A paper presented at the 3rd global conference on forgiveness oxford college England

17th july 2010





University of Abuja, Nigeria.





Every aspect of human life is significantly shaped during childhood. This stage in human development is extraordinarily receptive to the values that are obtainable in the immediate social environment. Modern psychologists generally agree that the impressions of early childhood play a decisive role in the process of maturation into adulthood. Albert Bandura (1977) in his Social Learning Theory established that children learn more by imitating what goes on around them, especially what they see adults do. The early stage in human development is thus very fecund for the scaffolding of important socio-cultural, moral and religious values.


Forgiveness as a benevolent virtue can be nurtured, expressed, shared and taught from childhood. This happens when the socializing environment provides the necessary grounds for it to be planted and groomed. Significantly this virtue is not a product of scholastic curriculum, but a derivation from affective and effective psycho- social and religious relationships within a community.


This paper explores the importance of forgiveness in the process of child upbringing. This outlook is motivated by the conviction that childhood learning has a lot to contribute to adulthood formation. To address this important issue, the paper adopts the African traditional learning process. This is the informal form of education which integrates every member of the community from infancy using what most African scholars (especially Pio Zirimu) denote as African traditional Orature. This oral transmission of narratives and customs from older generations to successive ones is done through folktales, folksongs, proverbs, parables and other symbolic verbal forms.


Attentive to the foregoing it becomes the preoccupation of this work to establish how the virtue of forgiveness can be integrated in the process of child upbringing using African traditional Orature as a pedagogical tool. The paper draws strength from African cultural studies and research to propose a more reliable way of inculcating the virtues of forgiveness from childhood using symbolic verbal elements that resonates with the recipients.










1.0    Introduction


The importance of child upbringing need not generate much debate. This is specifically based on the fact that a lot of things that come up in adulthood are fecundated during the time of the development of the child. Albert Bandura in his social learning theory demonstrated in broad lines that children learn by consciously imitating the sounds and sights that they come in contact with in their socializing environment1. It could thus be rightly asserted that a greater percentage of childhood education is undertaken by the socializing environment where child upbringing takes place. Our contemporary media saturated society lends credence to this fact.



Life in Africa is traditionally a community life. Individualism is non-existent; in fact to be is to be identified with a particular community. The community as the custodian of the individual is also an institution of non-formal learning. When a child is born he/she is born into the community not into a given family or the other. The community starts immediately to scaffold the child’s upbringing with some basic values. This is notably done using the traditional method of teaching by means of words and other symbolic art forms.


This paper explores how forgiveness can be incorporated in the process of child upbringing using the African traditional orature as a learning tool. In view of advancing an ingenious presentation, the paper undertakes some explication to set out the landscape and scope of most of the important terms like forgiveness, child upbringing and orature. It further sets out to make in-depth study on how the African traditional orature can assist in the pedagogy of forgiveness within the context of child upbringing.


2.0    The Concept of Forgiveness In African Cosmology

The concept of forgiveness in Africa is better understood from the point of view of its importance. Generally forgiveness is seen as an action that succeeds an incidence of transgression. Based on the continuous link between the human and the divine in African cosmology, forgiveness is viewed as an indispensable condition for peace in the community. This later is important because every activity by human beings is evaluated in the spiritual realm. For Uzodimma Nwala (1985) “there is no sharp line separating the two. The spirits are involved in the day to day affairs of men.”2


Forgiveness is necessary for the realization of social harmony in the community; for the African it is at the service of solidarity and fellow-feeling. Using the South African concept of Ubuntu, Desmond Tutu describes the intrinsic network that connects individuals amounting to a unified whole. In his outlook a person is a person through other persons. One’s humanity is defined by identifying with, and participating in the affairs of the community. In a more elaborate elucidation Tutu writes:

Social harmony is for us the Summum Bonum, the greatest good. Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought after good is to be avoided like the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness are corrosive of this good. To forgive is not just altruistic; it is the best form of self interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me.3


Desmond Tutu’s position discloses the fact that Africans situate the life and destiny of the community within the context of moral disposition of the individuals that make up the community. In view of this forgiveness becomes an indispensable reconstructive arsenal and viable antiseptic to the mortal injury of transgression.




