British Colonial Education Policy and the Use of Indigenous Languages

p1 of Logoiywek

p2 of Logoiywek

Some time ago, whilst working in the closed stacks at Emerald Street I came across sections of a newsletter in Nandi which I found by chance tucked away in one of the historical textbooks.  It is dated from the early 1950s when there was a real push by Africans   towards ensuring the transmission of indigenous education particularly to the adult population.  With the newsletter is a typewritten draft (on tracing paper) of a short article which was written for the Community Development Bulletin (June 1952). It provides some background information on the Nandi and why the newsletter was published:

The Nandi are a pastoral, cattle-rearing people of about 120,000, most of whom (81,000) are living in the Rift Valley in the North-west of Kenya.  They are a Nilo-Hamitic tribe, and were once great and fierce warriors.  Education and advanced methods of agriculture are still little developed among this very conservative people, in spite of the efforts of missionaries and officials.  Many join the Kenya African Reserve and Kenya Police; they are a loyal and self-respecting tribe and the lack of education does not, as in Central Province, combine with the problems of greatly increased population, to cause political discontent.

In June 1950, Mr. J. M. Popkin, then Assistant principal at the Government African School at Kapsabet, began the publication of a vernacular news-sheet “Logoiywek”, which simply means “news”. It was intended as a means of preserving and extending Nandi literacy, and of fostering an interest among Nandi in the development of their own district.  It was, at first, a free monthly news-sheet printed on the school Gestetner machine, with a limited circulation which rose under Mr. Popkin’s perseverance and good editorship from about one hundred to nearly three hundred, as it began to be appreciated by the Nandi.

…. Circulation has increased steadily from the first (March 1951) printing of 550, to well over 1500 (October 1951…. The co-operation of the “East African Standard” and later of the Government Printer enabled the editors to include line-drawings and photo-blocks.

Regular contributions are received form the Agricultural Livestock and Health Officers.  The remaining articles, including replies to letters, are written by the Editor, (now District Officer, Kapsabet) who is advised by other Government officers or chiefs or other notable members of the tribe.  When space can be spared, advertisements are inserted for firms in Eldoret or else-where in or near the Reserve, for the East African Literature Bureau, or for Government Departments.  Distribution, apart from the general public, is to Provincial and District Officials, chiefs, Army and Police Units, and free copies go to many training centres where young Nandi have gone to learn but do not yet get a full wage.  Perhaps some may soon be seen in Malaya, with Third Battalion, Kenya African Reserve!

By keeping alive the faculty of reading and stimulating interest in the affairs and development of the tribe as a whole, and by offering news, information, and entertainment, “Logoiywek”, the vernacular newspaper in the Nandi language, is helping – in a small way – adult eduction in Kenya.

The history of ‘native education’ is a long and interesting one.  As Clive Whitehead writes, the Advisory Committee on Native Education in British Tropical Africa tabled a draft memorandum on The Place of the Vernacular in Native Education in April 1925 which was circulated to all of Britain’s Africa colonies along with a list of provisional conclusions on which they invited comment. The conclusions were:

  • The mother tongue should be the basis and medium of all elementary education
  • The place for the teaching of English was in the secondary school
  • Only secondary age pupils intending to continue their studies should be taught English, for everyone else the vernacular should be the medium of instruction except for the subjects English, science and mathematics (Whitehead, 1995, p. 3).

But indigenous education has always been in existence. The inclusion of the mother tongue in the school is as much about retaining a cultural identity as it is about making education accessible.  A UNESCO newsletter from 2003 states the following about the mother tongue:

Language and identity are linked – as the term ‘mother tongue’ implies. A healthy identity balances different aspects of our personalities. A community expresses part of its identity in its languages of instruction and a healthy society makes choices that promote harmonious communities and confident individuals. Fortunately these goals are usually congruent.

From my experience, as a child growing up in Uganda, we were encouraged to speak English at home and the result is that I cannot speak any of the dialects and have forgotten how to speak Swahili.  I think this was because my parents were pressured into believing that if we spoke English fluently, we would do well in life. Sadly, what I am now finding is that I often feel excluded because I cannot speak my mother tongue (though can understand the gist of the conversation because that is what I heard outside of the home).  My parents wanted the best for me and therefore made the decision to educate me in the English language.  It is only now that they are frustrated when we are not able to have fluent conversations with the ‘elders’ that they appreciate their mistake.

A paper presented at the African Studies Annual Conference in Baltimore, US, in 2013, opens with the following pertinent questions:

At least 26 African countries list English as one of their official languages. Most recently Rwanda, long a French-speaking country, has switched to English as an official language. Burundi and Gabon are switching from French to English, and South Sudan is adopting English. The use of English as an official language in schools, universities, and government offices across the African continent raises a number of key issues. Why are African countries determining that English might be preferable to French, and why preferable to local languages? What are the positive and negative impacts of these decisions?”(Plonski et al., 2003, p. 1)

According to this paper, English gets people jobs and into higher education. Therefore English is a functional language.  In addition to colonial history, globalization and progress are given as the reasons why countries like Rwanda are changing their language of education to English. But at what expense?  Peter Ekeh (1975) argued that a western and indigenous education creates two publics which may not live harmoniously together. Michael Omolewas(2007) argues that “indigenous education is a holistic system in which storytelling, proverbs and myths play an important role.”  It prepares each person in the community practically for a role in society. He continues, “traditional African education is passed from one generation to another by learning through various modes, which include language, music, dance, oral tradition, proverbs, myths, stories, culture, religion and elders. In a non-literate society, accumulated knowledge and wisdom is stored in the heads of the adult members of the society. As Ki-Zerbo (1990) argued, when an old African passes away, it is a whole library which disappears. Parents, older relatives and others play a very important part in the lifelong learning process of the individual. Wherever possible, however, the focus is on learning within the home environment. This helps to close the ‘generational gap’.” (p. 594)

This is something I have experienced too – the more affluent and urban families will send their children to the British schools in Africa.  It is therefore not surprising that a hierarchical system emerges, as the English speakers are the ones who do well in the future for many will hold well-paying jobs in government or finance.


Ekeh, Peter P. (1975) “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa : A Theoretical Statement.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 17:91-112.

Itibari, Z.M. (2006). “Critical Indigenous African Education and Knowledge.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, 1 (3): 32-46.)

Omolewa, M., (2007). “Traditional African modes of education: their relevance in the modern world.” International Review of Education, 53:593–612.

Plonski, P., Teferra, A., Brady, R., (2013). “Why are more African countries adopting English as an official language?” Paper presented at the African Studies Association Annual Conference, Baltimore, Maryland.  Accessible at—English-Language-in-Africa-PAPER.pdf

Whitehead, C., (1995). “The medium of instruction in British Colonial education:  a case of cultural imperialism or enlightened paternalism? History of Education 24:1: 1-15.


The attached document on the founder of “Logoiywek”, John Michael Popkin (1920-2006) has been provided by Ken Kingsbury who has been researching his father-in-law, James Gillespie, a teacher at the college Popkin was head of in the 1950s in Kenya.


About Nazlin Bhimani

Research Support and Special Collections Librarian, UCL Institute of Education, London
This entry was posted in Library and Archives, Special Collections and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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