A few years ago, while I was living and working in the US, I devised a new optional ‘elective’ course for my teenage students. I began the first lesson by presenting them with a passage describing a community wracked by hunger, unemployment and epidemic sexually transmitted disease. I asked them what they thought and not surprisingly they talked of AIDS and poverty in Africa.
In fact the passage described Gaston County North Carolina, and was written by Martha Gellhorn as part of her work chronicling the impact of the Depression and syphilis epidemic on ordinary American men and women. Your grandparents, I said to my students. My point was not to embarrass them, but to make them think of life as a continuum. So many of the keys to understanding human experience lie on our own kitchen tables, yet too often we send young people into the world believing the world to be an alien place that they simply don’t understand.
To make my American students feel better about their country I drew a few parallels with mine. In 1910 life expectancy in London was 45 (the same as Sierra Leone today). The poor routinely died of malnutrition. One in seven children died before their fifth birthday.
My course was called Contemporary Africa, and was less about summarising the vital statistics of fifty-two countries than about a way of thinking. I explained the value of seeing things from other points of view, and used first-hand accounts and witness statements, personal stories and case studies to illuminate and humanise the big picture. I introduced my students to the rational actor framework and suggested that people generally do the things that make sense to them in a given time and context. Of course a factual framework helps too, so Colonialism, the Cold War and the Arms Trade made regular appearances.
As a more traditional History teacher, my aim had always been to bring the past to life, to cross the divide of decades or centuries and find points of contact. I wanted to make the dead real for my students, to make the ‘deadness’ unimportant, and to concentrate on the personalities and the situations. I wanted them to like or dislike historical figures for a reason, to get into their heads and to understand why they did what they did. My students were required to take on roles, defend positions and find the way in to often unappealing or alien points of view. We studied ordinary people, not just kings and queens. We looked at their houses and clothes, and at statistics on health, life expectancy and infant mortality. We tried, above all, to connect.
But I didn’t provide the missing link. I didn’t give my students of Nineteenth century economics recent newspaper articles about the coltan mines in the Congo from where the vital ingredients of their cell phones came. Nor did I show them photographs I’d taken in Ethiopia and Madagascar of farmers tilling the earth with wooden ploughs and oxen. I didn’t tell them my stories of former commercial sex workers in India and my visit to a brothel, any more than I reminded my current events students that London used to be a seething hell of child prostitution, dead babies and filth – in my grandmother’s lifetime.
So why don’t we put our study of the past and present together? Why don’t we take the hard-earned skills of analysis, imagination and empathy and use them to help decode the urgent issues of the day? Why not use those approaches and that understanding to make the world we live in more comprehensible, familiar and human? Perhaps then Africans would stop being crazy and frustrating, and start making sense. Kenyan street kids sniffing glue would seem as logical a response to hunger and cold as drinking gin in Edwardian London; and the traffic of women and children for domestic slavery and the sex industry not something new, but the continuation of an abominable and heartbreaking trade.
While we’re at it, why don’t we also take a rather more global perspective? A few years ago a black South African friend pointed out that it is strange that Europeans consider Africa a dark, savage continent. Looking from Cape Town, Europe was the instigator and venue for two savage world wars and a genocide that incinerated millions of people in purpose-built ovens. Selecting a particular lense, and then looking at the whole world through it is not only more fair, but also far more interesting.
If we want to create a big, compassionate society filled not with incomprehensible strangers but with ordinary people, then we need to fix the missing link: going round the world and going back in time are not as different as we might think. And in case that sounds like a case for progress and the superiority of the global north, it’s worth noting that London is currently experiencing a new epidemic of that ‘Victorian’ condition, rickets.