International Education Washington


by Sandra Chait, Ph.D.

“International” includes Africa

When I first arrived in Seattle from South Africa, locals quizzed me about my homeland.

“Did you grow up amongst lions and giraffes?” they asked with polite curiosity, talking about Cape Town, a metropolitan center about the size of Seattle.

True, this was in 1975, and a lot has changed since then, both in Cape Town and Seattle. Today, thanks to Nelson Mandela, South Africa features on the map world-wide, and Seattleites are among the many tourists, business and student groups, who have experienced its beauty first-hand.

Of the other countries of Africa, however, there is still little known in the Pacific Northwest. I discovered this during ten years of teaching African literature at the University of Washington and, for four years of that decade, also running the UW’s African Studies program. For example, High School graduates with amazing SAT scores assumed that Africa was one country. What’s more, they dismissed the continent in its entirety as having little to do with their everyday world.

The fact is, of course, that as Americans, we are intimately tied to Africa, and African economies and African cultures form part of America’s everyday world. Our country imports, amongst other products and commodities, oil, gas, diamonds, coffee, and textiles from various African states. Our own Washington Congressman Jim McDermott penned the African Growth and Opportunity Act (A.G.O.A), favorable legislation to encourage bi-lateral trade between us. Seattle’s African Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest promotes this trade, linking Seattle businessmen with their counterparts in Ghana, Ruanda, and elsewhere. In our stores, schools, and offices, African immigrants are close to overtaking African-Americans in number and their influence on Seattle life is tangible. Young Seattleites, for example, eat Injera, the spongy bread from Ethiopia, that sells all over the city, and they dance to High Life, Juju and Afrobeat music of Senegal and Nigeria. Eritrean taxi drivers ferry Seattleites to the airport and, on the Husky football field, players shout to one another in Swahili, one of the most popular languages taught at the University of Washington. African cultures are all around us, without our even being aware of the ways in which they flavor our lives. It’s time to learn, to find out about the histories of the peoples with whom Seattleites mingle. The information is out there and available through the web and through our libraries. While it's true that bloodshed, drought and AIDS in Africa still hog the headlines, our newspapers occasionally do report matters of other political and social consequence that are positive. And as Africa becomes of greater strategic value to the US in its war on terrorism, even the Bush administration in DC belatedly takes note of the rich and varied cultures of this continent.

Cultural competence is imperative in today’s world and Africa, the largest continent on our planet, should be a major player in school curricula. In the Pacific Northwest, education must include the countries of Africa, alongside those of Asia and Europe, if it is to be truly international.

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Exploring Africa

So, how does one become more knowledgeable about Africa; how do we go about instructing our students and arousing their interest in the varied peoples and cultures of Africa? Nothing, of course, replaces spending time in one of the countries of Africa, but here are a few resources to explore:

The most valuable educational mediums of all are the African communities in our midst. Washington State is fortunate to be home to large immigrant groups from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Smaller groups represent migrations from Ruanda, Uganda, Cameroon, South Africa, Gambia, Swaziland, Zambia, and Mozambique. Except for recent refugees who fled war and bloodshed at home, the majority of Africans in Seattle immigrated here in search of education. They are highly educated and well-versed in the politics and history of their countries. Moreover, they are keen to educate other Americans about their homelands. So, invite them to your classrooms. They have frequently been guest speakers in mine, and have spoken knowledgeably and with passion and insight. To the delight of students who hang on their every word, they are open to all kinds of questions, which they answer with humor and without any hint of condescension. To find them? Check your classes. Their children fill Washington State schools, where they are becoming American in every way, often at the loss of their own cultural heritage. Peer pressure to fit into the American culture makes them dismissive of their own cultures, particularly since, up till now, the American media have seldom represented African cultures in a positive light. Inviting African parents to help educate their children’s classmates about their countries of origin can also instill cultural pride in their offspring, even as it provides knowledge and understanding to the latter’s friends.

Use the internet to create partnerships with African schools. Work on joint projects, which involve students from both countries on an equal basis, with an end product that rewards both sides. Training students to collaborate across national and language boundaries provides solid preparation for the kind of international co-operation that to-day’s global science and business research demands.

