Learning about Africa Up Close and Personal
“He who learns, teaches.” Ethiopian proverb
There is a strong argument that those who wish to understand and to teach about the cultures of the world should have a study abroad experience. What you learn in a book has its limits. This is particularly true for Americans when it comes to the need to understand and appreciate the history and culture of Africa. For centuries we have been so filled with misinformation, half truths, and false images about that continent that it is extremely difficult to bring a sense of reality and clarity of vision to those we teach. The pre-conceived images that many of us have are not confined to those of us with a limited educational background but are common to many educators, especially those with no experience in Africa. One approach to rectify this problem is to engage in a well-thought out, organized educational experience in Africa. When teaching about Africa, one must often confront the student's misconceptions, and that challenge is more successfully achieved when the teacher can say, "I have been there. I have seen for myself." Classroom experience, coupled with the personal, visual, audio and intellectual familiarity of "being there" and "seeing it for yourself," provides the best opportunity of producing educators who are well-equipped to give our students and the general public the information, the insight and the empathy to understand and evaluate the past, the present and the future of Africa. No longer will the people have to rely on the Safari images of television, the sensational negativism of the press or the ignorance accepted by the adult population. The goal of the Mano River/Lowcountry Project was to learn about Africa through an interdisciplinary program, including study abroad.
This project grew out of an earlier NEH grant project, "Lasting Vestiges of West African Culture in the South Carolina Lowcountry." As the project was coming to a conclusion, Tim Brown, project director and TTC dean of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, challenged us to "keep this search for the knowledge of the Gullah connections going." The result was the Mano River Fulbright-Hays GPA, a project created to take what was learned, drawing from a diverse group of educators, and travel to the West African location culturally connected to the Lowcountry. Thirteen people studied for months and undertook the journey that one participant described as "priceless." This project sought to combine the use of educational materials from several different academic disciplines, as well as firsthand experience in Sierra Leone and Guinea, to produce a more informed body of teachers. Through workshops and five weeks of travel, these educators have revised curricula and integrated this comprehensive educational experience into lessons, presentations and short articles to aid student learning.
The Mano River Fulbright-Hays GPA initiative provided the participants with a unique learning experience about Africa. It came during unusual circumstances in the region and the world. The personal and professional relationships that developed between the people of both continents further facilitated our understanding of one another, each other’s countries and our cultures. As part of our efforts to share that experience, the participants contributed comments from their journals and photographs that document the project and trip.
Donald West, project director, Mano River Fulbright-Hays GPA