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Into Africa

​​Faculty members tour Morocco and Ghana

October 1, 2011
photo of History Instructor Kwasi Boadi with a Moroccan street musician

History Instructor Kwasi Boadi joins a Moroccan street musician.

In June, a multidisciplinary group of 10 PEA faculty members embarked on a two-week journey through the African countries of Morocco and Ghana to immerse themselves in the histories and cultures of these regions. They traveled with 14 instructors from the Punahou School, an independent school in Honolulu, HI, which partners with Exeter on initiatives that enable both faculty and students to make global connections.

The goals of the trip—which was made possible in part by the generous support of Phil Loughlin ’57; ’76 (Hon.); P’87—were many: to visit schools and explore opportunities for cross-continent student exchanges; to gain greater awareness about life in these countries and then share that knowledge with students in the classroom; and to forge relationships with both domestic and African colleagues to continue fostering international collaboration.

What follows are excerpts from narratives written by eight Exeter instructors about the African experiences that resonated most profoundly with them. Each vignette offers a unique, personal look at a vibrant and complex area of the world.

To read the pieces in their entirety, visit the Africa blog at http://kwasiboadiafrica2011.blogspot.com.

Understanding Culture Through Literature

Evelyn Christoph, Percy C. Rogers Professor in Romance Languages and instructor in modern languages

Since my arrival on campus in 1985, I have been reading L’étranger by Camus in my French 320 classes. I had never been to Northern Africa, and while we were headed to Morocco rather than Algeria, I was eager to understand more about the countryside and the culture of a former French colony. Camus was passionate about Algeria, and his character Meursault reflects many of the inner struggles the author perceived in a country he loved as simultaneously foreign and homeland. As the bus rolled through the hills littered with ramshackle dwellings, I saw farmers under the blazing heat working in the fields with their donkeys.

In my mind’s eye, I reread the scene where Meursault walks from the nursing home to the cemetery to bury his mother: grass on the hills turning from green to brown under the dry heat; Cypress trees (a symbol of death) looming on the horizon; the sun growing hotter by the second as it rises in the sky; red soil contrasting with white roots as shovels of dirt cover the casket.

After our visit to the vestiges of a lost culture in the Roman ruins at Volubilis, we took turns waiting in the rest area. There was neither toilet paper nor running water, but a wizened attendant waited nonetheless for his tip. Change in our pockets was not always a guarantee, and Linda offered to pay this round. As I waited for her, I explained in French she would pay for us both. He suddenly asked me in broken French if I had a pen, and with gestures interspersed with the words for pen and girl, he pleaded he would take instead a pen for his daughter. I handed him the only pen in my bag, and his face beamed with delight as he thanked me profusely. I will never again take for granted the power of a pen.

I enjoy teaching a number of West African texts and films. Ghana provided an opportunity for me to internalize remote cultural references, including the practice of polygamy and the irony of “négritude” in francophone literature that celebrates African identity within the context of colonial rule. In my French 220 class we routinely work on a film and children’s book called Kirikou et la Sorcière written by Michel Ocelot, a French citizen who spent his childhood in Guinea. In Cape Coast, I had the opportunity to speak to a class of high school students taking French. At the end of the conversation, I told them I taught a film/book called Kirikou et la Sorcière. One boy looked at me with incredulity in his big eyes. “Kirikou?” he repeated until we firmly established it was in fact the same Kirikou, and he told me he had seen the movie. I could not resist asking if the movie was an accurate representation of Africa, and he resolutely affirmed it was. I continued, “I will be able to tell my students they are not wasting their time?” “Not at all,” he insisted, and I will be certain to tell them.

Touring Morocco:
Who Feels It Knows It
Kwasi Boadi, instructor in history

The one-week tour of Morocco—from Casablanca to Rabat, Fes, Meknes, Volubilis and Kenitra—raised my consciousness about the central place the country occupies in world history to a level no book alone could ever have. Mainstream academia and international bodies, such as the World Bank, have always decoupled North Africa from the rest of the continent to the extent that the so-called “sub-Sahara Africa” has come to mean Africa, in general. And yet, Morocco is, perhaps, surpassed only by ancient Egypt in any consideration of Africa in world history during antiquity and the medieval era.

