Today, I am beginning my unit on Africa. It’s always been a favorite of mine, but it’s also the hardest. It’s my favorite because it is one of the few places where my students all seem be on a level playing field. Most of my students view Africa through the eyes of The Lion King. They think of animals, not people. The few students who do think about people in Africa think of poverty, violence, and famine.
It’s not hard to understand why they have this few. Any time the media covers Africa it is through those angles. We see refugee camps, children dying, and guerrillas with machine guns hanging out of jeeps. Rarely does it address democratic elections, international accomplishments, or anything else ever remotely positive.
One of my favorite Ted Talks ever is The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie. She talks about how her view of Americans was limited to what she saw in books – we’re all white, blue-eyed people who play in snow and talk about the weather. But she also talks about her American roommate who thought all Africans listened to tribal music, didn’t know how use appliances, and deserved our pity.
That is my fear when I teach Africa, that my students will think that all Africans need our pity. The curriculum map I use has topics like Apartheid, genocide, and poverty as big ideas. All of these topics tie into that notion of pity – that we should feel bad for Africans.
There are some great resources out there now like Everyday Africa from Pulitzer Center, Teaching Africa from Boston University and Repositioning Africa’s Place in the Classroom from Teaching Tolerance. Books like The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and One Plastic Bag help students see a more positive side of Africa. But how do you balance the very real problems in Africa with the positive events that occur there everyday?
Comment below with ideas and resources for teaching about Africa… without all the sadness.