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Lesson Plans
Rites of Passage
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials

Prep for Teachers

Prior to teaching, bookmark all Web sites used in the lesson.

Make photocopies of the "Saturday School Letter."

Cue Africa Episode 5 "Love on the Sahel" to the scene with Yoro, a young Fulani man, is talking and there is a caption saying, "We constantly have to find new grazing."

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites or other multimedia elements.

Introductory Activities: Setting the Stage

Start the activity by announcing that you have to distribute an important memo from the Board of Education. Distribute the memo and have students read it to themselves. Judge their reaction. The memo states that Saturday school is now mandatory for all students. There are no exceptions, and everyone must come. Play along with the memo, but if students become very upset, tell them that it's a hoax. Ask them for feedback on being told what to do without exception. What groups of people in history were used to being given orders, and could be severely punished for disobeying? (Slaves, military, children are some examples of answers they may give.)

For many years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, millions of people from West Africa were enslaved and brought to America to be sold. Slavery existed throughout the United States, including places such as New York and New Jersey. Though it was later contained in the American South, and finally eradicated after the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans lived for multiple generations in our country.

West Africans who were captured and sold into American slavery underwent a profound change of life, a voyage that would alter their lives forever. In many cultures, such life changing experiences are called "rites of passage."

Ask your students how they think the West Africans felt about being sold into slavery. How would their lives have changed? What emotions might they have experienced? Explain to your students that they will now examine slavery through the eyes of the slaves themselves.

Learning Activities

Step 1:

Explain to your students that they will be following the experiences of Olaudah Equiano, an 11 year-old boy, as he is captured, taken to America, and sold to a British naval officer during the early eighteenth century.

Distribute journals to your students, explaining that they will develop a list of the events in Olaudah's life as they move through the following Web activities.

Have your students log on to the Excerpts from Slave Narratives Web site ( and read Olaudah's story on enslavement. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to record how Olaudah was captured and treated. (While the adults were away, Olaudah and his sister were in their house away from the other children. Kidnappers climbed over the walls and captured them. They were tied up and carried far into the woods.)

Ask students where Olaudah's family was when he was captured. (Out in the fields) How did the adults try to protect their children? (Usually all of the children played together so they would look out for kidnappers.) What were some facts you learned about Olaudah? (He was one of seven children, his mother's favorite, trained in agriculture and war; his mother adorned him with emblems of a warrior.) Who do you think captured Olaudah? (Students will try to offer European slave traders as an answer, but remind them that there is nothing to indicate it was white people. Point out to them that Olaudah's father owned slaves.)

Next, ask students to log on to the Excerpts from Slave Narratives Web site ( to read Olaudah's story about the Middle Passage, or his journey over the Atlantic Ocean in a ship. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to record in their journals at least four facts about conditions aboard the slave ship. (Slave ships were crowded, filthy, filled with unhealthy air, slaves were out kept in chains, the sounds of crying women and moans of the dying filled the air, slaves were subject to beatings by the crew.) Ask students what Olaudah's greatest fear was when he boarded the ship. (Being eaten.) Why did many people die during the journey? (Unsanitary conditions gave them disease like dysentery and food poisoning; depression drove many to suicide.) How would you improve conditions on the ship? (Build toilets, more windows for fresh air, take fewer people.) Why did Olaudah think the crew possessed magic? (They made the ship move using cloth.)

Next, have students log on to the Excerpts from Slave Narratives Web site ( and again read Olaudah's story about being sold. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to record in their journals what surprises Olaudah experienced when he landed. (The white men's houses were built of brick and had multiple stories; they used horses to travel.) Ask students what the slaves' greatest fear was upon seeing the merchants and planters. (Being eaten.) Were slaves sold individually? (No, they were organized into parcels.) Were families sold as a unit? (No, many were separated.) Explain to the students that the trauma of separating from families and loved ones was as painful as the beatings and conditions aboard the ship. Ask the students to remember Olaudah's story of being captured. All the children and adults looked after each other.

Step 2:

Ask your students how Olauduh's story thus far is a rite of passage. What sort of mental and physical voyage has he undergone? How has his life changed?