2.1 Forgiveness as a Ritual Process in Africa

There is need to establish here that every aspect of life in African thought and culture is directly linked to the divine presence in the community in question. Generally understood the African cosmology presents a dualism of existence; the human world and the spirit world. The two worlds are inter-penetrating and inseparable though distinguishable. In line with the preceding thought, forgiveness in the African context presents a reconstruction of the vertical and horizontal lines of relationships. Attentive to this fact, it demands a rigorous ritual process which serves both as a deterrent and well as the actual panacea to the transgression in question. The following are the formal ritual process of forgiveness in Africa:

a)     Acceptance of guilt.

b)    Repentance: Deep-reaching inner sorrow and detestation of transgression.

c)     Reparation: Restitution and appeasing of the divine and human realities in the community.

d)    Reconciliation: Making amends and mending broken ties with the divine and human beings.


3.0    Child Upbringing  In African Socio-Cultural Context

Child upbringing generally refers to the gradual integration of individuals into the society. In Africa child upbringing is a task that involves not only the nuclear family, but also the extended family and the community as a whole.


The community thus serves as an educational institution with extensive and effective social, cultural, economic, and religious curriculum. The community sees the child as an asset of the community in whom it maintains a stake. Attentive to this, every member of the community becomes a potential teacher of the child. The community actually takes the responsibility of care and upbringing of all children. It is a cohesive unit which ideally provides social, cultural, economic and psychological security in the developmental framework of the children.


The community defines the social and moral norms and safeguards both material and spiritual customs and traditions. It also provides a variety of role models preparing the way for adulthood. Within this inclusive African community, children occupy a central place and are brought up in close family groups. The social and cultural development of the child is undertaken and shared by members of the community. Attentive to this community based pedagogical disposition, the Igbos of Southeast Nigeria would say: “otu onye anaghi azu nwa” (child upbringing is not a responsibility of one person).


Generally the idea of child upbringing in African socio-cultural context is a community initiative and action. Hence the African child has many mothers and fathers. From infancy the community leads the child to develop a strong sense of social responsibility, solid moral base as well as fitting economic and religious foundation.


4.0   African Traditional Orature: Meaning and Scope.

Orature refers to the body of values, narratives and customs that are transmitted through spoken words. The Ugandan scholars of East African School of Literary Criticism Pio Zirimu and Ngugi wa Thiong’o introduced the term to replace what has been known as African oral tradition or African oral literature. African traditional orature tells us of the total body of oral discourse, styles and traditions of Africa people including their visual arts.4 Africans make use of orature to embody and transmit those moral, ethical and aesthetic values which form their relationships and worldview. Beyond mere verbalization of past events, Ifemesia notes that African traditional orature involves:


A presentation of the ideals and values of society; of the ideological and spiritual patrimony handed down by the ancestors, whose memory the present generation cherishes and reveres.5



For Ngugi wa Thiong’o orature is not seen as a branch of literature but as a total aesthetic system, with performance and integration of art forms as two of its defining qualities. For him performance specifically distinguishes orature from literature.6


Authentic African educational system is non-formal and operates without written curriculum. The moonlight nights are the classrooms; the elders, age groups, peer association and family units form the members of the teaching staff with their creative memories serving as dictionaries, encyclopedias and textbooks. Furthermore the subjects of study include folktales, folklore, jokes, riddles, games, proverbs, traditional songs and other social and cultural activities. Significantly this form of education which is subsisting in most African societies today involves oral transmission, physical interaction, and visual education. This scenario aptly captures the pedagogical environment that plants and sustains African traditional orature.



5.0  African Traditional Orature at the Service of Pedagogy of Forgiveness in Child Upbringing.



The African communities are founded on the belief that their future depends largely on the ethical conduct of the individuals that make of the community. Attentive to this fact, education in ethical conduct becomes very expedient in view of maintaining social harmony and peace in the community. Acts of virtues are taught using the vehicle of oral transmission and other art forms that aim at integrating would-be adults in the mainstream of their culture. According to Bénézet Bujo:

The methods used to teach virtues vary in accordance with the age of the children and young people; for example, the fairy tales and legends that are told to children again and again, with special emphasis on the vices and virtues of the protagonists. The children are to internalize these as lessons for daily dealings with their fellow human beings. Proverbs are equally important. These play a decisive role in communicating ethical goods and correct behaviour; they often supplement and correct one another by means of contradictory assertions. For example, the Bahema in east Congo say: “If a tree is not set in an upright position very early on, it remains crooked forever” This means that if the child is not corrected, it will be too late for him /her to learn correct behaviour when he/she becomes an adult.7



The traditional system of education in Africa is a finely connecting nexus. It is thus intimately integrated to resonate with the social, cultural, artistic, religious, political, economic, and recreational life of the ethnic group. This fundamentally makes every sphere of life to be fecund for learning. This means that the activities named above provide the traditional educational curriculum for the development of the children in the community.

