Shaler Area elementary students learn about East Africa
Shaler Area Elementary schoolers formed a line to ask Dan Basil questions about his native Kenya near the conclusion of a Feb. 22 presentation.
Presenters Basil and Vincent Villela had engaged the fifth-graders early by playing part of “The Lion King's” “Hakuna Matata” to teach them about Swahili, an East African language.
“In America, there are people from different states, but you speak one language, English,” Basil said. He compared that with Kenya, where there are 44 distinct tribes, yet Swahili unites people as a common language.
Basil is a Fulbright language teaching assistant in the University of Pittsburgh's African Studies Program and Global Studies Center and H.J. Heinz Fellow. He teaches Swahili courses at the university. He also is trained as an English instructor and is passionate about creative writing. Recently, he spoke before a United Nations committee about education's role in championing local change.
A University of Pittsburgh graduate student, Villela participated in the month-long Fulbright Hays Curriculum Development Project in Ethiopia last summer. He previously served in the Peace Corps in Kenya, as well.
Darla Gerlach, Shaler Area Elementary social studies teacher, also attended the Ethiopia trip and worked with educators to develop curriculum that she is implementing here. She said Ethiopia's Wolaita Sodo University hosted the program. She coordinated the recent elementary school presentation.
The presenters invited Sofia Quattrochi, 10, to the front of the auditorium, where they had her model a colorful necklace.
“The way we dance is with our necks, some of the communities in Kenya,” Basil said. “Make your neck dance. When you dance with your neck, this tends to move up and down.”
“It's made of small seeds. You can see that there are a lot of beads on here, but the seeds are from trees from Kenya. And, before you could buy beads, they would use seeds and small little bits of clay to make jewelry like this,” Villela said.
Hailey Miles, 11, stood before her peers next and held a jade beaded object strung together with wires, while the students pondered its usage.
“People carry items that they buy from market in it. That is a small one,” Basil said.
He told the students that he grew up near Lake Victoria.
“So, I am a fisherman. Our favorite food is tilapia. What is America's favorite food, to people in Pittsburgh?”
The students cheered for pizza, hamburgers, sandwiches and pierogis.
Basil said that not everyone within Kenya's various regions and tribes eats the same diet. For instance, some like a form of cooked and mashed banana called matoke and chicken known as kuku. He said that one dish that nearly everyone universally enjoys is ugali, a cornmeal dish.
“We cannot do without it.”
Basil said that salads seemed unusual when he first visited the United States because, in Kenya, people always cook vegetables.
“If you serve someone a salad, they would think you are trying to trick them,” Villela said.
The duo briefly described Great Britain's colonization of Kenya prior to taking questions.
“When the British came in and colonized Kenya, there were Kenyans there and they just came in and inserted themselves and it wasn't a very nice thing to do,” Villela said. The assembly ended on an upbeat note as the students danced at their seats.
“In Kenya, in Africa, the way that people communicate at public events is dancing. Dancing is as important to a student in Africa as having a pencil would be to a student at your school,” Villela said. “I want to convey that because that was something very different to me and my way of life.”
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.