Israel and Africa

 Last week I was invited to hear a talk by Sharon Bashevkin Perry, who has been involved for many years in early childhood education in a variety of positions in Israel, the US and Africa. The talk was entitled ‘From Israel to Ghana – Building Bridges and Friendships Through Early Childhood Education.’

In 1958 Golda Meir, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, visited Africa and was appalled by the poverty and privation she witnessed there. On her return to Israel she established a programme, known as Mashav, involving cooperation between Israel and African countries in the fields of education, health and agriculture. Her objective was twofold: to extend a helping hand to those countries and to foster good relations with them. Since then the programme, known as Mashav, has continued, under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Israeli educators and training teams in various areas of expertise spending periods of time in Africa. In addition, African educators, medical personnel and farmers are brought to Israel to participate in intensive training programmes. All these activities have helped to create a favourable attitude towards Israel in those countries, though over the years diplomatic relations with various African countries have had their ups and downs.

Together with my friends, I was treated to a fascinating talk, accompanied by a colourful Powerpoint presentation, about Sharon Bashevkin Perry’s experiences working in this programme in Ghana. We were able to hear about her encounters with local preschool and early school educators, share her own personal insights into the various aspects of Israel’s outreach activities and gain an understanding of the importance of training preschool and elementary school teachers in Ghana. We saw the various ways in which Sharon and her associates showed the local teachers how to take everyday items (e.g., bottle-tops, sticks, fabrics) and use them in making toys and educational aids in the pre-school and elementary school environment. Sharon stressed the positive and welcoming attitude towards Israel and Israelis shown by the people with whom she came into contact.

One of the features that struck Sharon in her encounters with the local populace was the limited verbal interaction between mothers and small children. She witnessed many instances in which a child would be sitting with its mother, even in close contact, stroking and caressing her, but the mother would not speak to the child. This, of course, has repercussions for the child’s verbal and possibly even cognitive development, and Sharon and her associates sought to stress the importance of talking to children at as early a stage as possible.

Additional objectives of the programme in which Sharon participated are to foster leadership and interpersonal skills among the teaching personnel, to change cultural norms such as the use of corporal punishment in the classroom, and to show the teachers that the tools and aids for stimulating the minds of their young pupils are to be found in the environment and to use local and natural materials for this purpose.

It is hoped that both the adults and the youngsters who come into contact with Israel’s outreach programmes will benefit on an individual basis as well as being able to pass on their newly-acquired knowledge to their colleagues and others around them, thereby advancing their community as a whole.