Children who are born into African communities spontaneously become students of their cultural milieu as they go through various developmental stages using the traditional orature. For Edwin Smith reasoned that at the various stages of the development of the African child, folktales are used as educative devices. They are not only used to amuse and express feelings, but also to teach ideal forms of behaviour and morality.

In African traditional communities children learn by listening to the elders, imitating and reflecting them. The stories, jokes, proverbs, games and other art forms that are orally transmitted and emulated are handed down to successive generations. The specific concern of these elements is to induct the developing children into the socio-cultural, political, religious and moral values of the community. The most intensive and important process of learning is through the process of initiation into adulthood. The initiation into adulthood in the estimation of Victor Turner is a ritual process as he explains in the outcome of his encounter with the Ndembu of Zambia in Africa. For Turner in his book Ritual: Anti-Structure and Religion, Turner established the fact that those who go into the process of initiation into adulthood enter into a luminal stage where which a very dense moment of learning of societal values. They reenter the society after their fairly long time of liminality armed with values and ideals that give them strong moral identity as adults.8 Basil Davidson describes this further using the experience of the Tiriki group in Kenya, East Africa:

Until you are ten or so you are counted as a ‘small boy’ with minimal social duties such as herding cattle. Then you will expect, with some trepidation, to undergo initiation to manhood by a process of schooling which lasts about six months and is punctuated by ritual ‘examinations’ Selected groups of boys are entered for this schooling once every four or five years. …All the initiates of a hut eat, sleep, sing, dance, bathe, do handicraft, etc… but only when commanded to do so by their counselor, who will be a man under about twenty-five. Circumcision gives it a ritual embodiment within the first month or so, after which social training continues as before until the schooling period is complete. Then follows the ceremonies at which elders teach and exhort, the accent now being on obedience to rule which have been learned. (Davidson, Basil. 1969. The African Genius: An Introduction to African Social and Cultural History.9


Forgiveness is a virtue of paramount importance in African thought and culture. It is very important based on its perceived service to the community especially in appeasing the divine and human elements that are aggrieved at any point of transgression. Among the moral values that are attainable within the process of child upbringing in African traditional community is the virtue of forgiveness. This virtue is of great value because the community demands it for its progress and harmony. From the very tender age children learn lessons from folktales, songs and other art forms about events that warranted forgiveness especially with reference the deities. There are numerous stories and folk songs about individuals or group of persons that committed abominable acts, the effects of the offence on the life of the community and ritual process of forgiveness involved.


Children in African traditional communities are taught to regard everyone in the community as fellow brothers and sisters. In fact in the traditional African society nomenclatures like cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces do not exist. Rather you have brothers and sisters substituting for cousins, nephews and nieces while aunts and uncles are regarded as fathers and mothers. That is why in Africa each person is related to everyone. The community is supreme and defines each and everyone. The community sets the tune for the advancement of individuals in the community. This effective connection to the community makes it imperative for members of the community to maintain social harmony and thus seeks for forgiveness in the event of transgression.

6.0  Conclusion

The traditional African community as we have been able to establish is a huge educational institution of varying forms of learning. Children who are born into this community are led through the pedagogical corridors of the authentic African value systems. They are gradually integrated into the mainstream of the community though effective encounter with the living memories that are handed down and taught through oral transmission and other symbolic art forms.

Forgiveness as a virtue that has preoccupied this conference for the past three years can become a feasible virtue in the human society when it impacted during the process of child upbringing. The African traditional community is opulent in the provision of the palpable grounds for the striving of moral values through oral transmission. This African pedagogical disposition from the point of view of the community is being proposed to the world as a viable and involving way of making forgiveness a quality that deserves far-reaching inculcation in the process of child upbringing.





1. Bandura, A. Social Learning Theory.Englewood Cliff. NJ. Prentice Hall. 1977.

2. Nwala, T.U. Igbo Philosophy. Literamed Publications Nigeria. 1985.

3. Tutu, D. No Future Without Forgiveness.Image books New York.2000. p.31

4. Ehusani, G. An Afro-Christian Vision “Ozovehe!” Towards A More Humanized

          World. University Press of America.1991.p .121.

5. Ehusani, G.p.122.

6. Thiong’0 N. Penpoints,Gunpoints and Dreams:Towards A Critical Theory of

          The Arts and The State in Africa. Clarendon press Oxford. 1998. p.17.

7. Bujo, B. Foundations Of An African Ethic: Beyond The Universal Claims Of

          Western Morality. Pauline Publications Nairobi. 2003.

8. Turner, V. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York Aldine

          De Gruyter.1969.

9. David, B. African Genius: An Introduction to African Social and Cultural

          History. The Atlantic Monthly Press. 1996. P.12.

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