As an instructor of African history, I knew quite a bit about the history of Morocco, but only from the distance of written texts. Since our return from Africa, I have gone back to my books, reread them, and have come to a better understanding of the central place of Morocco and Islam in the nearly thousand-year-long (from about mid-seventh century to the mid-17th century) history of the region that stretches all the way from Spain through Morocco to the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai.

To walk through the imperial cities of Fes, Rabat and Meknes is to appreciate the power of the Arab dynasties—from the founding Idrissids through the Merinids to the current ruling Alaouites. By leaps and bounds, Fes, a city of three cities, is the place to visit if one really wishes to know what I might call Arabic Morocco.

Its grandeur is matched only by Marrakech to the south, the other imperial city that gave Morocco its modern name. It is unfortunate that, for security reasons, we had to skip going there. Founded by the Almoravids, an African dynasty from the Senegal River valley whose hegemony stretched all the way from Spain to the Ghana Empire during the 11th century, Marrakech was retained as the imperial capital by the succeeding Almohad and Saadian dynasties, both of which were also African. It is hardly a stretch, therefore, to say that, if Fes is the spiritual and cultural center of Arabic Morocco, then Marrakech is its African equivalent.

Although French is currently the European component of the multicultural character of Morocco, historically, that distinction primarily belongs to Spain. I cannot count the number of times our tour guides kept mentioning “Andalusia,” the generic name given to Muslim Spain. It was there that, with Arabic, African, Jewish, Greek, Roman and Chinese influences, the revival of higher education blossomed and laid the foundations, in part, for the subsequent European Renaissance centuries later.

Without a doubt, the most indelible experience of all for me took place in Kasbah des Oudaïas, a fortress enclave near Sala. Upon turning a corner during a tour of the kasbah’s narrow but pristine streets, we suddenly came upon a colorfully dressed traditional street musician seated on a pavement chanting and strumming on a guitar. I was so moved by the spectacle that before I knew it I had joined him on his mini-cymbals, at which point Ali, our tour guide, proceeded to adorn my head with some of the musician’s headgear. The spontaneity of it all was a thrill of a lifetime!

Well, the thrill may be gone now, but certainly not my new consciousness. I look forward to teaching the “Islam in Africa” unit of our pre-colonial African history course this fall with more enthusiasm and confidence than I could ever have gained without the trip to Morocco. How true the maxim that, “Who feels it knows it.”

Bound by Hope
An excerpt from a sermon delivered by Jamie Hamilton, instructor in religion

My first tears came on my first day, as we visited the Grand Mosque of Casablanca. Built over the Atlantic Ocean, with part of the floor as glass over the deep waters because as the Quran describes, “God’s throne was built on water,” this mosque dominated the skyscape. Within her walls 25,000 worshippers can pray, while outside in the courts 80,000 can pray. With the vast height of the arches and the deep reach into the sea, I felt simultaneously insignificant and held.

Another time, it was the slave castle, deep in the dungeons that held the captives like goods, or up the coast, in the stream where the slaves took their last bath before being put on the auction block, forever separated from their children and husbands and wives.

Another moving experience was when we visited the SOS [Children’s] Village in Tema, just beyond Accra, the capital of Ghana. One hundred and fifty children of all ages—abandoned, orphaned or destitute—are living within the walls of this institution. The “mamas” don’t call it an orphanage, but a village.

I lingered back from the group tour, slipped behind a building and sat down in the grass. And two little girls poked their heads out from a hiding place of bushes. I gestured and with unbridled joy, they came running out and sat on my lap. Their bright green and yellow school uniforms were pressed with a light starch and the smell of lavender. Their wide white smiles flashed against their blue-black skin as they poked me and ran their hands through my hair. One girl rubbed my skin hard and I finally realized that she was convinced that the white powder would come off.

As a friend once wrote to me, “we are called by hope, bound by it, unreasonable, unfulfilled, essential, elusive, demanding, sometimes more than we think we have in us to believe in the possible, in the despair of the present tense.” Yet if the lunar eclipse of the moon over the sea of Rabat can hold its orbit in some mystery of the divine or some other orange-red pattern witnessed in the sky on a clear night, why doubt the power of hope to save us?

