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Saheed Aderinto on Education and Childhood Poverty in Colonial Nigeria

The banner photograph is from the collected works of Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge and depicts four sisters in his Ideal Studio, in Benin City, in 1950.

Education and Childhood Poverty in Colonial Nigeria

My article, titled “O! Sir I Do Not Know Either to Kill Myself or to Stay”: Childhood Emotion, Poverty, and Literary Culture in Nigeria, 1900-1960” uses letters composed by children of Lagos (Nigeria) in the 1940s to unlock the history of urban childhood poverty and emotion.1 To the best of my knowledge, the letters is the largest and most comprehensive archival material on children’s history composed by children of colonial Nigeria. One theme I found really interesting as I researched my piece is the children’s emphasis on education as the solution to poverty and as a gateway to upward socio-economic mobility. The importance of education has featured prominently in academic and popular discourses of underdevelopment in twenty-first century Africa. It is intriguing to see that Lagos children of the 1940s realized the value of education to their personal, family, and community development. The children’s writings about the significance of education counters the assumption that it was mainly a prescription of adult, imposed on children. It is a truism that adults were mainly responsible for devising educational policy and curriculum; but how children of Lagos internalized it as a significant element of their socialization is fascinating.

Elementary school education was not only popular in urban Africa, it was also conceived by many (especially African educated elites and nationalists) as an enterprise in nation building. The exponential increase in school enrollment throughout the first half of the twentieth century was therefore tied to high demand for education. Yet, the available classroom space could not accommodate demand for the “white man’s knowledge.” Much of the decision to enroll children in school was made by parents and guardians. But, as some of the letters revealed, children did make personal decision to enroll in school in contravention of their parents’ wish for them to receive training in a vocational field or in agriculture. Hence, one sees a lot of children’s agency that contravenes the well-received notion that they were totally innate, especially in big issues such as education and intellectual empowerment.

The children’s letter tells the story of the contradiction inherent in the colonial education system. On one hand, education was viewed as a vehicle of civilization as professed by the colonialists, and as a prerequisite for sound nation building by the nationalists. Yet, access to education at all levels was a privilege. The restricted access to education was largely attributable to the unevenness of infrastructural development in colonial Africa and the government’s policy on public education. Most schools were located in the big urban centers, which had the facilities to support teaching and teachers. But more importantly, most colonial governments did not have free-education policy. Hence parents, guardians, and sometimes the entire community had to pay for children’s education. Some children, as young as ten, worked to pay their way through school—the letters revealed. When one reads about the numerous jobs children did to pay for their education, one is quickly alerted to the need to problematize such concept as “child labor” within the context of the difficult relationship between children’s economic activities in purely capitalist, unsafe, and exploitative environment, and what they did with resources accrued.

Moreover, the children’s letters render a window to viewing how location shaped childhood experience. It also introduces a scholar to childhood poverty, a less charted path in colonial African studies. Who was a poor child in colonial Africa? How did children define poverty? Lack of family ties, which manifested in vagrancy, homelessness, and lack of food, were elements of poverty peculiar to the city—a domain characterized by facelessness and lack of kinship system that sustained communal living in the villages. The children not only rendered the profile of a poor child similar to what obtained in most urban centers across the globe, they painted an idealistic image of a “normal” childhood experience. An ideal childhood to them was a childhood free from the dangers of the street, shielded from the agonies of hunger, and nurtured with “knowledge of book” in an environment controlled by respected teachers and adults. It was a childhood of responsibility, which allowed minors to share household chores and reciprocate the opportunity to have food, education, and shelter by performing tasks or being in charge of responsibilities, beneficial to their parents, mentors, and guardians. As I have shown in my book titled, Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories, the notion of “modern” or “ideal” Nigerian childhood emerged alongside with other elements of colonial modernities of the first half of the twentieth century.2 The proliferation of European-styled play-grounds, schools, and advice manuals on children were all informed by the assumption that African childhood must be modernized. It is one thing to make prescription about an ideal childhood, it is another for it to become institutionalized or accepted by children. Thus, the idea of modern childhood was a two-way traffic—both the adults and children appropriated it to suit their realities and aspirations.


1. Saheed Aderinto, “O! Sir I Do Not Know Either to Kill Myself or to Stay”: Childhood Emotion, Poverty, and Literary Culture in Nigeria, 1900-1960,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 8, no.2 (2015).

2. Saheed Aderinto, “Introduction: Colonialism and the Invention of Modern Nigerian Childhood” in Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories, edited Saheed Aderinto, 1-18 (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

About the Author

Saheed Aderinto teaches at Western Carolina University. He is the author of When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism, and Politics in Colonial Nigeria (2015) and editor of Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories (2015), among other books. His articles have appeared in leading Africanist and specialist journals including, the Canadian Journal of African StudiesAfrica: The Journal of the International African InstituteJournal of the History of SexualityJournal of Social HistoryJournal of Colonialism and Colonial History; and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, among others.

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