Two nurses holding babies
Two nurses holding babies ©

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Main photo credit: Image © Ken Whitty.

Most of our early work in Sub-Saharan Africa was conducted within the British colonial states.

Here, we focused on developing new and collaborative relationships prior to their transition to independence. 

From the 1960s onwards we expanded our work throughout the region, delivering a range of services in book provision, education and technical co-operation. Although we were unable to open many offices outside the Commonwealth states, from these we co-ordinated activities across the entire continent.

Even through periods in which the British government was unpopular in the region, we have maintained a consistent and dedicated presence.  Today, we connect over 1 million students through our connecting classrooms programme; as our work grows we continue to develop stronger partnerships, bringing mutual benefit to those across the region and in the UK. 


Forging friendship

Our first offices opened in British East Africa in1943, extending into the West African states in 1947 and Southern Africa in the 1960s. During the 1940s and 1950s, a large proportion of our budget came from the Colonial Office.  This funding remained consistent and allowed us to build up our work in ‘British’ Africa, even as drastic budget cuts forced us to economise elsewhere.

We did not teach English in these countries, as this was the responsibility of the Colonial Office. Instead we provided opportunities for cross-cultural communication and the exchange of ideas.

Our offices and libraries were the sites of a range of social activities; including discussion groups, drama societies, exhibitions for local artists, and concerts. Outside major cities, we encouraged ‘study groups’ to develop by supplying book and films. 

In the mid-1960s the social activities were discouraged, in favour of educational activities. Whilst these activities were later derided as ‘peripheral’, this personal approach earned much affection for the British, at least among the educated elites.

Building institutions

When we started work in colonial Africa, there were almost no public libraries or exhibition spaces. In a pre-digital age, this meant that most people had no access to information or international culture. 

Therefore we built public cultural centres, designed in collaboration with local communities. These included the Kenyan and Ugandan National Theatres, which opened in 1952 and 1960 respectively.

We also established several public libraries, usually the first in a country. The earliest, in the late 1940s, was in Gold Coast (now Ghana), and the last was the Botswana library, opened in the mid-1960s. 

Mobile libraries and librarian training were provided, and into the 1970s we ran book presentation schemes, providing new publications to university and public libraries.

We also maintained our own libraries across the whole region. These were enduringly popular - in the 1980s, when we opened an office in Zimbabwe, our library service was the activity for which there was most demand. 

Education and Technical Co-operation

African states faced severe challenges as they took control of their educational systems; for example insufficient numbers of trained teachers and textbooks made it hard to extend access to schooling.

In most former British colonies a number of native languages are spoken - Uganda alone has over ten. English retained importance as a common language which was understood around the world, and in which many educational resources were available. 

We provided a range of educational support, particularly in English, maths and science teaching. These included teacher training, syllabus development, broadcast of educational TV programmes, and university development. 

Fellowships, scholarships and workplace exchanges were provided to trainees and professionals in practical subjects, including electrical engineering and agriculture. 

English provided access to new development opportunities and resources beyond ‘Anglophone Africa’. From the 1960s onwards we worked more intensively in countries such as Senegal, Cameroon and Mozambique. 

As our work grew we received  funding from the Overseas Development Ministry (now DfID). We also received support from the World Bank, and collaborated with other agencies such as the Nuffield Foundation to develop educational resources. 

Our projects were tailored to the needs of particular countries. In apartheid South Africa, for example, we worked to provide educational opportunities for black students; whilst in Ethiopia we focused on agricultural and medical activities following the devastating famine.