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Review of Teaching Africa: A Guide for the 21st Century Classroom


By Richard Borowski

Teaching Africa: A Guide for the 21st Century Classroom. Brandon D. Lundy and Solomon Negash (eds). Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2013. Pp. 299. ISBN. 978-0-253-00821-3 (pb). $30.

As someone who has spent the past twenty years endeavouring to change young people’s distorted and stereotypical perceptions of Africa and its peoples I looked forward to reviewing this book about educationalists attempting to do the same. Even though the focus of my work is with school children in the UK, and many of the contributors work with college students or undergraduates in the US, the underlying issue being addressed by us both is the same, challenging misconceptions and presenting a more balanced perspective of the continent of Africa.

Teaching Africa is a diverse collection of accounts by academics which question what should be taught about Africa and explore how to teach about Africa to young people with little accurate knowledge of the continent and stereotypical perceptions of its peoples. Whilst the editors and many of the contributors are keen to emphasise the interdisciplinary nature of African studies the various chapters cover a wide range of disciplines, such as Geography, History, Literature, Politics, Music and Health. The book itself is loosely divided into three sections with case studies that i) motivate young people to learn about Africa, ii) develop young people’s skills to critically analyse information about Africa and iii) provide opportunities for young people to engage with the peoples of Africa.

One factor that sets all the contributors apart from the majority of other educators is their detailed knowledge of Africa and their personal experience of living and working in one or more of its countries. In the classroom they are a primary resource of information and are able to speak with an authority and credibility that would be difficult for ‘non-Africanist’ educators. To overcome this problem the contributors adopted a range of active learning approaches to engage their students in the learning process. Jennifer E. Coffman (Ch.1), Todd Cleveland (Ch.2) and Gary Marquardt (Ch.4) used quizzes, films, music, newspapers, TV programmes, academic articles and interviews to explore contemporary issues and develop a greater understanding of the African context whilst Ryan Ronnenburg (Ch.6) adopted a multicultural approach to enhance understanding. Carl Death (Ch.7) used postcolonial theory to engage students in Ireland and Wales in questions about ‘otherness’ and to explore who are the colonised and colonisers whilst Harry Nii Koney Odamtten (Ch.8) and Renée Schatteman (Ch.12) both made their courses relevant by linking the struggle for independence in  African countries with the Civil Rights movement in the US.

Catherine Kroll (Ch.11) used the Zulu inversion ritual as a metaphor for changing accepted perceptions before exploring postcolonial African literature and Linda M. Johnston and Oumar Chérif Diop (Ch.15) applied conflict analysis tools to explore conflict in African literature. Lucie Viakinnou-Brinson (CH.16) used a simulation activity to challenge commonly accepted stereotypical perceptions of Africa and Babacar M’Baye (Ch.18) created a Model AU to enable students to learn about contemporary African issues in a real-life diplomatic setting. Durene I. Wheeler and Jeanine Ntithrageza (Ch.10) used Multicultural Education and Social Justice Perspectives in a course with K-12 teachers to develop resources for use in the classroom. To give them due credit, the various contributors have been creative in how they engaged their students but there was little in what I read of the learning approaches they adopted that is particularly innovative. Global/Development Education in the UK has been using an active learning methodology to create and develop teaching resources for over 30 years.

In my experience an active learning programme needs to be complemented by opportunities to engage directly with people from/in Africa. In the latter part of the book there are some good examples of partnerships that enable students to complement their knowledge of Africa with an emotional engagement with its peoples. Daniel J. Paracka Jr. (Ch.19) describes the partnership between Kalmazoo College and Fourah Bay College which provided US students with the opportunity to study in Sierra Leone for a year. James Ellison (Ch.20) and Amy C. Finnegan, Julian Jane Atim and Michael J. Westerhaus (Ch.21) both describe field-based courses in Tanzania and Uganda which enhance the student’s understanding of tropical medicine by taking place in context. Unfortunately the cost of such courses in Africa is too great for most students so other ways need to be found for them to emotionally engage with Africans. Both Todd Cleveland (Ch.2) and Carl Death (Ch.7) included class interviews/discussions with African visitors in their activity programmes and Jean Ngoya Kidula (Ch.13) engaged recent African immigrants in creating an ‘African Night’. Within each of these chapters I detected some tension about using Africans as a resource in the classroom. I would have liked to have seen some application of Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of a ‘Third Space’, a postcolonial, intercultural space for learning, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s concept of ‘Unlearning Privilege’, learning to explore new ways of being, thinking, knowing and relating, in the preparation of students.

There are other chapters in this book which are complementary but don’t directly address approaches to challenging misconceptions students may have about Africa. Kathleen R. Smythe (Ch.3) focuses her discussion about what should be included in an African history course and Trevor R. Getz (Ch.5) explores the tensions between historians in South Africa post Apartheid about what should be included in the curriculum. Matthew Waller (Ch.9) covers debates amongst Geographers about how to describe Africa and the compartmentalisation of the continent. Caleb Corkery (Ch.14) explores the use of West Africa story tellers, Griots, as a historical resource. Amy C. Finnegan (Ch.17) analyses why young people are attracted to support African causes, rather than tackle domestic issues, and explores the use of ‘Frames’ as a way to change perceptions. Finally, Solomon Negash and Julian M. Bass (Ch.22) explore the potential for retaining high quality graduates in Ethiopia by improving postgraduate IT research facilities.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book and welcome its contribution to the academic debate about how to address young people’s distorted perceptions of Africa in the classroom. However, I think it represents a starting point for further discussions about how the good practice in Higher Education can be disseminated throughout the school system, how perceptual changes can be measured and evaluated to demonstrate the benefits of courses about Africa and how the stereotypical images and messages about Africa and its people that are perpetuated by civil society can be challenged.

Reviewed by: Richard Borowski, LUCAS, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 126-128]

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