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One of the best parts of teaching is when we learn from our students themselves, and for the teachers of the Year 11 English International Baccalaureate MYP course, “Things Fall Apart”: A Post-Colonial Perspective, this is one of our unit highlights. In the culminating assignment, the students are empowered as journalists for the media publication of their choice, tasked with writing an uplifting or inspiring profile on a person from the African continent, and thereby contributing to the “balance of stories” hoped for by the award-winning Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe. From skiing Africa’s answer to the Alps, to an illuminating account of the “Rainbow Nation” South Africa’s progressive stance on LGBQT+ rights, we are given a rich tapestry of stories from countries throughout the continent, and our own perspectives are broadened alongside our students.

Read on to discover more…

Year 11 International School of Lausanne student, Suvarn, began his analytical essay on Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, with a quotation by the Booker Prize Award winning author that Suvarn had sought out himself: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Literature students are taught to only use a quotation to introduce an essay if the quotation’s implications on the thesis statement are both relevant and contextualised – for this essay, Suvarn could not have found a more fitting image to highlight the concept at the heart of the unit: the power and responsibility of the storyteller in shaping our perspectives.

The first extended written response to an International Baccalaureate MYP English Language and Literature unit entitled “Things Fall Apart: A Post-Colonial Perspective”, in the essay, the students analysed how Achebe’s presentation of the novel’s protagonist, Okonkwo, and the Igbo culture that “falls apart” (an allusion to W.B.Yeats’ modernist poem, The Second Coming) with the arrival of Christian colonialists in Nigeria, contrasts with the perspective depicted of the colonialist “District Commissioner” himself in the novel’s closing passage.

By this point in the unit, the Year 11s have been given a foundational understanding of the purpose of post-colonial literature, which is perhaps most eloquently expressed by Achebe in his collection of essays, Home and Exile, as the “process of ‘re-storying’ peoples who had been knocked silent by all kinds of dispossession”, a process that Achebe hoped would continue, eventually resulting in a “balance of stories among the world’s peoples.”

To further illuminate the power of narrative to either reaffirm or subvert perspective, the Year 11s read and reflected on Horace Miner’s anthropological essay, The Body Ritual of the Nacirema, discussing to what extent they felt the unfamiliar culture explored in the essay demonstrated markers of civilisation. When the article’s twist was revealed to the classes, they recognised the value of the text in enhancing their appreciation of the unit’s key concept of perspective: “It helped us to see how perspective can change how we think of things. (Michal, Year 11)  (No spoilers here: see if you can spot the twist yourself…)

With the “restorying” of the Nacirema still fresh in their minds, classes then viewed the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant TED Talk, “The danger of a single story”, in which Adichie, a compelling speaker, explains with warmth, wit – and a dash of razor-sharp satire – how a “single story” can dispossess a people, and cultivate a damaging one-sided perspective.

“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho – and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers,” Adichie dryly observes, to a wave of laughter.

For Toby, the most relevant of Adichie’s words to the unit as a whole was her statement on the self-fulfilling power of stereotyping: “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

“This offered us a better understanding of stereotypes and perspectives – of how perspective creates stereotypes, and how the limited perspective, if affirmed, rewrites reality; rewrites a story. It showed the value and importance of knowing all sides of the story. As human beings, we are quick to be arrogant and to judge – to see one side before the others and judge based on this one side. We accept our limited perspective naturally, but this is harmful.” (Toby, Year 11)

Thus, instilled with an intensified appreciation of how our preconceptions about the continent of Africa are often shaped by a lack of balance in the stories we read or hear about the continent, the classes began their study of Things Fall Apart itself, an experience which had a strong impact on many of the learners:

“I had never read African literature before. It was an absolute pleasure to learn about this culture, mostly new to me. It was not white-washed or diluted by modernity – it was pure and raw and fascinating to read. I am not certain my previous perspective had any harmful effect on our world – I did not ask Africans to hear their “tribal music” (allusion to Adichie’s TED talk) – but I feel it was still very important to have an accurate perspective.” (Toby, Year 11)

“Things Fall Apart gave some insight into the way preconceptions are often shaped by bias in the media – for example, the District Commissioner’s view of the Igbo contrasted strongly with the nuanced, carefully detailed account of Igbo life provided by Achebe. This gave us some understanding of the way stories of Africa were twisted to portray its people as uncivilised and primal.” (Maako, Year 11)

“It showed how white men may not always come to save the day, but rather ruin it,” observed Michal (Year 11).

