by Meg Cohen Ragas
On a recent sunny morning, a crowd of children gathered around stalls selling handcrafted art objects and wares at an open-air market, checking out the merchandise and haggling over prices.
“How much for that pillow?” asked a boy wearing a batiked headband. “I’ll give you four shells.”
“Four shells? Four shells?” cried the vendor. “This pillow is worth at least six shells! My children spent 12 hours batiking the fabric, piece by piece, to get this patchwork effect. That’s dyed lambs wool on top! Four shells? You insult me!”
Similar exchanges occurred up and down the line of stalls as the children bartered with vendors over beaded bracelets, tapestries, bookmarks and other fine crafts—in Germantown.
As the culminating experience in their African studies segment, third graders at Germantown Friends School created an outdoor African Market using a cowrie shell economy (typical in the past in West Africa). Parents volunteered as vendors, manning the booths and bargaining with the students, who also demonstrated their African drumming, singing and dance skills as part of the morning’s events.
Throughout the school year, students studied life in various parts of the African continent, in both rural and urban areas. They saw pictures of open-air markets, read stories about them and about children going to markets to buy and sell things. They learned about prices not being set, and the importance of shoppers bargaining with vendors to arrive at a price.
They were also versed in market etiquette: first, make small talk with a vendor (in Africa it is considered rude not to do this), asking after his or her family, sharing a piece of news or commenting on the weather; only then can you begin to barter over an item.
The items in question were all made by the students, including batiked wall hangings, woven pillows, loomed/beaded bracelets, necklaces with Ghanian beads, beaded animals, plaster masks and bookmarks with African symbols.
“The children are given the experience of learning how to do something new with their hands,” said second/third-grade teacher Megan Hess. “The crafts that we chose were not immediately easy for them. Just like adult craftspeople around the world, they had to stick with it, watch others and try out various techniques. They spent months mastering crafts and turning out products not just for themselves, but for the good of the community.”
Third-grade teacher Page Fahrig-Pendse said the children “willingly give their crafts for the good of the community.”
“They have no expectation that they will be able to barter for their work,” she said. “instead, they delight in sharing their work and taking home another student’s craft. This is an important lesson: We are all working together for a common goal and there is very little focus on the individual.”
In addition to “shopping” the market, the students took part in drumming circles, demonstrated a few West African dances, played games from various parts of Africa and sang songs they learned in music class from Ghana and Nigeria, as well as the greeting song “Jambo!” from East Africa.
“The African market is a joyful affair,” said Fahrig-Pendse. “Children are singing, dancing and drumming with their families and their classmates. It is a very positive way to end our school year together.”