Over the course of the past few years, Catlin has built and maintained relationships with several countries in Africa, namely Botswana and Senegal. But a lack of education about this diverse collection of 54 nations threatens to degrade these relationships and hinder students’ ability to become true global citizens.
This summer I went on the Botswana trip, during which trip participants did more than just perform community service and go on safari––we learned about the histories of Botswana and South Africa. Before going on the trip, I admit that I knew very little about either country’s history, which leads me to believe that many Catlin students who have not actually been to Africa know just as little as I did.
This revelation occurred to me at the end of our trip while in Johannesburg, South Africa. There we visited the Apartheid Museum, which extensively covered the events and people involved in South Africa’s 46-year government-enforced period of legal racism, discrimination, and violence. As I learned more and more about apartheid, I realized that we never talk about it in school, and that many people I know do not even know what apartheid was or who Nelson Mandela is. To not discuss such a pivotal period of history that had such frightening implications for millions of people seems ludicrous, especially in light of our own country’s struggles with racism. So why is it that we learn so little about African countries’ histories at Catlin Gabel?
No one is entirely at fault here. History teachers can only offer a limited selection of electives and cover a certain amount of material, which does not and cannot realistically cover the entire world, or even all of Africa. As new history teacher Dave Whitson puts it, “It’s a zero-sum game. If we add something new, what do we cut?”
Whitson, who has extensively studied many African countries––especially those engaged in transitional justice––concedes that “people could probably go their whole lives without reading about Africa and be pretty happy,” and he acknowledges that at the high school level, knowledge about Africa may largely have to be obtained through individual pursuit. However, he still makes a case for learning about Africa and its countries’ histories as part of living in an “interconnected world” whose problems can easily spread.
Beyond a dearth of historical knowledge about Africa, though, there is also a lack of both basic and cultural knowledge about African countries at Catlin. On some level, most Catlin students realize that countries in Africa are all different, but how many can differentiate between these countries’ cultures? Instead, it is much easier to think of Africa as a singular culture, and to make generalizations based on stereotypes or on commonly referred to “African” things, such as safaris, poverty, or tribal rituals.
James Furnary, a senior and the president of the CGSA, went on the Senegal trip this past spring, and now has a new perspective on Africa and its numerous cultures. “It bugs me when people say ‘Africans are…’” says Furnary, “because each African country’s culture is distinct in its own way–if you ask someone there to identify themselves, they won’t respond by saying ‘I’m African,’ but rather ‘Senegalese,’ etc.”
Layla Entrikin, a junior who also went on the trip, echoes his sentiments, saying, “It’s almost as though [people] have no concept of the cultural differences between 54 different nations. Senegal is not Botswana, or Ghana, or any other nation…I don’t think that our students always grasp that.”
Furnary also comments that many people cannot locate Senegal on a map, which I have found also applies to Botswana. If I say I went to Botswana this summer, people often stare at me blankly for a minute, finally assume that Botswana is somewhere in Africa, and then automatically apply false stereotypes to the country and ask things like “Could you understand what they were saying?” or “Were you afraid that you were in danger?” Furnary goes on to say, “I think that and other examples of ignorance come from the fact that people don’t feel that it’s relevant to our lives, which is a bummer.”
Perhaps for people outside of Catlin irrelevance can serve as an excuse, but within Catlin, where we have access to an incredible global education program and constant interface with exchange students from all over the world, students should be conversant in basic facts about and cultural differences between African nations. In Botswana, our group saw former Catlin exchange students Mmaserame Gaefele, MK Otlhogile, and Kush Fanikiso, and engaged in a conversation with them about their feelings surrounding the Catlin-Maru-a-Pula relationship. While each of them expressed happiness in the fact that the relationship exists, each of them also told stories of appalling ignorance, even at Catlin, regarding Botswana.
Fanikiso told us about arriving at Catlin and being asked if the shoes on his feet were his first pair. Gaefele told us she had been asked if she rode an elephant to school in Botswana. Otlhogile told us that when she went to Scripps, someone asked how she had gotten from Botswana all the way to California––had she taken a boat? The answer to all of these questions is no. Current senior and Maru-a-Pula exchange student Tapiwa Nkhisang has had similar experiences: “I held a conversation with an adult and he was interested in knowing where I was from. I told him everything and mid-conversation he stopped and asked, ‘How do you speak such good English?’” Though she forgives him for not knowing, one of Botswana’s official languages is English, and many Batswana speak it and understand it. That is the kind of basic knowledge that the Catlin community should have.
The fact that this type of ignorance exists is unsettling, but fixable. The goal of the global education program, according to global education coordinator Spencer White, “is to give our students as many chances as possible to communicate effectively with people across borders, be these borders ethnic, religious, national, cultural, [or] linguistic. Why? Because years from now, working intensely as global communicators will be necessary to face our world’s most pressing issues of energy, water, war, and human migration.” With that important goal in mind, and considering Catlin’s wealth of resources regarding global education, getting to know the cultures of other countries is critical and achievable.
The best way to learn about any country is to visit it, which is not always a realistic option. However, Nkhisang says, “I really [feel] like the step that Catlin took to send students over to Botswana was a first great step [towards an education about Botswana].” She holds a positive view of Catlin’s global education program, and the fact that our school provides opportunities to visit Botswana, Senegal, and other African countries speaks to its investment in our education about different African nations.
However, that is not enough. For anyone who has not been to Africa, the continent should not just be a set of words, facts, and statistics. It is an incredibly diverse continent whose problems, accomplishments, cultures, histories, and people deserve our attention, comprehension, and differentiation. Instead of making assumptions about Botswana or Senegal––or any other African nation, for that matter–– we could be looking to engage in dialogues with people who have had first-hand experience in these countries.
Even without actually visiting African countries, we have the responsibility of educating ourselves about these nations in a classroom. If not, how meaningful can the relationships Catlin has with Botswana, Senegal, and soon Ghana, really be? More importantly, without at least basic knowledge and understanding, how can we actually consider ourselves well-educated citizens of the world?