Teaching Profession Opinion

Africa: Entry Points for Teaching

By Barbara Brown & Breeanna Elliott — March 21, 2016 7 min read
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The thought of teaching about Africa can be overwhelming to teachers: so many countries, cultures, and challenges it’s difficult to know where to begin. Today’s authors work at Boston University’s African Studies Center: Barbara Brown, directs the Outreach Program, and Breeanna Elliott, a history teacher, is the outreach specialist. They share some ways to begin engaging students around this large and diverse continent.

Join the authors this Thursday, March 24th at 8pm ET on Twitter for #GlobalEdChat to learn about additional resources and strategies for teaching Africa!

Every year we host a “Teaching Africa” booth at the national social studies conference. As people pass, we ask, “Do you teach Africa in your classroom?” The sheepish response is often, “Um, no,” or, “Uh, just a bit,” but always followed by, “But I know I should do more.”

Hearing the acknowledgement of the importance of Africa is inspiring, yet stereotypes about the continent are pervasive in popular culture, in the media, and, most significantly, with our students. The good news is that many engaging classroom resources are available to address student misconceptions. Here, we describe six videos you can immediately and easily use, along with suggestions for including them in class. Short, concise, and sometimes hilarious, videos are an ideal starting point, providing an introductory platform for discussion and classroom lessons.

Two key concepts are foundations for these videos and our teaching:

  • The “danger of a single story.”
  • The need to listen to African voices.

Too often, we are given only a single story of Africa—a story that takes a large, diverse continent and presents a single narrative. Further, the single story is often presented by outsider narratives of the continent, which may pander to preconceived notions of poverty, disease, helplessness, and violence. Our students need to hear authoritative African voices in the classroom to complicate and enrich the single story.

Rewriting the Narrative of Africa

With nearly 10 million views, Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk is one of the most accessible entryways into teaching Africa because it communicates a key message: to define a person, place, or entire continent, as only one thing is to deny the diversity of each person, of each continent, and of humanity itself. Adichie, one of Nigeria’s best contemporary novelists, inspires us to examine our own misunderstandings through telling stories of her own misconceptions and of those around her. (As a young child, she wrote lots of stories, all about children with blonde hair and blue eyes, all commenting on the weather, because that is what was in the (British) books she read.)

Adichie succinctly reminds us that: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” This video offers an opportunity for our students to discuss ways in which they too suffer from single stories that define who they are at home, in the classroom, and in their communities. Rethinking Schools offers a recommended writing lesson to complement Adichie’s TED talk.

Not uncommon in this single story is the portrayal of Africans as only passive, helpless people, with foreigners as providers. Few students know of African responses to a crisis. In a satirical music video, “Africa for Norway,” Africans collect radiators, because in Norway “kids are freezing.” The video is a riff on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the 1984 song that was the number one single in 13 countries. The 1984 lyrics include “Oh, [Africa] where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow. Do they know it’s Christmas time at all? Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” In “Africa for Norway,” the reversal of the typical donor and recipient relationship—Africa for Norway, and not Norway for Africa—illustrates how images of freezing Norwegians are just as unrepresentative as the images of helpless Africans. A simple activity is to compare the two perspectives.

Rethinking Africa’s Portrayal in Popular Culture

In Hollywood films, Africans often assume the roles of victims or perpetrators, when they are seen at all (#OscarsSoWhite). The scenes are commonly of war or poverty, or sometimes an artful combination of both. Bombarded with these images, our students are ill equipped for discerning stereotypes from wider realities.

“African Men, Hollywood Stereotypes” is a humorous approach to the serious issue of Hollywood portrayals. In this video, Kenyans deliver the message that they are not war-crazed vigilantes. Four young men show clips from violent films about Africa, then speak directly to us, their audience: “I am an African man, but do you know who we are?” Their question leads naturally to our students asking, “do we?” When students have the opportunity to engage with African voices directly, students can begin to question, “how often do we hear from Africans?” As students understand the source(s) of their knowledge, as well as the limitations of those sources, they can explore how the media impacts our perceptions. As media bias is not Africa-specific, the video also offers students an opportunity to discuss and share similar cases of prejudice that have been perpetuated by popular culture.

One recent example of the misportrayal of Africa, is Taylor Swift’s recent “Wildest Dreams” music video. Set in colonial Africa, the video is a counterpoint to the Kenyan video above. In her video, Swift sings of her entangled romance with her co-star with backdrop a la Out of Africa, complete with expansive savannas and exotic safari animals—and no Africans in sight. Although entertaining, students can dig deeper into the significance of having a video set in an Africa without Africans. What does it mean to erase the people of the places where you film?

To complement classroom discussion, students can read two Ugandans who responded on NPR to Swift’s video in “Taylor Swift is Dreaming of a Very White Africa.” They critique the omission of African voices and the romanticizing of colonialism and push us to answer critically—what is this saying about Africa and Africans, and, further, about white Westerners?

Representing African Agency through Humor

Unraveling stereotypes and questioning beliefs can be uncomfortable. Students are more likely to be open-minded and critical when the issues at hand are framed in an approachable manner. Perhaps no one else does this better than South African comedian Trevor Noah, the current host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. By marrying comedy and social commentary, Noah tells relatable stories that combine experiences in North America, Europe, and Africa.

One of Noah’s first appearances on The Daily Show was during segment called “Spot the Africa,” where Noah asked Jon Stewart to guess which images were of African countries and which were of North America. Noah begins by showing images of a highly developed, urban Africa; Stewart guesses they are all from America. Noah then shows images of poverty and of pot-holed streets. Stewart, now figuring he understands Noah’s game, guesses that all of the poverty scenes must be from the US—but he falls into Noah’s trap once again, as the scenes are from both continents. Noah’s humorously made point is that neither continent has a single story. Students can extend the video by finding and analyzing images and concepts of Africa they themselves discover in the media.

Noah also humorously critiques colonialism in light of the recent migrant crisis: “What’s weird to me, though, is, like, how people act like colonization never happened. [I]t’s weird when people say, ‘Why are all these ... foreigners coming into the UK.’ Well, it’s because you told them about the UK.” Rather than analyzing current events devoid of the past, this video encourages students to contextualize both history and current events to gain a more holistic understanding of the situation. In this piece Noah offers an insightful perspective on global, and African, issues from a rarely heard African perspective.

Moving Forward: Next Steps for Teaching About Africa
The video resources we have included here are only entry points to teaching about Africa and work best when used to frame more in-depth discussion. They provide the initial African perspective and serve as a starting point for African voices in the classroom and for a dialogue between students and Africans.

In an increasingly globalized world, and one in which African perspectives have long been marginalized, providing African agency and recognizing our biases has never been more important.

For many additional resources, including teaching materials, lesson plans, and primary sources of African voices, we encourage you to visit the Boston University’s African Studies Center Outreach Program website.

Follow the African Studies Center on Twitter and Facebook.

Mosaic images courtesy of the following Flickr accounts: earthhour_global, courtneyanne, ricephotos, karlabrunet

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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