How To Make Teaching About Imperialism in Africa Less Eurocentric

Imperialism in Africa is one of my favorite things to teach. Not only is it interesting, but it’s the perfect time to tackle misconceptions about Africa. You know, like the one where people call Africa a country. News flash. Africa is the most diverse place on the planet. It has 54 distinct countries and thousands of cultures.

When teaching about imperialism in Africa, it's important to teach more about resistance and less about the Eurocentric viewpoint.

Eurocentrism and racism have created the belief that Africa is backwards and homogenous. Even worse, in need of saving. Even maps misrepresent Africa. Africa should be much bigger. (Check out these maps). One of my goals is to dispel these myths.

When I first started at my school (well, the first time), the essential question for the Imperialism unit was something like “To what extent was imperialism justified?”

That question didn’t sit well with me. We would never ask “To what extent was Jim Crow justified?” or “To what extent was fascism in the 1930s justified?”.

Before you come for me, hear me out. Were their positive things that came out of imperialism? Sure, for the people in power. For the people getting rich. But, if we give even an ounce of crap about social justice education, we shouldn’t focus on them.

Hell, they get all the historical attention anyway. Plus, it minimizes the damage caused by imperialism.

So, a few years ago, we decided to change our EQ. Now we focus on resistance to imperialism. We focus on the people whose land and way of life were stolen.

People didn’t sit by and let Europeans conquer them. People fought back. 

Now, in our culture, we love non-violent resistance. I argue that we like it because it’s nice and it perpetuates the docile Black person myth. (I find it funny that they characterize Black people as childlike and brutish at the same time. Come on white supremacy, make up your mind). Now our EQ is “To what extent was resistance to imperialism effective?”.

Uh oh. How leftist of us. Better not let Fox News find out.

Now, just because we focus on resistance, doesn’t mean we cut everything else out. There are still things that are European centered because it’s important to tell the whole story. It’s also important to show the students why African countries face the challenges they do today.

We have a former president who called countries in Africa “shit hole countries.” Yikes. I’m sure we all have students who agree with this sentiment. And it’s important to teach our students the role western countries played in the problems in Africa. These issues didn’t magically appear.

I make teaching imperialism in Africa less Eurocentric by focusing on resistance whenever possible. This is how I do it. (Well, during a normal school year).

1. Introduction to Imperialism in Africa Activity

Before I start anything in this unit, I like to get the kids’ brains firing. One of my favorite ways to do this is with a Carousel Activity. (Anyone who knows my teaching style knows I love a good carousel activity). I tape 10 pictures to 10 pieces of chart paper and hang them around the room in chronological order.

Here’s a list of the topics of the pictures (in no particular order):

  • Mansa Musa
  • Sundiata
  • Congolese children with their hands cut off
  • Modern rebel fighters
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Apartheid
  • Maps comparing African cultural boundaries to European created boundaries
  • Shaka Zulu
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • Photo of Nairobi, Kenya

I have the students work with a partner (or small group depending on class size) and ask one question on each chart. They can’t repeat a question that their classmates already posted. Then, I answer their questions throughout our discussion of imperialism in Africa.

Make teaching about imperialism in Africa less Eurocentric by focusing on African resistance.

2. Teach about pre-colonial Africa

Before talking about imperialism in Africa, you’ve got to teach about pre-colonial Africa. Even in 2020, people don’t know that the African continent was the home to large kingdoms and empires. Long before Europeans got there.

When Europe was in the  Dark Ages, many areas in Africa were flourishing. I mean, Mansa Musa of Mali is still considered the richest person to ever live. He was so rich that he caused inflation on his way to Mecca for the hajj.

Africa wasn’t “undiscovered” or “uncivilized” when Europeans arrived. We need to teach our students that. It’s disheartening to hear the stereotypes that many of my students have about Africa. I always wonder where these misconceptions come from. But deep down I know that it’s from hundreds of years of well-planned and strategic racism and oppression.

