Africa remains something of a mystery for the average American student because our curricula do not normally include substantial units focusing on the history, culture or geography of the continent. In this curricular unit, I will attempt a focus on developing lessons and activities to enlighten and enliven the imaginations of students who may not otherwise be exposed to Africa, its countries, its geography, and its stories using both maps and literature. Hopefully through this, students might regard the continent more vividly. Literature has always been a method through which we can learn about and acknowledge the realities of people we have never seen, cannot imagine empathizing with, or even regard with ignorant views. Perhaps an even more visceral and impactful (while unfortunately less-utilized) method is through the use of maps. In a map we can see history, voyage and adventure, surveying and documenting. We can see the work that was done to record a place at a particular time in history. If we strive to deepen and constantly evolve our perspectives, maps must be a part of that intellectual growth, helping us wrap our mind around things that exist in the world even though we may not be able to see them. I will attempt to apply this to the many American students who have never seen the shores or deserts or splendor of Africa.
In this unit, we will endeavor to expose students to certain areas and histories of Africa using maps and mapmaking, as well as immersing ourselves in stories of Africa. The unit will focus on the Scramble for Africa – the imperial colonization of the continent by European nations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it will be enhanced by famous European literature of the time period as well as contrasting critique. We will start by talking about maps, their use and their value. We will then immerse ourselves in the Africa that Joseph Conrad created in his notorious novella Heart of Darkness. We will also analyze its relevance and appropriateness for modern syntheses of African culture and history, using an essay by the famed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. We will conclude by looking at a final map of the Congo, the country explored by Conrad and many European colonizers.
Maps are not simply graphic documents that help one get from point A to point B. They certainly accomplish that goal, but maps are also so much more. They are living documents, constantly changing with added knowledge and, indeed, perspective. They are records of our history as a human race, for better or worse. They are existential and philosophical; we may explore ourselves in exploring them. Where we have been, where we are going and why, can all be analyzed and reflected upon at various levels (personal and global) on a map.
The hope is, by the time students have absorbed this information, both their knowledge and appreciation of the African continent as a place just as real and strange and wonderous as their everyday lives will be impacted. And, ultimately, students will be able to discern for themselves where to find the most accurate descriptions of history, whether textual, graphic, or both.