A female teacher teaching science to a classroom of students at a primary school, Ghana, West Africa, Africa

NTOABOMA—In primary school, teachers often combined the two—observation and an explanation of the observation—for easy reading. But one day in boarding school, my physics teacher, the Very Important Physicist Ashong (VIP Ashong, or VIPA for short), pronounced “Viper,” decided to correct this misunderstanding.

He took us to the top of a hill and released a soccer ball down the hill. Some of us caught it, kicked it and gave it back. When we returned to the classroom, he asked us about our observations. The whole class agreed that we all watched a soccer ball roll down the hill every time the teacher released the ball from the top.

Then he said, “This is what happens when you release a ball from the top of a hill. It rolls down to the bottom of the hill. We can expect this to happen each and every time. I think. I believe.”

The he turned around and wrote the word “Physics” on the chalkboard. Some of us had never seen the word. So VIPA asked who had seen it. Some three wondrous kids raised their hands. VIPA asked one of them to answer. Bolus—that is what we called this wonderful kid in boarding school—blurted out, “Physics is how physical things work – like rolling a ball down a hill.”

Then VIPA, asked the class whether we agreed with him. Obviously, the class was quiet for a minute as VIPA stood still looking for a student to break the silence. But since I was always the one who broke all the silence in class with my jokes, I raised my hand and said, “Sir, I have no idea what Bolus is talking about. We all know what rolling a ball down a hill is. Now, he claims it is called physics. Well, that is his problem, not ours!”

The whole class giggled, afraid of VIPA, who kept a stern look. Then he broke and laughed. The whole class erupted in laughter as if they had been released from prison. I felt good. My joke worked. After about three minutes, VIPA calmed the class down, “Who agrees with Amenuti?”

Except for the three kids who always read the book ahead of the lesson, the rest of the class raised their hands. Well, who wouldn’t want to be on the side of the kid who managed to make the teachers laugh?

VIPA then turned to Bolus, “Why have you decided to call what we have all observed, Physics?” And Bolus replied, “I read it in the book!” “Very good,” VIPA replied. “Very Good.” Bolus’ head swelled to monstrous proportions. I could tell. Me? I had accomplished my goal, breaking in some fresh air into a classroom manned by VIPA.

Then VIPA addressed the whole class: “Amenuti, you are correct. Releasing a ball from the top of a hill to see what happens to it and collecting it at the foot of the hill is called an Observation.” I was flabbergasted. Obviously! What child wouldn’t? Then VIPA asked, “Amenuti, why do you think that happened—why did the ball always roll down the hill?” I gingerly replied, “The gods, Sir!” “You mean the gods pushed it down?” VIPA retorted. I nodded and murmured, “I think the gods pulled it down.”

VIPA quickly inquired: “So, is it a push or a pull?” I looked him in the eye and said, “Honestly, I have no idea. We can ask the gods if they would answer.” Of course, he laughed. The whole class laughed. Me? I was enjoying myself laughing over a lesson with VIPA of all people, that sixth forms physics teacher, who sixth formers feared and who we had heard couldn’t tolerate nonsense? I was ecstatic.

“You are correct Amenuti,” said VIPA. The whole class barked, “Heeeeeey, Amenuti!!!” Come see the fans! Even Bolus joined in. When they quieted, VIPA asked, “Are you all now Amenutists?” The class erupted. Fans! Even I could tell this was probably VIPA’s most enjoyable class. Other curious students passing by decided to stop by. VIPA addressed the class, “Now, to all you new Amenutists, let’s assume the force—the push or the pull, we are not sure—that these gods wield to let down the ball from the hill to the foot is called “Gravity.” In order to understand why the ball rolls down the hill, we must first understand this gravity. Many have tried to understand it, and many have failed. I present to you one such standing theory of this gravity. This is what we call PHYSICS.”

“And Bolus,” as VIPA turned towards Bolus’ desk. “You are not entirely incorrect. Observation of a phenomenon is the first step towards finding an explanation for the phenomenon. However, it is the explanation, not the observation that is the Physics.”

