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"The Teaching of Africa:" An Essential Resource Toward Fostering Global Education

Posted By: Trica Keaton on September 27, 2002

A critical issue in global education centers on persistent misconceptions and misrepresentations of Africa (often characterized as a country) and African societies in secondary and higher education. In this commentary, I review the PIER (Program in International Educational Resources) Summer Institute for the "Teaching of Africa" offered at Yale University and its contribution to educator preparation. As an initially skeptical, 2002-PIER participant, I describe the Institute's role in fostering global consciousness through enhancing educators' knowledge of a neglected world area–Africa–and its highly diverse nationS [emphasis intended].


"We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation [emphasis mine] that suffers from incredible disease, and it suffers from poverty as well."
President Bush, June 14, 2001, Press Conference–Göteborg Sweden

One must come out of one's house to begin learning.
A Ghanaian Proverb

If I had not been there, I would not have believed it. Yet, similar to the President who confidently told journalists that "Africa is a nation," this summer during an African Studies Institute, I found myself seated next to a college professor who exclaimed with equal aplomb that, "Egypt is not part of Africa." Upon hearing everyone's gasp, she quickly added, for the sake of clarity, that what she had meant to say was that Egypt was not on the continent itself. After the second round of gasps died down and upon regaining my own composure, I directed her attention to a huge map of Africa in the room. Like me, she was shocked, but for a different reason.


The PIER African Studies Summer Institute at Yale University for the "Teaching of Africa" is an essential resource in global education for individuals seeking to enhance their knowledge or develop informed curricula about the second largest continent–Africa. The PIER-African Studies Institute aims to foster an accurate and balanced understanding of African societies through dispelling entrenched myths about Africa and Africans. Remarkably, distorted views persist at all levels of education owed largely to the continued misconceptions of Africa perpetuated in schools and societies globally. Case in point is the aforementioned professor's misperception, which was not unique in the history of the Institute, nor could it be attributed to a mere gaff, as has been suggested with regard to the President's statement. After having seen the map, she, herself, confessed that she simply had not realized that Egypt is, indeed, part of Africa.

As I and my twenty-one fellow participants (six of whom were African Americans, the remaining of European descent) would learn over the course of this intensive program, a great many unknowns, myths, and misconceptions were held among the Institute's attendees, the majority of whom were teachers. Under the vigilant eye of Maxwell Amoh, the Institute Director, along with the guidance of some rather impressive scholars from various African nations and the United States, we embarked on a journey "to make Africa regular," at Max's (as he liked to be called) urging. That is, we were charged with the "work" of learning to truly see African societies in context and with all their complexities without overly aggrandizing their triumphs and failures. And, due to overwhelmingly negative representations, our charge also included learning to see virtue in Africa while not essentializing Africans (Appiah, 1992). From the onset, we, as global educators, faced several fundamental questions: What did we really know about Africa, its human geography and resource distribution, and from whose perspective? What are the misconceptions about Africa, on what are they premised, and how are they perpetuated? Finally, where and what is "Africa's" place in the curriculum of secondary education? Exploring these issues would be no small task. And yet, for nearly fifteen years, the PIER Summer Institute on the "teaching of Africa" has done exactly that.


Having done fieldwork over the years in the African Diaspora, my interest in PIER derived from both curiosity and concern. That is, as an educator of educators, I desired not only to broaden my own personal knowledge about Africa, but also gain insights into what teachers already understood about the continent beyond the archeology of its socio-historical invention (Mazrui, 1986; Mudimbe, 1988; Diawara, 1998). In fact, I questioned the Institute's ambitious project and faculty's capacity to address highly complicated and controversial issues during a two-week, albeit intensive, session. Further, I was uncertain if PIER instructors would frame African societies in ways that would allow participants to interpret historical and current events knowledgeably. How, for example, would contentious issues be addressed such as slavery in Africa, pre-European trading empires and prosperity, and the enduring effects of the "scramble for Africa" on African nations (Rodney, 1982; Shillington, 1995; Higgs, 2003)? How would the ravages from AIDS be treated and the contested "out of Africa" theory pertaining to its origins? Would the Somalia debacle followed by genocide in Rwanda be too difficult to tackle, and would we even discuss leaders such as Patrice Lumumba and the forces behind his assassination? Equally important was the new African Union that arose from the ashes of the Organization of African Unity. Then, there are thorny issues like cell phone and PlayStation consumption, seen as financing civil war, prostitution, and wildlife devastation in the Congo. And what about African arts and languages now that French, English, Portuguese, and Spanish are African languages too, though made so at the expenses of indigenous ones (Mazrui & Mazrui, 1998; Fashagba, 1999; Skutnab-Kangas, 2000).

