Africa Speaks: Introduction



Students in Business English class, with Patricia Stoll, instructor,
at American Cultural Center library, Niamey, Niger, 1992
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The writing in this book

speaks for itself, but I'll say a few words of introduction anyway: a bit about Niger, the student writers, and events that came together to produce their work.

Where is Niger?

When the Fulbright people told me I was going to Niger, I figured I'd better read up on the place. The encyclopedia, of course, supplied information about Niger's geography, climate, flora and fauna, ancient history, traditional cultures, and so on; but most books on West Africa were twenty or thirty years old, written in French, by non-Africans. Those in English barely mentioned Niger, or they featured picturesque Tuaregs on camels, exotic Wodaabe nomads, sorcerers and witch doctors.

CIES (Council for International Exchange of Scholars: the administrative arm of Fulbright) told me a little about conditions at the University of Niamey (challenging); the students (motivated and hard working); problems with daily living; the political situation. CIES also provided written reports from former Fulbright grantees and arranged a long distance phone call from the current Fulbright professor, Clarice Traylor. When Clarice realized I had never been to Africa, there was a long staticky pause on the transAtlantic satellite telephone: where could she start so I would understand what I was getting into?

All this was interesting and useful (Clarice and the CIES health presentation probably saved my life), but everything I learned raised more questions. I needed to know about African students as people: their childhood, family, homes, school experiences, friends, beliefs --and not for idle curiosity: I was going to teach writing and literature at the University of Niamey. I had to order books, and write syllabi. I had to know something about the students in order to know how to teach them.

As a writer and English teacher, I think the best way to find out about a people is through their literature. I know about Victorian England because of Dickens and Trollope; about ancient Greece because of Thucydides and Sophocles.

There is no Nigerien literature in English. Nigerien authors publish in French, and their work has not been translated. If I wanted to know about African students, I would have to find it out from the students themselves, one by one, face to face or in their writing.

Well, that's what I was hired to do: teach writing. But I wondered if I could do it. It is a truism that authors write best in their native language. There are at least five or six native languages in Niger; French is the lingua franca; almost no one writes in his mother tongue. Perhaps it was too much to expect students to write authentically and powerfully--creatively--in English as a foreign language.

So off I went to Niger Republic without a clue. This may be a good way to approach Africa: having no expectations, I was never disappointed, and everything was an adventure.

Africa Speaks

is the product of my two years of teaching writing and literature at the University of Niamey. It is a collection of personal narratives, stories, journal entries, essays, poems, letters, written in English by young West African university students. Topics include childhood; natural and manmade disasters; religion, belief, and magic; folktales, customs and rituals; love, courtship, marriage and divorce; family life; rural vs. urban living; education; heritage; sports and entertainment; personal experiences of political and public events such as drought and crop failure, civil and ethnic unrest; life stories. The writing provides unique and authentic insights into the lives of young Africans--how they live now. Rather than being described and defined by others, the young writers speak for themselves. The empty landscape begins to fill with people.

A recurring theme

in the student writing is that of being an outsider in one's own country. Because of their western style education, these young people "can't go home again," yet they are tied in many ways, emotionally, intellectual, spiritually, to the villages where they grew up, and the traditional families they love. This is of course a great theme of African literature--of world literature--and the students join their voices in that conversation.

The students represented all ethnic groups of Niger: Hausa, Zarma, Tuareg, Fulani, Kanuri, Gourmantche, Tubu, Arab, and others; some were from other countries: Senegal, Cote Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya. Fewer than one fifth were women; ages ranged from twenty to thirty; many students were already married, with children. Some had come to the University directly from lycee; others had taught English in primary and secondary school for five to seven years and had been released by the government to further their education.

They were all, by definition,"evoules"--persons with European style educations-- and thus not typically African. They were an elite group because of birth, skills, ambition, parents who valued education, luck--sometimes all of these.

Niger has one of the lowest literacy rates in Africa (figures range from 5% to 28%) so any student who makes it to the University is an unusual person; one who chooses to major in English is even more exceptional. Still, most of these students were the first in their family, or even in their village, to go to University, and virtually all maintained close ties to their rural, traditional families. If the students were no longer typical, their families were.

The University of Niamey

was a unique place. In Niger, the various ethnic groups and nationalities were antagonistic to the point of violence; there was enmity within each tribe and clan; women traditionally stayed separate from men. But at the University, to a remarkable degree, everyone sat down together in peace and unity: tribes, clans, nationalities, men and women alike. Everyone was equal.

The University itself, however, was in a bad way. When it opened in 1973, during a brief economic boom, it had been a showplace of modern Sudanese-style architecture; but now it suffered from lack of money, constant strikes and political unrest, deteriorating facilities, and overcrowding. Life is difficult in Niger; everything is a struggle; students and faculty worked under great privations and hardships. Still, in adversity we find strength. Problems often yielded unexpected opportunities.

