By Andrea Arrington
As a professor of African history, one of the first things I do with my classes is assess what they know—or think they know—about Africa. We discuss images in mainstream Western media and pop culture and identify problems in those presentations of Africa and Africans. We spend the rest of the semester trying to replace those often misleading, inaccurate, and derisive portrayals with evidence-based knowledge. We use focused case studies to give students a more realistic and rich understanding about the breadth and diversity of Africa and among Africans.
In addition to being a professor, I am the mother of Charlotte, a four-year-old, and Cooper, a two-year-old. Last fall, invited to volunteer-teach in my daughter’s classroom, I suddenly needed to figure out how to take my knowledge and turn it into something accessible for preschoolers. I was hoping to use story and activity to introduce Africa in an age-appropriate way that is counter to the images of war, disease, and poverty that have clouded my college students’ vision of Africa.
I quickly discovered that while numerous books about or set in Africa cater to preschoolers, much to my dismay, many of these books focus on animals. As someone who grew up loving Disney’s The Lion King, I understand the appeal of books with cheerfully drawn animals. However, it is frustrating that when I ask college students what they think of when they hear the word “Africa,” many of the positive attributes they share are related to animals and landscape, for example, “safari,” “Serengeti,” and “lions.” When we share this type of content with young children, we build and reinforce the notion of a whole continent whose positive aspects are found solely in its landscape and wildlife, and where the humans are less notable than the animals. I decided to bring the preschool children stories and activities that would teach something about African cultures, languages, aesthetics, values, music, or dance.
I identified several picture books that are great for introducing Africa to preschoolers. Stories I shared were set in various cultures and countries, with snapshots of daily life shown in pictures and through the text. For example, in Mama Panya’s Pancakes, a young child in a Kenyan village invites many members of the community to come over for pancakes despite the mother's worry that there will not be enough food for them all. The story shows a rural home. The children learn about the marketplace as a center for socializing and shopping. The moral of the story is a lovely one: The child invites guests who bring their own contributions to the meal, much to the relief of Mama Panya. Charlotte’s classmates took from the book the importance of community and of being good guests. The friendly, generous characters serve as quite a contrast to some images of Africans my college students have shared.
I also sought ways to integrate African content with the regular classroom play-based curriculum and hands-on learning style. Charlotte’s teacher already used different activities to familiarize students with letters. I brought alphabet books in which the letters each introduce young children to different elements of African life and culture. Students got to shout out what letters they saw and then talked about the text I read to them and the drawings they saw. When the teacher led a module about trees, I brought in a wonderful book about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan scientist and environmental activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her fight against deforestation in her community, which spurred the Greenbelt Movement all over Africa. Our art project that week was to make a classroom community tree. I used the story’s message about Maathai’s emphasis on community. I brought in a large, bare poster board tree trunk and dozens of cut-out leaves, and the students got to paint and glitter the leaves. Then we glued the leaves onto our tree, which their teacher hung on the wall for several weeks. I also engaged students from my university to come to the preschool class with me. One of the highlights of the semester was when a Ghanaian college student taught the kids how to play an African drum.
You do not need to be an expert in African Studies to find ways to present positive, humanistic, and realistic material to young students. Many of the books I used emphasized community, family, and other African values. Each week, a book served as inspiration for an art activity that blended African content with topics the class was already working on and allowed the children the chance to craft.
Heritage Box, a company owned by an African (Zimbabwe-born) and African American couple, offers subscriptions so families can explore each month a new, hands-on kit introducing an aspect of African American or African history and culture.
Share these engaging books about African life with young children:
- A is for Africa, Chidi Only Likes Blue: An African Book of Colors, and Emeka's Gift (a counting book), all by Ifeoma Onyefulu, a Nigerian author
- I Lost my Tooth in Africa by Baba Wagué Diakité, a Mali-born author
- Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book by Muriel Feelings
- Mama Panya’s Pancakes by Mary Chamberlin
- Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales by Nelson Mandela, the late President of South Africa
- Off to the Sweet Shores of Africa by Uzo Unobagha, a Nigerian-born author
- Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter
About the Blogger
Andrea Arrington earned her Ph.D. in African History at Emory University and is an Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Indiana State University. She lived and conducted research extensively throughout West Africa and Southern Africa and has taken students to Ghana for study abroad. Dr. Arrington is the co-author of Africanizing Democracies: 1880-Present (Oxford University Press) and the author of Victoria Falls and Colonial Imagination in British Southern Africa: Turning Water into Gold (forthcoming, Palgrave MacMillan Press). She serves as the Membership Secretary of the African Studies Association’s Women’s Caucus and is active in the Zambezi African Studies Association.