Several years ago, I created a Peardeck for this discussion. Here are the topics I go over:

3. Motives for imperialism

You can’t teach about imperialism in Africa without the motives for imperialism. The motives I focus on are political, religious, exploratory, economic, and ideological. I do an activity where the kids work in groups to analyze the motives. (I have no idea where I got it, I’ve been using it for about 10 years).

First, they create symbols for each of the motives. Then, they get five images to analyze. Each image represents one of the motives. Next, the kids describe what they see in each image. Then, choose the symbol that represents the motive, and explain why they chose that motive.

After students finish analyzing the motives we have a short class discussion. Finally, the students answer the question: What was the primary cause of Imperialism in the 1800s? I only let them choose one. I like to force them to be decisive to help with the skill of argumentation.

4. Scramble for Africa

The next thing I focus on is the Scramble for Africa. No discussion of Imperialism in Africa would be complete without it. Now, I know there are tons of awesome ways to do this, I like to do a simulation. I start by telling the kids that we’re going to redesign the classroom. I then group the kids and give each group a set of instructions.

All groups but one get these instructions:

  1. Give your group a name.
  2. On the provided index card, create a simple flag to represent your group.
  3. Create a map of how your group wants the room to look.
  4. Place your flag on the furniture you would like to claim as your own.

One group gets these instructions:

  1. Give your group a name.
  2. On the provided index card, create a simple flag to represent your group.
  3. Place your flag on the furniture you would like to claim as your own.
  4. Create a map of how your group wants the room to look.

The group with unique instructions represents Belgium. The hope is that when the other groups see that group taking the furniture, they will freak out. Then start taking furniture for their “country”. (If you have a quieter class and they aren’t moving as quickly as you want, prompt them).

Once the simulation is over, we have a class discussion about it.

Following that, I have the kids read a comic book called “The Imperialism Draft.” I got it years ago when I was teaching in NYC. You can grab it here. It’s an engaging depiction of European powers scrambling to conquer Africa.

5. Imperialism in Congo

Ok, enough with the setup. Let’s get to the good stuff. There is so much to cover when teaching about Imperialism so you’ll need to pick and choose what you want to teach.

I always teach about Congo and South Africa. They are both excellent examples of European exploitation of African people and cultures. They also have strong and powerful resistance movements.

When you teach about Congo, you’re obviously going to teach about King Leopold II. I do spend some time talking about him because I need to. But then I move on to different resistance efforts.

I spend several days on Congo. I call it Congo: A Case Study. Here’s my schedule:

Day 1: Imperialism in Congo

  • The first thing the students do is analyze a political cartoon. You can do this any way you want. I used to use the SCAMS method – Subject, Captions/Labeling, Actions, Method, Symbols. But now I like to use LIESLiterally (what do you see?), Infer (what symbols are used and what do they represent?), Explanation (what is the message?).
  • Here is the political cartoon I use.
  • Next, we talk about cultural blindspots. We do this by reading an article about the chocolate hands of AntwerpThis always gets a reaction from the kids. It’s a great conversation starter. It’s important to discuss how people overlook the atrocities their society has perpetrated. Especially when it comes to certain traditions.
  • Finally, I have the students watch a clip from Mankind: The Story of All of Us (Speed: 25:38-37:00).

Day 2 & 3: Racism, Imperialism, & Heart of Darkness

  • A note: I only do this activity with my Honors classes. The reading is very challenging, even for honors kids.
  • This is a reading focused lesson.
  • First, the students analyze this political cartoon.
  • Next, I read a passage from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. You could skip this if you think it’s too hard. It’s pretty rough, but it’s interesting for this activity. The last two readings analyze Heart of Darkness
  • The first one we look at is from King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It’s eye-opening and infuriating
  • The last reading is Excerpt from An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, 1975 by Chinua Achebe

