Category Archives: Africa

Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth A. Odhiambo

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Set in a 1980s Kenyan Luo village during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Auma’s Long Run is a piercingly honest account of the struggles, pain, hardships, deaths, famine, and challenges faced by a determined young girl and her community with grace and fortitude. Debut author Eucabeth A. Odhiambo, who grew up in a Luo village, beautifully brings out the complicated ways thirteen year old Auma, her family, and neighbors cope with the scourge. Lack of resources, traditional practices, personalities, and more make this a riveting and complex read. While this is not a story that wallows in misery — Auma is too determined to ever give up — there are still many loses; in one case after the death of a friend’s parents, lack of food causes her little sister to die of malnutrition. How to get to the clinic to see a doctor, whether to consult with a traditional healer, where to get money for school fees and school uniforms, frightening cure mis-beliefs (one causing a man to threaten Auma sexually), and more swirl around this tale. Auma desperately wants to go to secondary school, to become a doctor, to then learn more about this disease and help find a cure. But her obstacles are daunting. Odhiambo relates Auma’s story in clear and direct prose, as practical and realistic as her protagonist. Her descriptions of Auma’s life are vivid and authentic, her scenes raw and real.  While there is indeed sorrow and sadness, there is also humor and joy. Highly recommend this one.

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Talking Race at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I’m just back from a remarkable week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture where I participated in the workshop, “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” I learned about it in May when I was exploring the museum’s website after visiting and wanting to know more, more, more. This was the fifth summer of the workshop, but the first in the physical museum. And so, in addition to fabulous speakers and thoughtful activities, we had hours every day to explore the galleries, some of them before the museum opened. You can learn more about the workshop from this article by the wonderful museum educators who created and ran it — Candra Flanagan Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives and Anna Hindley, Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator. I am so grateful to them for their passion, commitment, and hard work in creating this workshop and all the rest they do.

We were just under 40 folks — classroom teachers, museum educators, parents, and others who care deeply about learning more. It was a diverse group in terms of race, institution (some in independent schools like me, others in charters, and others in public schools of all kinds), age, and more. Having mostly done this sort of work at my school I appreciated enormously getting to know and hearing from those who were working in such a variety of situations yet care deeply as I do about doing better in terms of talking race with young people.

Presentations and workshops included:

  • “The Color Line,” a gallery activity led by Allyson Criner Brown of Teaching for Change.
  • “Bias in Childhood: When Does it Emerge and How Do We Reduce it?” a presentation by Melanie Killen.
  • “Middle Childhood & Teens” Cognitive Development, Racial Identity Development, & Talking About Race,” a presentation by Erin Winkler.
  • “Implicit Bias, Dominant Culture & the Effects on the Academic Setting,” a workshop led by Jane Bolgatz and Erica Colbin.
  • “Beyond the Classroom: Getting the Larger Community Onboard with Equity and Justice Work,” a presentation by Mariama Richards.
  • “Bridging the Racial Divide and Self Care,” a workshop by Hawah Kasat.

I was especially excited to reencounter Erica (she and I had been involved in a PD on introversion last summer) and Mari who, with her colleague at her then-school, Georgetown Friends, did a brilliant workshop at my school years ago. I appreciated tremendously the other presenters as well.

Additionally we had small group meetings (by the ages we teach), affinity groups (white/people of color), and time to informally chat and learn.

And then there was the museum itself. What a gift it was to have so much time to explore it, especially those morning times before the public came in. It is an extraordinary place and I urge all to go visit. (This requires commitment as the tickets are timed mostly — it was challenging to get them when I went the first time — but absolutely worth it.)  I spent the most time in the history galleries, especially the section devoted to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but also found the Community and Culture galleries mind-blowing. The choice of artifacts, the careful and thoughtful text on the wall cards, the organization of the museum and exhibits — it is all outstanding.


I walked every morning across the mall from my hotel near the Air and Space Museum, using the Washington Monument as my landmark. The museum is the gorgeous building to the right.

We arrived early before the museum was opened. We were incredibly lucky to have the galleries almost to ourselves at that hour.

Here is the same view a few hours later. I loved also visiting the galleries when they were full, listening to the moving responses of visitors.

Excited to see these trading beads as I have some (from my time in Sierra Leone) just like them.

 

In my research for Africa is My Home I read that children were not shackled, but that was clearly not always the case as here are some for a child.

 

This is hard to see, but it is from a short film on slave factories and the one on the lower right is Bunce Island (in Sierra Leone)

The stone is from a slave market in the US.

 

Greatly appreciated the mention of the Amistad and Joseph Cinque.

 

Love the commitment to make the museum accessible for young children.

Tuskegee Airmen plane.

 

The following are from the Community Gallery

(Mrs. Reeve’s hat shop is beautifully recreated in the museum.)

Was very excited to see this as I’m assuming she is the model for the editor in Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Madman of Piney Woods.

Nine of Carl Lewis’s Olympic medals. (The tenth was put in his father’s coffin.)

