Teaching Emerson in Africa

On Tuesday I bicycle to campus on the one-speed bicycle I bought in the marketplace for $80. I thought it was such a good deal until one pedal broke off, the handlebars collapsed, and I realized the brakes were attached so badly I could easily have had an accident. It's like riding a pedal-powered iron horse. But I'm pleased with my falling-apart-overweight steed nonetheless and the exercise &

I fly down the hill pass the hospital and pump extra hard to cross the Kennedy Bridge &

helps me think more clearly about the day's class.

This year in West Africa I'm teaching 19th century American literature to second year students at the University of Niamey. When all my students come, I have about 78 (five months into the semester, the Registrar hasn't finalized the class lists yet). But the university has been closed recently because of violent strikes on campus. A car was torched last week. When I bike by the burned-out shell, naked and exposed like a skeleton, I try not to look at it. A few weeks before that a lamppost was pulled out of its concrete frame and refrigerators hurled into the middle of the road by angry students. Some have left Niamey and gone back to their villages. Others avoid campus. Still others don't receive the information that class will be held in time. So my make-up class today only has 45 students in it.

We use Amphitheater A, a cavernous space with a working air conditioner. Our regular classrooms only have ceiling fans so this would be a nice change except most of the lights are out. It's so dark I cannot see my students very clearly.

We're reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay "Self-Reliance." In it Emerson asks that we discover what is good through our own thought processes, follow what is in our hearts, think for ourselves, and trust our intuition. He says the famous lines about how there comes in every man's education a time when he realizes that envy is ignorance and imitation suicide. "Whosoever would be a man," Emerson writes, "must be a nonconformist."

"Madame," a student snaps his fingers and then raises his hand at me. I've tried to explain that we raise our whole arm in an American classroom and that snapping is considered rude. I've also tried to encourage them to call me Professor Margulis. Most of them call me "Sir." "This cannot work for our African society. In our culture the society comes first, not the individual."

"In our country," another student says. "You must not be a nonconformist. You must listen to others and take their advices."

"But Emerson's not telling people to be selfish," I say. "He's telling us to be self-reliant."

I write "SELFISH &

SELF-RELIANT" on the board.

"He doesn't say to reject religion or social institutions per se," I continue. "He says use your own mind. If you come to the conclusion that your society is good, be part of it. But get to that conclusion by yourself."

"Here it is not possible," another student says, shaking his head. "You must always put the good of the people ahead of your own self."

This selfless idea sounds good in theory. "But is that what the leaders of this country are doing?" I ask. In Niger both the president and prime minister are notoriously corrupt, stealing government money to build themselves palatial houses, drive nice cars, and ostentatiously display their wealth. When investigative journalists uncover concrete proof to show money has disappeared, they are jailed. While the average Nigerien works hard and pays the very high taxes, the roads remain as pitted as moon craters, most street lights are broken, government employees &

including university professors &

often go months without salaries.

The whole class perks up, everyone talking at once. They believe deeply in the importance of following social dictates. But they also begin to see that Emerson is urging his readers towards a more meaningful good, a code of conduct that is based something other than following someone else's dictates.

"I hope someone in here will write a book about Emerson and African Islam," I suggest, feeling that our discussion has just started though it's time to go.

"Sir," a student says as we gather up our things. "This is a sweet debate!"

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