Environment & Education

Africa is comprised of a wide range of diverse ecosystems that include arid deserts, tropical forests, snow-capped mountains, coastal beaches, lakes, rivers, swamps, prairies and much more. These ecosystems play a key role in the diversity of African cultures because, as touched on by the Language lesson,  ecological diversity contributes to cultural diversity. The Cartographies and Social Geographies lessons addressed the ways that people assign meanings to space to create place, and the meanings attached to place affect the way that people interact in space. The Livelihoods lesson addressed the ways that people extract and exchange resources from the environment by engaging in adaptive strategies that are based on the social and cultural organization of a society. At the same time however, the environment also  shapes the way people perceive the world and interact with one another. Therefore, in order to understand the Environment in Africa, we must address the complex relationships between culture, language, education, and the environment.  

Environment, Knowledge & Education  

Environment plays a central role in knowledge because knowledge of a compendium of how people perceive the world they live in. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2011), knowledge is:

  • ž     Expertise and skills acquired by a person through experience or education;
  • ž     What is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information;
  •  ž     Awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.


Like culture, knowledge is learned and shared, and knowledge acquisition involves complex cognitive processes. It demands perception because people must be aware and conscious of their environment in order to process information. It requires the ability to retain information as it is received. It requires communication because knowledge is a body of information that accumulates through time and is shared through generations. It also requires association because as people receive new information, they must situate it in relation to their pre-existing system of collected information. If the new information does not fit, they either reject it and maintain the existing knowledge order or restructure their body of knowledge and thinking in order to accommodate the new information.

Yet, knowledge is embedded in systems of power. In his book, Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) Michel Foucault describes three fundamental aspects of the relationship between knowledge and power; 1.) Knowledge is never neutral. This is because knowledge is created within a particular social system. 2.) Power is based on knowledge, and therefore acquiring knowledge is empowering. 3.) Power reproduces knowledge, and shapes it according to anonymous intentions. Anonymity is cloaked under the guise of objectivity. While people are aware of ideas that are accepted as ‘Truths’, most are unaware of the people who created those ideas and the motivations behind them. This forces us to ask, Who decides on the body of knowledge? In the contemporary era, education is largely embedded in economics, and educational frameworks have become internationalized through processes of globalization and development.This is a serious point of contention in places throughout Africa where education systems and schools are viewed as an extension of colonial encroachment and occupation.

Education & Schooling

There are many different bodies of knowledge, and knowledge is shared through the process of education, which is the acquisition of knowledge throughout the course of life. The educational process generally requires the presence of teachers or mentors who shared their knowledge with others through a series of interactive techniques. Education is sometimes organized into subjects, such as ‘reading,’ ‘math,’ ‘hunting,’ ‘gathering,’ ‘irrigation,’ and so on. However, education is not synonymous with schooling, which is an institution established to perpetuate a systematic set of ideas and criteria associated with knowledge as it relates to a particular society. Schools play a fundamental role in the social organization of society because it acts a social institution that lends authority to a particular knowledge system by which all members of the community are expected to recognize.  Knowledge systems within school systems are formalized and standardized, this is important because it means that the information presented and learner assessments remain the same for everyone regardless of different experiences or perspectives. The information is usually codified through writing which necessitates literacy. The first evidence of schooling is found in a 5000 year old Egyptian mural.

The role of schools in granting authority to a particular set of ideas places schools in a central position for socialization (Oakley 1972). Historically, schooling and formal education have been associated with ‘civilization.’ During the colonial period, European imperialists and missionaries used schools as a means to enculturate indigenous people, particularly children. In many cases, indigenous children were forced to attend boarding schools and forbidden to speak their indigenous language or participate in their indigenous culture. Critics argue that schools are the locus for the socialization, or conformity, to hegemonic ideological paradigms. They are particularly powerful because they primarily focus on children. Ann Oakley (1972) was among the first to argue that children receive more than purely ‘academic’ training when they attend schools; they are also socialized to prevailing norms and values that are based on white, heterosexual male standards. This is evidenced from ‘dress codes’ and other forms of regulations that sanction disciplinary action against students who defy accepted activities and behaviors.  Along the same lines, Louis Althusser referred to the state education institution as an ‘ideological state apparatus’ (ISA) that indoctrinated youth to hegemonic ideologies in order to facilitate state control. At the same time, post-colonial states have relied on state schools to promote national identity in order to mitigate ethnic violence which became epidemic among former colonies that were subjected to colonial ‘divide and rule’ policies.

Schools continue to play a key part in the nationalization of language, culture and society throughout Africa. Ghana was the first African colony to achieve Independence in the 20th century, and the new state established dozens of secondary boarding schools in rural areas. Although the state educational system has been fraught with problems associated with underfunding, many claim that the school system has helped narrow ethnic cleavages and contributed to the stability of the nation (Obeng). However, the Ghanaian school system is based on the former colonial model and the English language which has threatened cultural diversity and traditional ecological knowledge systems (TEK).

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) refers to indigenous bodies of knowledge and information about the environment and human-environment interactions. TEK is generally place-based, meaning that it is relevant to localized circumstances and conditions. This is because TEK is acquired through interaction, observation and experiences that have accumulated through years of learning and sharing from generation to generation. TEK is usually transmitted orally, without a written language, and it is therefore becoming increasingly endangered. As globalization and development promote and expand euro-centric knowledge systems through schooling and education, TEK is often abandoned in favor of more globalized systems that lend greater promise to job opportunities and economic prosperity in the global economy.