It took me twenty years to fully grasp the genius of VIPA and the lesson that day. Ghanaian teachers are geniuses!

***
Later on in life I would quickly realize that modern science in general is like Walmart, it pushes out every Mom and Pop Theory with the explanation that it is simpler, cheaper and easily more accessible—focussed only on making lives better. Then, just like Walmart, it proceeds to dominate our lives at a huge cost! When it fails, it leaves behind an eyesore, a dilapidated empty box festering with spiders, mice and lab rats.

Unfortunately, some of the adherents of modern science, like Bolus (of old), who were taught by rather brilliant teachers have returned to the ministries, and are now an integral part of the Ghana Education Service (GES), but who are bent on requiring Ghana’s fine teachers to begin taking unnecessary exams (a waste of valuable time), when the whole country knows that what these teachers need most is the time and the incentive to become more and more inventive in delivering better lessons to children. Not more exams for teachers!

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My name is Narmer Amenuti (Dances With Lions). I am first a Cultural Theorist and second an Educationalist. Both of which require that I remain an Investigative Historian. All of which lead me to my preferred profession: a Culture Critic, from the Sankoré School (of Critical Theory). I am East African by birth; South African by training; West African by choice - all of which make me, African by nature. I am also a student of Ancient African Rhythms and a passionate dilettante of Science. ~ Success Corrupts; Usefulness Exalts! ~ Narmer!

7 COMMENTS

  1. You’re a teacher yourself. You just taught what gravity is using the rolling football demonstration under physics.😃 l love your intelligence Narmer Amenuti.

  2. Indeed, I can appreciate the sentiment in reminiscing on those influential instructors of our formative years and the inspired way in which too few of them were able to impart course lessons etc.

    As an aside, I wonder if, in the case of this lesson, the pedagogic tool was molding the young minds at its mercy toward a definition based on traditional knowledge of the true nature of this phenomenon?

    Modern scientists are still grappling, perhaps unbeknownst to them, with defining its function as physics is supposed to be in the business of revealing.

    There’s an account of a professor who found himself in a traditional village surrounded, not uncommonly, by a group of curious children. He was attempting to explain the very same phenomenon by throwing a stone into the air and noting its consistent decent back to the ground. Gravity, he explained, was the reason. What goes up must come down.

    The children looked on in puzzlement until finally one of them said, ‘we don’t understand why this gravity is saying these funny things, because what goes up does not necessarily have to come down.’
    ‘But of course they do!’ he insisted, beginning to be frustrated by the simple mindedness of these village people. Finally, in an attempt to humor them, he begrudgingly demanded they demonstrate how there could be any other possibility.
    Well, one of the children in the still gathering audience agreed to demonstrate what they meant. He did this in the same way as the prof did before. With a stone. He took a palm sized stone, and making sure the professor could see it well, threw it straight up in the air, the professor could see the stone go up and began secretly forming his words that would hopefully drive his lesson on gravity home, having been validated by one of the naysayers themselves. But as he was busy momentarily lost in his thoughts, it occurred to him that the stone was still going up getting smaller and smaller until it was out of sight.

    Many had already begun to walk away as the professor stood there dumbfounded and scrambling for an explanation.
    In truth there are two “forces” at work. ‘Gravity’ is but one side of it. Think of the pyramids and how they might have been built.

    My gratitude for your inspiring reflections Narmer Amenuti.

  3. Dade Afre Akufu. The stone kept going as far a anyone there was concerned. No report was given as to its eventuality for the point was made, at least from the perspective of all present, that everything that goes up does not equally have to come down, at least not at the rate the prof had initially to demonstrated.

  4. Collins Larbi, the stone was projected upward based on the force directed through a channel called Bayuali. The counter channel is what makes things stay down i.e. Yennu (gravity). These are phenomena that are described as the dialogue of energies between celestial bodies, which they conduct/transmit from their core outward through all of their constituent components.

    Apparently in that village even the children knew how to manipulate aspects of that dialogue to render objects weightless by circumventing the dictatorial nature of the Yennu (gravity) channel. This is an understanding from the Dogon perspective.

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