ERIC Identifier: ED278602
Publication Date: 1986-11-00
Author: Merryfield, Merry M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.

Teaching about Africa. ERIC Digest No. 36.

There is growing recognition of the need to strengthen education about Africa in American schools. Although teachers and textbooks have improved their treatments of African topics over the last twenty years, serious biases and omissions remain (Beyer, 1968; Crofts, 1986). Most classroom teachers today have had little or no formal education on Africa. Yet they are asked to teach complex issues about apartheid, political stability, and cultural conflict. The old myths of the so-called "Dark Continent" are often replaced with new media stereotypes that focus on hunger, poverty, disease, and violence. How can educators improve their teaching about Africa? This digest examines (1) the importance of teaching about Africa, (2) the place of Africa in the curriculum, and (3) strategies for teaching about Africa.


--Africa's size in land and population makes it a significant area of the world. This second largest continent has over three times the land area of the United States. One of every three countries in the United Nations is African. One of every ten persons on the world today lives in Africa. Africa has the highest population growth of any world region.

--Africa is a treasure chest of natural resources. The United States looks to this continent for such strategic metals and minerals as gold, platinum, chromium, titanium, uranium, and petroleum as well as agriculture products such as cocoa, rubber, and vegetable oils. African markets are increasingly important for expanding American agriculture and technology exports.

--Africa is the root culture for Black Americans. Unlike the immigration experiences of other Americans, the slave trade tore Africans from their home countries. Myths and stereotypes continue to deny Black Americans accurate knowledge, pride, and linkages with their ethnic homeland.

--Although Africa may be of special interest to Black Americans, it is important to all Americans. There are many Africanisms in American culture. Jazz has its roots in the polyrhythmic music of Africa. Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit are examples of African influence on our literature. A study of African societies provides valuable lessons on governance by consensus, on the primacy of social relationships, respect for elders, and strong family ties. African art, music, and aesthetics can enrich American education as they demonstrate the union of man, God, and nature in African thought.


African content belongs at every level of the social studies curriculum as part of a global perspective in education. Children will develop more interest and appreciation of other cultures if they are exposed to such content from an early age. Even before they can read, young children can enjoy playing African games and singing African songs. Along with their study of American families, communities, and holidays, early elementary pupils can learn about Bocharie's family in Sierra Leone, Ali's community near Mombasa, and Sammani's and Maryama's celebration of Ramadan in Kano, Nigeria.

At the upper elementary and middle school grades, children should learn about several African countries in detail. Global studies courses are well-suited for teaching African issues and concerns. African content is especially appropriate for such social studies themes and concepts as interaction between man and his environment, the role of women, cultural diffusion, and human rights.

In American history courses, it is important to provide African background and viewpoints on the slave trade. The uniqueness of this special "immigrant" group and enduring Africanisms in American culture should be integrated into the study of the colonial period and contemporary America. Africa provides a laboratory for examining the decisions and effects of United States foreign policy. Why do we give foreign aid to countries such as Egypt and Kenya? What have been the results of the policy of "constructive engagement" towards South Africa?

Geography and world history courses are core subjects for African content at the secondary level. Africa should be studied as "the Cradle of Mankind." Ancient Egypt, trans-Saharan trade, and African kingdoms of the last 2000 years demonstrate the sophistication of African societies. African and western perspectives toward the colonial era will contribute to a better understanding of contemporary Africa. Again, Africa should not be taught separately, but woven into the mosaic of world history and geography.

African content is also appropriate for sociology, economics, and current events courses. Zimbabwe can be used as a case study of self-determination and nation-building. Educational materials from South Africa can be used to demonstrate the power of propaganda. Statistics on African imports and exports can clarify the concept of dependency. Students should be encouraged to evaluate current African events through African perspectives and within a global context.


--Counteract stereotypes about Africa by teaching historical and contemporary realities of both rural and urban life. Instead of using words that elicit Tarzan-like images, speak of ethnic groups (not tribes), homes (not huts), and tropical rain forest (not jungles). The larger, more typical African societies (such as the Hausa, Yoruba, Kikuyu) should receive more attention than the smaller societies (such as the San or Mputi) who often are portrayed wrongly as untouched by the twentieth century.

--Make valid comparisons. Do not compare Africa with China and Japan. Africa is a continent with over fifty countries and incredible diversity in culture, geography, political structures, and economies. Choose specific African countries for comparison. Nigeria, as a large and very diverse African nation, would be an appropriate country to compare with China. When comparing across nations, always examine similarities and explain differences. In what ways is urbanization around Nairobi similar to urbanization near your own community? Why do Kenyans prefer larger families than do Americans? Africa can be compared as a continent to Asia or Latin America.

--Teach African content through a global perspective by examining universal themes and concepts. Nigeria could be compared with Sri Lanka and Peru to demonstrate ways countries deal with cultural diversity. The effect of governmental policies on food production can be examined by case studies of Zimbabwe, India, and Tanzania.

--Use content on Africa to teach social studies skills. An examination of colonial documents and letters could be a lesson in detecting bias and unstated assumptions. Case studies of mineworkers in South Africa, cocoa farmers in Ghana, or unemployed secondary school graduates in Lagos could be used to practice decision-making skills in real-life situations.

--Teach respect and understanding for Africans. When teaching about problems, focus on how they evolved. Why does Ethiopia have a refugee problem? What can we learn from that situation to help us understand refugee problems elsewhere? Do not let your study of Africa be overwhelmed by negative aspects. Teach about the success of black-white cooperation in independent Kenya. Students can come to enjoy Africa through its rich contemporary cultures. Lessons on Yoruba hairstyles, Lingala music, and Swahili cuisine can stimulate student interest and appreciation of Africa.

--Involve students in seeing and feeling African life. Current films and other audio-visual materials are essential. Do not use 1960s media to teach about Africa today. Simulations and primary sources (African literature, newspapers, photographs, tapes of speeches) can build empathy and understanding.

--Bring African resources in your community into your classroom. African students at a nearby college, organizations that do business with African nations, or anti-apartheid/human rights groups can be rich sources of information.


History of Africa - Offers a history of every nation in Africa.


AFRICA ON FILM AND VIDEOTAPE, 1960-1981: A COMPENDIUM OF REVIEWS. East Lansing, MI: African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1982.



Bigelow, William. STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1985.

Clark, Todd, ed. SOUTH AFRICA/TIME RUNNING OUT. Los Angeles; CA: Constitutional Rights Foundation, 1984. ED 250 247.

Crofts, Marylee. "Africa." SOCIAL EDUCATION 50 (1986): 345-350.

CURRICULUM MATERIALS FOR TEACHERS. Urbana, IL: African Studies Program, University of Illinois, 1986.

LIFE IN AFRICA. Los Angeles, CA: African Outreach Program, University of California at Los Angeles, 1982.

Martin, Phyllis and Patrick O'Meara. AFRICA. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Wiley, Marylee, ed. "Teaching about Africa." SOCIAL EDUCATION 46 (1982): 491-508.

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