The Power of Pictures: Mali Yesterday and Today
(Vol 19, No. 1 ) By Angene Wilson
This lesson plan is designed to use the pictures taken by young people in Mali which will be displayed at the Smithsonian from October 2006 through spring 2007. An article and some of the pictures are in the spring 2006 WorldView Magazine. This version is designed to connect with study of the Mali Empire in classes where world history to 1500 is taught in middle school. It also involves a picture book.
Students will learn about Mali historically and today through pictures in Sundiata, Lion King of Mali and through pictures taken by sixth graders of their home village in Mali today.
- Sundiata, Lion King of Mali, picture book by David Wisniewski, Clarion, 1992
- Worldview article and pictures
Begin by connecting this lesson to study in the textbook of the Empire of Mali, one of the three great Sudanic Empires in West Africa. Usually textbooks include the story of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca, but Sundiata was the first important king of Mali, and Wisniewski uses the classic Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali as the source for his picture book about the triumph of the Malinke prince.
Before reading students the story, explain how Wisniewski worked to make his illustrations as accurate as possible. (Look at note at back of book.) For example:
Wisniewski had drawn some of the characters with faces reflecting great emotion, but when an African Art professor pointed out that the Malinke place great value on personal dignity and physical control, even under duress, he redrew the figures with more reserve.
After reading story, ask students what difference seeing pictures made for them as opposed to just reading words.
Transition: How do pictures help us imagine the past? How do pictures help us understand the present? Get examples from students.
Visual Griots: Explain that the way we know about Sundiata is because griots told the stories, the oral history, down through the ages. Today we are going to look at pictures from the Visual Griots project in Mali. What stories do they tell?
The project began when Shawn Davis, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali from 1996 to 1998, joined with a Cuban-American photographer to design a photographic workshop for students from Mali’s rural villages. Davis explains: “The purpose of this project was to enable these young students to gain a sense of pride in who they are and where they are from and to share that pride with the people they live with, through the pictures.”
Taken by 22 students over two weeks in 2005, the pictures are arranged as a slide show on the Academy for Educational Development website and stay on the screen for 10 seconds each.
Show the pictures through once and ask students for their favorites and why.
Then brainstorm some questions to answer as students look at the pictures a second time. Examples might include:
- What are people doing?
- Who is drawing water, cooking, pounding with pestle in mortar?
- What are children doing that you might do? What is different?
- What animals do you see?
- How are people dressed?
- How are mats used?
- What evidence do you see of technology? (Notice creative “car”.) Of religion? (Notice traditional mosque with turrets and also small Christian church outside and inside.) Of food? (Notice small storage houses, millet hanging.)
Assessment: Ask students to do a project entitled “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words.” Each student or small group of students can develop either a poster with pictures they take representing their own community or a slide show of pictures of the community. These should be exhibited for the community, perhaps at a public library or on the school website.