Video

TED Talk: How Africa Can Use Its Traditional Knowledge to Make Progress

Imagine that this is your life: you live in a rural area of America, where there’s not a lot of upward mobility available to you unless you are educated, and the only schools available to you are private schools. Despite the fact that your family doesn’t have a lot of money, they manage to save enough to send you to preschool, in the hopes that you’ll get a head start in your education, so that you can get good enough grades to go to a better high school and then hopefully get into college. You go to preschool, and then kindergarten, and you sing songs about the days of the week, colors, the alphabet. But here’s the catch: it’s all in Chinese. You have no idea what you’re singing about; you’re just memorizing the sounds.

When you start elementary school, it’s more of the same. You are drawn shapes and learn that they are called 之字形, 圈, and 三角形. You’re taught about the color 红色 and chastised for not using First Tone correctly, but you’re not sure what First Tone is because you don’t start taking foreign languages until middle school. In middle school, you start taking your MSAs, which are very important. In home economics class you learn how to use a rice cooker, but you don’t know anyone around who actually uses a rice cooker (you also learn the symbolism of Han Paper art in Home Ec, which you will be tested on). English is often skipped over, as your teachers believe that your accent is stupid, and that focusing on English would limit you in applying for international jobs in the future. In spite of that, the foreign language credits you learn often take the form of learning basic greetings in Chinese and there isn’t any reading material in Chinese for you to practice.

When you start high school in 9th grade, you are illiterate, both in English and in Chinese. And you will be told that it’s your fault. Because how could you not take you studies seriously? Why didn’t your parents help you practice your Mandarin calligraphy? Your teachers will say, “kids in this podunk town! They just don’t care about helping themselves. Once I finish my contract I’m getting a better job in suburbs.”

Sounds awful, right? Well, for many children in rural Zambia, this is how school is. The notion that “Western” equals “good/modern/sophisticated”  and “Zambian” equals “bad/backwards/stupid” is so pervasive that it permeates almost every level of the education system. It’s a mentality that was implied in my training, and is reinforced in my mere presence here (something I’ve been trying to subvert as much as possible). And, underneath that initial mentality is one that I find much more disturbing: that “good/modern/sophisticated” equals “whiteness,” and “bad/backwards/stupid” equals “blackness.”

The crazy thing? It’s not true! Before rural Zambians started using the inefficient, cheaply-made plastic jerrcans to carry water, they used these beautifully made clay pots in a method that actually created a refrigeration effect (they also did this with gourds. How freaking cool is that????)! I was an environmental studies major and worked as a nature educator before this, and I still struggle identifying local plant types, but you ask any person in my village about any indigenous plant and they will spout off the name and it’s uses. This includes grasses, people, the thing that professional botanists struggle to identify. So, let’s start celebrating people’s diversity, and their different forms of intelligence and expertise! Please?

 

P.S. There are some wonderful educators in this country, and I’m not trying to detract from that. I’m merely trying to point out there are significant systemic issues stemming from this.

Highlight Reel: June 2018

Cute and flirty: I’ve started watching movies with my host family sometimes, which in and of itself has been pretty cute. I’m trying to avoid any movies that glorify gun violence, but I guess sword violence is somehow ok because the first movie we watched was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We’ve also watched Black Panther, A Bug’s Life, Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the first 30 seconds of The Lion King before I was asked to put something else on, and… Moana. Oh my gosh Moana. I had seen Moana before (I arrived in NWP right as it took the volunteer community by storm), but I hadn’t appreciated it until I watched it with my host family. In Moana, people have thatched roofs, they wear the equivalent of chitenge, they play the drums, they fish, they have darker skin tones and broad noses, and at no point in the movie is that ever looked down upon. It’s celebrated, and their culture is celebrated. Future and Ketty were literally dancing for the whole movie, and even the family members who don’t speak English told me “that was a really nice story” when we were done. It’s easily one of my favorite movies now.

Something I learned from my community: Mario (my host brother) taught me how to make bricks! It was actually pretty easy, theoretically. You dig next to a termite mound, because termites love building mounds out of pure clay, then you dump a ton of water on it until it’s mid, then you plop the mud into a mould and let it sundry. Easy, right? No. Mario works really fast and I was messing up the water-to-clay ratio on the bricks, so they were either too dry/sticky and would break off or too wet and would turn into a blob. I then tried to be the one digging/carrying the clay, but I kept slipping in the mud. Mario was super patient, but I think we were both read for me to knock off after about an hour and a half of that.

Something my community learned from me: Ok so I actually did do real work in June, but none of that is as weird and concerning cool as my doll project! It all started with me wanting to teach the girls how to make corn husk dolls for themselves, since boys often make toy cars but I don’t see girls with very many toys. So, I had the kids collect maize husks (hard to do in a community where we don’t actually grow that much maize) in exchange for sweeties. Then I invited all the girls in my village over and we made the dolls! It was super cute. Then things spiraled a bit out of control. I’d been hoarding all of this cardboard because, when you’re forced to confront how much trash you create on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis, you try to up-cycle more. But the thing was that I hadn’t actually done anything with the cardboard. Sooooo whenever I’m bored I sit in my house, listen to podcasts, and make paper dolls. I’m eventually gonna give the paper dolls away to the kids, I swear!

Shower insights: What’s my go-to shower song right now? “Screwed” by Janelle Monet feat. Zoë Kravitz. It’s dope.

Hero of the Month: Jacqs, for being my bud and making me food when I’m frustrated and having goofy/nerdy conversation with me!

Villain of the Month: My body, for giving up on me and making me double-dragon for the second time in my service.