Posts Tagged Nairobi

The Problem with Teaching Children about Africa

I want you to use your imagination and conjure up a picture in your mind for me.

By 2050 there may well be 9 billion people on the planet. The climate may well have warmed making crops harder to grow. And children will go hungry. Very hungry. The poorest of them first. I want you to imagine that poor, hungry child. But not because this is a rant about environmentalism or a counter rant denying global warming. I’m just interested in what you thought the child looked like. Where they were.

Was it “Africa”? Dark skinned, rural, tribal? A mud hut in the background?  It was for me the first time I read the nine billion people stat and yet nowhere did the article mention Africa. It was just the first thing I imagined.

Will global warming be kinder to poor children in India’s untouchable castes? The Phillipines typhoon belt? Central American former warzones? Rural Laos? I doubt it.

Yet the reason I even reconsidered the image in my head, thought about it more, made all twenty of you do a bit of imagining, was a question from the Boy.

“Why don’t they have any electricity in Africa?”

Luckily he asked my wife who started giving a simple answer in six year old terms about relative poverty and not having power stations. And probably some other stuff. By this point I’d tuned out and my brain was doing the sorts of somersaults that usually result in my having to leave somewhere hastily having completely insulted the wrong person. What I wanted to say was “of course they’ve got fucking electricity in Africa”. Only without the expletive.

I often think we identify with the victims of an atrocity if they are like us or close by geographically. That’s not to say we don’t empathise with other victims. Merely that if we can imagine what someone was doing at the time of a terrorist incident it becomes more real to us. The terrible events in Nairobi were shocking because people were randomly killed, men, women, children and foetuses. But as stories and pictures emerged they were not of a Nairobi many had considered. This was no crime and hunger ridden shanty town. Here were TV presenters and poets, people shopping for a special gift for a loved one. A children’s cooking event was going on. It seemed far closer to home as each report hit. The place must have had electricity.

The same goes for the hotel in Cape Town that Anni Dewani left on the fateful night of her death. Or the tourist information offices in Egypt that service the divers of Sharm-El-Sheikh and the pyramid junkies. Or the Souks in Morocco or the bank and IT offices in Namibia or my mum’s favourite restaurant in Senegal.

I’ve chosen these places because they are so different. Or at least I assume they are. I haven’t been. Friends and family have and I’ve read about them and seen documentaries and travel programmes but I’ve not been. Perhaps when it comes down to it they are all exactly the same but somehow I doubt it. Africa is a continent full of VERY DIFFERENT countries damn it. And yet, from the school room to the all night fundraiser we lump them all together as one entity. Poor Africa. No electricity you know.

Wikipedia says there are over 2100 languages in Africa or at least it does today. That’s the first result that comes back when you type in ‘how many languages are there’ in to Google. Google completes the search for you to ‘how many languages are there in Africa’? No one is that bothered about how many there are in Asia or Europe. Even in wanting to know about the diversity of a continent we are lumping it all together in one giant google.

Of course this is too complicated to explain to a six year old. But not even challenging the question? Isn’t that wrong? Where has he got this from? He didn’t ask IF they had electricity. He asked WHY the whole continent didn’t. He already “knows” they don’t. Who told him? One of his friends? The teacher? Is this why people home ed? Will my brain PLEASE stop doing somersaults?

In the end I managed to add to OHs explanations of relative poverty and power supplies by saying that not all Africans had no electricity and indeed that some Africans were actually quite well off while others lived in cities a bit like us and him. Yet there were certainly people there who were terribly poor. I’m not sure it helped.

On a macro level, surely understanding the world’s diversity and culture in full can only help prevent other atrocities and can only help deal with inevitable floods and famines in the best possible way for the specific people involved, rather than treating them as one giant, homogonous super country. On a micro level I have been wholly inadequate in explaining this to an impressionable six year old mind. Just admitting I tried seems arrogant.

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