Teaching about Africa

I was seated directly in front of the TV in my living room. My concentration was unbreakable as I watched the children’s talent show Little Big Shots. A young girl, about my age, strolled onto the stage confidently. There were no materials set up for her act, so I did not understand what her talent could be. Within a couple of seconds of her entrance, a massive map of Africa appeared on the screen with a small country in West Africa highlighted in black. I could immediately tell that it was Burkina Faso. The announcer for the show asked the girl for the name of the country. When she responded with the correct answer, the crowd rose from their seats and applauded her. This enraged me, and I felt my chest fill with fiery anger. Why is it surprising that a girl in elementary school knows about African geography? African geography should be taught in school the same way Asian, European, and American geography are taught.

I turned to my mother and questioned her, “Why are they applauding her? She only named the country on the map.”

My mother replied by saying that very few people know about African geography. As I continued to stare at the clapping audience, I knew that fact had to change. How can we love each country equally when we’re unaware of so many? Knowledge is power, and I knew that if I could teach my class, I could evoke change. Things would be hard, but I had an idea.

I entered my classroom the next day with a hard plan. I stared up at the whiteboard. I could clearly see the words: “African Country and Capital of the Day” with space for words to be filled in.

“Is this for me?” I whispered to my fourth-grade teacher.

Once I had received her nod, I slowly approached the whiteboard at the front of the classroom and yanked the cap off a red marker. I did not want to choose a country that a lot of people would know about. What would be the purpose then? I wanted to choose one that was unknown to my classmates so they could learn something new. In my best handwriting, I wrote: “Freetown, Sierra Leone.” I had chosen it simply because I love the sound of the country’s name as it dances on my tongue. My classmates glanced up at the words in confusion.

Soon the entire class was seated in a large circle. After getting the go-ahead thumbs-up from my teacher, I stood up and cleared my throat. I pronounced my words carefully and explained some of the traditions from Sierra Leone. Once I had finished, I saw my classmates’ blank expressions and was immediately disappointed. My lips sunk into a deep frown, and I silenced myself. Desperate for kids not to lose interest, one of my teachers dashed to her laptop and found a traditional song from Sierra Leone. When everyone first heard it, they were skeptical and a bit confused, but after a while, we began to enjoy it and started dancing as a class.

The days from that point on were simple. We learned about a country, its capital, and the culture there. Those who had been reluctant at first quickly got used to the idea of learning about Africa. Soon we began doing competitions to see who had learned the most. My class was competitive, and this helped us learn. The night before these competitions, some of us would even spend time studying.

The day that I wrote my final country and capital was a gloomy one, but I was proud. I didn’t want the teaching to be over, and I enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of my fellow classmates while we learned. As a class, we shared how it felt learning about geography and how our opinions had changed. I taught my class about what I call “innocent racism”: people saying something that may be racially insensitive without being a bad person. My classmates realized that learning more about African geography was a way to know more about different cultures and people there. This knowledge would help prevent unintentional racism or hurtful comments. I was filled with a warm feeling in my heart as each student shared.

Read more: Student Voices Project 2020

1 thought on “Teaching about Africa

  1. Dear Graciana
    This is a wonderful piece. I remember like it was yesterday when you introduced the continent and the countries of Africa to our class. You opened a new world to all of us. And, you did it with grace and knowledge. You taught us so much. We still talk about you to our current students when we play a game called the Country Game. Mrs Zhang knows all the countries! We miss you and hope to see you and your family soon. Xoxo

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