] the heavens and the earth are ruled by God, all enquiries into the workings of the heavenly bodies and the laws of nature were and are regarded as sinful.” (cited in Budge, 1928, p. 574). It was only the relatively recent reign of Menelik II that saw the introduction of secular education and the first secular school in the country was established in Addis Ababa in 1907, (data collected for the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1991). This heralded the beginning of modern schools in Ethiopia, whose curricula include French, English, Arabic, Italian, Amharic, Ge’ez, mathematics, physical education and sports– and Science, (Sjostrom & Sjorstorm, 1983).

Since education had almost no tradition of mathematics or science education until the beginning of the twentieth century, one might expect that the impact of colonization would have meant that European science would simply be accepted as the definition of science, taking over the education system. However, while science may not have existed in the official church culture, it nonetheless existed in the indigenous culture (the ‘civil society’ of the time), in the form of measurement, means of exchange, agricultural knowledge etc, which could be quite sophisticated. So it could not be taken for granted that European science would become the sole definition of science, and indeed my research shows that this was not the case. In the schools and materials I examined, indigenous science is used as the platform for other types of science.

My thesis study looks at education in Ethiopia today, where, at least in the schools I investigated, we find a very good existing example of indigenous and traditional culture integrated into the modern school curriculum. In this paper the term indigenous/

traditional knowledge refers to the fusion of three factors: (1) Schema, which is the world knowledge from prior experiences that a student possesses, (2) the cultural background of the student acquired through experience and observation, (3) the physical surroundings or environment of the student. For the clarification of this point, I have drawn largely on the work of Anthony Eziefe (2001). The interplay between these three themes is intricate: “the student’s schema are drawn from the culture into which he or she is born [and] this culture [in turn is] largely shaped by the physical surroundings [or]…environment” (Ezeife, 2001, p. 20). All this is to emphasize the importance of integrating the learners’ schema, culture and environment into science concepts and lessons when teaching science in an elementary school setting.

I began my study with a content analysis of a Grade 2 Science textbook. I followed this by carrying out classroom observations and saw how the textbook was actually being taught in the classroom. I also interviewed five teachers and talked about education policy. The following paragraphs will elaborate on the textbook analysis, then on my classroom observations and finally the interviews conducted with the teachers.

Textbook analysis

The artefact that I studied was an elementary Grade 2 Science textbook.[4] On examining the textbook, my main interest was to see whether the content was suitable to introduce Ethiopian students to the basic notions of science and most importantly, to what extent this locally written and produced science book reflected the traditional culture of the children who would use it. It was a light-green coloured book with ‘science’ written on the cover in Amharic (one of the main languages in Ethiopia), in black bold lettering about 3 cm in length. The book is 30 cm by 25 cm and has 50 pages. Produced and distributed throughout the country by the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia, it is used by all Grade 2 students throughout the provinces that use Amharic as their official language.

I analysed the text seeking mainly to find evidence of how it treats and relates scientific and traditional or indigenous knowledge of comparative phenomena. To organize my observations, I developed a model of three possible ways that scientific and traditional knowledge logically might be related in a presentation destined for young learners: (Model 1) traditional knowledge is ignored; (Model 2) traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge coexists alongside one another but without interacting; and (Model 3) traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge are compared and the appropriateness of each for different situations is explored and made clear. Let me elaborate each of these in turn.

1. Traditional knowledge is ignored. Many if not most African nations have inherited education systems that are not linked to the realities of present African life. In the words of Urch (1992): “African leaders today are faced with the task of re-evaluating and reshaping those institutions imposed on them by former colonial powers, [as they] have inherited a formal educational structure not linked to the realities of present African needs” (p. 2).

In most cases the textbooks that these countries use at all levels are imported or donated by countries in Europe, Asia or North America. Therefore, the information in these books pertains to their countries of origin, with examples of botany and zoology that reflect distant flora and fauna (snow, polar bears, etc.) This is the material that many African children use in the formal system of education they are following. Western textbooks are used as if the learners were imitating Western children. This is what Cobern (1998, p. 2) calls the ‘uncritical copying of Western educational practices’ (although the problem may be less critical ability, than means to produce local materials!) In any case, everything we know about human learning tells us that learning which is not rooted in learners’ prior knowledge and experience will produce brittle and untransferable knowledge structures. Also, as already noted, there is the additional problem with Model 1 learning that knowledge encoded from “Western-styled curricula” with no connection to “understanding the richness of traditions [and] culture” can, as Urch states, “move African students away from their cultural heritage” (1992, p. 3-4).

2. Traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge co-exist and without being integrated in the learners’ thinking. This learning is the type clearly elaborated by Cleghorn, Mtetwa, Dube, Munetsi, who describe schooling in Kenya, where the school culture is devoid of any relation to the home culture:

…African home-school language differences are usually coupled with meaningful cultural differences; the school embodies Westernized cultural values through the content of the curriculum and with normative expectations for behaviour that are often at odds with the traditional knowledge and values still prevalent in many homes. (p.464)

Model 2 or dissociated learning is a theme in African educational research. According to Fuller and Snyder (1991), for example, “African children also may enter the classroom with language, knowledge and cognitive maps that are quite inconsistent with social forms found within this foreign school setting” (p.274), and furthermore these children are not given an opportunity to use the indigenous knowledge that they posses. What this effectively boils down to is the co-existence of traditional and Western knowledge side by side withoutintegration. This seems to be the subtext in Clark and Ramahalpe’s (1999) article, where for example in the discussion of the phenomenon of lightning, “traditional beliefs were given the same status as science in the classroom” (p.116) and yet the two were not compared as to the different sort of work that each could accomplish. Both exist but they are not integrated.

3. Traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge are compared and the appropriateness of each to different contexts is made clear. In order to illustrate this model, I have drawn directly from the Grade 2 Science textbook that I analysed (here translated and summarized). Chapter 1, “Measuring Things”: In this chapter we are introduced to traditional concepts of measurement—sinzzir (hand span), kende (forearm), cha’ma (foot), irmija’a(stride)These forms of measure are introduced and the emphasis is laid on approximation.

Next, scientific concepts of measurement are introduced – metres and centimetres – with an emphasis on exactness. Through exercises and experiments, students are led to discover that one form of measurement is more reliable than the other in a scientific or experimental setting. This process of guided discovery lead students to understand the different contexts in which they can use traditional or modern concepts that they are taught in the classroom.

So far, then, there is integration, but that is not all. The traditional way of measuring is also used as a point of departure for understanding scientific measurement and acts as a sort of “border crossing.” When using local resources and subject matter that relates to their daily lives, the students that I observed were able to analyse and look critically at the subject matter and relate it to the scientific concepts being introduced. In the teaching of science, the science educators that I observed and the materials they were using acknowledged the wealth of indigenous knowledge and at the same time used it to strengthen their learners’ appreciation of scientific methods and thought processes.

Classroom Observation

The classroom observation phase of my research was conducted within the framework of LeCompte and Preissle’s Ethnography and Qualitative Design in Educational Research (1993)It was carried out in four different schools, which were in four different socio-economic areas. My observation was carried out in the month of September 2001, at the beginning of the school year. I first interviewed the teacher of each class I observed, developing a rapport with them, and then proceeded to a non-participatory phase to record details.

As a non-participant observer, I was “detached, neutral, and unobtrusive,”[5] seeking minimal involvement in what I was recording. My particular aim was to find out how the concepts presented in the Grade 2 Science textbook were presented in the class by the teachers, and whether at the point of delivery, these examples and the language that is used by the teachers communicate the various concepts couched in familiar terms from the students’ home environment and culture.

In what follows, I draw directly from my observational data to show that language and concepts of science are indeed couched in familiar knowledge.

[Teacher reads out the problem for them and says it is for Home Work.]

Problem : From the 14 eggs that Aberash bought in the market, she fried six for breakfast. How many eggs does she have left?

10:50 The bell goes!

From this problem that was put on the board, we can see that it has been written in such a way that the students will have no difficulty in relating to the fact that eggs are commonly bought from the market place. In a rural setting it is not uncommon to have the market place as the centre of activity. We can see here that the immediate environment of the students plays an important role in the classroom and the teacher is encouraging it further by relating the information she is delivering, to the student’s home environment.

Yet another example from another school that I observed illustrates that at the point of delivery the teachers (Ts) used language and examples from the students (Ss) own home environment, bringing in a familiarity that was not foreign to the students:

She uses her ‘kend’ and demonstrates, she calls a student anddemonstrates again asking the student to use her ‘kend’ to measure sheT’s desk.

T: When your parents talk about their ‘gabbi’or ‘nethella’, and they wantto measure it, they usually say that it is 3 ‘kend’, right?

9: 20 Students are measuring the blackboard using their ‘kend’.

To show that language and concepts are indeed couched in familiar knowledge, the next example shows that the teacher’s guiding clue is drawn not from the textbook but from the learner’s common home experience: 

T: Today’s topic is: HOW DO WE KEEP OUR FACES CLEAN?

