A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
African Art lessonsStudents Learn to Seal the Deal, African Style
Lessons in Bargaining Have Long-Term Goal Of Countering Prejudice
storyteller Vera Oye Yaa-Anna selects Isahy Castillo and Carolyn Jean Harvey,
both 8, to help her demonstrate in the Claremont Immersion Elementary School
classroom how people in West Africa eat communally.
By Tara Bahrampour found at the
Washington Post Sunday, March 25, 2007
If you spot Arlington County kids trying to persuade cashiers at Whole Foods or 7-Eleven to knock 50 cents off a soda or chocolate bar, don't blame them. They might just be honing new skills learned at school.
Students at several county elementary schools in recent weeks have received unusual instruction in the art of bargaining. They've learned how it works in less-developed countries where farmers and fishermen sell their wares in open markets, with a special focus on economic customs of the West African nation of Mali.
That is how Holly Darnell, 9, came to be standing one day before a row of her Claremont Immersion Elementary School classmates selling toy produce in baskets. She picked up a fistful of greens.
"How much for this delicious-looking parsley?" she said.
The answer: 75 cents.
"Say 50," prompted Vera Oye Yaa-Anna, a woman swathed in the bright yellow and red patterns of her native continent. "Auntie Oye," a professional storyteller from Liberia, goes from school to school, lining classrooms with bold African cloths, animal-hide drums, straw fans, large stuffed jungle animals and an orangey, 12-foot-long python skin.
She teaches students a little about Liberia and its founding in the 1800s by freed slaves from the United States but mostly about Mali, a country of 12 million people that is the size of Texas and California combined. There, she tells them, mud is an ingredient in cloth-making, people shop for food every day because they don't have refrigerators and life centers on communal activities.
"I teach them how to deal with people who may not be like us," she said. "Your individuality in Africa doesn't work because we work together as a community."
Yaa-Anna said she is motivated to teach kids about Africa in part because of prejudice she has encountered in the United States. For example, she said, people here sometimes assume that because she is from Africa, she must be hungry.
"If these [students] can cultivate a love for Africa, then that's my job," she said. "So that when they become adults, they won't stereotype like I've been stereotyped."
Mary Eckstein, a humanities project coordinator for Arlington public schools, said Yaa-Anna's work dovetails with a state-required curriculum segment on Mali, part of the third grade's study of ancient cultures. Yaa-Anna's visits to six Arlington schools this year are part of a pilot project, funded by a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to a unit of the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources.
Teachers chose from a list of artists for classroom presentations on folk art from around the world.
"Vera was very popular," Eckstein said. She said one teacher who hadn't originally picked Yaa-Anna asked her to come back when his students saw what she was doing with other classes.
One day this month, Claremont third-graders went to an assembly on African instruments and participated in a West African feast cooked by parents and Yaa-Anna. Sitting on the floor, she taught them to eat from a communal plate, how to scoop coconut rice into their right hands before popping it into their mouths.
U.S. children may be experts in wheedling things from their parents. But Yaa-Anna told a Claremont class it is important to see the viewpoints of both seller and buyer when bargaining at the market.
If you are farmers, she told them, you grow your food and have to sell it at a price to turn a profit. If you are buyers, you have a lot of children to feed and not much money. But each side must be reasonable, she advised. Otherwise, no transactions would go through.
"Say, 'I don't have 75 cents,' " she instructed Holly. "Say, 'I need to feed my family.' "
"Fifty cents?" Holly tried.
"Say, 'Lady, I planted these, and I'm not going to take less,' " Yaa-Anna said to the girl who was selling produce.
Holly tried again: "Sixty-five?"
But the seller wouldn't budge, and Holly ended up paying full price.
Jonathan Ponce, 9, was less compliant. "Are you mad?" he asked, flinging down an orange for which his classmate Cesar Ramirez, 8, had asked a dollar.
Another buyer, Francesca Salas, 8, threw down a bunch of cherries in a huff, and Yaa-Anna cut in. "Don't get angry! Because you have to come back to the market tomorrow, so you have to have good relations."
By the end of the hour, the students had learned to strike deals. Natalie Skoloda, 8, agreed to lower the price of her fish from $15 to $14.
"Give the money quickly!" Yaa-Anna urged the buyer. "Because if you take too long to give the money, they might change their mind."
The invisible money changed hands. The cloth fish went into a pot.
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