The FLSH (Faculte des Lettres et Sciences Humaines) was particularly crowded; the English department was at twice capacity. In 1991-92 there were 70-odd students in my second year writing class (in the US there would be 15 to 20), with a range of English skills from elementary to fluent. First year classes had 156 students. The faculty was shrinking: eight faculty members staffed classes that had been taught by twelve the previous year, and fifteen the year before that.

Because of political unrest, strikes and demonstrations, and cancelled classes, The University declared 1989-90 (the year before I arrived) an "annee blanche" (white year)-- the academic year was canceled, students did not get their credits, and had to repeat the entire school year. In spite of continuing political unrest, the University managed to complete official academic years in 1990-92; however, the University has been closed ever since I left. This is a true calamity, as students have no hope of a job without a degree.

My writing class

(Expression Stylistique Ecrite) met once a week for two hours: seventy-plus second year students crammed into a long narrow room designed for fifty, people standing in the doorways and poking their heads in the windows; an acoustic nightmare, no textbooks, a blackboard that had not been washed since Independence, a sea of blank and anonymous and suspicious yet hopeful faces.

Students could not understand my English, and I couldn't understand theirs. Many students could not even hear me in the noisy classroom. My "western" style of teaching was confusingly different from the rote learning they were used to. They were suspicious of me, a "European" woman (everyone except black Africans is "European"). Also, they were like students everywhere: concerned about their grades, trying to psych out the teacher and give me what they thought I wanted.

I wish I could say we did wonderful, innovative things in class, but really the whole time I was in Niger--October 1990 to June 1992--was a study in chaos. I told friends it was like teaching on a trampoline, or in a shark tank. Now I think it was more like falling into a fast moving river and fighting to keep my head above water. I was swept along with the current, then I was pulled out, and the river went on without me.

At first the students wrote simple folktales and paraphrases of stories from their school texts. Then exotic horror tales about voodoo, magic, war, killings. Then careful and bloodless essays using fomulaic Freshman Composition patterns: comparison and contrast, process analysis, argument, and the ubiqutious five-paragraph theme, and other formats recycled from their lycee classes.

I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of papers, which were hand written in imperfect English on thin paper, front and back, no margins, to save paper. I learned to read them very fast and to respond quickly, and sometimes harshly.

Now as I reread these papers they look a lot better, yet there are my unkind remarks in red: "This is gibberish." "Very poor English." "Can't read your handwriting!" "Do this over." The students didn't get discouraged; they'd been through worse than this.

I was an outsider: a white, Christian woman, in a black, Muslim nation. The students had endured such teachers before, but not uncritically. One bold young man challenged me early on: " You Europeans come here for a few months and try out your theories on us, and then go away. You don't care about Africans, only about yourselves."

I was able to say, truthfully, that I considered my position at the University a job, no more. I had no theories.

Another student, a young woman, complained because I had written "more details please" on her paper. "You just don't understand Africans," she said.

I agreed with her that I was quite ignorant, and thus was an ideal audience for her writing. She would have to explain everything in detail.

I learned patience in Niger. Eliciting good--honest, truthful, lively--student writing is a long process anywhere. Why should a young writer trust a stranger, and tell the truth about his life? I had to earn their trust, just as with students everywhere.

Of course, in Africa

there were additional problems. For one thing, there were no books. Clarice had tried to warn me, but I thought she was exaggerating. She was not. The U.S. is drowning in books and magazines and newspapers. Not Niger. Most of my students--English majors--did not own a single book in English. The few books in what the University called its library could be borrowed only one at a time. No bookstore.

I found thirty copies of a 1974 edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature in the library and (against the rules) checked them out on my name and lent them to the students, two and three students to each book.

The books had been through many hands, the covers were taped, the pages were worn and soft, curled and silvery with use. Still, it was an unheard-of privelege to have an anthology (even one so outdated) to keep all year. The scarcity of books made students really value them, and sharing a book provided a built-in study group.

Later, with CIES money ($500) I ordered a new edition of the Norton Introduction to Literature and lent these out too. It was like Christmas, handing out these fresh crisp up-to-date books. They came individually wrapped in plastic, so American! They even smelled new.

The next year I ordered Norton's New Worlds of Literature, a multicultural reader, which turned out to be a fortunate choice. My African students saw for the first time that they could use their hard-learned English to write about their own lives and concerns. Many of the pieces in "AfricaSpeaks" began with writing suggestions from New Worlds of Literature.

