I recently had the pleasure of giving a presentation and workshop on my National Geographic Society project to a group of schoolchildren aged between 13 and 16. There were, perhaps, 60 students in total, three groups in three different parts of the world: one in Europe, one in the Caribbean, and one in Africa, Ghana, to be precise. I mention Ghana because it’s relevant to the story.
My presentation lasted about 30 minutes and was followed by a Q&A. I say ‘followed by’ but, in fact, there were a few Q&As throughout the talk, which was energising for me as a speaker.
But while the children in the group from Europe were full of questions and anecdotes relating elements of the talk to experiences in their own lives, those in the group from Ghana were silent. Even when asked directly if they had anything to say about what they’d heard, nothing was forthcoming.
I must admit I wasn’t totally surprised. My experience of working with children and young people in Ghana over the last six years, in both formal and informal settings, has taught me that this seeming indifference – part deference, part lack of confidence – is standard.
I was, however, disappointed. After all, my talk was about African women and was, in large part, about issues they could relate to. What was equally disheartening was that the teacher also had nothing to say.
This inability/unwillingness to speak up, or lack of curiosity, is often put down to culture. Yes, African children are taught to respect and, even, revere their elders, but to the extent that it prevents them from engaging with them on any level that challenges them, even a little, is detrimental. This runs through all sections of society irrespective of class, education, etc. It’s a classic case of children being seen and not heard or, in this case, taught and not learned from.
I’ve seen this behaviour even with adults, the belief that their role in relation to someone older than themselves, even by only a few years, is one of subservience, or unquestioning agreement.
We are doing our children a disservice by not encouraging them / actively discouraging them from being curious. Culture is, of course, important, but so is the opportunity and ability to question things around us. Inquisitiveness is integral to a rich, dynamic, evolutionary life.
One of the slides in my presentation read, “Everyone has the right to be heard.” It was in relation to women of all ages and backgrounds, regardless of their location, having the birthright to tell their story and for it to be given the space to be heard.
But it could also be about children. My hope is that we can come to a place where we are not suppressing their natural curiosity, intentionally or otherwise, in the name of culture or anything else.
Main image: Me teaching creative writing at Gem Star School in Accra, Ghana, January 2019.
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