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Feb. 26, 2020

Nwando Achebe: Teaching, for Good

Feb. 25, 2020

Nwando Achebe is the Jack and Margaret Sweet Endowed Professor in the Department of History. She is an award-winning oral historian and a fierce advocate for positive change. An author of six books, she is an expert on women, gender and sexuality in the context of African history. The following is repurposed content from the College of Social Science. The original content was cut for length, but can be viewed in its entirety here.

I ask myself, “Why do I keep teaching this huge undergraduate Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities service course?”

The answer is, I keep teaching it semester after semester because I have a passion for what I do — I truly do. You couldn’t pay me enough to not do this job. This is where I’m supposed to be.

I see myself as a missionary in reverse. For me, it's about introducing this Africa that I know, this Africa that I love, this Africa that I have so much passion for, to my American students in a way that they don't ‘other’ the continent.

The fact that we never see Africa reported about in the U.S. news media — except in crises — has an impact on us and our perception of it. So, my whole approach to teaching Africa is about balance.

One of my favorite activities I do with my students at the beginning of each semester is my “Perception or Reality” activity. The purpose of this activity is to consider how our perspective or point-of-view can determine what we see in the world and how we react to it.

In the activity, I show my students a series of images of slums, and I ask them to first describe what they see and then to guess where in the world each image is from.

They also are asked to consider why they judge the images the way they do and how fair their judgment is.

My students are always shocked to discover that the majority of the images are from the U.S. This activity gives me the opportunity to teach my students that poverty looks the same worldwide.

I follow this activity with a short video called “The Africa They Will Never Show You.” It’s a video of beautiful African cities and landscapes. And every year I show this video, students — especially African American students — come to me, saying they feel lied to because they’ve never been shown this side of Africa before.

If you're a photographer that lands in an African city and chooses to only capture images of poverty, you will of course find it. There is poverty everywhere. But, is that really the essence of the African continent? I would argue not.

I live for those undergraduate students who don’t want to be in my classes, but because of my passion for Africa, and the way that I teach about it, decide to visit the continent and find themselves falling in love with it.

My passion for presenting Africa as it truly is — not as Westerners portray it — is also reflected in my research.

As a Master’s student, I was upset with the way African people, specifically African women, were presented in academic texts. So, I set out to tell a well-rounded, culturally-informed account of African history through my own academic work.

When I was a grad student in the early 90s studying African history at UCLA, I was moved to study African women’s and gender history after an unfortunate incident in one of my grad classes.

We were assigned to read all of these texts that were supposedly about me — in the general sense that I see myself as a quintessential African woman. I remember looking at the scholarship and thinking, “Who the heck are these people talking about?”

There's a great African proverb that speaks to this fact, and it goes something like this: “One cannot appreciate the beauty of a masquerade dance by standing in one position.” So, while I was extremely mad after reading this piece and other scholarship about African women, I knew it wasn’t enough to be mad. Being mad would not change anything.

The way that I could correct perceptions about African women was to write my own history about them.

And my teaching doesn’t end when I leave the classroom. I am committed to using my platform to make positive social changes.

At this stage in my career, I have decided that all of my scholarship from now on is going to be scholarship-advocacy. If it's not, I don't want to do it.

Providence has been good to me, with regards to being born into the family that I have been born into. I have this name that means something in the African context. Therefore, I have decided to put that name to good use.

My hope is that I can push African governments to hopefully take a stand against child marriage and to reject the use of the so-called religious rights of men to allow this practice to continue.

This work is hard. At times, it is thankless and even dangerous. But it is the work that I choose to do — to use my voice and my scholarship to attempt to make a difference. And honestly, I don't want to publish another book or article that does not have an advocacy purpose to it. I want to use my work to potentially change lives.