[Teacher changes her voice and talks to Ss. She is talking loud and clear.She asks Ss to ask questions and they do. A boy puts up his hand.]

T:‘Stand up and speak up’.

[ She then goes on to explain using actions and sounds. She is animated,when telling the children how exactly to chase flies off their faces, sheuses onomatopoeia. The intonation of her voice changes.] [She tells theSs to ‘Ishsh’ the flies off their faces. This is the sound one uses when‘shooing’ something in Amharic.]


Yet another example by the same animated teacher:

2 :47 :‘ I’ll read it for you first and then you will come out and read. ’

–        The title is….

–        ‘ O.K children, when we read we have to do it loud and clear, like me. We have to make it tasty for our listeners, just like when we make ‘ wat ’. How do we make a ‘wat’ tasty? [She answers her own question,] By adding onions and spices to it. Why do we add spices to it? ’

Students chorus:  ‘ To make it tasty! ’

–        O.K then children, just like that, we have to stop at full stops and pause at commas….

In all four schools that I observed there is ample evidence that suggests the use of the children’s immediate environment when explaining a point or teaching a new topic or concept.

Interviews [6]

I had the opportunity to interview some very dedicated and well-trained teachers. Teachers who had been in the teaching profession from 5 to 10 years and more: Ato Sendek Gelaneh from Belai Zeleke Primary and Junior School, Wzt. Mulumebet Mengistu from Nazareth School, Wzr. Beletu Gebre from Abune Basilios, and Wzr. Ayenath from Kouskuam Primary School.

I got the impression that these teachers were very diligently following the training and policies that had been put forth by the Ministry of Education. The various methods and systems that they applied while teaching had a sense of uniformity to it. For the various questions that I asked I was given the impression that they all came from the same mould, but when applying it to the various class situations they each used their own style of teaching.

The interviews that I carried out with five teachers from Grade 2 illuminated a number of points that directly related to the importance of teaching students about their cultural heritage. I used the teachers as my key informants and they shared a lot of information with me. The form of interviewing that I carried out is categorized as key-informant interviewing by Goetz and LeCompte (1984). The informants (teachers) “possess[ed] special knowledge” that I did not have, and they were willing to share this information with me (in line with LeCompte & Preissle’s discussion, 1993, p. 166).

       I specifically asked one teacher about culture during the course of an interview:

ME: As I see it, you do give more importance to things that are more cultural?

T: Yes, we do give importance to cultural things. Traditional dress, food, this we make sure that the students know very well.

Another went on to tell me:

Now, there are some things that have to be learnt, for example – culture. The students have to know and learn and respect their culture. For example, you can ask students from what cultural backgrounds they come, what kind of wedding songs do you have? Ask your parents and come and then you can sing for us, in class. So when the others in the class listen to what these students are doing, they are very interested and they are also happy and in this way, they begin to understand that different languages have the same messages. In this way they learn that all languages are the same when used to give the meaning of the same thing, and what do they learn from this, that all languages are equal as they provide the same information.

This same teacher felt that the cultural aspect was being further encouraged by the Ministry of Education as well, and this led me to ask her a direct question:

ME: So when the Ministry put this science book out, they thought culture was relevant?

T: Well, not a lot is found in the Science book. But in Environmental Studies, we have a lot of mention and just so, now, in this new book that has come out which is called Environmental Science, it includes a lot of the social aspect of science making it even more culturally relevant. Environmental Science came in last year in the second semester to be precise. It teaches about culture and monuments found in the country. It tells the students that they have to look after their cultural heritage, as it has to be passed on for generations to come. They have to look after the monuments all this is taught from Grade 1 and it broadens as it goes on to the higher levels.

The use of indigenous knowledge in classrooms also helps students appreciate the world-view they already possess, knowledge that they have gained informally. This knowledge is recognised and valued. This contributes to an individual’s sense of pride in his/her own unique cultural heritage. This sense in the strength of place and empowerment of local culture and environment, seeks to offer an access to the knowledge of the world at large: aprender de lo cercano para llegar a lo lejano (Cox & Avalos, 1999, p. 284).

