Painful Pedagogies: Teaching about War and Violence in African History

Alicia C. Decker, May 2010

African history is riddled with pain. So wretched are the injustices, so deep run the scars that it is virtually impossible to teach a course about Africa without addressing the tremendous legacies of violence. But how do we discuss violence in Africa without reinforcing dangerously deceptive stereotypes about Africans as essentially violent? Can we figure out ways of teaching about the realities of war without losing students to demoralization and despair? In this essay, I draw upon my own experiences to briefly reflect upon some of the challenges of teaching such a controversial subject, especially during a time of war.

Challenges in the Classroom

Over the last several years, I have had the opportunity to teach a variety of interdisciplinary courses about war and violence in Africa.1 Despite my familiarity with the material, I am always nervous before starting a new class because of the inherent challenges that such a course presents. My most recent African history seminar was no different. First, I was concerned about my audience—how to get them to stay. Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, is a land-grant public institution with a long, celebrated history of military training and service. The army’s ROTC program has been actively recruiting on campus since 1888. This means that many of our students are soldiers and reservists. Some have served in combat; others are still waiting for that call. Many more have loved ones serving overseas, which makes it very difficult to teach a course that may at times be critical of the Western military establishment. Given the title of the course—Violence, War and Militarism in Modern Africa—I was fairly certain that a number of students would sign up. Whether any of them would actually stay enrolled after the first couple of weeks, however, was another question. After all, I was not a soldier, nor did I support the ongoing “war on terror.” In the end, most of my fears were unfounded. While I did have a number of soldiers in the class, as well as a handful of students with parents or siblings serving overseas, this did not preclude their ability to think critically about war and violence. Because most of them were genuinely curious about Africa, I had an incredible opportunity to engage them with history while learning about their lives on the frontlines.

My second challenge was a familiar one—how to get students to understand the brutal realities of war without succumbing to the “pornography” of violence or to ahistorical notions of “natural” violence. In particular, how could I discuss the extreme violence unleashed in the continent without perpetuating colonial stereotypes of African “savagery”? My primary solution to this problem was to discuss war and violence from as many standpoints as possible. With every conflict, I tried to focus on all of the major actors—the main antagonists as well as such international interveners as peacekeepers, humanitarian aid workers, and weapons distributors. I wanted students to understand the complexities of war—that it was not just a matter of “tribal” animosities. Most of my students were so accustomed to thinking about Africa in “tribal” terms that they were surprised to learn that ethnicities were oftentimes invented and imposed on Africans by imperial powers in order to facilitate colonial rule. During the early 20th century, for instance, British administrators in northwestern Uganda melded diverse clans into manageable “tribes” for administrative purposes.2 A similar reification of ethnicity took place in Rwanda after the Belgian colonial government began issuing identity cards in 1933, permanently dividing individuals into non-permeable categories.3 To help students better understand the fluidity of ethnic (and racial) categories, we did a series of in-class exercises using an interactive web site created by the American Anthropological Association ( By examining ethnicity as a historical construct, students developed more sophisticated understandings of African warfare. They began to realize that wars in Africa were not senseless or rash, but instead, rooted in a logical and historical framework, even if that logic was often difficult for a Western student to comprehend.

It was also important for them to recognize that Africans have historically resisted violence and oppression just as often as they have promoted it. They have utilized a wide variety of forms of nonviolent resistance, many of which involved the subversion of gender norms or expectations. In the 1920s, for instance, Kenyan women used Guturama—a traditional Kikuyu insult which involves exposing one’s genitals to the offending party—to protest the imprisonment of a prominent political activist.4 Nearly 70 years later, women in a South African shantytown stripped naked in an effort to stop bulldozers from tearing down their shacks. This protest is captured in the documentary, To Walk Naked, a powerful 12-minute film that works extremely well in the classroom.5 By examining such modes of nonviolent resistance, as well as conflict resolution strategies, students in the course learned that Africans are not inherently violent. And through regular discussion of the complex historical roots of wars and through exposure to various types of peace-building efforts, they learned that violence in Africa was not necessarily different from violence elsewhere, and perhaps more importantly, that violence anywhere was not “natural” but historical.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that I faced was keeping students intellectually invested in the material while preventing them from getting demoralized or depressed. I wanted students to be shocked, angry, and appalled about the history of violence in Africa, but also to learn about the value of history in general. I wanted them to see the possibilities of utilizing historical knowledge to advocate for social change, perhaps even see history as an imperative to activism. I have found that one of the best ways of demonstrating the value of history and inspiring students is by teaching controversial subjects.

Although it is never easy to teach about war and violence, the current political climate affords educators a unique opportunity to grapple with some of these difficult questions in the classroom. Now more than ever, students need to understand the complex politics of warfare and militarism, as well as the larger geopolitical system within which they are embedded. By introducing them to African history through these types of controversial topics, we help them to become more engaged citizens.

Alicia Decker is an assistant professor of history and women’s studies at Purdue University. She is currently working on a book about gender and military rule in Idi Amin’s Uganda.

For details of the syllabus and the bibliography relating to the course that is discussed in this article, click here.


1. For a pedagogical discussion about teaching war in a women’s studies classroom, see Alicia C. Decker, “Pedagogies of Pain: Teaching ‘Women, War and Militarism’,” in Toyin Falola and Hetty ter Haar eds., The Struggle for Representation: Narrating Wars and Peace in Africa (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, forthcoming 2010).

2. For an interesting discussion of ethnicity in northwestern Uganda, see Mark Leopold, Inside West Nile: Violence, History and Representation on an African Frontier (Oxford: James Currey, 2005). See also John Middleton, The Lugbara of Uganda. 2nd ed. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).

3. Timothy Longman, “Identity Cards, Ethnic Self-Perception, and Genocide in Rwanda,” in Jane Caplan and John Torpey eds., Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 345–358.

4. Tabitha Kanogo, “Kikuyu Women and the Politics of Protest: Mau Mau,” in Sharon MacDonald, Pat Holden and Shirley Ardener eds., Images of Women in Peace and War (London: MacMillan, 1987), 78–99; Audrey Wipper, “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy,” Africa 59, no. 3 (1989): 300–337.

5. Jaqueline Maingard, Sheila Meintjes, and Heather Thompson, To Walk Naked, DVD (New York: Third World Newsreel, 1995). See also Sheila Meintjes, “Naked Women’s Protest, July 1990: ‘We Won’t Fuck for Houses’,” in Nomboniso Gasa ed., Women in South African History: They Remove Boulders and Cross Rivers (Capetown: Human Sciences Research Council, 2007), 347–367.