After reading Olaudah's story about being kidnapped, transported on a slave ship, and sold, we will now look at a slave's living and working conditions. This will be organized differently. The class should be divided into three groups, and each group will have a different reading to complete and report on. If classes are large, the three groups may be sub divided to two or three students working together at the computer at a time. Remind groups to write their comments in their journals.

Group 1 will log on to the Excerpts from Slave Narratives Web site ( to read Josiah Henson's story about the living conditions of some slaves on a Maryland plantation. Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking students to make a list of duties performed by a typical slave in one day. (From dawn to dusk they picked cotton. Cotton is then toted, stored, and trampled down. After this, they carried out their second duty such as feeding animals, or cutting wood until a late hour. When they got back to their cabins, they then had to prepare dinner.)

Group 2 will log on to the Excerpts from Slave Narratives Web site ( to read Josiah Henson's story about the living conditions of some slaves on a Maryland plantation. Provide students a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking the groups to describe how a slave would eat, dress, and sleep on a rainy winter day. (They would eat cornmeal and herring. Their dress would be tow-cloth, a shirt for the children, pantaloons or a gown for adults, with an overcoat, wool hat for the men and shoes. With no beds or wood floors, they slept on straw or wood planks with an old jacket for a pillow and their feet warmed by the fireplace.)

Group 3 will log on to the Excerpts from Slave Narratives Web site ( to read Jacob Stroyer's story describing the living quarters of slave families. Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking the groups to describe how the cabin was organized. (Two families would be assigned one cabin. The cabin would be partitioned. There was one fireplace for cooking and heating. Children slept together.)

After the groups have finished reading their selection, have the groups report their findings to the class. Additional questions to ask each group follow.

For the Solomon Northrup group:

  • Why were the slaves worried if they picked too much cotton? (They would be expected to pick the same amount the next day.)

  • What would happen if slaves didn't pick their quota? (They would be whipped.)

  • Did their day always end at the same time? (No: when the moon was out they worked until midnight. Also, the driver signaled the end of the day.)

For the Josiah Henson group:
  • How often were the men given wool hats? (Every two or three years.)

  • How did slaves get their vegetables? (They grew them in truck-patches given to them by their owners.)

  • When were they given three meals a day? (During the harvest season.)

For the Jacob Stroyer group:
  • If one of the children got married, where would they live? (They would be assigned quarters in a new cabin.)
  • How did someone know if the families that lived together didn't get along? (They would not use the fireplace together.)
  • When children became adolescent, where would they sleep? (The young men would sleep in the kitchen, and the young girls with their parents.)

Step 3:

In this step students will discover that some African beliefs and practices were preserved, not by all slaves, but by some.

Break the class up into groups of two or three. Remind students to write comments in their journals. Have them log on to the Excerpts from Slave Narratives Web site to read Charles Ball's story of an infant slave's funeral. Provide students a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to list the objects placed in the coffin. (A small bow and several arrows; a little bag of parched meal; a miniature canoe and a little paddle, a small stick with an iron nail sharpened and fastened into one end of it; a piece of painted white muslin, and a lock of the father's hair.) After the groups have finished, have them report their findings. Have the students discuss possible meanings for each item placed in the coffin. Ask them if there are any other cultures past or present that place items in tombs. (Egyptians, Mayans, Greeks, Romans, just to mention a few.)

Step 4:

The people we've studied so far predominantly were enslaved from West Africa. Those who were not enslaved stayed behind to develop their own cultures and societies. Many ancestors of American slaves remain in West Africa today, living in thriving villages. In order to help students give a face to the people they have read about and understand the histories and traditions of those people, students will now examine the rites of passage in two present West African cultures, notably the Fulani and the Dogon. Explain to the students that there are many tribes that make up the peoples of West Africa. Because some of the ancestors of these people have been captured and enslaved like Olaudah Equiano, students will acquire an African context by which to view some of the people who made up the slave trade.

The Fulani are cattle herders. In their culture, cattle are a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Every year at the end of the arid season, the young men lead their cattle on a journey to find grazing land in the Sahel, a "shore" of the desert "ocean" called the Sahara.

