Let’s Stop Downplaying The Physical Abuse In African Schools

The violent trauma most African students face in school is disguised as ‘discipline’

Photo by bill wegener on Unsplash

“The black man learns by the cane” was one of the mottoes of my Discipline Master in boarding school. This single motto defined what he thought was needed to motivate kids to learn. We were 9 years old. He believed corporal punishment (i.e., physical punishment, such as caning or flogging) was needed to produce responsible adults. He, like many of our teachers, made comments such as “spare the rod, spoil the child”. If you have had a deep conversation with most people who went to an African school, you will hear similar stories — the likes of Game of Throne’s Ramsay Bolton. This topic recently became a conversation on TikTok and Twitter where many shared experiences about being beaten till they bled to being asked to take a kneel on hot pavements. A video circulated of a girl and boy being beaten in Nigeria after allegedly being accused of drinking alcohol and a 2018 incident where students were tied to a cross and whipped for being late to school.

As Africans, we need to rethink our use of corporal punishment. I believe we risk raising adults who lack conflict resolution skills and think violence is the first response to resolving conflict.

According to a 2014 report on violence against children by the African Child Policy Forum, An estimated 92 percent of pupils interviewed in Togo, 86 percent in Sierra Leone, 73 percent in Egypt, 71 percent in Ghana, 60 percent in Kenya, and 55 percent in Senegal and Benin reported having experienced physical violence in schools from teachers or classmates.” In primary school I remember my math lessons and other subjects because they were tied to beatings. If you didn’t do your homework, your teacher would give you several lashes or find some fun “Squid Game” like punishment for you to do.

Reflecting on those memories, I imagined what would occur if they happened in the U.S — It would likely trigger a child abuse investigation and the school would probably shut down immediately. I don’t remember much about my primary school experience, perhaps because I buried all those memories and the trauma that came with it somewhere in the deep graveyard of my mind. However, my secondary school experience almost feels like a present memory because I still have the scars of being beaten with a gas pipe on my butt.

Boarding school was a great opportunity for me to get a private and well rounded education. The education in government funded schools wasn’t as lucrative and lacked the discipline most students needed to be successful. However, those were not my reasons for being excited for boarding school. I was excited about the food. Yes, going to boarding school meant shopping for numerous food items you usually wouldn’t get at home. Reason being, if you were in boarding school, you spent 9 months of the year at school and 3 months, during the summer, at home. So before the school year, it was your parents’ responsibility to do all the shopping for your canteen that would sustain you throughout the year.

Photo by JR Harris on Unsplash

In early August, like migrating mating birds, parents and their children descended upon their local town markets to commence shopping for a rigorous list of items that would be needed throughout the year. My aunt and I usually started first in the garment section of the market where I would get measured for my new school year uniform. First, the tailor would meticulously lay their measuring tape around my waist, preceded by the length of my waist to feet, and the last my upper body measurements. These measurements with the tailor always ended with a comment on how I am growing way too big too fast.

Once we were done with the tailor, we would walk through the meat section of the market, past the butcher who always sold our favorite meat tenders and arrive at the produce alley. Here we would get items such as Garri, sugar, cornflakes and powder milk, among other items. We then proceeded to the supermarket-like stores where we would get school supplies and any textbooks needed for that school year.

Boarding school was a very structured experience with traditions and norms which, if missed, resulted in one being beaten. Our day started at 5:30 am. if the bell rang and you were not up, that meant you got woken up by lashes of a belt from either the discipline master or from the dormitory senior head. 5:30 to 6:00 am was the time for you to fix your bed and complete your morning chore. Our morning chores range from cleaning the dorm floors and bathrooms to trash pick ups and cleaning around campus. Depending on how well of a negotiator and politician you were with the school prefects, you got an easy morning chore. 6:00 am to 7:00 am you were to be showered, dressed and in the assembly line for inspection and morning announcements. On weekdays, you were required to wear sky blue shirts and brown pants with brown sandals. On Saturdays, you changed to a purple shirt and brown pants with brown sandals and on Sundays you wore white. If your attire was dirty or not the right color, you got 10 lashes from a gas pipe.

Showcasing love for your child/students does not mean beating them to submission when they are wrong

Assembly lasted for an hour and at 8:00 am we had our first class followed by breakfast. The school day lasted till the evening with lunch, nap time, dinner later in the evening, and closed out with studies. Each day we woke up and repeated the same routine.

