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Teaching History

When I was young I absolutely loved my history classes.

They gave me a chance to learn how the new world came to be, but in my class and circle of friends, there was this kid who never did. He never liked history as a subject but he took it anyway because he had to. Most of the time, whether or not one likes a subject depends more or less on the teacher. If you like the teacher, you tend to like the subject as well. So if I enjoyed history it was because of the teachers, who were most of the time mild and considerate compared to the chemistry and math teachers.

I remember particularly a teacher who droned about the Crusades while half the class idiotically slumped in collective stupor for they considered the science teachers teachings solid facts supported by proofs and logic, while the history teachers taught half-truth accompanied by emotion and flawed interpretations. So I can see why my not- too-mild friend never liked history.

For me, the love or possibly obsession I had with the subject went beyond the confinement of school walls. Outside school, I was constantly rummaging through libraries and my dad’s old school books’ collection, which led me to find a lot of his history text books that were used during the Derg era. During my time reading these books, the thought of who might have written them never crossed my mind but coming to think of it now, why was it that in those days the text books were full of inventors, scientists, and conquers with Anglo-Saxon names? The answer I came to conclude is simple, English was the language of instruction and, accordingly, the textbooks were in English and mostly from the UK and the US. So the people who contributed the most to science, politics, literature, etc. had to be from Britain or the US, with French, Italians and Germans coming as next best. Rarely did I ever come across a Russian inventor or a writer although, as I came to learn later on by reading literature from the east, many of the world’s inventions, starting from the bicycle to the airplane, had Russian origins! How do you like that!

When more textbooks began to arrive from America, Napoleon was suddenly listed among the dictators and tyrants of this world. The previous books from the UK had simply dismissed him as the little corporal and a pain in the neck.

As regards African history, Shaka Zulu was accorded a paragraph or two, and some ancient African kingdoms such as Ashanti and Songhai were mentioned in passing. In brief, everything was Eurocentric.

I always wondered what history might have looked like if the world power had emanated from Asia, say Japan or China, as world leaders. Well, we would now be studying the civilization of the Ming Dynasties along with their philosophers and men of letters. But, as one of my dad’s Muslim friends told me, the word IF belongs to Satan. And what happened has happened.

What I came to conclude further was that the problem was that learning history under colonial powers simply distorts people’s perspective and they don’t know where they belong. With the passage of time, the distortion looks right and they start to adjust their thinking accordingly.

It is like the American Indians who have all the time been said that in 1492 Columbus discovered them, and they started believing it. Until one day someone raised his hand and asked the teacher if it were not rather more correct to say that the ‘Red Indians’ discovered the white people in 1492?

It is only when they have become independent as a country that they start to appreciate their place in history. The perspective now becomes focused and everything falls into line. What they dismissed previously as mere accounts of wars and conquest or the rise and fall of nations starts to make sense because now they can think as a historical entity with a past, a present and a future.

The defeat of Xeroxes I of Persia in 489 B.C at Thermopylae with his slave army by a few devoted Greeks and Spartans might seem like a little story now given that it was quite a long time ago, but everything within the writing is meant to show the reader the superiority of Europeans over other people.

Europeans interpreted history in their own way. It was later on that it dawned on me that a small but motivated defense force could vanquish a large and servile invasion army anywhere in the world. Vietnam was somewhat a repeat of Thermopylae. And the proverbial endurance and immunity to pain manifested by the Spartans was to be reenacted more vividly during the 30-year armed struggle for liberation of this country.

About ten years ago when I was studying for my matriculation exams in Sawa, I was once chosen as a peer educator and when I was asked what subject I preferred to teach, I simply chose history. Just as my once mild teachers taught history I embarked on to teach it the same way. I strived to be the best history peer educator the only way I know how, by being a story teller. As I call to remembrance, I am reminded of some events in world history that have estranged resemblance with our history.

I came to see remote but parallel resemblances among historical events. Take for example the American Revolution and our colonial history. To the British, the American patriots were ‘race convicts’ and in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s words, ‘Who ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging,” words that might have easily founded expression in the lips of Derg generals regarding our freedom fighters during the struggle days.

Well, Dr. Samuel was made to utter these words after witnessing the initial weakness of the American patriots. In its early days only a third of the American people defended the idea of independence. Many preferred to live in peace under the union Jack.

When finally General Cornwallis was defeated by the American ‘thugs’ in 1781, he couldn’t believe what was taking place before his very eyes. He found it very excruciating to surrender to a bunch of rouges who dared to slight the British Empire and the Crown. Like it or not, Cornwallis was present at the formation of a rebel state Russia and was used to intimidating the weak and the helpless. The Russians held pogroms from time to time to make the lives of the Jews miserable. Our neighbors did the same to us. Some of their leaders must have got their inspiration inside the history classes they attended.

At this juncture, I would like to say that some of the examples I am presenting at the moment might not have carbon copy resemblance with our history, but they are variations on the same theme.

Now let’s come to poor Poland. Unless you are a strong and well-prepared nation you are destined to become an easy victim of neighboring nations. Nations, like dogs, have the instinct to sniff around and, sensing weakness, try to grab what doesn’t belong to them. If you are weak, they don’t leave you alone. That was the history of Poland.

This country was literally gobbled up by its neighbor in 1795. The culprits were Prussia, Russia and Austria. Can you imagine a nation suddenly disappearing from the map? It was gone, just like that. Caput!

Well, finally, it showed up again after some time but the disappearing act did not stop altogether. It was once again over run by Nazi Germany in 1939. And then you have Ireland. The British hated its guts from the very beginning.

They didn’t like its religion, its people, its history, etc. It was a thorn in the flesh. They killed the native language, which was of Celtic origin and a far cry from Angelo-Norman and civilized language of Shakespeare. They introduced their language in schools and government institutions. Now, only small fractions of the Irish speak their own language fluently. The healing of wounds takes its own time.

In constant discussion about communism and revolutions with my fellow peer educators, we came across Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai- Shek. Mao was the one that captured our imagination and we read how he, from his base in Yari’an(Our Sahel), led a resistance against the Japanese and built the Red Army. Again, a good example of a small but determined army, taking refuge in mountain fastness, mobilizing the peasantry and fighting for the broad masses.

So what did I get out of teaching fellow students of the subject such as myself? Questions, more questions! One of which was, why so much resembles between so many historical events. Could it be that History does repeat itself? Well, the conclusion I reached back in the heyday of me being obsessed with History was that as long as the same rules of survival of the fittest, naked aggressions, and injustice and greed rule the world, we will have frequent déjà vu’s. And as long as the evildoers stick to their refusal to learn from history, the good ones will be forced to rewind and replay the old videocassettes of history. Dust up the old damned VCR please! I’m not even sure if it still works.

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