The journey can take up to eight months covering many miles. Why are the young Fulani men so willing to make this difficult journey? We will follow Aissa Bar as she awaits the return of her boyfriend Yoro Sisse.

Insert Nature: Africa "Love in the Sahel" into your VCR. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking students to raise their hands when they find out why it is important for Yoro to bring home fat cattle. START the tape when the screen shows Yoro with a caption saying, "We constantly have to find new grazing." PLAY the tape until you hear the announcer say, "...her parents are unlikely to consider him." STOP. CHECK comprehension by asking students why Yoro must bring home fat cattle. (The village will judge him on his competence as a cattle herder; he wants to marry Aissa, but her parents make that decision and they will not allow it unless he is a good cattle herder.) Remind students that the video said, "Bringing home a healthy herd is part of the traditional rites of passage for Fulani boys." Ask students what that means. (The boys prove themselves by managing the herd successfully; it marks the change from boyhood to manhood; it represents a time when they can support their family, be trusted with their greatest possessions.)

Herding cattle over a great distance is difficult and dangerous. In the video, Yoro lists nine perils of the cattle drive. Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking students to jot down as many perils of a cattle drive as they can. PLAY the video. When you hear the announcer say, "...are in no mood for a fight," STOP the tape. CHECK for comprehension by asking students to share the perils they wrote down. (Lack of water, lack of food, rebels, cattle rustlers, mosquitoes, ticks, exhaustion, hyenas, elephants.) If students don't list each of these, REWIND the tape and REPLAY so they can hear the rest of the answers. Remind your students that the video said, "Often we don't sleep at night." Why is this true? (Because of hyenas and cattle rustlers.)

Step 5:

Explain that students will now see how Yoro did. FAST FORWARD until you see the boys returning home on a boat on the river and you hear music in the background. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to describe Yoro's return to the village. PLAY the tape. STOP the tape when you see the caption, "I'll run, sing, and laugh with them," and you see the people running together. Ask students what they thought of his homecoming. (Yoro swims with his cattle across the river, proud that his cattle are healthy. He dreams of meeting up with the girls.) Why did Yoro swim with his cattle? (The water is dangerous because cattle can injure themselves with their horns.)

Step 6:

REWIND the tape to the segment following the images of the crocodiles. The screen will change to the view of a cliff and people standing together.

We will now investigate some rites of passage in our next West African culture, the Dogon. They lived about 100 miles to the east of the Fulani, in what is called the Bandiagara escarpment. An important celebration in the lives of the Dogon is the Dama. The video describes the preparations for a Dama in the town of Komokan, and then shows Atime Dogolo Saye explaining why his village of Tireli has not celebrated for 20 years.

Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to list three reasons why the Dama is important in the life of the Dogon. PLAY the tape. When you see a picture of Atime grinding grain and hear the announcer say, "The closest he will get to a Dama is grinding the millet..." PAUSE the tape. CHECK for student comprehension. Ask students to provide three examples of why the Dama is important. (Celebrates a good harvest, marks Dogon manhood, ushers over the threshold of death.) Why does Atime feel like he is "thought to be a bit like a woman?" (Without performing the Dama, he is caught between boyhood and manhood.)

In the next section, Atime explains why his village has not had a Dama for 20 years. The selection also includes a glimpse into the reverence held for elders. Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking students to list five facts about Atime's grandfather. PLAY the tape. When you hear the announcer say, "...twenty years ago." STOP the tape. CHECK for student comprehension by asking students to share their five facts. (Eldest man in the tribe; keeper of the masks, keeps court; decides the Dama; the fox spirit predicted that the next Dama would usher in his death.) For the Dogon, the spiritual and the practical are one. What fact from the video clip supports this statement? (The grandfather delays the Dama because t he spirits told him that his next Dama would be his last.) Ask students if they think the grandfather's response is reasonable. (Answers will vary.)