Language is central to TEK because localized information is coded, or stored, in the words and meanings that comprise the local lexicon. The first module addressing language pointed out that language structures the way people view their environment, but the environment also shapes the structure of language. This is why language, culture and environment are inextricably linked; areas with high biodiversity also host high cultural diversity. At the same time, biological destruction can impact cultural/linguistic diversity. When the environment is destroyed, the language and cultural systems linked to the environment are changed.

The documentary film, Taking Root (2009), tells the story of Wangari Maathai the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Maathai recognized that the experience of colonialism  and rapid environmental degradation changed the human-environment relationship in Kenya. She correlated the exploitation of people with exploitation of the environment. She aimed to tackle the post-colonial dictatorship and massive ecological destruction, both of which were generating human suffering, by mobilizing women in rural villages to start planting trees.

Throughout the documentary, Maathai explains how the experience of colonialism changed the way indigenous people in Kenya viewed the environment. Trees became timber, elephant tusks became ivory. The environment was no longer viewed as something to live in, but to extract from. Drawing from the framework of ‘space and place’ introduced in the cartographies lesson, we can see that colonial polices assigned different meanings to the environment, one which was based on money. By planting trees, Maathaii helped the people suffering the most from environmental destruction, mostly rural women, assign meanings to the environment that were based on food, clothing, shelter, and survival. This not only encouraged local people to protect the environment they depended on, it also empowered them to challenge post-colonial policies and dictators that threatened their ecosystem, their livelihoods, and their communities.

Environment, Education, Women & Power

While Wangari Maathai relied on environmental education to promote ecological conservation and empower poor and rural women, international agencies rely on education programs to increase cash income in rural and remote areas throughout Africa. Schooling and literacy are considered a key part of poverty alleviation in Africa. Research has shown that earnings increase with schooling (Mincer 1970), and many scholars argue that education empower marginalized populations such as women (Moghadam 2005).  At the same time however, anthropologists and environmentalists point out that schooling programs impact the environment and decrease cultural diversity because they change the way that people treat the environment and each other. 

In her book, Women and Plants (2003), Patricia Howard shows how the exclusion of rural women from economic development and education in Africa has placed women at the center of biological conservation. Like many rural areas throughout the world, villages in Africa are primarily populated with women because most boys leave their village to attend school and men migrate to cities to find a job. Girls who are left behind learn TEK from their mothers as they continue to carry out localized tasks and livelihoods in their rural village. As a result, women maintain TEK in their village and pass in on to their daughters. In light of this, Howard argued that environmental conservation policies and practices in Africa must include the involvement of rural women. Howard’s research in Africa is consistent with other research on gender, education and the environment throughout the world.

If we compare the two maps below, we can identify a relationship between gender inequality and illiteracy.


Literacy: Blue and Green represented highest literacy, Red and Orange represent lowest literacy

Gender Inequality: Lighter color represents greater equality, darker color represents greater inequality










We can see from the maps above that some of the areas with the highest gender inequality and illiteracy are in Africa. When we compare the maps above with the plant and biological diversity map below, we can identify a relationship between gender inequality, literacy and biocultural diversity in Africa.



This relationship is beginning to create a thorny dilemma in terms of gender equality, women’s empowerment and biocultural conservation in Africa.  Gender inequality may have caused women to maintain TEK and biocultural diversity in Africa, while at the same time, inequality creates the conditions of poverty for rural women. Literacy and education programs can alleviate poverty by increasing women’s status, power and income in their community, yet many argue that this comes at the cost of biological and cultural degradation. Conservation advocates argue that bio-cultural conservation and TEK is key to sustainability and and long-term security for indigenous people. In the 16 minute documentary, When the Water Ends ecologists at Yale University explain how the expansion of development and modernization in urban areas has led to water scarcity and intense conflicts between pastoralists in Africa. Along the same lines, Allan Savory from South Africa provides a new and controversial perspective on the restoration of degraded grasslands in Africa and throughout the world. According to Savory, the removal of pastoralists and elephants from South African grasslands contributed to the desertification and destruction of the valuable ecosystems. In the TED talk below, Savory describes how the planned grazing habits of pastoralists helped maintain the grasslands, and the restoration of grasslands depends on the TEK of indigenous people. 

 This lesson provides a very brief and incomplete introduction to the relationship between environment and culture in Africa, but it should give you a general idea of the relationship between the environment, knowledge, and the diversity of culture and language of Africa. It should also shed light on the importance of importance of language, culture, and TEK in environmental conservation in Africa. 

For Discussion: Research the ecological and environmental conditions within your selected country. What types of ecosystems are present in that area, and consider the ways that the environment has shaped culture and cultural diversity. How has culture, or culture change, affected the environment? Has the environment been impacted by degradation such as deforestation, pollution, or water scarcity? What types of conservation programs or protected areas, if any, have been implemented by the government of your selected country?

For Extra Credit: Research and present a report on one plant or animal located within your selected country. Is it indigenous to the country or was it introduced through globalization? What is the social, cultural, environmental or economic significance of that plant or animal? Is it abundant or does it need to be protected from endangerment? consider the representation of the plant or animal in stories and art. Resources: When Lion Could Fly: and other tales from Africa by Greaves

For Extra Credit: Watch the Documentary Taking Root: The vision of Wangari Maathai posted above. Post a news report describing a social, economic, political and/or environmental problem in the United States. What tactic or strategy used by Maathai in Kenya would be most useful to address your selected problem?

When you complete the discussion, move on to the Globalization lesson.