Exclusion and misclusion of religion in religious education: lessons from two qualitative studies in sub-Saharan Africa — Malawi and Ghana

Yonah Matemba, Richardson Addai-Mununkum

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


In his study of religion in a multicultural school context, Aaron Ghiloni cautions that the exchange of religious information in the classroom should foster inter-religious dialogue and not inter-religious hostility (Ghiloni 2011). In today's pluralist dispensation a re-constructed positive learning experience of religion is necessary given the increasing religiously-fueled conflicts and fundamentalist incidents being experienced the world over (Bayim 2015; Svensson 2007), religious competency is needed if people, and indeed schools are to become proficient in their interaction with people from minority religions (Ezzani and Brooks 2015). Unfortunately however, schools have been at times complicit in the abuse of religious freedom, leading the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) to champion the condemnation of religious indoctrination, religious monism, and coercive RE programmes (UNHCR 2011). The dual global concern of religious liberty and reduction of religious conflict has been a key impetus for renewed interest in RE, particularly regarding how religions are represented in the curriculum and everyday classroom practice. Working towards a greater insight into religious mis/representation is useful in unearthing taken-for-granted assumptions that hamper the effectiveness of RE in fostering a better understanding of religious diversity. Writing from a German perspective, Wofram Weisse suggests the urgency to "map out educational strategies to recognize each other and to learn from each other, rather than perpetuate divisions" (Weisse 2007, quoting Ricoeur, 5-6).

This paper draws from two complementary qualitative studies in sub-Saharan Africa (Malawi and Ghana) using narrative-type face to face interviews (n=63), eight focus discussions (n=8) and analysis of relevant documents, to highlight the pervasive problem of religious misrepresentation in Religious Education (RE) at school in Malawi and Ghana. Employing Michael Apples' conception of selective tradition as theoretical framework, it is critical of confrontational disputation inherent in RE in the two countries. The misrepresentation of religion in RE is analysed under three key themes: problem of positioning different religions in curricula guidelines; ways in which religions feature in textbooks; classroom discourses involving teachers and students' attitudes towards different religions. It is important to understand these issues because religious misrepresentation can lead to a number of problems, for example, suppression of minority views, resentment of religious 'otherness', entrenched opinions about one's religion, insensitivity to others' beliefs and incitement to hatred and violence. We argue that unless there is a radical shift on the three areas that constrain the efficacy of RE in Malawi and Ghana, the subject will continue to present a distorted picture of religion and thus fail in its civic responsibility as a curriculum area best placed to inculcate pro-social values towards citizenship in a complex and contested world of religious diversity.

This article draws on research findings from two complementary studies from Malawi (2011) and Ghana (2014) involving interviews, observations, focus group discussions, and data from documents and textbooks. For interviews and focus groups, we used the phenomenological approach as a “coherent methodology” (Erricker 1999, 76) so that the researchers could gain, as far as possible, an understanding of religions at school in multi-faith RE. To counteract the inherent weaknesses of the phenomenological approach (i.e., researcher subjectivity and hermeneutical naivety due to its descriptiveness) and ensure data trustworthiness, the researchers used multiple data sources (Silverman 2009). Schools and participants in the study were selected based on a purposive sampling technique, namely, the deliberate choice of informants due to the qualities the informant possesses (Creswell et al. 2002). In both countries, we conducted focus group discussions (Table 3) with students in selected secondary schools. The focus groups were self-selected by the schools, which may explain the larger-than-usual samples in each of the focus groups the researchers interacted with. For example, 10 was the smallest group and 15 the largest. By the request of the researchers, the focus groups had a mix of boys and girls. In Malawi, the focus groups were drawn from three schools (N=3), while in Ghana, we conducted six focus group (N=6) discussions from six schools. In total, the number of students involved in focus group discussions was 105 (33 in Malawi and 72 in Ghana), comprising nine individual focus groups: 3 in Malawi and 6 in Ghana. Here, we were interested not in the number of respondents in the groups per se but rather in the number of groups themselves, because we wanted to capture each group’s collective responses to the issues and questions we posed (Menter et al. 2012).

Expected Outcomes
We suggest that in this way, RE in both Malawi and Ghana can perhaps begin the necessary learning process for both teachers and students towards reinforcing inter-religious dialogue and not inter-religious hostility in the classroom. As others have also suggested (see Maitles and Gilchrist 2006), within the spirit of education for citizenship, classroom discourse in RE should give pupils a genuine say in determining not only what is learnt (material content) but crucially how that content is learnt (pedagogy). Given the contribution the subject can make towards citizenship, we suggest the setting up of a specific funded in-service project to provide teachers with new skills in dealing with multi-faith RE. However, in order to deal effectively with the issues highlighted in this article, there is need for a paradigm shift in the way the RE curriculum in both Malawi and Ghana is conceptualised and implemented in practice, but admittedly at the risk of protest from powerful Christian lobby groups and of being constrained by resource implications for teacher education and in-service reskilling.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sep 2018
EventEuropean Conference on Educational Research 2018 - Free University Bolzano, Bolzano, Italy
Duration: 4 Sep 20187 Sep 2018


ConferenceEuropean Conference on Educational Research 2018
Abbreviated titleECER 2018
Internet address


  • religious education
  • Africa


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