If the Institute managed to cover all of these issues, I wondered what would be sacrificed. Would, for example, the important question of African migration be one such victim, and thus the role of women in labor migration both within and outside the continent? Given the growth of African immigration and its impact on urban schools and societies globally, this topic is both fascinating and a critical issue in immigration and educational studies (Gibson and Ogbu, 1991; Arthur, 2000; Abdullah, 2001; Rong and Brown, 2001; Keaton, forthcoming). Although Africans represent a relatively small percentage of the total foreign born population in the United States, their numbers have rapidly increased over the years, according to Census data, as are youth of varying African national origins distinctly a part of a number of classrooms and communities. Often, such students' backgrounds and cultures are unknown to their teachers and peers who erroneously amalgamate them with African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans often based on perceived (s)kin-ship ties alone. In this regard, entities like the PIER Institute are worth their salt–-a once precious commodity used in trade transaction on the continent–-to educators seeking not only to enhance their curriculum, but also broaden their personal knowledge about African youths in their schools. As many participants in PIER-2002 acknowledged, personal and professional preparation, coupled with noticeable increases in their African student populations, was the impetus for being at the Institute. PIER-African Studies had its work cut out for it, and more so because some teachers were confronting this subject matter for the first time.


African reality is often defined by political turmoil, disease, famine, or by a fascination with exoticized peoples like the Masai, Mbuti or Dogon. While devastation should not be minimized nor intriguing groups ignored, developing global consciousness entails understanding that the lived-conditions of Africans differ across the continent and that African nations have highly diverse groups like any other nation. To this end, the Institute allayed much of my skepticism thanks to the caliber of lectures, contextualized case studies, discussions, readings, and hands-on activities offered. Through these studies, we gained essential insights and a more profound understanding of the arts, economies, geography, histories, linguistic maps, and literature of various African nations, insights toward substantively informing future teaching units (several examples of which were furnished by the Institute).

I was especially impressed by several practical activities. For example, we trekked to museums both in New Haven and New York City where curators of African Art provided private, informative tours of their museums' African collections. We were also given detailed packets containing slides and summary descriptions of various pieces for classroom use. Then, there was the Middle Passage simulation. While lying head to toe and side by side on the bare classroom floor in darkness, the lead instructor poignantly narrated the inconceivable horrors experienced by captives' on a slave ship, images that we silently absorbed. If you are searching for an effective way to teach this human tragedy to the young, I strongly urge contacting Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins, an exemplary teacher and former Fulbright recipient who guided us through this re-enactment. Through critiquing films, we traveled to Achebe's Nigeria, to Ghana, Mali, and Sierra Leone to meet the Mende people whose connection to an African American family survived the Middle Passage thanks to a simple song. Moreover, documentaries of the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa and the holocaust in Rwanda led to pertinent questions about the age appropriateness of materials and content sensitivity.

On another note, the Institute's faculty introduced us to overshadowed, yet relevant issues in African nations. South Africa's Royal Bafokeng Kingdom is one such example. The Bafokeng, who have documented title of their territories, won a landmark court decision in 1999 that allows them to retain 22% of all platinum mining rights on their lands (Mokgatle, 1971). South Africa, with its severe housing shortages and land distribution struggles (noting that 87% of the land remains in the hands of "whites" who are less than 25% of the population–see Mandela, 1995; Thompson, 2001) invites comparative studies of a variety of timely themes. Racialized educational disparities, segregation, immigration, and language politics are but a few, as is the case of Zimbabwe, which is presently engaged in violent land redistribution battles. This latter issue is a sign-post for South Africa, if not post-Apartheid societies as a whole.

