Tag Archives: Africa

In the Classroom: Africa and Animals

Right now I’m listening to the NPR show On Being where they are talking with Katy Payne, “a renowned acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility.” Her comments about elephants in particular are so moving and made me think about the recent complicated responses to the killing of Cecil the lion.

I was completely disgusted and disturbed when first learning of Cecil’s death as trophy hunting seems a completely horrible activity to me. But as the media juggernaut continued it struck me that here again was the way Africa is perceived by those in the United States. (I was particularly taken by Goodwell Nzoua’s New York Times op-ed, “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions” and this CNN piece.)  And this is because we grow up with our media featuring mostly a handful of striking animals from one small part of a very large and diverse continent. As I wrote last year in my Horn Book article, “Books About Africa“:

The distortions begin with animals. From a very young age, American children are exposed to Africa almost exclusively through its fauna — in ABC and concept books, in cartoons, in toys, in Broadway shows…the list goes on. Stories full of appealing lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, and other popular African animals make it easy for young readers to assume that 
wherever they go on the continent, there those animals will be.

And as we grow up it continues. Just a few weeks ago I was watching BBC-America and there were constant ads for a series on “Africa” that seems to only be about its animals. And so what bothers me isn’t the response to the killing as much as how it shows the way we focus so much on African animals (think also of zoos) and so little about its people. And how this results in the sort of media frenzy that happened with Cecil. How I wish we could be more balanced and that the media do a better job representing the continent so it doesn’t just become again and again about animals, war, and poverty.

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Celebrity Do-Gooders

In our celebrity culture where news is as often gotten from The Daily Show as from any more traditional source, the issue of do-gooding celebrities is complicated. In an interesting article in the National Interest on the issue, David W. Drezner points out how far more successful Gore has been as a celebrity than as a more conventional politician while also noting that not all look favorably on celebrity involvement.

Development expert William Easterly has argued that the celebrity focus on Africa’s problems has been misguided. By focusing exclusively on the diseases of sub-Saharan Africa, celebrities have unwittingly tarnished an entire continent: “[Africans are] not helpless wards waiting for actors and rock stars to rescue them.” Many African officials and activists share this sentiment, even heckling Bono at a development conference.

I’ve written here and here before about my feelings about celebrities and Africa. It still feels churlish to complain yet too often the result is not a better understanding of the issues, of the continent, or even better help. I’m not sure Drezner’s article changed my feelings, but it certainly gave me plenty to think about.

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Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize Speech

The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

From “A Hunger for Books,” Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize Speech

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Learning About Africa: That Africa; This Africa

Here‘s a personal essay I wrote for the papertiger‘s website.

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One Laptop per Child

I spent my second year in Sierra Leone working in an Audio Visual Centre in Freetown. Among other things I was working on a plan to provide workshops to teachers on developing materials to help in teaching. In meetings I talked about making posters and such while my superior urged me to focus on helping teachers learn to use the blackboard. I was young and full of myself, but looking back on it I know she was right. The teachers in the schools I knew (including the one I taught at the year before) did barely use the blackboard (when they had one); mostly they used recitation.

Remembering this I’ve been very very skeptical of the One Laptop per Child initiative. Their focus has been on creating and cheap, sturdy, and functional laptop for children in developing countries. Having spent two years in a country where things tended not to get to who they were suppose to get to, where things often did not happen as they were suppose to (and this was before the war), I wondered why the laptop folks weren’t spending more time on distribution and on HOW the laptops were to be used. For teachers whose idea of teaching was recitation, using any sort of teaching aid, much less a laptop seemed quite a leap.

They have focused on designing and building the laptop and seem to have veered between trying to find governments interested in buying it and conversely are also intending to fund grassroots initiatives. (I haven’t seen NGOs saying much which makes me wonder if this group like certain celebrities think they can do it better by bypassing them and creating their own little organization.)

Due to the current limitations of the Foundation’s funding and to ensure highly effective content and support for the initial phases of this program, the Foundation is not yet accepting applications for the funding of Special Laptop Programs. We hope to activate this program before the end of 2007.

The mission of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement is to ensure that all school-aged children in the developing world are able to engage effectively with their own personal laptop, networked to the world, so that they, their families and their communities can openly learn and learn about learning.

The OLPC Association focuses on designing, manufacturing and distributing laptops to children in lesser developed countries, initially concentrating on those governments that have made commitments for the funding and program support required to ensure that all of their children own and can effectively use a laptop.

Initial focus is on the launch of the One Laptop per Child program. In the future, the OLPC Foundation will focus on the grassroots, “bottom-up” aspects of the OLPC mission.

The Foundation is in the process of raising funds that will enable it, in the future, to subsidize the cost of laptops to groups of children who will not be provided laptops by governments because of the special nature of their circumstances.

Examples of these exceptional cases include programs for refugee children, for children in isolated parts of a country who are not included in a government program, and for children living in exceptionally poor countries. Support for such Special Laptop Programs will be dependent upon funding from outside sources that can be used for this purpose.

Today David Pogue in the New York Times has a glowing review of the computer. He also notes a new tweak to the developers’ efforts to get these laptops into developing countries. That is, for two weeks in November we Americans (and others I guess) for $400 can buy one laptop and donate another to a developing nation.

That AV Centre I worked at in Freetown had been set up by USAID years before. Then they left and everything went to seed. When I was there the director had a private business going on (making awards for various private groups) and I finally found work doing illustrations for other NGOs as I couldn’t seem to get even the teacher workshops to happen. I hope that things are better now in the countries that take these laptops. I hope they get used as intended.