Day 4: King Leopold II’s Rule in Congo Free State

  • We start the day with a photo analysis activity. Students work in small groups to look through the photos. Their goal is to piece together what’s happening.
    • They then write a one-paragraph summary. The summary ties the photos together including any reactions/opinions they have.
  • Next up is political cartoon analysis. Here are the political cartoons they can choose from:
    • #1
    • #2 (Slide 47, you’ll need to crop it).
    • #3
    • #4
  • The final task of the activity is to look at statistics. The statistics I have the kids look at are from pages 25 and 26 of King Leopold’s Ghost.
  • If you want more information on King Leopold, listen to a two-parter from the podcast Behind the Bastards. (Part I, Part II). I wouldn’t use it in class, but it’s great background information for you.

Day 5: Resistance Gallery Walk

  • Now it’s time for resistance. We’ve talked enough about the victimization of Black people by White Europeans. It’s time to look at the resistance movements that came out of the treatment of the Congolese by Belgium.
  • Kids work with a partner to complete the tasks on their handouts while circulating the room. (I put up three sets of each chart so there aren’t too many students at each chart). The resistance topics include
    1. George Washington Williams
    2. European & American Resistance
    3. Belgian Congo & African Resistance
  • At the end of the lesson, they answer the question: To what extent was resistance to imperialism in the Congo effective?

Day 6: Current Issues

  • When I can, I like to bring a topic back to the present.
  • First, the kids read a paragraph from the chapter “The Great Forgetting” from King Leopold’s Ghost. (You can tell I really like this book).
  • Then we watch Conflict Minerals, Rebels, and Child Soldiers in Congo from Vice.

6. Imperialism in South Africa

The next country I focus on is South Africa. I mean, how can I not? There’s so much resistance going on.

Day 1: Zulu Resistance

  • First, students analyze the famous political cartoon of Cecil Rhodes. I don’t usually go in-depth about Cecil Rhodes. But after listening to the Behind the Bastards two-parter on him, I will in the future. Especially how his policies helped engineer Apartheid.
    • (Here’s Part I & Part II…again this is for your listening pleasure. I wouldn’t play it for students).
  • After that, I give the kids a few guided notes about pre-colonial South Africa, especially the Zulu.
  • Then we dive into a discussion of the Dutch and British in South Africa, which leads to a discussion of the Boer Wars.
  • Next, the students watch clips from the film Zulu. Yes, it’s old. But, it’s still got merit. I got this idea and questions from a friend of mine and I like to use it when I have time. Here are some of the questions for students:
  • Pre-viewing questions:
    • Why would some African groups resist colonization by the Europeans? 
    • Why would some tribes submit to colonization?
  • Viewing Questions:
    • Describe the battle that takes place between the Zulu warriors and the Welsh guard.  Include any similarities or differences between the two armies.
    • Discuss the result of the battle.  Why did it end the way it did?
    • How can this film help us draw conclusions about resistance movements in Africa?
    • The film was produced in 1964, almost 100 years after the Battle at Rorke’s Drift.  Do you believe that this film is an ACCURATE portrayal of events during the Zulu Wars?  Why or why not?

Day 2-however long the movie takes: Apartheid & Nelson Mandela

  • After discussing Zulu resistance, we move on to Nelson Mandela. I give the students notes on the history of Apartheid and then we watch Mandela starring Idris Elba. Now, I understand that this is a Harvey Weinstein jam, so it’s up to you if you want to show it. I think it’s an excellent film and a good educational tool.
    • My honors students watch the entire film
    • My standard students watch the beginning and end.
  • After the students watch the movie, they complete a film review.
  • Grab my FREE Viewing Guide for ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

There you have it. How I teach about imperialism in Africa.

There are few other things I do as well, but I’m getting a little brain dead after writing all of this. I’ll add more to this post in the future.

The most important thing is to take the viewpoint of the people resisting imperialism whenever possible. As social justice educators, we need to fight to ensure people of color aren’t seen as victims, but as fighters and survivors. 

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