Revive the old-fashioned practice of pen-pal correspondence between your students and those of an English-speaking African country, such as Ghana. English is a required language in many ex-British colonial African schools, and High School students are usually fluent. Alternatively, require American students of French to correspond in that language with Senegalese students, who speak French daily. Having American students at a disadvantage in their interaction serves a valuable learning experience.

Play African games. WSAME (Washington State Association for Multicultural Education) recently held a teachers’ workshop on games throughout the world. It is a great way to engage young people in other cultures, without it seeming like education.

Music, of course, is the great equalizer. Afro pop is popular in the United States and many students already have some knowledge of the field. Have them listen to KEXP FM 90.3 on Public Radio, for instance, and create a class project around it. Let them explore the origins of the music, e.g. the Yoruba folklore from which Nigerian juju music evolved.

Involve students in Africa events. With so many different African communities in the Pacific Northwest, lectures, concerts, and dances, are frequent. The Seattle Art Museum often holds community events, and the Folklife Festival offers a great showcase for community culture. Keep check on what’s happening through one of the event calendars, for example that of the University of Washington’s African Studies Program. You can subscribe by writing to Encourage your students to attend these events. Visiting speakers are sometimes willing to go out to schools as well.

Show African films in class. Rakumi Arts holds an African Film series annually. While the films sometimes deal with history, they are often about contemporary urban life and can serve to remind students just how much African lives resemble their own. Teenage angst, love and loss are international themes.

Where possible, offer to co-sponsor or collaborate with organizations involved in Africa events. This usually does not require funding on your part, but can bring your students into contact with African role models. The World Affairs Council, Ustawi, WSAME, Meany World Series, plus local universities and colleges, all sponsor African speakers and performers.

Invite representatives from local NGO’s working with Africa to speak at your school. Find one that you identify with and negotiate a way you and your students can help and contribute to the organization’s aims.

Frequent immersion in particular African cultures will impart a degree of cultural competence that cannot be obtained through book study alone. Together, personal experience can fix academic learning with emotional content, imbuing it with a different, more visceral, kind of knowledge that is the beginning of understanding. Such understanding is essential to creating the kind of intercultural empathy and respect that we all want to see in our classrooms, and ultimately outside them as well.

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A Few On-Line Resources

For specific countries, call up by name, as appropriate.

Up-to-date news about Africa:

Local Africa-related events:

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Some Reading References

Generally-speaking, I would recommend specific country texts for students, rather than a one-in-all Africa book. But if you need to have one, try the following:

  • Chu, Daniel and Elliott Skinner. A Glorious Age in Africa. (story of three great African empires – Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. For middle-schoolers).

  • Ellis, Stephen, Ed. Africa Now. (discussion of relevant African issues. For Juniors and Seniors).

  • McEvedy, Colin. The Penguin Atlas of African History

Some specific country histories:

  • (Eritrea) Connell, Dan. Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution

  • (Nigeria) Falola, Toyin. A History of Nigeria

  • (South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana) Omer-Cooper, J. D. History of Southern Africa

As a literature person, I believe that novels and stories teach one history-from-the-inside-out. In other words, the reader learns to empathize with the feelings of characters involved in that history, thus bringing a degree of intimacy and connection to otherwise dry historical events. Below are some recommendations for high school students:

  • (Botswana) McCall Smith, Alexander. The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

  • (Ethiopia) Mezlekia, Nega. Notes from the Hyena’s Belly

  • (Guinea) Laye, Camara. The Black Child

  • (Kenya) Ngugi wa Thiongo. The River Between

  • (Mali) Conde, Maryse. Segu

  • (Nigeria) Soyinka, Wole. Ake: The Years of Childhood

  • (Nigeria) Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart

  • (Senegal) Ba, Mariama. So Long A Letter (Seniors only. About polygamy)

  • (South Africa) Magona, Sindiwe. Mother to Mother (Seniors only.)

  • (South Africa) Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom

  • (Zimbabwe) Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions

For elementary students, the following:

  • Tales From Africa. Retold by Kathleen Arnott.

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