Teach Africa Launches SoCal K-12 Program at UCLA

Teach Africa advocates more and better teaching about the continent in the schools. The launch event brought distinguished guests to UCLA along with high-schoolers and teachers back from a Ugandan trip.

Teach Africa Launches SoCal K-12 Program at UCLA

Senegalese musicians performed during a reception at the June 27 event. (Photo by Margaretta Soehendro)

By Margaretta Soehendro, Staff Writer

In a finished school assignment, Kenya had been reduced to a country of safari animals.

OVER 200 PEOPLE gathered at UCLA on June 27, 2008, to celebrate the Southern California launch of Teach Africa, a program that strives to improve instruction on Africa in K–12 classrooms. The Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa has introduced the program in U.S. cities including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Houston, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Ore. In Southern California it is partnering with the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at UCLA, The Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has provided funding.

Guest speakers at the event shared stories about how the African continent became important to them and why the Teach Africa program was valuable. Dean Claudia Mitchell-Kernan of the UCLA Graduate Division opened the evening program. She was followed by Andrew Apter, Director of the UCLA African Studies Center; Bernadette B. Paolo of The Africa Society; actor Michael Nouri; Assemblyman Mervyn M. Dymally of California's 52nd district; Noelle LuSane, a staffer on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health; Gail Ifshin of the Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership; Sarah Moten of USAID Africa Bureau; Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a Kenyan novelist and professor at UC-Irvine; and His Excellency Amadou Ba, the Sengalese ambassador to the United States.

Ngugi, the Kenyan writer, said Teach Africa "could not be more timely or needed for Africa, America, the world."

"The images of Africa that continue to dominate can stand in the way of understanding the continent," said Ngugi. "Distortions of Africa begin with books and in the classroom."

He shared an anecdote about an American student who interviewed him for an elementary school project on Kenya, his birth country. He told the student about the contrasts of Kenya—modern high-rises and shanties, contemporary and traditional dress, cities and safaris—but when he saw the final A-graded paper, Kenya had been reduced to a country of safari animals. Ngugi called for a curriculum showing a complex Africa that is not merely an "esoteric experience" and that is also greater than its place in world politics.

Andrew Apter poses with Asya Aleem and Justin Ogunji

African Studies Center Director Andrew Apter (center) poses with Asya Aleem and Justin Ogunji, high school seniors who went to Uganda as part of Teach Africa's local roll-out.

Paolo, the president and CEO of The Africa Society, said Teach Africa aims to "shatter stereotypical images perpetuated in part by the media." She said most Americans do not know there are 54 countries on the continent and that they associate the word with poverty, AIDS, and war.

The Teach Africa program addresses the lack of Africa education in American curricula by providing both young people and their educators with a better understanding of Africa and its role in the global community. According to event organizers, the program also seeks to make American students more aware of the cultures, mores, and histories of African peoples, a set of concerns that gets scant attention.

The Teach Africa initiative rolls out in three phases, each involving events organized by the African Studies Center. The first phase introduces the program to superintendents, principals, and other educators, along with interested people in Southern California. The second phase provides training workshops for K–12 teachers on Africa-related instruction and materials. The third phase targets students through large youth forums meant to stimulate interest about Africa.

Before the launch, three educators and three students were selected for the Teach Africa Exchange program in Uganda. While in Uganda they met with their counterparts and talked about issues ranging from education to health care to sports and politics over a four-day period. Their dialogue was filmed by the Discovery Channel and will be developed into a one-hour documentary and a shorter web video. Four of the six exchange participants attended the event at UCLA. Asya Aleem, who will be a senior in the fall at Riverside Polytechnic High School, said she was able to observe first-hand cultural differences that she had read about before leaving. She said the trip has made her want to see other parts of Africa in the future.

Justin Ogunji, who will be a senior in the fall at Flintridge Prep School, said the trip allowed him to see development and progress in Africa. He said he will study business in college and think more about ways to contribute to Africa's growth.

"The youth represent the future and this is when they form their thinking, seeing the world…," Ambassador Ba said. "We need globalization with a human face."