Owners of Learning

Owners of Learning

Book review on Jennifer Hays ‘Owners of Learning. The Nyae Nyae Villages Schools over Twenty-Five Years.’ (Basler Afrika Bibliographien 2016)

Anthropologist Jennifer Hays is Associate Professor at the University of Tromsø, Norway. She has conducted fieldwork on education for indigenous communities in southern Africa since 1998. Last year she wrote the book ‘Owners of Learning. The Nyae Nyae Villages Schools over Twenty-Five Years.’ about the history of the Village Schools. Owners of Learning is the English translation of the Ju/’hoansi word for ‘teacher’ and it serves to highlight a fundamental question – to whom does education belong? Historian, philosopher and teacher Bart van den Bosch wrote a review of the book.

Book review Owners of Learning

After its long and hard struggle for independence ending in 1990, the new Namibian state had to find a way to make the successful transition from a government run by a South African backed white minority to a stable, popular democracy. One of the most important policies to achieve, consisted in creating a Namibian national identity acceptable to the multitude of indigenous groups living within its borders. An excellent educational curriculum is an essential prerequisite to both safeguard Namibia’s cultural diversity and traditions and to guarantee their continuation in the future. Moreover, building a sound system of education will go a long way to ensure a much needed Namibian communality. In Owners of Learning. The Nyae Nyae Village Schools over Twenty-Five Years, American anthropologist Jennifer Hays highlights the disappointing, but very instructive case of the Ju/’hoansi, one of Namibia’s indigenous San populations in the Nyae Nyae region. This study is all the more revealing because the Nyae Nyae Village Schools Project (VSP) initially had all the hallmarks of being a very successful educational project. Hays study identifies what went wrong, addresses various relevant issues by comparing the VSP with other similar initiatives and comes up with suggestions to turn the tide.

Jennifer Hayes - Owners of Learning

Jennifer Hayes – Owners of Learning


At the time of its inception in 1991, the Nyae Nyae Village Schools Project seemed to satisfy all criteria needed for success; the new government had stated its high ambitions, there was ample funding, the educational climate was progressive, everyone was convinced of the virtues of schooling in the Ju/’hoansi native language and the inclusion of the Nyae Nyae community in its educational planning. In spite of this all, results were disappointing. The transition of students from the local Village Schools to the regional educational centre in Tsumkwe turned out to be mostly unsuccessful, and the few that did graduate, found themselves almost inevitably unemployed. As the Nyae Nyae Village Schools struggled on, educational policymakers failed to listen to the suggestions brought forward by the Ju/’hoansi community to explain the lack of success of the project. According to Hays the main reason for this breakdown of communication was the lack of ownership the Ju/’hoansi felt for their education and their lifestyle in general. Despite the best intentions of all those involved in organizing the Nyae Nyae Village Schools (Hays makes very clear the giant leap forward this project represents compared to earlier colonial initiatives in which education was primarily used as a tool for bringing indigenous groups within the imperial fold), neither its organization, nor its educational content matched the Ju/’hoansi’s need for a, to them, recognizable, let alone meaningful system of schooling.

This mismatch, Hays notes, is commonplace in comparable indigenous educational initiatives around the world. She cites Teresa McCarthy findings of the problems the Navajo-community encountered in the US trying to set up a meaningful system of education. Although both communities are hardly compatible culturally, Hays identifies a number of striking similarities concerning their problems of retaining their culture and traditions within a dominant society that has expropriated much of their ancestral territories and that has gradually and stealthily immersed its indigenous population into an alien, money based economy. Add to this that in both populations (Hays doesn’t doubt that similar problems haunt many more native groups worldwide) parents have little knowledge of the educational structures, bureaucracies or terminology; teachers, even when they themselves share their students ethnic background, are schooled in a educational system that has nothing more to offer than standardized tests aiming for a national cognitive average, that bears little or no connection to the lifestyle or knowledge base of the indigenous population that, nevertheless is obliged to conform to it. It is this dreadful conformity that implicitly, but not seldom explicitly, trivializes native culture, traditions and knowledge.

Mari at //Auru Village School

Mari at //Auru Village School

Meaningful context

In order to turn this tide a breakthrough is needed, Hays writes. Education only becomes meaningful and creates a feeling of ownership if it teaches skills and knowledge that are functional within the cultural system in with the student learns. This hold true for children everywhere, whether in Houston, Texas or in Namibian hunter/gatherer communities. The functionality a cultural system requires of its participants may be primarily economic, but of course doesn’t need to be so. On the contrary, there seems to be a paradigm shift in the making in western education. Should we continue teaching our children outdated 19th century skills and knowledge and reduce education to transferring easily quantifiable, instrumental and measurable data from one generation to another? The key to good education lies in identifying which skillsets are most needed in any given culture to enable the learner to become an autonomous adult, who can make valid decisions and create his or her own meaningful environment, even if that means voluntarily crossing over into other cultural groups.

Which specific social, cultural or economical maxims should be incorporated in Ju/’hoansi educational organization and content? According to Hays it is important to keep teaching the traditional hunter/gatherer skills of the Ju/’hoansi to future generation. Although these skills are no longer sufficient to supply a steady income in itself, they can help to generate additional means to ensure survival, both of the individual and the Ju/’hoansi way of life. Schools should teach food gathering and ecological skills, medical self-reliance, artisanship and museality in combination with vocational training, reading, writing and arithmetic. In this way students can graduate and earn a living combining the traditional Ju/’hoansi lifestyle with escorting tourists, making and/or selling jewellery or clothes, translating, policing the environment, etc. All these activities require both an education in Ju/’hoansi social and cultural indigenous traditions and skills and a functional, meaningful schooling in a foreign language (for instance English), reading, writing and arithmetic. This knowledge shouldn’t be transferred in the shape of a top down determined, standardized and contextless curriculum, but instead should be taught according to the need professed by the learner. Only then will ownership become a reality.

Bart van den Bosch

Amsterdam, September 2017

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