A few from the Culture Gallery

George Clinton and P-Funk’s Mother Ship!

 

 

Thank you so much to all who were involved in making this week possible, especially once again, Candra Flanagan, Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives and Anna Hindley, Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Africa, Amistad, History, Teaching

J. K. Rowling’s Unfortunate Attempts at Globalization

I remember many years ago seeing a 60 Minutes interview with J. K. Rowling where she showed “Box 1” full of her notes for the Harry Potter books. Now I wonder how many boxes there are and if some of them are full of notes for the international wizarding schools that have recently been announced on the Pottermore site. (Rowling’s introduction to the schools is here.)

Being American, I’ve particularly been attending to those who are expressing dismay, disappointment, and great disturbance when it comes to the North American school, Ilvermorny and the earlier publication, “History of Magic in North America.”  N. K. Jemisin’s post “It Could’ve Been Great” is particularly insightful as she considers the issue as both a fantasy writer and a Harry Potter fan. I also recommend Paula Young Lee‘s Salon article from yesterday, “Pottermore’s Problems: Scholars and Writers Call Foul on J.K. Rowling’s North American Magic” if you need to get a quick overview of the situation.

Because of my particular interest in how Africa is represented to children in America, I’ve looked into the response to another of the schools, Uagadou, in Africa. Digging around I came across this overview of the response, Timothy Burke’s “On Uagadou, the African Wizarding School” which he wrote partly in response to this Washington Post article, “J.K. Rowling got in trouble for how she talks about Africa. Here’s why she may have been right.”  I recommend reading Burke’s post in its entirety as he does an excellent job unpacking many of the issues raised around this particular imaginary school, pointing out that:

You can tell a story that imagines fantastic African societies with their own institutions arising out of their own histories, somehow protected or counterfactually resistant to the rise of the West. But you have to do that through African histories, not with an audit of African absence and some off-the-shelf environmental determinism.

You can tell a story that imagines that imaginary wizarding schools arise only out of histories with intense territorial rivalries within long-standing state systems, but then you have to explain why there aren’t imaginary wizarding schools in the places in the world that fit that criteria rather than frantically moving the comparative goalposts around so that you are matching units like “all of Sub-Saharan Africa” against “Great Britain”. And you have to explain why the simultaneous and related forms of state-building in West Africa and Western Europe created schools in one and not the other: because Asante, Kongo, Dahomey, and Oyo are in some sense part of a state system that includes England, France and the Netherlands in the 17th and early 18th Centuries.

The response to the Japanese school, at least that in English, seems more muted (at least in terms of social media). No doubt far more was discussed in Japan (in Japanese), but I did find a couple of fans raising concerns about the name, writing in English.  Here’s one. And here’s another:

Of all the names she could have chosen, why did JK Rowling come up with “Mahoutokoro”? Are all the foreign magic schools this carelessly named?

魔法所 literally just means “MagicPlace”. It seems like a very careless move on her part. I think she should have spent some time researching Japanese etymology, or at least consulted someone who might have one or two things to say about cool-sounding Japanese school names.

The last of the four new schools is the Brazilian one Castelobruxo.  As with the Japanese school I’m limited in not knowing Portuguese in sensing the response. I did find this one here indicating that Rowling stumbled with this school as well.

All in all, I think that well-intended as she no doubt is, Rowling simply doesn’t seem to have the deep knowledge or understanding of the potential for serious offense necessary to develop worlds based on cultures different from her own, especially those that are too often seen through a white European lens such as she is providing. I do hope the critical response she has received thus far has her reconsidering all of this. Or at the very least, reworking them so they are less problematic. I agree with Lee who concludes:

Stories have the potential to create new possibilities, shaping dreams for a more balanced and harmonious future. What we’ve seen so far of the geographically-expanded Pottermore world suggests that Rowling has done the opposite: Whether consciously or not, she’s legitimized whiteness as a cultural institution and a power structure, replicating the patterns of historical colonialism by establishing wizarding schools in far-away places — North America, Brazil, Japan, somewhere in “Africa,” — as posts on the outskirts of the Empire. And so the latest stories, instead of being exciting and new, seem nostalgic for a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, even as Great Britain now threatens to break apart.

 

 

 

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In the Classroom: Teaching About Slavery

Over the last year important if uncomfortable questions have been raised about how to approach the topic of American chattel slavery with children. I’ve been following the conversations closely and they have informed me greatly as I prepare to begin my own teaching of the topic with my 4th grade students this week. It is a unit I’ve done for many years, always reworking it in response to new learnings, new circumstances, and new thinking.

Part of our year-long study of immigration, the unit is bluntly on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, on those who came here against their will from Africa, unlike any of the others the children have already studied (Europeans coming through Ellis Island circa 1900, Chinese coming through Angel Island at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and recent immigrants through an oral history project). Since it is the first time our students have encountered this topic formally in school we continually grapple with how best to teach it. Over the years, teachers have approached it somewhat differently depending on personal experiences and background. One colleague began by sharing her own African-American family history. Another did so via her bi-racial background. A focus on social justice has been a third colleague’s framework. And mine is Africa due to my Sierra Leone Peace Corps experience and subsequent education, research, and writing.