All in all, the impact of the Institute was perhaps best summed up by one young teacher who was not only participating in the program, but simultaneously finishing her graduate studies at a nearby, elite university. During our final session, she shared a rather telling experience that exemplifies the very necessity of the Institute and its content. Movingly, she described the events in one of her university courses wherein she was confronted by stereotypical images and views of Africa as a primitive, "Dark Continent" in the assigned reading and from fellow students. She then exclaimed: "Because of this Institute, I could defend Africa; I knew about the Great Zimbabwe, and about Grand Africa, about ancient Ghana, Mali, and Songhay." Indeed, she learned about these civilizations, and, like many of us, she experienced so much more.


Dispelling myths and stereotypes about African nations and peoples is, in itself, a monumental task. Satisfying the diverse expectations and needs of all PIER participants was no less so. I, for one, believe that classroom interactions are enhanced when involving persons of diverse origins (social and otherwise), something that was somewhat missing beyond the "black-white" divide. As for content, the Maghreb was relatively neglected, yet other societies about which I knew very little clearly were not. Moreover, African immigration merits greater consideration than it received, and more so because it is a reality in U.S. schools and a critical topic in global education. Addressing these issues, however, might require extending the program with all the costs that this would entail. Already, there are four follow-up, weekend sessions during the Fall that allow educators to develop further curriculum guides and course outlines. And while the Institute covers a range of topics, as Max acknowledges, it necessarily tackles the basics too, such as sensitizing individuals to the "Dark Continent" syndrome and to offensive terms like "hut," "natives," "pygmy," "tribe," "bushman," and other pervasive vestiges of the past. Indeed, no matter how much knowledge a person may have, they can fall prey to these terms and erroneous assumptions about Africa, including the idea that Egypt is not on the continent or perceiving Africa as a nation. Clearly, we must also explore the facts and fictions held by Africans about us as well and the sources of their information in our quest for understanding and truth. Yet ultimately, we are left with a proverb from Max's home country of Ghana: "Truth is like a baobab tree, one person's arms cannot embrace it." But, we can certainly try.

PIER-African Studies Summer Institute
Sponsored by PIER-African Studies
Council on African Studies
Yale Center for International and Area Studies
U.S. Department of Education Title VI Grant,
Institute Director: Maxwell Amoh

Abdullah, Zain (2001). "West Africa," Encyclopedia of American Immigration. James Ciment (ed.). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. (1992). In my Father's House: Africa in the philosophy of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Arthur, John. (2000). Invisible Sojourners: African Immigrant Diaspora in the United States. Westport: Praeger.

Diawara, Manthia. (1998). In search of Africa. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Fashagba, J. A. (1999). African peoples and African languages. Toronto: African Books International.

Gibson, Margaret and Ogbu, John (eds.). (1991). Minority Status and Schooling: A Comparative Study of Immigrant and Involuntary minorities. New York: Garland.

Higgs, Catherine. (2003) Stepping Forward: Black Women in Africa and the Americas. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Keaton, Trica. (forthcoming). Beings Perceived: Muslim girls in French schools and society. Albany, New York: SUNY Press.

Mandela, Nelson. (1995). Long Walk to Freedom--The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston: Back Bay Books.

Massey, D and N. Denton, (1993) American Apartheid, Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press.

Mazrui, Ali. (1986). The Africans: A triple heritage. Boston: Little Brown [and, a nine-part PBS series sponsored by The Annenberg/CPB Collection].

_____ and Mazrui, A.M. (1998). The Power of Babel: Language and Governance in the African Experience. Oxford: James Currey.

Mokgatle, Naboth. (1971). The Autobiography of an Unknown South African. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mudimbe, V. Y. (1988). The Invention of Africa, Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Rodney, Walter. (1981). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington D.C.: Howard University Press.

Rong, Xue Lan and Brown, Frank. (2001). "The effects of immigrant generation and ethnicity on educational attainment among young African and Caribbean Blacks in the United States," Harvard Educational Review 71:3 (Fall) 536-565.

Shillington, Kevin. 1995. History of Africa. New York: St. Martins Press.

Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. (2000). Linguistic Genocide in Education -- Or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erbaum Associates.

Thompson, Leonard. (2001). A History of South Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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 "The Teaching of Africa:" An Essential Resource Toward Fostering Global Education by Trica Keaton on September 27, 2002
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