Step 7:

How does Atime attempt to solve his problem? The selection shows the role of the shaman in village affairs. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking your class to raise their hands when they know at least three facts about the village fortuneteller. FAST FORWARD the tape to when the screen shows Atime drinking from a bowl. PLAY the tape. PAUSE the tape when you see the shaman pouring sand from his hand. CHECK for students' comprehension by asking them to list some facts. (The pale fox speaks to him; he has done readings for 30 rainy seasons; he inherited it from his father; he will pass it on to his children.) What question does Atime ask the fortuneteller? (When will I be a man?) What is he really asking? (When will our village have a Dama?) Why go to the fortuneteller? (The spirits told the grandfather that the next Dama would be his last. If spirits say that there will soon be a Dama, pressure will be placed on the grandfather to have one because he believes in the spirits.)

The village shaman, or spiritual leader, consults the pale fox to provide him with spiritual guidance to make recommendations about his village. Atime asks him to ask the fox how long it will be until his village will have its Dama. FAST FORWARD to after the scene with the fox when Atime is speaking and says, "My heart us fluttering..." Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to predict what they think the shaman will say-that the Dama will be held or not. PLAY the tape. When Atime says that he is happy and the camera goes back to the shaman. STOP. CHECK for comprehension by asking students if their prediction was correct or not. How did Atime greet the old man when he arrived? (He asked about his family generation by generation.) What does that imply? (A reverence for elders and family.) Remind students of Olaudah Equiano's description of the despair felt when families were parted in the slave trade. Think back though, who makes the decision as to whether or not the Dama will occur? (Atime's grandfather.) So we still don't know when the Dama will be.

FAST FORWARD to Atime walking up a path and a caption reads, "Now is the time to ask my grandfather for the Dama." Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking to predict what the grandfather will say and to describe the look on his face after he reaches a final decision. PLAY the tape. PAUSE when you see the grandfather's face after he reaches a final decision. (The grandfather will work something out for his grandson-the Dama will occur. He appears resigned to the fate predicted by the spirits. Answers may vary.) Did you notice something that was the same when Atime greeted his grandfather and the Shaman? (He went through the same series or questions asking about the families of the men.)

Explain to students that in Komokan the Dama is in progress and they will see some images of that. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, by having them note what they think the draw of the event is. PLAY the tape. When the screen goes back to the Dama and the narrator says, " might well be him behind the mask." STOP. What was the Dama like in the other village? (Dancing, costumes, singing, drink-it was a big celebration.)

Step 8:

Before closing the activity, ask your students to compare and contrast the rites of passage in both the Dogon and Fulani cultures. (The Dogon use the Dama as a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood; the Fulani use the cattle drive, a long and difficult journey. In both cultures, the opinions of elders are very important.)

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

According to Anti-Slavery International, there are over 27 million slaves worldwide today. Break up the class into seven groups. Remind students to write their comments in their journals. Have them log on to the Iabolish Web site Assign each group a continent and country to research as follows: North America (United States); South America (Brazil); Africa (Benin); Europe (France); Middle East (Saudi Arabia); Asia (China); and Australia. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, by asking them to describe how the slave trade on that continent and what actions, if any, are being taken to abolish the trade. Include personal stories if possible. After the groups finish reading their assignments, have the groups report their findings.

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

Have students write a scene from a play based on the life and experiences of Olaudah Equiano. Ask students to present their scene in a reading.

Ask students to calculate the square mileage of the Sahara and the Sahel. How does the Sahara's size compare with that of the United States?

Ask students to research and report on the nocturnal animals of the Sahel.

Have students research the daily nutritional requirement for human beings and how well milk alone satisfies that requirement. What essential nutrients are needed to sustain human life? What would be the best single food for a person to live on?

Read the book Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball, in which a contemporary white journalist researches his family history and discovers that he has many living African-American relatives.

Assign your students to research and report on different rites of passage, customs, and traditions that their family practices. What are their origins?

Have students create Dama masks based on a rite of passage they celebrate.

Community Connections

Ask students if they want to do their part in abolishing modern slavery. Possible actions could be to writing a letter to a political figure, holding a candlelight vigil, or buying the freedom of a Sudanese slave. Have students log on to the Iabolish Web site and decide what course of action they wish to take.

Invite a local historian to your class to explain the role of your area in the American slave trade in the years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Ask students to interview older friends or family members to research their family, ancestry, or country of origin.