There are two great moments in a person’s life: the day one is born and the day one discovers his or her identity. These great moments are realizable not by individuals alone, but also through the care and nurture of others. It is in the nature of a person to seek self-discovery. When self-identification is attained, that individual never remains the same.
Educators facilitate this self-discovery in both unique and varying ways, particularly through the presentation and representation of reality to their students, but not without some difficulties, as they are dealing with the core of the person. Educators assist their students to come to a better understanding of themselves in relation to everyday reality so that they will in turn positively impact the future of their world.
I was fortunate teaching “African World: Introduction to Contemporary Africa,” in the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. (where the student body is largely of African descent), fortunate because I was involved in assisting my students to work out and rework their African identity while examining the place of Africa in the contemporary global world.
Having lived my entire life in Nigeria and having travelled extensively within and outside of Africa, I saw myself a primary source of information for my students whose knowledge of the continent has been limited and shaped largely by misinformed individuals and media misrepresentations. I saw my teaching role as a building of self-concepts and shaping of dreams for my students, whose families and neighbors constantly told them that their success was limited because of their African heritage: They want to learn about this Africa, which their families seem too afraid or too ashamed to talk about. I saw myself as a provider of context to students who hold that Africa is a land of chaos, poverty, disease and war, and as a caring adult to these young Africans in diaspora who argue that their ancestors were enslaved by other Africans, just as colonizers did to Africans in their own land.
Teaching students who I feel are genuinely seeking to understand their African heritage was very challenging as well as rewarding to me – challenging and even at times frustrating for three main reasons: Staying objective and maintaining core truths about the continent, especially being from that continent myself; connecting with students who in one way or another believed that my ancestors (Africans from the continent) sold into slavery their own ancestors; and influencing students’ biases about Africa and dealing with negative emotional events here in the U.S. and in Africa, such as white police brutality against black males, the outrage and exaggerations that accompanied the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Most of my students consider these incidents an aberration and a violation of the humanity of the people of Africa and of African descent. These events in many ways limited my students’ capacity to fully engage in the process of reframing Africa, of understanding that Africans on the continent and in diaspora are not a burden on the world community and of evaluating and grasping that the black race is not a hopeless race. These situations hindered effective communication to my students of the great potential and resources of Africa and the hope the black race holds for our contemporary global world. Initially, they made most of my students less interested or less enthusiastic about engaging in the process of self discovery and acceptance of their African heritage.
Assisting my students to look objectively at African issues and helping them reframe Africa from an African perspective became even harder with some whose families constantly told them that the future of the African people is hopeless: If Africans survive poverty, hunger, diseases and wars (situations commonly projected about continental Africa), they die of police brutality (as in the U.S.). Assisting students who are living through such situations – students confronted daily with incidents that deeply affect their perception of self, their origin, their heritage and their world at large – is indeed challenging and frustrating.
Despite these difficulties, my conviction remains that individuals must be provided with the truth about their life circumstances, that my students are entitled to know the truth about their place of origin and about the heritage they possess. I believe that, unless my students are excited about who they are and what they have, they will be less likely to impact positively the future of Africa’s world as well as that of the global community. The above convictions helped me overcome the difficulties and challenges of teaching about Africa, as well as to stay objective in seeking the core of African issues and the truth about the continent. Through honest conversations and dialogues within and outside the classroom, through individual and group research projects and class presentations, by engaging contemporary issues from an African perspective, I encouraged my students to see beyond the present conditions of the black race, to discover the truth about Africans and African issues by themselves, to define themselves and their ancestral heritage, and to communicate this definition in ways that lift up Africa and its people scattered all over the world, recognizing and respecting the great potential and resources Africa holds for our contemporary world.
Students’ responses, expressions and articulation of self-realization at the end of each semester gave me incredible joy and great hope for a change in the future of Africa’s dialogue. These rewarding statements evidenced that my students have, to some extent, overcome their biases and are ready to engage African issues with open minds. Rewarding, because as my students gained new insights into these issues, they became interested in learning more about their African heritage and in establishing deeper connections with the continent at large, declaring their intention to give back to the black race.
Here, anonymously, are a few evaluations made by students, typical of almost all I received at the end of each semester:
- “This class has helped me to grow to be proud of my rich and amazing history. Before this class, I would look in the mirror every day but see nothing about myself, nothing but black color. Now, I have learned to have more pride in being called a person of African descent.”
- “Before this class I only knew about Africa as a continent ravaged by war, disease and poverty. These did not make me proud about who I am. This class helped me see the great resources of Africa, and how several of its problems are tied to its colonial history.”
- “I discovered that my Caribbean culture and traditions have very similar values to those of Africa. I have better grasp of my Caribbean culture as rooted in Africa’s culture of ‘I am because you are.’ This way of thinking gives me a sense of unity with other Africans. I truly believe that I am because Africa is!”
- “This course helped me recognize my biases and misconceptions about Africa and black people. I realized that I was ignorant and did not make an effort to understand Africa; I had absorbed many of the ways Africa’s colonizers interpreted Africa.”
- “More than anything, this class has taught me that the key to accepting my African identity lies in myself – to study about Africa with an open mind.”
- “As a student from West India with ancestors from Africa, I distanced myself from Africa, but with this class, I found myself growing closer to Africa. I feel I am more of an African than I will ever be an American.”
- “Now I understand that Africa may be less developed than the West, but Africans too are working towards better and more useful tools to organize their societies and communities. I have an immense pride for the continent and I want to connect more deeply in the future with my ancestral home.”
- “Though I like the African values learned at home, I never saw Africa as a physically welcoming place, but now I have accepted my home continent, not just because of its values, but because I have a role to play in the enhancement of the quality of life of the people.”
The heartwarming statements from my students indicate to me that developing a healthy self-identity, especially for Africans in diaspora, though a difficult task, is doable when educators present the truth about Africa to their students, encouraging them to investigate it and commit to standing by what they learn. With honest educators, this task of self-actualization, seemingly impossible to complete, especially in a world where the truth about Africa is often distorted, becomes indeed possible. I am hopeful that the future of Africa and the dialogue about its place in the contemporary world are in the hands of young Africans and Africans in diaspora; therefore, efforts must be made to engage them in an objective reflection on African issues.
[Eucharia Madueke is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur completing doctoral studies in Development and Public Policy in the department of African Studies at Howard University, Washington D.C. A Nigerian and a social worker, she is happy to introduce us the intricacies of Nigerian Family relationships to a wider audience.]