Or another way to put it, as one of our guides of Cape Coast did, “You see, we Ghanaians are ‘incurably religious.’ ”

“Can you please explain what you mean by being ‘incurably religious’?”

“Of course. If you are in a hospital bed, sick, with IVs coming out of your arms and someone asks you, ‘How are you?’ you respond, ‘Nyame Be Kyere,’ God will make the way. We Ghanaians know that no one religion has the answer; we love them all because we are all filled with the spirit of hope.”

You can see this hope along the main roads between Accra, Kumasi and Cape Coast. Often in bright-orange Vodafone crates, edged on the roads, little businesses vie for their entrepreneurial edge with their appealing names:

God is Able Aluminum Enterprise
God is Alive with Vitamins
In Him We Move, Trucking Enterprise
God is Good Furniture
Fear Not Fashion House, Paradise Fitting
Miracle Touch Salon
I Shall Not Die Motors

And maybe my favorite, In His Own Time Cosmetics.

Is It Poverty?
Giorgio Secondi, instructor in history

The two men pictured are dyeing agave silk in the medina of Fes, Morocco. The medina is an intricate and fascinating maze of narrow alleyways bustling with commerce. Skilled craftsmen work on their products while shopkeepers display their merchandise and compete for customers. Children run around, family members chat with each other, friends share a laugh. The tourist is struck by the vitality of the place and may wonder whether this can be considered “poverty.” The lives of the people in the medina are simple; yet they often appear happy and dignified. There’s no starvation here, and the many expert artisans take obvious pride in their work. These families are undoubtedly better off than the many we saw in the rural areas of Ghana. But we shouldn’t be misled into romanticizing the lives of these Moroccan households. What they experience, every day, is poverty indeed.

Poverty is best understood as a condition that limits people’s choices. Such choices include not only feeding oneself and one’s family, but also having access to health care, education and some degree of economic security, as well as having the ability to participate in the life of the community and pursue interests and endeavors considered valuable. Morocco has undoubtedly made great strides toward removing poverty. A mere 2.5 percent of the population now lives on less than $1.25 a day; this compares to over 50 percent in the average sub-Saharan African country. Life expectancy, now over 71 years, is not far from the levels achieved in North American and Western European countries (and nearly 20 years longer than in the average sub-Saharan African country). Yet literacy levels remain remarkably low and access to health care limited. And there isn’t much of a social safety net to catch those hit by unemployment or a sudden drop in incomes. While the merchants in the medina may get by when things are good, their livelihoods are not secure; an illness, accident or economic downturn will quickly push them below the poverty line. And their ability to see the next generation move into higher-paying, more secure jobs is drastically limited by an educational system that leaves over 40 percent of adults unable to read and write.

It is intriguing for the tourist to observe the tanneries in the medina and learn that work conditions here have changed little since medieval times; but chances are that the people who work here hope that their kids will have a better life—one that frees them from the harsh toil of manual labor and affords them more economic security and peace of mind.

The Beauty of Geometry
Joan Heisey, instructor in mathematics

In Morocco, there was layer upon layer of geometry in the architecture and interior design. Clay tiles are used to create intricate mosaics that decorate many fountains, walls and graves. Our guide pointed out how patterns and colors in these mosaics represented aspects of the spiritual and cultural traditions in Morocco. One of the circular patterns was a representation of the medina—a walled old-city area comprised of thousands of maze-like passages—with the spiritual center marked in yellow and colored rings that depicted forms of business and trade as well as residential areas. Beyond the ring of tiles that marked the wall was a series of floral tiles representing the gardens just outside the walls of the medina. When we saw workers hand-chiseling tiles to shape them and a large mosaic being assembled piece by piece on the floor of a tile factory, we gained an appreciation for the painstaking labor required of this age-old process.

