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.


19 thoughts on “Teaching Africa…without all the sadness

  1. In one of my first years teaching AP Human Geography, several of my students said “if it’s bad, the answer is always Africa”. That comment made me look long and hard about the topics, case studies, and examples I was using to teach about Africa. I started following @AfricaGeographic and @BBCAfrica on Twitter to find positive events and stories to share with my students. I hope that over the years my students realize that there is also great beauty and determination woven into the African story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It sounds like Julie Smith’s “if it bleeds, it leads.”
      I’ve found @everydayAfrica @meetsouthafrica @africashowboy on Instagram do a nice job of showing what Africa really looks like!


  2. I do feel the need to talk about a lot of the negative with 7th graders, mostly because I want them to leave Geography class with a better appreciation for all they take for granted in the United States. However, there are ways to take something negative and show the potential for positive too. A map showing political regime change from 1985 to 2015 ( ) shows improvement and allows for prediction.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely! I feel the same way, but like you, I’m trying to find something to show that it’s not all bad. It’s a tough balancing act to show the very real problems facing Africa, with the successes that are also there.


  3. Weaving in two frameworks worked well for me in 9th grade Civics class: 1) colonial Africa 2) modern Africa.
    Focusing on two main purposes when coming back it throughout foreign policy unit: 1) get students to see how big and diverse the continent is 2) get students to see challenges and OPPORTUNITIES in modern Africa.

    Best links I’m aware of to show those frameworks and purposes in a short amount of time are listed at (scroll down a bit). The “Exploring Africa” site is a fantastic deep dive!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love this topic, comments and resources already shared. I always felt that one of the biggest hurdles was seeing Africa as a continent made up of 39 (hoping I’m right here) countries and not one big country. Not sure if this is a result of colonization or loss of geography as content in elementary school. One of my former students @Deonta_Wortham made it one his goals to highlight inclusive development across Africa and edits the which many of you could use it as a resource and I imagine Deonta would be happy to “talk” to y’all as well as students!

    It can be hard to teach Africa without looking at the genocides, horrors of colonization, civil war, famine etc…but recommend looking at their road to recovery:, and Including the work my friends at iAct do in the refugee camps in Darfur Another way to bring in more positive lessons is to think about all the conservation work done by the countries (although still a work in progress). In class I would remind students how long it took the US to give rights to people, pass laws to protect the environment etc…and we should highlight changes since the 1960s when most countries gained their independence.

    It’s hard not to talk about maps one that tells quite a story is from Choices Colonization and Independence

    So much more to think about including what I learned from Isra El-beshir who came to the Japanese American National Museum this weekend to share her story (daughter of Sudanesse immigrants who is Muslim) and her work at the Arab American National Museum looking at geography & language and more!!

    Thank you for this platform!


  5. I was so lucky to have a methods teacher that had been in the Peace Corp serving in Ghana. She taught us to look for the positive and to teach the positive in every region. Now I try to create resources that do just that! Love this post and all the great resources in the comments, too! Thanks everyone!


  6. Excellent post. We actually just talked about this topic this week. I found this video that I used to also shed some light on a different, more positive side of Africa from a variety of viewpoints. I believe it gave my students a look into the things they may not consider when talking about Africa.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Last year was my first year teaching about Africa with my 6th grade Geography class. One thing I decided to do was to show tell my students about the organization called “Invisible Children” ( Invisible Children has made several documentaries about Africa (specifically the conflict in Northern Uganda and parts of the Central African Republic. I showed the students the viral film: Kony 2012. Several of my students said that this was their favorite part of the whole course. You could argue that using Invisible Children as a way to teach children about Africa is just focusing on the sadness, but I would argue that organizations like Invisible Children offer a lot of hope to situations that are very difficult and confusing. Obviously teaching about Africa with older students ought to be different than a 6th grade class.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you about organizations like Invisible Children doing good in Africa. I’ve used a few of their films as well.

      The only concern I have (and it is something I only realized in the past few years) is that it reenforces the narrative that outsiders are the key to Africa’s success. I think that help from USA and the west is important, but Africa’s future success will be determined by the people of Africa.
      I wonder how many groups there are in Africa doing amazing things that we don’t know about. Actually – that’s something I think I’m going to have students look into this year!


    2. That KONY 2012 film is pretty dubious. Indeed, invisible children closed up shop under intense criticism. I’m lucky in that I had a year to teach African history to 10th graders. Part of the class involved on-going media criticism of reporting from Africa. We did watch this: for fun. And we watched Keita: The Heritage of a Griot which is a retelling of the Sundiata in a modern context and gets at some of the rural urban divide. And there is always Patrick Awuah’s TED talk about the liberal arts in Africa.


  8. 1. I collected photos of the great cities of Africa, and I use them in presentations for direct lecture, and for examples of urban problems. When we talk of the history of transportation, I insert the history of Cecil Rhodes and the Trans-Africa Railway.

    I include art from Africa everywhere I can; in technology and medicine, there’s plenty to cover.

    Did you know that Africa had what may have been the first atomic reactor on the surface of the Earth? No world geography study should leave that out, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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