My first shocking experience of observing punishment came when one of the upperclassmen had been disrespectful towards the principal and began to brutally get punched. Our principal was a former boxer. Little did I know my turn for punishment was near. I was encouraged by friends to ask out my classroom crush if she wanted to be my girlfriend. I did. Her response was reporting me to the discipline master. That constituted 20 lashes. He had me stripped naked and I was suspended in the air by four upperclassmen as he proceeded to use his gas pipe to give me 20 lashes. Every time I struggled and had to be released by the upperclassmen, the count restarted.

A year into boarding school, experiences like this became the norm and we adapted to each teacher’s style of punishment. In math class, our teacher’s style of punishment was utilizing a ruler. If you did not do your homework or got a C or below on a test, you stood in front of the class arms extended, fingers straightened to get lashes to the knuckles. This is how I learned pythagoras theorem after 40 lashes to the knuckles. In English class, the punishment was kneeling on a gravel floor with hands extended in the air for girls, and for boys you had to take stance called a “pin,” which was balancing your body on one finger extended out and a leg in the air (this was torture yoga). In physics, our teacher had his cane seasoned with habanero pepper so you felt the pain, even after the beating, as the spice seeped into your pores.

As boys, wearing double, sometimes triple underwear to protect yourself from a beating became the norm. However, that was not always effective as the teacher usually lashed you carelessly all over your body. In protest, no matter how many lashes we got, we did not shed a tear or show any sign of weakness. That protest was met with teachers getting more aggressive, sometimes breaking their canes.

If we are teaching kids that the best way to respond to interpersonal issues is violent punishment, how do we expect them to behave in society when they become adults? Normalizing violent reactions as a solution at an early age only grows adults whose first response is violence

Corporal punishment being common in African schools is a legacy of British colonialism. As part of British common law, the doctrine “in loco parentis” states when minors are entrusted to a school by a parent, the school and its teachers take on the responsibility and authority of the parent while the child is in their care. One of the responsibilities being the administering of corporal punishment. This 1770 era colonial law is still effective in many former British colonies but banned in Europe and most countries. Some proponents argue the practice allows for immediate response in disciplining a student rather than suspension which will interrupt the child’s education.

In a December article in a Nigerian news site Vanguard, they reported numerous cases of parents and students hiring hit men to attack teachers who militantly beat their kids. A teacher was quoted saying, “Secondly, our government has always been playing politics with education, thereby neglecting the bedrock of sound education in the African way. And that bedrock is discipline. It’s extremely difficult to train an African child without using subtle harsh methods because an average African is inwardly recalcitrant.” It echoed colonial and slave era thinking that the black body could sustain pain and needed to be beaten to submission to be a responsible member of society. Others have argued corporal punishment is also used by parents to keep discipline at home, and therefore supported in schools. African parents themselves received if not worse corporal punishment as children and carry on this tradition as their only learned form of disciplining a child. In some instances, they say the corporal punishment was “given with love,” hence does not warrant any outrage.

Many human rights watch groups have advocated that such practices do not truly show improvements in student IQ or schooling. I honestly can’t recall much of what I learned in those classes because fear was the motivator and thus I spent more time memorizing than learning the subject. Such harsh forms of punishment could cause self esteem and other behavioral issues. If we are teaching kids that the best way to respond to interpersonal issues is violent punishment, how do we expect them to behave in society when they become adults? Normalizing violent reactions as a solution at an early age only grows adults whose first response is violence.

The Initiative To End All Corporal Punishment Of Children has sighted this practice an import of missionaries, slave traders and colonizers to the African continent. In October of 2021, the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children published a report that showcased corporal punishment is by far the most common form of violence against children with 1.3 billion children between ages 1 to 14 impacted. The research showed corporal punishment made children more violent over time, increased aggression into adulthood, violence with intimate partners and overall increased society violence.

My experience in boarding school has shaped my experience as an adult. Yes, I did learn discipline and work ethic. Yet as an adult I am fearful of people in authority, and when I find myself in violent or abusive situations, I think I deserve to be punished and don’t fight back. Perhaps that was the need for corporal punishment when slave owners introduced it — to beat us into submission so that we didn’t fight back or challenge authority. Given the numerous research on its negative effects, it’s now banned in European countries. Why then do we Africans continue to carry it on? Have we been beaten into submission so much that we still see ourselves shackled to a slave identity? Why resist other forms of discipline and think calling it “abuse” is too far a reach and very western? Deep healing and progress happens when we realize that the slavers left. We do not need to continue perpetuating their practice. Showcasing love for your child/students does not mean beating them to submission when they are wrong.

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Young Professional living in NYC. Making connections and creating communities through storytelling. Host of City Living with Churchill Podcast

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Churchill Ndonwie

Churchill Ndonwie

Young Professional living in NYC. Making connections and creating communities through storytelling. Host of City Living with Churchill Podcast

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