In addition to readying the resources, activities, and discussions my students will experience, I’m preparing for their emotional responses. This includes letting parents know what I will be doing, what resources I will be using, and inviting their responses as well as any concerns regarding their children’s emotional reactions. Throughout the unit I will be carefully watching and listening and providing ways for my students to respond. I will do my best to create a safe place for all of them and be ready to shift my plans if necessary, well aware that each will respond differently depending on race, ethnicity, previous knowledge, family history, personality, and more.

And so tomorrow I will begin. First will be the establishment of a safe place. Here is what I’ve written on my internal class blog and will discuss with the children:

To start we want to be sure that all members of the Edinger House community are sensitive and aware that each person comes to this topic with different knowledge and experience. Some of you may know more than others, some of you may be more comfortable than others with this topic, and some of you may not yet know how you will respond to the topic. We need to be sure that everyone feels safe as we begin learning about these difficult truths about America’s past.

Along with this I will read two very different books, Penda Diakité and Baba Wagué Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa and Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way. I use the Diakités’ book to give a view of recent West Africa (it is set in Bamako, Mali) through a child’s eyes, one that I can also talk about personally as it is familiar to me from my life there, and  Jackie’s because it so powerfully connects the past with the present, establishing a tone and a theme for our work.

Because I feel it is a story of resilience and resistance, the center of the unit has long been the Amistad affair. Now I am able to use my own book, Africa is My Home; A Child of the Amistad, (with Keren Liu’s wonderful lessons) along with Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Risingsome of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from American Sublime, and various primary sources  (For anyone interested, more materials and resources for using my book are here.)

Many of my lessons are centered around books I read aloud. The following titles, among many more in my collection, are some that I am planning to use this year. I’ve selected them because I feel they are age-appropriate, well researched and created, and work for my particular approach to this topic. That said, which ones I end up using will depend on this year’s students’ expressed and observed interest and emotional responses.

Books set (or partially set) in Africa at the time of the slave trade:

  • The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi and Kadir Nelson.
  • Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack and Leo and Diane Dillon.
  • Circle Unbroken by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis. 

Books set in contemporary Africa (mostly West):

  • Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.
  • Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane and Hoda Hadadi.
  • Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls.
  • One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon.
  • Anna Hibiscus (various titles) by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia.

Books set in America under slavery:

  • Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Colin Bootman.
  • Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans.
  • I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady and Michele Wood.
  • Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle and Alix Delinois.
  • The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin, Dennis Brindell Fradin, and Eric Velasquez.
  • Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad  by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson.
  • Night Boat to Freedom by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis.
  • Way Up and Over Everything by Alice McGill and Jude Daly.
  • All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis.
  • Dave the Potter by Laban Carrik Hill and Bryan Collier.
  • Fredrick’s Journey by Doreen Rappaport and London Ladd.
  • Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper.
  • Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate.
  • Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
  •  The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate.

And so, tomorrow  I will begin. Given the passion of this past year’s discussions I am perhaps a bit less confident than other years. Admittedly a bit nervous. But that is okay as this is not about me, but about helping my students begin to know about this henious part of their country’s past.

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Filed under Africa, Africa is My Home, Amistad, History, In the Classroom, Learning About Africa

BYE BYE EBOLA

This says it. Please watch, remember, honor, celebrate, mourn, most of all — don’t forget. More about the video here.

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Africa, Reading, and Children’s/Teen books by Africans

Two excellent blog posts.

Thus in my early years I consumed African literature in a mostly oral form. Every night my father would tell us stories that his mother had told him in his childhood, stories of the goings on in the animal kingdom, often about Tortoise but other creatures featured. The stories were told in a multimedia format. There was speech and singing and call and response. There was also a popular story-telling TV show that I watched called ‘Tale’s by Moonlight,’ whose stories gave me nightmares.

From ‘s What I read growing up in Lagos

The general lack of a reading culture and high levels of poverty contribute to the fact that books don’t sell in high volumes in bookshops in most of Africa. So, publishers rely on the government to buy books for children to read in schools as supplementary reading material. While it is good for the government to buy books for schools that can’t afford them, there is a price to pay. For a book to be bought by the ministry, it has to be approved as “suitable” by a board people who are mainly educationalists. This raises the issues of what then constitutes a “good” or “suitable” book.

From Ellen Banda-Aaku‘s Please don’t air brush African teen fiction

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Children’s Africana Book Awards Festival 2015

caba_award1

If you are in the DC area this Saturday I highly recommend heading over to the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum for the CABA Festival. This is a celebration of the 2015 Children’s Africana Book Award winner, The Red Pencil penned by Andrea Davis Pinkney with illustrations by Shan W. Evans. (My NYTimes review of the book is here.)  I was honored to be one of the winners last year and can say the event is very wonderful and special (and free!). Congratulations to all involved in the creation of this book and award.

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