Chance Encounters, Lasting Impressions
Alison Hobbie, Alfred Hayes ’25 and Jean M. Hayes Instructor in Science

What was most compelling for me in Morocco was being immersed in a Muslim society with social aspects so different from our own. The streetside cafes were filled with men in the evenings relaxing together, or men walked toward the mosque at the “call to prayer” in full conversation, their prayer shawls on their heads so that they could continue to use their hands in their active conversation with each other. I was struck by the absence of women at such times. Though we were told that many women attend the call to prayer, most apparently observe this rite in their homes. Images of women that have stayed with me are those of women and children together, especially of women sitting together outside in the cool of the evening, talking and sharing the role of watching the children. And the memory of young women, some with head scarves and some without, walking hand in hand down the street, confident in their own choices on how to express their Muslim identity.

On my last day in Ghana, we had traveled far to visit a botanical garden, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the trip so opted to walk on my own, needing some time for reflection. Upon turning a corner near the far wall of the garden I heard the voices of schoolchildren, and a few moments later I found myself peering out of a division in the wall into a schoolyard. It was clearly recess time and many girls were playing a clapping/jumping game together in a circle. As soon as they saw me they came running, surrounding me with these huge white smiles in faces that were as black as any I had ever seen. They wanted to know all about me, where I was from in the States, what my impressions of Ghana had been, what my favorite ice cream flavor and movie was. They tried to teach me a few words of the local language and laughed at my feeble attempts. And as the school bell rang and they ran back into class, none of their smiles dropped. They were eager, excited to go back to the classroom. There was no sign of sadness or worry on their faces, and suddenly my impression of where Ghana was going, where it might be in 10-20 years, looked a lot brighter.

Another chance meeting in Ghana was with a Peace Corps volunteer. Stephanie Mack Harmon, along with her husband, teaches chemistry in a remote area in northeast Ghana. She teaches more than 500 students over the course of a week, with nothing more than one textbook and a whiteboard in her classroom. After talking with her for a while it became clear that it would be easy for me to send her very helpful materials: a thumb drive with useful videos for teaching chemistry, laminated periodic tables that she could disseminate to her classes each day, and perhaps some simple lab equipment that would allow her students to perform some hands-on activities on a small scale. We also agreed to keep in communication through a Peace Corps program that connects U.S. educators with volunteers in the field. I am eager to see how this program can be of help to her and to my students in the months ahead.

The Next Generation
Townley Chisholm, instructor in science

I have never seen so many young people as in these countries. Education is a booming business there because such a high proportion of the population is in [their] child-bearing years and there are so many, many kids. I am thinking now about how best to present this striking difference in demographics to my students, but you can see the difference between the aging population of Europe or Japan and the booming populations of Ghana and Morocco just by walking down the street. A lasting image for me came from walking through a packed street market in Accra; we wandered down one of the tiny side alleys that were roofed and just wide enough for one person to pass between the dark shops on either side. There, in an empty stall, we saw a girl of 8 or 10 sitting on the ground and doing her math homework with her arm wrapped around her head in total concentration while a stream of people passed by less than 2 feet away.

Were We Really In Africa?
Linda Luca, director of the Dance Program

What was my favorite part? The easy answer would be, of course, the dancing and drumming at the Centre for National Culture, in Ghana—that was pure frosting on the cake! It was not only a thrill to see but also immensely rewarding to know that the African dance segment of PEA’s Dance Program is right on target. And talk about serendipity: Kwasi, a native of Ghana, has been telling me about a particular dance, “Adowa,” which would be perfect for our dancers, and they did that dance!

I jump from one “favorite” image to another. Was it the anthropology lecture, the Grand Mosque, the sights and sounds of the various marketplaces, or sitting on the floor with two babies on my lap at the crèche? Was it the tapestries of color in the architecture of Morocco and the dresses of Ghana, wandering the streets in search of an eclipse, the kindnesses and good humor of traveling companions, the Roman ruins, or counting off in Arabic (I will never forget that ‘khamsat’ashar’ is 15)? No, I think the visit to SOS Children’s Village was the best; or perhaps it was the eye-opening visits to schools and the excitement of possible connections, collecting Moroccan and Ghanaian music for my dance classes, or the indomitable spirit and pride of the people we met.