frican women wear such beautiful garments. I would admire the colorful, patterned material they wrapped around their hair to match their African dress when, in their role as nannies, they’d drop their young charges off at my daughter’s French school.
Where I grew up, in a small town in western NY, I had never seen a woman in African dress. That changed in France, even in the small suburb to the west of Paris, called Suresnes, where we lived. The weekly market would put on offer bolts of gorgeous material to serve the needs of African women, especially women from western and southern Africa.
In France, Africa is literally closer, obviously, than to the States, but also more visible in daily life. African culture made its way naturally into the classes I taught.
DR. SUESS AND WANGARI MAATHAI
My early teaching career centered around 10-year-old bilingual students at the American School of Paris. This program emphasized cultural exploration and a rich creative curriculum to stimulate the students and help them maintain their English now that they were living in France, after, for example, returning from England, or the States, or South Africa, or Ireland, or Australia or other International Schools in other countries. I had a friend who grew up in Italy and attended an American school there. When I asked him where he was from in the States, he said he was Norwegian.
At the American School, it was, in short, a diverse public. And a young one. Now, The Lorax, published by Dr. Suess in 1971, gave me an opportunity to talk about the environment in a way that was playful and serious.
Reader: Was The Lorax set in Africa?
Me: Patience, dear Reader.
Briefly, here’s the story: a young boy visits the Once-ler, a former factory owner. What happened to the Lorax, the boy wants to know, the Lorax, that mythic creature, who used to come to your factory, and who was lifted away? The Once-ler starts at the beginning. He tells the story of the Truffula trees, once so plentiful, until he, the Once-ler, discovered that from the trees he could make thneeds, which were a kind of thread. Highly sought after, the thneeds made his family quite wealthy. Inspired by his success, the Once-ler “biggered” production, cutting down more trees. The Lorax appeared on behalf of the trees, who were disappearing; then on behalf of the Barbaloots, who had no more Truffula fruit to eat; and finally on behalf of the swans and the humming fish, who could no longer fly or swim because of the pollution. After the last Truffula tree was cut, the Lorax lifted himself up into the heavens, leaving behind a pile of stones and the word, “unless.” The Once-ler figures out that the word “unless” means unless somebody cares, things won’t get better. He gives the boy the last seed of the Tuffula tree to plant and take care of.
Reader: Very good. 1971, you say? But weren’t we talking about Africa?
Me: We were! And we are!
With a doctorate in biology, Wangari Maathai inspired Kenyan women to plant trees to counter the deforestation in Kenya. In an interview she said something very striking: that in her language there had not been a word for desertification. And now when she looked around, it was everywhere. In 2004 Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts, called the Green Belt Movement.
Her work has been made into a short YouTube video for children.
Wangari Maathai seemed to have taken the instructions of the Lorax, “unless,” and has made a significant difference. My interest as a teacher is always to present a problem and a solution: if it’s in writing a thesis statement or addressing our human problems. In France, the children aren’t shielded from adult concerns. I remember once a children’s newspaper talking about the number of children killed in the Iraqi War (about 1200, from 2003-2011). Our children’s newspapers don’t seem to be political at all. Is that a good thing? In some ways, I think it is. But it does not set the tone for a well-informed public later on.
In France, the students celebrated the work of Wangari Maathai and we established other ideas for protecting endangered species, and we made booklets for the students to take home. They were enthusiastic about these positive steps and they enjoyed the playfulness of The Lorax. (I did not know that The Lorax had been banned in CA for putting logging in a bad light, but that’s a story for another day.)
THINGS FALL APART
I was interested in African novels to teach the older children as well, when I found myself teaching in the English section of the French school in Sèvres. A chief function of literature is that of remembrance. One of the most brilliant works of remembering is the novel written in English called, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. We go back to a time when Nigeria was not thought of as a country, but simply a series of villages. Okonkwo, a great wrestler, a hard-working man and a warrior, was ashamed of his father’s failure to provide for his family, and for his father’s unmanly pursuit of playing the flute. Okonkwo is, frankly, a pain in the ass. But how many African warriors do you know? Okonkwo’s life straddles the pre-missionary time, pre-British. And as he tries to negotiate the new changes—in a word, colonialism—he fails violently, spectacularly. And we have never felt so diminished as readers as we witness his demise. To read this book is to correct for our ideas of progress. We see the history of Africa writ large in the story of this one flawed individual. In story, a man can be restored to his dignity, even in his downfall.
The author was in the unique position of being the son of a missionary couple, who were converts to Christianity. In what we call post-colonial literature, the idea is that missionaries are bad because they didn’t respect African culture. Well, in this book, that idea is far more nuanced. In the novel we learn that the Igbo tribe had a taboo against twins, who were put in the forest to die. The son of the great warrior couldn’t stomach that and was one reason he was drawn to Christianity.
The humor in the book, it is true, is at the expense of the missionaries who try to explain the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Surely the Holy Spirit is the wife? No? That is ridiculous. Where is the wife? But what moves the Igbo people is the hymns. I have never forgotten that emphasis on music.
The title of the book comes from a western poet, the Irishman Yeats. The first stanza of the poem called, “The Second Coming,” is this:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The book shows us with a clear eye, the cultural norms of the Igbo society, their ideas of justice, the way crops are gendered, their rituals. I would begin our class discussion with two questions:
- Has anyone ever met an African warrior?
The short answer is no.
- Can you draw a map of Africa?
Basically, a triangle. Everybody gets South Africa. After that? Well ….
The great Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who has written a psychologically complex book about Kenyan Independence called Grain of Wheat, cannot praise Things Fall Apart highly enough. He has said that he learns something new every time he reads it.
It seems unlikely that the two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, have had many encounters with Africa. However, when Lucky, the slave of Pozzo speaks, or more accurately thinks, his words are not words, at least words that we can understand. Beckett himself may well have encountered the multiplicity of languages, certainly in Paris. One of the larger themes of Waiting for Godot has to do with communication, surely something Beckett contended with as he lived his life in both French and English.
And FYI there is a day of African celebration in, wait for it, Dublin! This is Beckett’s birthplace.
The following is to a link to modern African music courtesy of Mr. Rogers. (How modern can it be?)
Moral for the day: Move to another country, learn the language, and then let another culture entirely rub off on you.