Dateline: Eixample, Barcelona, Spain
By Chiogor Constance Ikokwu
Some time ago, an acquaintance sent a message to me saying his friend needed an English teacher for her kids aged 12 and 14. He had informed her that my profile was perfect for the job, particularly concerning English conversation practice for her kids. He asked if I would like to grab the offer and my answer was “hell, yes!”
English is not widely spoken in Spain. You’d be pressed to find Spaniards in their 30s and 40s speaking the language fluently. However, it seems parents are waking up to the fact that English is the language of world commerce. It is, therefore, a useful tool to compete in a continuously globalized world.
I met this parent, who by the way neither understands nor speaks a word of the Queen’s language. She was immediately convinced of my capabilities after listening to my trajectory – born and raised in Nigeria, a country with English as its official language; armed with a masters degree from the United Kingdom; lived in the United States working as a journalist; studying for a PhD in Barcelona. She was so enamoured that she compelled me to go home with her that same day to meet her kids. The following day she pestered me with messages wanting to know my decision. She was eager. I accepted the offer.
I like the classes with the kids. The children are well raised, polite and intelligent. Working with children also accentuates the softer side of an individual, which I love. I could see that they struggle a little bit given that only a few hours in the week is dedicated to the language. They also generally do not practice with their friends. Everyone reverts to the default – Catalan and Spanish.
During one of the classes with the older child, I asked him to share his goals and interests. Excited, he told me that he likes travelling and that he would love to study in the United Kingdom or Canada. I asked if he ever thought of visiting Africa. His answer was an emphatic NO. I prodded. Why?
He tells me that in Africa, he would die of insect bite and diseases. I asked: who told you that? “I watched it in a documentary,” he chimed. What documentary? “Something I saw on television,” he explained. I buried my face in my palms scandalized. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. But the latter emotion took over. He was tickled. He started laughing too. It took me a few minutes to regain composure.
I told him that I am from Africa. His eyes widened as if dazed. I went on to explain that television usually does not provide the full picture. We talked about the fact that every country has the good, the bad and the ugly. He agreed. At the end of the class, I asked him what he had learned. To my surprise, he said something in the lines of: “always ask questions. Don’t believe everything at face value.” We high-fived each other and ended the class jovially.
For me, this experience revealed a different and deeper dimension to the Western perception of Africa. Now I understand that indoctrination whether deliberate, organised or not, starts quite early, becoming ingrained in due course. If this perception goes unchallenged until adulthood, it becomes a worldview.
On the flip side, I tried to remember my view of Western countries as a child. It was not negative at all. I recalled watching television programs such as Robin Hood, Charlie’s Angels, Love Boat, Sesame Street, etc. They all painted great pictures of their creators.
There were also Christian movies on Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Moses, and other Biblical figures, etc. The characters in these movies were Westerners yet the Bible was supposedly not set in the West. Persons that did not look like me dominated the popular text for children: My book of Bible Stories.
I did not understand the psychological impact of these things until I started traveling. Then I discovered that even the picture of the man hanging on a crucifix in the Roman Catholic Church (the man we were told was our only way to God) is not genuine. The culture, language, religion, and history are not mine.
What is my point? The materials that we’re exposed to in life do matter. Africans generally have a favourable view of the West partly because our continent is saturated with materials that uphold other people but subtly denigrates and/or ignores us. The effects of colonialism and imperialism are real.
Take our school curriculums as another example. They almost always start from our colonial experience as if we did not exist before then. The exploits of our ancestors are never centre stage. The focus is on how Westerners “civilised” us, a lie that we’re fed as children. Can someone still tell me today that Mungo Park discovered River Niger? Really? What happened to our ancestors living in River Niger long before Mungo Park arrived on his colonial expedition?
This history colours everything. Nevertheless, I think the choices we make today are equally important. The African education system needs to be decolonized. This is in addition to promoting materials that do not sustain psychological defeat. Entertainment is a soft power that lends itself to unimaginable reach in the world. We can begin with this. It’s already happening in the African entertainment industry run by the private sector. There needs to be a policy focus driven at the government level too. A lot of work is required to change the dynamic.
What was your own experience growing up and what impact did it have? Share with us and have a great week!