This last reflection, with its implicit criticism of the white saviour complex, is particularly pertinent in illustrating the connection between the two parts of the unit; in the wake of the analytic written response to Things Fall Apart, the students went on to examine well-intentioned, yet problematic, campaign videos to help the African people – videos dubbed “poverty porn” by media publications, such as The Guardian, for the exploitative, stereotypical, single-sided story of Africa presented within these, and their perpetuating of the “white saviour” trope.

“Out of all the reading and research we did, the most interesting part for me was the lessons when we studied “poverty porn” and all the misconceptions about Africa, as it really helped open my eyes that not everyone there is struggling and in need.” (Michal, Year 11)

Just as Adichie responds in “The danger of a single story” TED talk to ignorant stereotyping and confidently asserted misconceptions (including a professor who criticised one of her novels for not being “authentically African”, on account of its characters being educated, middle-class, and driving cars) with warmth and grace – and, notably – a humble recognition that she too has fallen prey to the “single story” trap, so the best response to the well-intentioned “poverty porn” campaign videos is perhaps not the stinging Guardian attacks, but rather the satirical counter-campaign, Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway.

In a series of provocative and humorous videos, created by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ Assistance Fund (SAIH), and frequently infused with an infectious joie de vivre, the tropes of the poverty porn campaign are satirised and subverted: in one, filmed through the same melancholy blue-green filter we see in the typical “poverty porn” clip, a white Norwegian family shivers by their Christmas tree, suffering greatly from the cold and its effects; the father, we are told in hushed and earnest tones by the Santa-hat wearing black presenter, “has not been able to get home for two weeks because of snow”; children “slip on the ice and get their tongues stuck to metal objects.”

The solution? Radiators for Norway! The fortunate people of the warm African continent are urged to send radiators to the struggling cold Norwegians, so they too can enjoy a warm Christmas.

“I found these videos very effective in highlighting the African stereotypes that people often see from afar. This perspective is easy to fall into when people are not actually exposed to real situations. And, by using comedy to talk about problems, it makes people more open-minded and willing to change.” (Ila, Year 11)

“I found the satirical Radi-Aid campaign videos very successful in highlighting the need to avoid perpetuating stereotypes. They switched the situation around, showing just how offensive all the poverty porn campaign videos of Africa are. They were great in highlighting how disrespectful these are, impacting the pride of African people by making their single story them in need of help.” (Maya, Year 11)

To conclude the unit, the students were empowered in the role of journalists for their chosen media publication, and set with the goal of adding to the “balance of stories” hoped for by Chinua Achebe, from the African continent. The students researched events and people that corresponded with their own areas of interest; studied the layout, structural and narrative conventions of their chosen publication, and the citation of sources and images; and finally produced articles showcasing uplifting and inspiring figures and stories from a broad range of African countries.

For Suvarn, who wrote a “New York Times” profile on the Ugandan chess champion, Phiona Mutesi, whose story was brought to life in the Disney film, Queen of Katwe, it was a valuable assignment to conclude the unit with:

“This task provided a fresh perspective – most articles are about Western figures and Western achievements, so writing an article about a person from Africa was important in promoting a sense of diversity in the media.”

For Toby, whose feature, “South Africa: A Beacon of Hope for Gay Rights”, for the LGBQT+ online magazine, Attitude, forcefully argued that “the Western import to Africa is homophobia, not homosexuality”, drawing his readers’ attention to Africa’s pre-colonial history of queerness and acceptance, (“(till) upon colonisation, this attitude towards the queer was stomped out by the White Man and his values – values which were then forcefully adopted by the suppressed Africans, imbuing homophobia into their culture until it settled and filtered down through generations.”), the assignment “taught us to view African countries in a more flattering light; to look for the truth and more accurate information to counterbalance the negativity we hear from the media.”

It is left to Ila (Year 11), whose impassioned profile for “The Guardian” on the talented Côte d’Ivoire photographer, Joana Choumali, demonstrated genuine engagement with the values of the unit (“Choumali seems to be on a path to greatness as her art is like none other…The way she expresses herself through her art and her views on the world around us is something that we all could use to better ourselves and widen our perspective.”) to have the last word:

“What I found most valuable was to always challenge myself in finding more than one view. I have learned that when only looking at one story, I will only find half the truth.” (Ila, Year 11)

Africa for Norway: New Radi-Aid charity single out now!