Teach your kids
Why it matters to know about Africa and the
rest of the world?
August 24, 2005
It is well known that American kids
traditionally score well below their foreign counterparts in geographic
knowledge, and Africa
seems to be perennially at the bottom of what they know. The reasons
for this shameful lack of interest or insight are many and varied,
especially given the US' current position in the world, but
a few problem areas are easy to explain.
It is unlikely in any society,
for example, that kids would outpace their teachers, parents, reporters,
history texts and authority
figures in exploring and accurately obtaining knowledge about the
rest of the world. And our kids face an uphill battle through a
fog of distortion, ignorance, smugness, disinterest and flat out
racism. Bad press, yellow press, sloppy and ignorant press -- these
are all as old as the hills.
But there is often a palpable resistance,
a sort of willful ignorance -- almost a vehemence -- against
knowing too much about the continent in whose exploitation we
share such a disturbing complicity.
From our parents' generation, there
is an understandable, if a bit ugly, fuzziness about The Dark Continent.
There were no "countries" -- no concern whatsoever, and the
resulting violence is perversely used as "evidence" that
such people cannot govern themselves.
Popular culture sustained and deepened the official
myths, if African managed to register at all on the cultural radar. "I'd
be just as sassy as Haile Salassie" was a throwaway rhyme
in a popular song. Much later, Bob Marley balanced the scale by
to music the salient parts of Salasse's challenge to the
League of Nations: "Until the philosophy that holds one race
superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited
and abandoned, everywhere is war." Did Marley know about the
song "Shantytown?" Who knows? But sometimes culture surpasses
history in setting the record straight.
At the time of independence,
press reports were routinely and unabashedly pro-imperialist --
that is, if they had any clue what was going
on at all. Jonathan Kwitny, a former Wall Street Journal reporter,
recalls this phenomenon in his book Endless Enemies: Americas
Worldwide War Against Its Own Best Interests. He remembers the
repeating phrase "rioting Congolese" from
his youth, and then goes on to document that footage in almost
shows crowds of Africans running from Belgian troops.
The sad thing
is how little times seem to have changed. We are still shockingly
ignorant about the world in which we play so dominant
a role, and our children's future may rest on ending the cycle.
Teachers, schools, reporters and opinion shapers are still too
often in the grip of the colonial mindset. Some even still use
the embarrassingly outdated lexicon of imperialism: tribe, clan,
dialect, and the works, all constructs of deliberate or dismissive
attempts to delegitimize conquered peoples.
Even the myth of journalistic "balance" should
require the abandonment of such sloppiness- -- or invoke standards
that are patently absurd. Are the Serbs a "tribe?" The
Czechs? Even Liechtenstein and Monaco get the respect that seems
to elude Africans. No one refers to the Windsors as a "clan." Hell,
even a few Superbowl wins in a row qualifies as a "Dynasty." And
the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italians don't speak "dialects," even
though their languages are far more interrelated than the hundreds
of complex and varied African languages.
In arranging a recent visit
to our school by the Queen of Buganda [GreenHouseSchool.org],
we were shocked to find one reporter actually question the fact
of the monarchy, a bit
of retro cavethink I thought went out at the turn of the century.
No one uses qualifiers when writing that Lucy was female, or that
dinosaurs once roamed the earth. But when it concerns Africa, suddenly
there's no such thing as carbon dating or forensic anthropology,
oral history is not "real" history, and written western
history is sacrosanct (like, say, the ride of Paul Revere, or Betsy
Ross' flag?) Even when the accurate references are presented to
reporters, some will often simply ignore the press release and
revert to type, like playing old tapes in one's head.
are too often insulated and isolated from the rest of the world.
But an ostrich only feels comfortable, blissfully
dangerously unaware of the reality he is hiding from. The way
we think, feel, talk and teach about our past sets the tone
present and our future. If we keep making the same mistakes
in a sort of Groundhog Day time bounce, we are depriving our children
of the very tools they will need to join the greater community
as citizens of the world.
© 2005 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission
granted with credit and link to DanielpWelch.com.
Writer, singer, linguist and
activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts,
with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The
Greenhouse School. Translations of articles are available in
up to 20 languages. Links to the website are appreciated at danielpwelch.com.