Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2008 | Features

The Truth about Africa

By Kathryn Howe
A seminar for first-year UI students describes real life on the world's second-largest continent.

A little girl in an orange sundress sits playfully behind the wheel of a truck. Matching orange sunglasses conceal the sparkle in her brown eyes.

This is eight-year-old Zuhura. From her home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, she enjoys a typical African childhood. She plays with dolls, attends school, and earns Girl Scout badges. While media reports often portray a continent afire with poverty, famine, and war, this photograph of a girl pretending to drive her grandpa's pickup offers a powerful antidote to despair.

To the average person, Africa may conjure images of pot-bellied babies and gun-toting adolescent boys. Spunky, vivacious Zuhura seems the exception, not the norm. In fact, says University of Iowa history professor James Giblin, Zuhura's childhood reflects actuality for the majority of Africa's youth.

"It's amazing how little the American public understands about Africa," says Giblin, who teaches the first-year seminar course "Being Young in Africa," in which he frames an accurate picture of what it's like to grow up in this part of the world. "While I think we should certainly appreciate the distinctive features of African society, we should also know that people in Africa are basically just like us—with commonalities that make us all human."

Giblin has dedicated his 22 years at the UI to sharing truths about a place that first captured his heart four decades ago. The 14 freshman students who join him in class on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Room 3026 at the Seamans Center for the Engineering Arts & Sciences have enrolled in one of the university's first-year seminars. Not part of their required course load, such seminars allow freshmen to enhance their learning experience through one-credit-hour classes on topics of special interest. These courses are small and discussion-driven, and they provide new students with valuable contact with faculty members.

"Being Young in Africa" challenges students to ask themselves two key questions: to what extent is childhood different in Africa and to what extent is it similar? Without doubt, many African children endure adversity and hardship unknown to the great majority of their American peers. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has swept the land, leaving children orphaned and exposed to infection. Many areas suffer from weak infrastructure, primitive health care, little food, and few resources. Many families live on less than a dollar a day, and thousands of children have been traumatized by warfare in their countries.

Still, on the whole, African children, teens, and young adults face many of the same issues as Americans do: parents who don't understand them; struggles with self-expression; stress over good grades; peer pressure to have sex. It's impossible to generalize Africa, a vast continent divided into countries with their own distinct customs, rich histories, societal structures, varied topographies, religious beliefs, and languages. Nonetheless, whether African children live in a remote tribal village or a towering city, they harbor familiar ambitions, dreams, and disappointments.

Through class discussion, films, and books, students juxtapose such familiar issues against the social and cultural backdrop of Africa. In so doing, they learn to ask questions about culture and history that help make sense of foreign societies. "So the next time they read a story about a plight in Africa," Giblin says, "it will be harder to dismiss."

The professor's video and book selections illustrate childhood in African societies at several points in history. They tell stories of love and belonging in 18th century rural West Africa; of teenagers coming to terms with sexual awakening in the bustling city of Cameroon; of a modern Zimbabwean girl's struggle with elders who disapprove of the way she dresses.

As students ponder African and American families' shared values, such as the desire to educate and socialize their children, they begin to appreciate different ways of achieving those goals. They learn about the importance African people place on raising each other's children. Considering character traits in African versus American children, they appreciate the value of the obedience and self-restraint typical among young people in the Third World. They learn to admire people who, in the face of hardship, give thanks, remain optimistic, live in the moment, and take care of each other.

For Veronica Trester, who arrived at the UI this year from a small school in Van Meter, exposure to information and perspectives like this is eye-opening. Besides gaining a new outlook on Africa, she says she's received a reminder about the health and prosperity that Americans can take for granted.

For, although African youth share the hopes and challenges common to their counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere, a tragic truth remains: for some African children, there's no such thing as childhood. After spending the first half of the course on the broad and routine experiences of most African children, Giblin shifts direction toward children in extreme crisis—in particular, youngsters caught up in Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s.

On a Thursday afternoon in early October, Giblin introduces A Long Way Gone, in which author Ishmael Beah describes this devastating conflict through his experiences as a boy soldier. He explains how an uprising of indigenous rebels against the ruling elite quickly turned to wide-scale violence against Sierra Leone's citizens. Ishmael's village comes under attack and he flees for refuge. Eventually, he's captured by government forces and conscripted into the army where he commits random acts of mass murder.

Horrified by the revelation that children like Ishmael inspired extreme fear and dread in villagers, Giblin's students discuss what motivates people to commit unspeakable brutality.

Like any place on Earth, Africa claims its share of triumphs and failings. But Giblin—who owns a house in Tanzania where Zuhura lives—hopes students come to the conclusion that there's much about Africa to admire. Giblin is particularly impressed by the importance Africans place on people as opposed to material things. They possess an inner light and generosity of spirit that suggest they know the secret to what's meaningful about life. Even in the midst of poverty and turmoil, Africans demonstrate remarkable warmth, hospitality, and graciousness.
"I want students to come away with an appreciation for why Africa is a fascinating area worthy of our admiration and respect," says Giblin. Then he glances at the picture of Zuhura and counts the days until his next trip home.