One of the questions I have been asked by school children recently is ‘Do you speak African?’ – and I have been asked it by every group I have spoken to. A reflection of the lack of knowledge in the west about this vast and beautiful continent. I understand why the children ask the question – they have not been exposed to anything other than the notion of Africa as one entity. More than that, they learn of it through images of starving children, lines of refugees snaking along dusty roads, missionary boxes collecting for the missionaries in Africa. A lesser place, a lesser people.
In saying this, there is nothing wrong with inculcating in children a sense that it is good to give, it is good to share – and that despite problems here in their own lives there are people elsewhere suffering much greater deprivation. My argument would be that they need to learn more than that. One of my own children at school in Ireland said to her teacher, who was talking about poverty in Africa, ‘there is much more than that in Africa, could we sometimes speak about the other things.’ She is right.
However, I love getting the question ‘Do you speak African?’ because it opens the door to looking at Africa in all its diversity. After the first time I gave a reading to children I then took a map of Africa with me. Because my book is set in Zambia I can point them to Zambia where over seventy languages are spoken – then up to Nigeria where 250 languages are spoken, making it probably the most linguistically diverse country in the world. South Africa now has eleven official languages, although there would be sub groups and languages not included in this that are found in various parts of the country. A Pan South African Language Board was created to, among other things, promote and ensure respect for other languages apart from the official ones including languages like Greek, Gujerati, Tamil, Urdu, Portuguese etc.
In most countries in Africa today everyone speaks and understands more than one language.
What saddens me about children in Ireland and elsewhere not learning much about the continent is that it is such a fascinating place and so different to where they live that in fact they would learn about it willingly. Children, in my experience, are sponges for learning. They want to know, and are intrigued by the geography, the culture and fauna and flora of places they have never been to. While it is important to know where you come from and to study it in school it is also important to know elsewhere. Africa should not remain the dark and hidden continent.
I think that one of the things that will change this is the number of people from different parts of Africa who are now living in Ireland. People who will share their culture, marry Irish people, work in the community, go to school here and integrate into this society. They will bring a little part of their own country to this one and, like with all immigrants, they will enrich Ireland.
The curriculum in Primary Schools in Ireland lends itself to looking at other countries through project work, and in the teaching notes I have drawn up on The Butterfly Heart I hope I have shown ways of integrating Zambia into this and contrasting e.g. the Bengwelu Swamp with wetlands found in Ireland, or the trees of Zambia with the trees of Ireland etc.
May 25th which commemorates the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African UNion – AU) Day, is an opportunity for schools to pay attention to this continent, but should not be the only day on which this happens. On that day I have been invited to Tallaght Library as part of their Africa Day celebrations. It, like many libraries round Ireland, does so much more than lend books. It is, in my view, a community centre of learrning and fun. I am looking forward to going there and meeting the children of the area. If, in writing this book, I am able to share with children a sense that in different parts of the world children are children, they live their lives, they have adventures, make friends, argue with their parents and experience sadness as well as happiness, then I will be happy. To be able to share differences as well as similarities.
When I spoke a couple of weeks ago to children in Castlecomer, they asked me to teach them a greeting from one country in Africa. As Swahili is such a phonetic language we did that – and when they left they all said goodbye to me in Swahili. It was good to hear.
Goodbye, Blessings and Best of luck!