Thinking through Africa

Sally Wood shares her experiences

When I was first asked by Tide~ to do some brief input about the impact of the study visit I thought 'where do I begin?', however, once I'd begun to piece everything together it was more a case of 'where do I stop?'

I first became involved in Tide~ in 2003, when I was made aware of a study visit to The Gambia to study climate change, sustainable development and mutual learning which, was to take place in February 2004. The environment and sustainable development has always been an interest close to my heart so with great trepidation I applied to Tide~ and to my delight was accepted.

The course began 2-3 months before the actual study visit to The Gambia. As a mature student, who had worked in insurance for 20 years I felt completely out of my depth in the group of 7 others, some deputies, some advisors, some senior management, and some just plain intellects! I honestly wondered what on earth I was letting myself in for. What was all this cognitive stuff to do with the environment? Of course I knew what the purpose of education was for … it was to educate people wasn’t it?! Why did we have to spend so much time analysing and talking through things? Looking around the group I wondered if I was the only one who thought all this … but there they were, all happily chatting away because they all had something intelligent to say, whilst I, who had been ‘educated’ to listen and absorb rather than to think and question felt completely out of my comfort zone.

The week of the study visit came quickly. I’d hardly had time to process any of the information that was coming my way and as someone who had only ever travelled from a Western perspective - Europe and America, I tried desperately to find out about The Gambia. I learned about the range of wildlife, a brief history, reasons for the shape/size of the country, about the hassling of tourists, about the bumsters, about how we could ‘help’ by taking pencils out to schools. Hold on a minute! Back tracking now … isn’t that what we’d discussed in our course and the culture of dependency? Hmm… I might have to start thinking about this.

We arrived! A culture shock it was. How could I cope with this intense interest people had in me? Why were they so friendly? What did they want? It had to be money! Of course it had to be. We, as a UK group, were clearly privileged and there they were with nothing. Isn’t that what I’d always thought about African people? Surely they are all so unfortunate and we really need to help them?

After brief orientation with the area I began to feel more comfortable and slowly a creeping realisation took place. Here I was surrounded by people who were genuinely interested in me. I worked with teachers, ministers, the environment agency, politicians. I talked incessantly to the local people who took an exhausting interest in us. We chatted, exchanged ideas, learned many things about place, culture, customs, climate change, the rapid pace of development in The Gambia at the moment, the impact of tourism. I spoke to children who had informed and reasoned views about their president, who wanted to be mathematicians, teachers, presidents. I visited homes and schools, These people were not dependent on me. These people did not need my inadequate ‘help’. These people are people. Proud of culture, place, country, with strong family ties, who welcome people in to their homes, lives and hearts readily and genuinely. Each dawning of realisation was supported through discussion. All this talking and analysing had a place. We needed to talk about it to make sense of things and when I still could not discuss things I listened, absorbed and was given time to reflect and make sense of my thoughts and feelings. My perceptions of Africa had completely changed. How could I have been so blind?

I arrived home in the UK to questions about how we had ‘helped’ the Africans. Did we go into schools … yes? Oh … were the children really grateful when you gave them sweets and pencils? I looked long and hard at these well meaning people and realised that the biggest challenge I now had to face was trying to explain, help people to understand too.

I do try now … all the time. Through my teaching, through discussion, through allowing children in my school to experience The Gambia in the way I did through senses and feeling … food, music, games, images. There is no way to bring this completely home with me, but I can try. I try to filter the information down as well as I can. I challenge thinking with conversation, images, in any way that seems relevant at the time.

I arrived in the Gambia thinking that I was the privileged one, I left realising that for me, The Gambian people had so much more to offer than the society I was living in. They had taught me so much, as had the people who were on the course with me - who I now realised faced exactly the same insecurities and challenges as I did.

I was asked once to explain how the course had changed me by a fellow teacher. I thought for a long time because the changes are immeasurable and I’m sure will be transforming and taking place for many years to come. I think in pictures and feelings, so tried to explain the impact as my life being the pieces of a jigsaw that have all fitted together and created a very pretty, nice image thank you. Then one day some one moved a piece, that was the beginning of the course and a new but better picture formed. From then on the pieces always fit together but the picture keeps changing and I want to move the pieces myself to find out what happens next.

I applied to go on the course again last year and was asked if I would like to co-lead. Me? I don’t lead! I listen. Oh well, out of my comfort zone again and away we go. So, here I am now back from what I consider to be a very successful course with a group of people who did all the cognitive stuff but who also connected very strongly with feeling and emotion and gave me further insight. It was wonderful!