Africa Is Not a Country


May 24, 2007 by multiracialsky

Africa Is Not a Country

We attended an evening meeting for prospective kindergarten parents last week. I was sitting there, following the 45 minute presentation pretty well, actually thinking to myself–this doesn’t sound that bad. And then came the part about units. The kindergarten program has three units each year including farms, the ocean, and (da-dum!) Africa. I let out a huge sigh, loud enough that my husband turned and raised his eyebrows at me. Africa? I mouthed. He rolled his eyes and shook his head (at the unit or my reaction?) and turned back to the presentation.

In the brief meet-and-greet with the kindergarten teachers following the presentation, I asked my questions. What exactly were the kindergarteners studying during the “Africa” unit? (Mostly animals.) Were they studying a particular area of the continent of Africa, or a specific country? (No.)

Sometimes international students from the college come and talk to the kids, said one teacher. At the end of the unit, we let African American kindergarteners talk to the class about their family’s culture–one child talked about Kwanzaa, added another teacher, beaming at me. I tried to smile. I drifted away.

I looked around the classroom that was just finishing their unit on Africa. There were grey construction paper elephants in a group on one bulletin board. The only photographs from Africa were ten old black and white photographs, blown up to 11×17, marching along one wall above the coat hooks. They were unlabelled photos of people living in rural poverty. The people all had short hair, very little clothing, and were shown (for example) squatting around a stone-encircled fire.

Let me be clear: I do not have a problem with displaying photographs of the indigenous or poor peoples in Africa, however they historically lived or currently live. My main problem is this: these were the only photographs or pictures of people of color in any of the kindergarten classrooms.

As I wrote earlier, this is not a racially or culturally diverse school, nor does it embrace multiculturalism. I had been warned by more than one acquaintance that this school (when it did include anything non-White) consistently exoticized people of color. Example #1: Black people live far away in the rural deserts of Africa with large scary animals. This style of presentation makes Black Americans (and Black children in the class, if there are any) exotic, strange, other.

My secondary problem is that Africa is not a homogeneous region of the world. It is a vast continent made up of 53 nations, more than 1000 languages, and people of all races and an uncountable number of ethnicities. To “study” Africa in kindergarten (in a unit that lasts less than 3 months) seems so broad as to do nothing more than perpetuate stereotypes.

Imagine the kindergarten was instead doing a unit on Europe, an area of the world that includes about 50 countries (depending on who’s counting) as diverse as Ireland, Poland, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Turkey, Croatia, Spain, and Russia. Is it possible to construct a remotely accurate generalization of the daily life of European people (as well as European wildlife)? I don’t think it is.

I pulled a book out of the kids’ shelves to read to them last week, after the parents’ meeting. It is one of my favorites.  Africa Is Not a Country describes and shows the daily life of children in 25 different countries in Africa. The book includes almost no animals, and people of all skin-colors.

We donated a copy to the elementary school library today.


7 thoughts on “Africa Is Not a Country

  1. Kate says:

    Hi! I just found your blog via the Anti-Racist Parent column. I was very interested to read this post, because I just put together a website about Creating an Intercultural Classroom which made many of the same points you make here. I just put the book into my Amazon shopping cart.

    This is all of great interest to me because I am currently getting a teaching degree here in Spain (I’m American, husband Spanish, two kids) and while Spanish society is becoming much more diverse and education professionals are becoming more interested in teaching about diversity in the classroom, a lot of the materials and activities available here are as misguided as the Africa unit you describe. So it’s becoming very important for me, as a future elementary school (English) teacher, to learn more so I can become an effective advocate and also incorporate appropriate activities into my own teaching.

    I’ll be stopping in again to read more!

  2. Patti says:

    As a mom of biological and adopted children( the oldest is 4) and a family made up of African Amercian, Hispanic, Native American , German, Irish, French , Scottish and Dutch background – I am happy to have found your blog via Antiracist Parent. It’s a joyful journey with these little ones and I look forward to reading more aobut yours

  3. Changeseeker says:

    What a wonderful sounding book and how wise of you to put it in the school library. I teach Race Relations in college and it never fails to astound me how little my students (both Black and White) know about the people, the history, and the variegated reality of Africa. My opening statement about the subject is always: “Africa is NOT a country, you know. It’s a continent!” And they invariably look back at me like it’s new news. Sigh.

  4. Sabrina says:

    Great Post! I love it! I truly can’t believe ignorant people think Africa is a country. *Cough* Sarah Palin* Cough. Africa has peoples of many cultures, countries, languages, and phenotypes. Protryaing Africa as a one country that has no culture, no economic-political stature, and no acient civilizations is disrespectful to all African descended peoples. COULD YOU IMAGINE THE OUTRAGE IF WE DID THE SAME TO EUROPE???

  5. pancho says:

    wow, great post. My grandkids have multiple heritage (African American and Latino). They have to correct errors about both sides of their dquation. By the way, should we say “mixed race”?

  6. Sara says:

    I am so glad that I stumbled upon this blog post. I am a kindergarten teacher who wants to learn about and teach about Africa. I want to make sure that I am making the lessons meaningful and without stereotypes. I want to teach about the broad and diverse cultures within Africa. It is easy to just teach about animals when it comes to Africa because children are naturally drawn to them, but I want to delve deeper into what makes Africa so special. Thanks for your thoughts. Very important.

  7. Ashlee says:

    Hello! I find it ironic that you wrote on this topic because I was feeling the same way when I began teaching! I was next to a class that only displayed drawings of white children and never seemed to represent children of other races. In fact, in a play she tried to make an African American child the “rapper!” I was horrified!

    Anyway, at the school I teach at, they have a program called Core Knowledge. We discuss the 7 continents throughout the year and focus on countries in each. We are currently working on Africa. We have talked about the different animals that live on the continent and its rain forests; however, for some teachers it stops there. I have taught my students about Ghana, traditional Kenyan art, we’ve talked about some of different languages spoken in the different countries, and I plan to teach them about African influences in architecture and art that is found daily in the United States (I took an awesome class in college and I think it is fascinating and shows the students that African ties are seen in our “American” culture all the time!)

    I also make sure I have a variety of books that represent many different cultures and backgrounds as well as pictures that depict and represent all of my students!

    I do not think this is something AMAZING. I think it is the DUTY of every teacher in every classroom. We cannot expect our children to have healthy self-esteems or a positive view and tolerance of the world if we do not take the time to teach them properly! It gripes me every time I walk into that woman’s classroom. She seems to think it is not a big deal. Sigh, if she only knew….

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© 2007-2014 All rights reserved by Natasha Sky. Posts, essays, photographs, and art may not be republished, reprinted, or repurposed without permission.
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