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.

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