My knowledge of Africa is limited to what two African teachers have provoked me into learning, and I am thankful for that.
Growing up in the Midwest and attending predominantly white private and public schools never really afforded me much opportunity to learn about Africa. My K-8 education never included Africa or its people to any real extent. Sure, we talked about Egypt, but when we discuss Africa these days, Egypt is not really what we have in mind.
So that’s the way it was for me in grammar school. We talked about slavery in the United States, King Tutankhamen, and a little bit about what we could do to help the starving kids in Somalia (i.e., send them handfuls of coins or something). Boom. Africa.
At my high school, which wasn’t exactly a beacon of African learning either, is where I met my first African teacher. His name was Morgan Wachukwu, and he was my physics teacher for junior year. My fellow students mistreated him almost every day he was there, and his tenure at my school only lasted a year. The stuff they used to shout at him during the middle of class, as I remember it now, seems like it’s part of a scene in a movie designed to reveal stereotypes. But broken English can do funny things to people, especially for young white students who don’t like funny last names.
My second African teacher is a CSUN professor named Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha, who I took world religions with two years ago. He’s one of the hardest teachers I’ve had at CSUN, but he taught me a lot about tolerance and about learning. His lectures were like sermons. His warm sentiment was balanced with real concern for our contentious world.
He later challenged me to write a long reflection about the education I received as an American student for a book he’s preparing about how modern education perceives Africa. The things I recalled frightened me. Most of all, the challenge made me think.
What had I learned as a student in one of the most advanced nations in the world about one of the most important places on Earth?
Not a hell of a lot.
Were I to still believe everything I was told and showed about Africa up until college, I would think four very inaccurate things about the continent: AIDS and disease define human interaction, civil wars wage on uncontrollably, the concept of God means nothing, and the word “development” has no significance. Africa: what a place.
But these things aren’t the whole story. How could they be? How could a place full of real, living, breathing, loving, dancing, thinking, artistic people produce only that?
AIDS is a serious problem that has real solutions if managed and funded correctly. Civil wars are provoked and have complex solutions that more smart people need to think about. Religion, maybe not necessarily monotheism in every single case, means something to plenty of Africans. And Africa is more than just one big shantytown and tent village community. Real towns and cities exist, and so do real opportunities for more development if the word “debt” isn’t allowed to define the conversation.
A combination of poor U.S. education and Hollywood trying to make a buck created, in my mind, a victimized continent literally destroying itself day after day. Not to say that I had an awakening or anything, but had I not been challenged by my two African teachers to look beyond “Black Hawk Down,” Mogadishu and AIDS, I could have been an even more lost product of a disinterested and far-too-simple U.S. education system.
Who’s to blame? I’m not sure. Educators are often a product of what parents demand, and most middle-of-the-road parents aren’t demanding that their kids learn more about Africa. But eventually, someone needs to put two and two together and realize that modern American politicians think so little of Africa because they were raised to.
Until then, large-scale events like CSUN’s Africa Week are highly beneficial. In one of the best organized weeklong event series that I’ve ever seen at CSUN, organizers have brought the conversation about Africa to a whole new level. Let’s hope it stays there.
When I heard that organizers had invited educators and students from schools from across the nation, regardless of if they come or not, I was further impressed. But let’s hope they do show up, and let’s hope the College of Education sends a few of its classes over to this week’s Africa events. Redefining teacher education can start with Africa.
Ryan Denham can be reached at email@example.com.