The creation of a school curriculum and syllabus, if it is to reflect the local society in which it is to be used, has to be developed by the local populace; in this case, it has to be written and printed in Ethiopia, by Ethiopians for Ethiopians. The following points have been taken from an interview I had with Ato Teshome, the Head Teacher of a school that I observed. He brought with him a stapled sheaf of type written notes and proceeded to tell me at length about the policy objectives put forth by the policy makers from the Ministry of Education. He talked to me about the creation of written textbook material by the Curriculum Department in Addis Ababa. We began our discussion with Ato Teshome telling me about the objectives of Education which are supplied by the Ministry of Education and distributed through the School Board in Addis Ababa. Here I asked Ato Teshome who the principle actors were when creating educational material:


T: [They are] the policy makers. They are a group of people who are involved in Education. They can be from the Ministry of Education or the Bank, or the Sports Commission, or the Cultural Ministry. They can be from Mining or Agriculture or from the Health Services. They are advisors to the Curriculum Department. They decide on the way in which Education is to be provided to the citizens of the country, in other words, the policy makers are the civil society. They make a study and each sector provides its views; the suggestions that they make usually concentrates on their field of expertise.

ME: So the policy makers decide everything?

T: No, No, they meet and discuss with educators and the input from the teachers is also very important at this stage. They discuss about the syllabus and curriculum that they have come up with. This is how it begins to take shape and books get prepared, for each and every level in the education system. These books are then supplied to the various schools by the Education bureau in Addis Ababa.

Ato Teshome continued to tell me about the aims and objectives: 

T: For grades 1 to 8 these are the objectives, those that I mentioned. Grades 9 and 10 are separate and 11 and 12 are separate as well. University has its own Charter. This is done for every class and for every subject, and this is how the objectives are put forward for the whole system of Education.

Here I conclude my interview reports, for the main themes seem clear. Culture is a recurring theme in these materials and these classrooms, serving as both a familiar base for the students as well as a launching pad for new learning.


This investigation looked at the proposal ‘that African indigenous knowledge systems…should be the foundation for the development of African education systems’ (EFA, UNESCO, 2000, p.27) The data that I gathered from the four schools and the interviews that I conducted with the five teachers shows that, in this small piece of the vast continent of African education, indigenous knowledge already is the foundation for at least some educational endeavours in Africa.  The recommendations of the Dakar Education For All forum are already being enacted in some places in Africa and local indigenisation models are available, if needed, to serve in a more general implementation of this idea in places where it is not being followed at present.

My findings, primarily concerning the integration of culture into a school curriculum, suggested the existence of numerous practices combining the home-culture of a child with the school-culture. The study found that when students were given a chance to be a part of the knowledge that they themselves brought to class, then it became theirs to own; and by integrating their knowledge with the new concepts presented in the class, the students’ learning was successful. By referring to indigenous knowledge as a combination of the student’s own schema, culture and environment, I found numerous references and examples corresponding to these definitions throughout the textbook the students were using, and throughout the practical teaching in class, and the interviews I conducted with various teachers. It is my belief that close-up, qualitative studies like mine ought to be carried out in other regions of Ethiopia as well as other countries in Africa to contribute to data that promotes development.

Through this detailed look at a few classrooms in Ethiopia, I have attempted to make the larger point that there is no single correct analysis to the problems of educational development in a space as vast as Africa. There is no general statement that applies in every case, such as that there is a pressing need for indigenisation of schooling; in some places there may be, in some places there may not. What is needed in the developing world, in terms of aid or help in solving the myriad problems that present themselves, is a system that is created from within, a solution created through discussion, negotiation and consent. Each case is different and carries with it its own particular brand of problems and solutions. For some, the solution is teaching them how to fish, for some it is providing the pole. My observations, admittedly limited, of classrooms bursting with children, many without a book or unable to see the blackboard, convinced me that the lack of resources, rather than the lack of concepts, was the principle problem that I had observed.


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1 Marshall, K. (2000) . Partnership with NGO’s: Some World Bank Experience. Retrieved 17 March 2002, from: 

2It needs mentioning that Amharic is the first language of only some parts of Ethiopia; in other parts it is itself a sort of “colonizing language” as French and English were in other African countries. My study does not deal with this issue as it was conducted entirely in the areas where Amharic has always been the first language. (See Hancock, 1997, p. 34, for a fuller discussion of the role of Amharic in Ethiopia’s history.)    

3For more on the subject refer to Wagaw, T. (1979) . Education in Ethiopia:Prospect and Retrospect. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

4 Asfaw, A., Fikru, L., & Tesfaye, T. (1999) . Sayense Hulethegna Kifil: Memaria metsehaf  [Science Grade 2: Textbook]. (Abdi, K., Faltamo, P., & Halefom, S., Eds.) . Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Mega Printing Press.

5 LeCompte and Preissle (1993, p. 205).

6 All the names of teachers used in this paper are fictitious.