Many songs and many stories ~ talking about Africa

This article shares ideas from a Tide~ workshop with a group of West African griots.

We all have stories to tell about ourselves, our lives and where we live.  These are a powerful resource, but sometimes that richness can become reduced into an over-simplified ‘single story’.  This piece is about these sorts of stories, and especially how we deal with the tales of poverty and woe that we often hear about African people,  and their continent.

The ideas and CPD activities that follow mostly come from a teachers’ workshop, in collaboration with Sadio Cissokho and his group of Senegalese griots.   In particular, the activities respond to an outstanding online lecture from the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, about “The Danger of a Single Story.”

The Danger of A Single Story

“The danger of the single story” offers a powerful stimulus to thinking about the sort of accounts which often dominate discourse about Africa.

It offers a compelling starting point for teachers who are thinking about setting up international partnerships, planning work on an African theme or locality, or wanting to engage with challenging questions about Global Learning.

To see the clip, click here

CPD activity

The following prompt questions were used by a group of teachers in preparation for a study visit to The Gambia.  Having looked at the clip, they  discussed the questions in pairs and threes, followed by a plenary session as a whole group.  You could use them to frame your own discussions.

• What do we make of this clip?

• How might we respond to its challenges as learners? 

• … As educators? 

• What stories do we tell about the world?  About others?  About ourselves?

• Can we identify words which describe the different sorts of ways in which people construct their stories about the world? [eg postcolonial, liberal etc?]

For a download of these prompts, for use in CPD sessions, please see the foot of this page.


What do we make of this clip?

Here are some initial responses from the teachers and griots at the workshop:

“Stories are powerful, especially for children.  They can empower the mind and the heart.”

“Stories can easily become stereotypical – true culture can be lost.  Stereotypes offer partial truths.  We need to get the whole story instead of just the surface.”

“We have shared stories, too – for example, Kenyans watching Man United at the pub; Britons watching Kenyan runners at the Olympics.”

“Are there resources available to tell better, more informed stories?  Children need to experience a range of stories about countries/continents.”

“Should I show the children images like ‘tyre’ shoes?  These are well meant, but am I giving them unintended messages?  How do you get the right balance of difference/same?”

“Social classes and other groups all have preconceived ideas about people in different circumstances and situations – these can be barriers to understanding.”

“Countries like the UK or US, where a lot of media are based, may be able to tell many stories about themselves – but this is not true everywhere”

How might we respond to its challenges as learners? 

The following sums up some of the key points from the workshop, and several other teacher groups.

The accounts we tend to see of Africa, here in the UK, often provide a view which is significantly distorted by the ‘lens’ of charitable giving, and this gives us a restricted view of a complex and diverse continent.  This forms an obstacle to our own understanding of the issues, especially for those of us who are non-African.  For those of us who are African [or of African heritage] such ideas can also  constrain and distort how we think about ourselves.

While generally well-intended, these ideas are therefore unhelpful if we, as both citizens and educators, want to achieve a rounded understanding of place, identity, and the complexities of UK-African relationships.   In particular, we are concerned about how such ideas frame the ways in which we think about partnerships, and not least schools’ partnerships.

There is an interesting piece by Helen Griffiths and Gill Allbutt on 'The Danger of the Single Image' in Primary Geography 57, Summer 2011, which looks further into some of these issues.  Helen and Gill were part of a Tide~ study visit to The Gambia in 2010.  See

Another powerful stimulus for looking at these issues, as adults or with older children, is the satirical article by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina on How to write about Africa


How might we respond to its challenges as educators? 

The following are some key points from the workshop, about developing work with children on African themes, avoiding ‘the danger of a single story.’

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – we need to avoid generalisations”

“Differences are interesting to children, but so are commonalities – and we need to look at both”

“Before looking at distant places, it is a good idea for children to look at the stories from, and critically explore information about, places which are familiar to them”

“Children have a lot of pre-existing ideas, often negative – they need an alternative range of information about Africa.  So we need to take care in selecting images and stories – and a need for compensating images [eg of cities such as Dakar, as well as / instead of African villages with thatched houses].”

“We need to tell the truth about Africa – ‘not just the bad face’ … Do we only see what ‘fits’ with our existing ideas about the world?”

“We need particular care with events such as disasters in the news, Red Nose Day, or Children In Need, which might feed into preconceived ideas in an uncritical way – and get in the way of seeing the Big Picture.”

What stories do we tell? … the griot tradition

Since the days before reading and writing reached West Africa, griots have had the job of preserving and passing on the region’s history and culture through storytelling and song ~ a skill passed down through generations.

They therefore offer one indigenous perspective on that part of the world, its history and its people. 

The following are some sources if you want to find out more


Sadio Cissokho

Jalikebba Kuyateh

Jaliharuna Jassey   

Wikipedia has a good list of notable griots and some useful onward links:

Tanje village museum


Griots and Griottes.  Thomas A Hale.  Indiana University Press, 1998

Folktales from The Gambia.  Emil A Nagel [Tr].  Three Continents Press, 1984


As well as Sadio and his band, the following offer workshops for schools on African music and culture

Music for change

Thinking about UK, Africa and partnership

Mutual learning

Exploring partnership

Exploring cultural identity and art

Open spaces for dialogue and enquiry

Looking afresh at Africa

Afrographique [representations of Africa] 

Pambazuka [African news and views] 

Selected Tide~ resources

Global learning in primary schools

Enabling global learning through the KS3 curriculum 

Start with a story – using story to explore issues

Educating for sustainability [Gambia/UK]

Exploring Ubuntu [South Africa/UK]


This piece was written by Ben Ballin, Tide~ global learning

Griot workshop participants:  Catherine Clarke, Lawley Primary, Telford; Cheryl Stott, Language Alive!; Dawn Chapman, Kings Norton Primary, Birmingham; Jackie Zammit, Tide~ global learning; Michelle Sedgebeer, Redhill Primary, Telford; Sarah Reynolds, St John’s CE Middle School, Worcestershire; Laura Burt, Damson Wood Nursery and Infant School, Solihull; Trudi Seal, Baskerville Special School, Birmingham; Wendy Coles, Honeybourne First School, Worcestershire.

Griot group: Sadio Cissokho, Adama Cissokho, Matar Ndionge

With thanks to: the 2010 and 2012 Gambia study visit groups, especially Sally Wood [co-leader], Cathryn Gathercole, Helen Griffiths and Gill Allbutt.; and to Edd Bateman [Sadio’s manager in the UK].

This project was part funded through a grant from The Austin and Hope Pilkington Trust


Downloadable materials

Click to download in your preferred format.