In 1990-1992, Niger's government

was going through a transition from a military dictatorship (albeit a relatively benign one) to a multiparty democracy. A national conference(Conference Nationale: CN) was called to effect this change. People made jokes about the "talking heads" at the CN, but the year-long conference opened up a dialogue and an exhilarating freedom of expression. Old enmities were discussed in public and nobody went to jail.

A free press developed. When I arrived in Niger there was one newspaper, Le Sahel, a government organ which pointedly ignored any real news. When students were shot by soldiers on the Kennedy bridge in February 1990 (see "Politics"), the Sahel ignored the event. The front page article that week was a treatise against smoking.

When I left Niger, there were five independent newspapers; even the Sahel had been liberated. In February, after a failed coup d'etat that scared the daylightsof everyone, the newspapers printed detailed stories and photos of the rebel soldiers: a year earlier, such would have got you arrested.

In this new atmosphere, Students became aware, gradually, that they too could speak and write freely. Few wrote about the political situation, however. Recent painful events were too fresh; free speech was too new to trust. But the spirit of free speech was contagious, and student writing on other topics became steadily more open, honest, interesting.

[ 1998 note: Niger held elections in 1992, but the government was overthrown by a military coup d'etat in February 1996. Freedom of the press has been greatly curtailed; journalists have been jailed and killed. See the Related Sites page.]

I was able to stay in Niamey for two years (most Fulbright grants are for one academic year). This was very fortunate. It took me that long to figure out what was going on in Niger and in my classes. The students began to understand my English and my teaching methods; I began undertand them and their writing.

Students were surprised and pleased that I had returned for a second year, though the word was out that I was a taskmaster: One student, Soumaila Hereban, wrote:

" I told my friend Boucar that Dr. Patricia would teach us in UV240. 'You know,' said Boukar, 'this woman will make you work too much; you will always be made to work from the beginning to the end of the year.'" Soumaila went on to say that, after his initial fright, he became fond of the class: "It was the unique means to express my ideas in written form."

In writing classes, we hope for a "breakthrough"-- when students stop doing homework and begin doing real work. Our breakthrough happened in my second year in Niamey.

The Class Magazine

Up to then, I had not worked out a good way for students to share their writing with each other. Some students read their work aloud to the class, but with mixed results. There was time for only a few students to read, and it was difficult for everyone to hear.

One day in March, with time on my hands, I typed out some student papers, cleaned up the English, and made copies for all the students. I made eighty copies on the American Embassy's doddering photocopy machine, reduced and double sided to save paper, collated and stapled by hand --slow sweaty work--and called it a "class magazine."

It is impossible to overstate the effect of these modest pages on the students; it was electrifying. The students had never seen their work in type before, had never shared it with an audience of their peers. When the pieces were read aloud, everyone in the class fell silent for the first time in two years; then they laughed, cheered, applauded.

Abdou Tanimoun said described it thus: (in a critique of the class, written June 1, 1992):

" When I was asked to read my journal to the whole class, everybody laughed. I was proud of myself, since I found that I was able to write in English for everybody to understand.

" Then the teacher began to type some student writing and distribute it to the whole class. This was very interesting. It made students eager to write better so they could find their writing typed. I was very happy to find my journal improved and typed. The teacher found a title, 'Child Bride,' for my text. When she read it, the whole class laughed, and for the second time I felt important, proud of myself and my writing."

The student authors became minor celebrities, the "class magazine" circulated throughout the FLSH. Writing improved dramatically, as students stopped writing for the teacher and began to write for each other. They all wanted to get published.

(In typing and editing the student papers, I had a breakhrough of my own: I often found value I had missed on a first reading. Mistakes in English were less serious than I had thought; content was more compelling. I switched from "teacher mode"--criticizing errors--to "editor mode"--celebrating the story. In this new mode, I reread papers written earlier and found that many students had been writing well right along and I had missed it.)

Anyway, by popular demand, I was stuck with the task of publishing this weekly class magazine for the rest of the semester. "Africa Speaks" is a continuation of that magazine.

Before I left for Africa

the chairman of my English department told me about his Fulbright year in Rumania, after which his entire life had been different. Even his academic speciality changed. "This will be a life changing experience," he said.

This didn't please me; I didn't particularly want my life to be changed. Now I know what he meant; I am changed. I am the same person, but more, perhaps better. I have been changed by the privilege of knowing these young writers, of serving as an audience for their emerging voices.

But this book is not about me; it is about the young African men and women who wrote it. Perhaps "Africa Speaks" can be a life changing experience for those who read it.

Acknowledgments:

Grateful thanks to everyone who helped me in Africa and since, especially Susan Rosenfeld, Pamela Fisher, my house servant Frederic Essel, Paul Pekin, Lynn Olson, my students, and the Fulbright Association.

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