What Do We Want Children to Learn About Africa?

By Margy Burns Knight

Not long ago I saw a new map of Africa in a classroom. I was intrigued to see, with all the recent information available, how the continent was currently being depicted. I was disturbed to discover that one of the nine facts listed along the border of the map included a declaration that in many African cultures people eat bugs. The question here is not to ask whether or not bugs are actually eaten anywhere in Africa, but, if there are only nine facts presented about the entire continent of Africa in a map for a U.S. audience, why include bugs at all? American children need to be able to make connections to their own stories and lives to help them understand others.  The only connection they can make to eating bugs is that it is gross! Why not relate facts that children can relate such as millions of trees planted by Kenyan Wangari Matthai who the started the Greenbelt Movement. To illustrate my point, I use the following lists when I present workshops.

Facts about the African Continent

List A
  1. The world’s fastest land animals, cheetahs run nearly 70 mph (113km).
  2.  Chameleons live on Madagascar and so do other species that exist nowhere else on earth.
  3.  People of many African cultures eat bugs.
  4.   Bananas are a staple food grown throughout Africa.
  5.  Coffee, a plant native to Africa, grows best in moderate sun and rain.
List B
  1. Kenyan Wangari Matthai was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her environmental work in 2004.
  2.  African is the only continent with land in all four hemispheres and it is as long as it is wide.
  3.  South Africa will host the World Cup in 2010
  4. Great Zimbabwe is one of the 46 World heritage sites on the  African continent.
  5.  The colors of Ethiopia’s flag are red, green and yellow. Because Ethiopia was the only country on the African continent that was not colonized these colors were chosen by many other countries for their flags when they began to declare independence in the late 1950’s.

I read each list aloud and ask the teachers in my workshops to think about the responses that they would be eliciting from students with the information on these lists.  Their comments about each list demonstrate the range of my concerns.

  • list A is more like a text book, just facts about science type stuff
  • list B seems to be more about people
  • list A was written in the 50’s
  • list B is more interesting and respectful.
  • list A seems to be only about geography and animals
  • list B is about humanity

Then I reveal the sources. List A comes from a 2006 National Geographic map. (My Wonderful World) and list B basically comes from my book, Africa is Not A Country.

Several teachers have thanked me for bringing this to their attention. I express to  them that as a writer of informational books it is my responsibility to give young readers a culturally respectful picture of the world beyond their own neighborhoods and encourage them to make connections to their own lives. During the rest of my workshop I show teachers several ways to teach children about the African continent. One example is asking young children to examine with me the cover of my book, Africa Is Not a Country. The illustration on the cover of the book, by Anne Sibley O’Brien, accurately represents the many faces of children who live on the African continent.  We count the children and talk about numbers (e.g. how many children are in their classroom? and can anyone count in more than one language?) I ask the children about the clothes they see on the cover. Do they wear any clothes like the ones they see on the cover? These observations naturally flow into the discussion of difference, such as why some people wear uniforms and others head scarves.

The goal of this activity is for young children to compare their own clothes with the clothes they see on the cover and to begin to understand and appreciate human diversity beyond simply labeling others as “different.” They see tall and short children, children wearing glasses and children with white, brown and black skin and a variety of hair styles. Some of these children may be just like them.  I remember one student who jubilantly shouted, “I have a baby sister too!”  As children use their base of knowledge to explore and observe the world around them they are making connections.

As we teach children about the big wide world we must be mindful about the knowledge and information we share with them. The images and stories children see and hear form their base of reality. The pictures and words in books, movies, games and on maps help or hinder children in building a foundation of appreciation and respect for humanity in all its diversity.


Edited by Kyle Knight, Anne Sibley O’Brien, Cathy Wilmette, Cathie Murray, Don Bouchard, Karen Richards Toothaker, Kathy Gillis Soltan, Ryan Bradeen, and Souleymane Fall.

Find a carefully selected list of children’s books that challenge stereotypes about Africa, here.

Posted Friday, February 21, 2014 |

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