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Learning about Africa: Seventh in a Series

I’ve written here and here about the way Africa has become the continent du jour. Now here’s Julius Lester’s take on the seemingly never-ending trend for celebrity adoption of African orphans.

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Learning about Africa: Sixth in a Series

Folktales shouldn’t be used, except very cautiously, as windows into other cultures. (Judy Sierra, Cinderella The Oryx Multicultural Folktale Series, pg. 165)

In the Rutgers University grad course on fairy tales I’m currently co- teaching we just finished a lively discussion on multiculturalism. One of the books we considered was John Steptoe‘s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, a beautiful Caldecott honor book that is often used in lessons about Africa because it is mistakenly thought to be an authentic folktale from Zimbabwe. In fact, it is not. Steptoe himself is honest by writing that the book, “was inspired by a folktale collected by G. M. Theal and published in 1895 in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.” Unfortunately, few seem to have investigated to see if it really is an appropriate choice to help American children learn about a place that is very far away and unfamiliar to them.

One who has is Eliot A. Singer who writes in his article, “Fakelore and the Ethics of Children’s Literature“:

In The Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1987, p. 478), a reviewer notes of Steptoe’s (1987) celebrated and award winning Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters that the story is a “polished retelling of one from G. M. Theal’s Kaffir Folktales.” The actual title is Kaffir Folklore(Theal 1886), and there is no tale in that collection that remotely resembles the one in the picture book. Maybe getting a title right is a scholarly hang-up, but it does seem reasonable to expect a reviewer who claims something is a “polished retelling” at least to look in the card catalog. To his credit, Steptoe (1988) points out that he was simply inspired by Theal’s book to explore Zimbabwe tradition and come up with his own story, that he “did not write and illustrate a special interest picture book,” one “said to be based on an African tale.” Yet, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is reviewed, sold, classified, and, awarded, I presume, as an “African” tale.

One of our students, Jenny Schwartzberg of the Newberry Library, tracked down an on-line copy of Kaffir Folk-lore and after reading through all the tales, I feel the one that probably inspired Steptoe was “The Story of Five Heads.” However, the commonalities are minor; Steptoe’s story is really an original, his alone. Additionally, information about Great Zimbabwe (found here and here) indicates a far more tangled history than can possibly be deduced from Steptoe’s story and illustrations.

Our students agreed by the end of our discussions that this book was better used within a language arts unit than in a social studies unit. I agree wholeheartedly!

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Learning about Africa: Fifth in a Series

After having read about and listened to their music I finally got to see the documentary film, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars when it was aired on PBS recently.

It was personally hard for me at times (especially the footage of Freetown when it was invaded), but it was also wonderful. The film tells the story of a group of Sierra Leonean musicians who connect at a refugee camp in Guinea and become a band — Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Their individual histories are heartrending. While some of them are willing to return to Sierra Leone, one (with the most horrific story) is unable to. They will be touring in the US in August and September. And here is a small not-very-good video I made with some clips from the film.

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Learning about Africa: Fourth in a Series

Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray alerted me to Vanity Fair’s special issue on Africa. I’m of two minds about it.

On the one hand (or mind) it does reinforce my previous post on Africa being the hot continent du jour. Looking through the Table of Contents, I see a lot of articles from the point of view of outsiders — Bono, Christopher Hitchens, Brad Pitt, Sebastian Junger, and Bill Clinton to name a few. And let’s not forget Madonna; Punch Hutton has a very kind piece about her work in Malawi, “Raising Malawi: Madonna Lends a Hand.” Having not yet read the other articles, I can’t speak for the other outsiders, but this one on Madonna? Simplistic, glowing, and you’d never know that some did not think so highly of Madonna and her efforts in Malawi. Chimanada Ngozi Adichie, for one. Check out the Orange Prize winner’s interview, “Madonna’s not our saviour” for an insider’s perspective on all these outsiders. (Thanks to Linda Lowe for the link.)

On the other hand (or mind), I do appreciate the in-depth articles in Vanity Fair and assume there are plenty in this issue. And maybe, just maybe some readers of this issue will decide to learn more. That is always a good thing, isn’t it?

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The Hot Continent

Asia, move over. It’s official; Africa is the current hot exotic continent. Writes Amanda Craig in her reviews of three new teen adventure books in today’s Times:

AFRICA HAS BECOME the most fashionable setting for film and, now, for children’s fiction. Perhaps it took the delightful Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series to remind us that the continent doesn’t have to be all doom and Joseph Conrad. It can also be a place of modern adventure.

So, yes, the continent is certainly not all doom and “Mistah Kurtz — he dead.” And Smith’s Botswana-set stories do provide an authentic feel for one tiny place in that very large and diverse continent. But is the fact that these new thrillers of the Alex Rider/James Bond sort are set in Africa what is most significant about them? (Of the three books reviewed, I’m most intrigued by Sarah Mussi’s Door of No Return.)

Yes, Africa is hot. (Well, actually it is the rainy season in Sierra Leone and less hot than other times of the year, but whatever.) Hot here being a state of cultural consciousness or popularity or something like that. And as far as I can tell, that hotness has yet to translate into those of us on the North American continent (and that island across the pond) having a more nuanced understanding of Africa and a stronger consciousness of our propensity to be, shall we say, arrogant in our feeling of superiority over those whose history has created a very different way of being.

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