Most students ran as far away from schools as possible at the start of summer break, but Abby Schonfeld, Brooklyn senior, stayed put. She spent the summer working with students at Harrington Elementary and doing additional research in preparation for her senior thesis, which studies trends in international service and development, the history of the Nwagni Project, and perceptions of Africa in America, among other issues. Here, she talks with The Pleiad specifically about her work with the elementary students.
How did you get the idea for your project?
It’s kind of a continuation of work that I’ve done with the Nwagni Project while I’ve been at Albion. I got the idea from a penpal program we set up between Harrington Elementary and the school that we’ve funded to be built in Cameroon. We gave a presentation on Cameroon and Batchingou and had them write letters, and I noticed that the kids were identifying in kind of surprising ways with the African children and they had certain stereotypical ideas, so I wanted to study what kids know about Africa in general and how they relate to the kids there and different issues with identity and race and global understanding in general.
What do you mean by “identifying”?
Most of the classroom was African-American and I wanted to study how that maybe affected their ideas of an African country and African people. The very first time we went there, kids were saying stuff like, “That’s my heritage, take me back with you.” So I was like ‘Whoa, what’s going on here, I want to study more about it.’ But then the more I got into it during FURSCA, it wasn’t as prevalent. So while that’s something I’m interested in, I didn’t find anything conclusive about it.
Okay then, so what kind of stereotypical ideas did they have?
The kids generally said a lot of the same things adults and other students here have said before. Like, when I talked to them about going to Cameroon they would be like, “Oh, were there naked people running around?” and lots of ideas of animals and fighting or war. Very negative perceptions – primitive, backwards, all that kind of stuff.
And how did you address this through your project?
I would go into Harrington to give presentations and have them do different exercises. So one of the things I had them write about was, ‘If you lived in Batchingou, Cameroon – which is a village that Nwagni works in – what would you imagine your life would be like?’ I got their responses and then I was able to learn about what they believed life was like there, and then I gave them a presentation about what I experienced when I was there, because I’ve been there twice. Then I had them write again to see if anything had changed. I did about four lectures and really tried to figure out what they knew and understood about Cameroon and if projects such as Nwagni could benefit that knowledge and make it more accurate.
So what did you find?
Well I can’t say that it’s an empirical study, because it’s not. But by the end of it, the kids knew that Cameroon has 300 different ethnic groups, 200 different languages, they speak French and English plus the native languages, they’ve got all different religions – and the kids were able to talk about all of that.
And their perceptions of Africa, did those change?
They were able to relate to the (African) kids in ways that made them seem more like kids like themselves. They were able to understand that they were kids and had lives similar to theirs – it wasn’t just some foreign, primitive, really different thing. That was definitely reflected in their writings. Their questions changed too – like before, they were asking me about what kind of animals lived there and if the people were naked, and by the end of it the questions were ‘did they play soccer?’ and ‘what kind of songs do they like to sing?’
So what does this information mean for you?
This is one aspect of my senior thesis. And I wanted to study ways in which Nwagni could benefit Batchingou but also benefit Albion, so that it’s a two-way giving thing. We can provide monetary resources and share our culture with Batchingou when we visit, but that’s every two years. But what we can do to benefit Albion I think is really important since we’re here all the time and there’s a lot to be given. Our primary focus is to help the kids in Batchingou and their education, but I think it’s important to remember the kids in Albion and their education as well.