Movie critique: Tall as the Baobab Tree+links to ECE (from September 2014)

Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012)

Tall as the Baobab Tree opens with two Senegalese sisters getting ready to hear the results of an exam the older sister has taken. Coumba is successful in passing the exam and on hearing the results they girls make their way back to their village. The same day, the sisters’ older brother, Sileye, falls out of a tree as he is cutting down shoots for his cattle. Their father decides that Coumba needs to look after the cattle in the meantime and Debo, the younger sister, is to be married off to help pay for Sileye’s medical bills. Coumba agrees to look after the cattle but she recruits a friend to look after the cattle instead and she then goes to town and works as a maid at a hotel. She hopes she will earn enough to pay the medical bills so Debo won’t be forced into marriage.

Jeremy Teicher, the film’s director, initially went to Senegal to film a documentary with a group of first generation students. He formed friendships with the participants and after the documentary was made he stayed in touch. On hearing stories about the arranged marriages, and living between the world of school and tradition, Teicher worked with students to develop a fictional script addressing these issues. Teicher states that through a narrative story, they felt they could most effectively capture the emotions of the old and new worlds colliding. It is the first film to be shot in the Pulaar language. Teicher said the actors really wanted to bring their personal experiences into their performances and this is their first language. He stated he wanted the story to be told with all the quiet nuances and double meanings contained in the Pulaar language. While it’s a fictional story the film is based on truth and there are many parallels between the actors in the movie and their status in real life. The sisters in the film are true sisters; the mother was married as a child; and the actor who played the brother also missed out on schooling because of his age.

In Senegal as a whole an estimated 33% of girls are married off before their 18th birthday. Coumba and Debo’s father choses to marry off Debo, as Coumba is further ahead in her studies. Sileye is in his early twenties and would have gone to school if there’d been one in the village at an earlier date. The father doesn’t appear resistant to his daughters receiving an education, but neither does he look at possibilities that could have kept Debo in school. It’s unclear what the father does materially for the family, besides organizing suitors, but he is not painted in a negative light. The pacing of the film is very different to many Western films, and many of the scenes were improvised. These factors led me to have faith in the conversations and the people represented. The father does say he is always looking out for what’s best for Debo, and it’s possible he sees education as a force that would take her away from the village too. Seen through this lens it is slightly easier to empathize with him, but young girls should never be married against their will. The man who plays the teacher is the founder and principal of the Sinthiou Mbadane primary school, and the man who plays the elder is a village elder who is supportive of the primary school. Their responses to Debo being forced into marriage, in the film, are diametrically opposed. The schoolteacher’s advice would see Coumba and Debo isolated from their family and village, and the elder’s ‘advice’ to Debo’s father at the end means that Debo will not be able to continue her education. There must be some common ground in real life though, as the primary school has flourished in the village. I would love to know more about this process.

The theme of old and new worlds colliding is powerfully shown. The girls live in a village without running water or electricity. Clothes are washed by hand and grain is ground using a large mortar. Coumba’s friend Amady says to Sileye that he wants to come back to the village when he’s finished his studies and he’ll build a house for his parents with running water and electricity. Sileye responds, “You won’t buy them cows?” Sileye also says that students don’t like fieldwork because they’re used to easy jobs. As they are wringing out clothes together, Debo’s mother asks her why she doesn’t take that as seriously as school, “Don’t you know this is a job too?” These statements show the divide felt by those ‘left behind’ in the village and the fears that education would take the children away. To do the jobs required in the village there is no need for formal education, simply (or not so simply) the ability to work hard to get by. When Coumba goes to the village schoolteacher to tell him about Debo, he responds by saying she should go to the police. Coumba says, “Everyone says school is the enemy. If I take my parents to the police they’ll say it’s true”. The schoolteacher doesn’t seem to take into account what getting the police involved would do for Coumba. She would lose her family and would probably never be allowed back in the village again. It shouldn’t have to be a choice between education and family.

The actual primary school in Sinthiou Mbadane has grown from one classroom and fifteen students in 2000 to six classrooms and 200 students at the time of filming. The community appears to have been mostly supportive of the school so there must be outreach happening. The schoolteacher speaks in French to Coumba, and it’s likely that French is the sole language of instruction. From looking up the schoolteacher’s last name he possibly is of Serer origin and speaks a Serer language. Serer languages and Pulaar are both Niger-Congo languages but the Niger-Congo language family is vast. It wasn’t easy to find up to date information on the Senegalese educational system but from what I’ve read it runs on a French model. On paper schooling is compulsory until children are sixteen but outside of the large towns I don’t think it’s enforced. I agree that French should be taught but in my heart I would also love to see literacy instruction in the language of the village. Pulaar exists in written form, using either a Latin or Arabic script. The organization I’ve been working with in South Africa was given class sets of books in Xhosa (Latin script)[1]. This year one of the students was visibly excited that the books were in Xhosa. Her expression has stayed with me.

I am sure that if I were to visit the school in Sinthiou Mbadane I would find a lot to criticize. I think I would see a lot of direct instruction and not much exploratory play. I would probably see some rote learning and not enough emphasis on personal expression. To be fair though, I need to look at what is happening and what the children are learning, in the context of a village schoolhouse. I am drawn to early childhood education in large part because of the creative role a teacher, and students, can play. In a place like Sinthiou Mbadane I feel that the community would expect a school to be more formal than I personally would like. The expectation is maybe that there is time for exploration after school hours. In the movie Coumba’s friend Amady is talking to some friends of his who didn’t go to school, and won’t have the chance. They ask him if he still climbs baobabs, and one of them says that if you don’t know how to climb a baobab it’s like you don’t know who you are anymore. I feel it’s important to note the distinction between schooling and education. As Madjidi and Restoule write:

In an Indigenous worldview, education is based upon the requirements of everyday life. In this way, education is “an experience in context, a subjective experience that,  for the knower, becomes knowledge in itself. The experience is knowledge.”[…] The            idea that learning should take place only within the four walls of a school, through           the prescription of a fixed written curriculum, is diametrically opposed to the idea    that learning is dynamic, experiential, and grounded in a sense of place.

While the authors mentioned above comment on integrating indigenous knowledge within the curriculum of the school, this is less likely to happen in schools in sub-Saharan Africa[2]. I can imagine that the majority of schooling in sub-Saharan Africa is based on a colonial/Western model of education. While I would like to see this Western model dissipate, we need to take baby steps. It appears to me that a first step is getting rural communities comfortable with formal educational settings. Location of these schools is critical as the closer they are to the communities, the more likely they are able to connect with the families of their students. The town where Coumba goes to school appears easy to get to as Coumba goes there every day to work. To access higher education it is likely she would need to move to Dakar, or another city, though. There is going to be disruption of traditional life but hopefully division will be avoided. One of the scenes in the movie shows the family sitting under a tree eating. There is tenderness in spades and feelings of goodwill. Acceptance of formal education will probably be more successful in places where families feel their values are upheld. As a social justice educator, I feel a compulsion to encourage children to question the world and their place in it. I don’t think this would be successful in a place like Sinthiou Mbadane, at least not yet.

Watching this movie and reflecting on it has helped me articulate my thoughts on education in sub-Saharan Africa. I have certainly not come to any conclusions but I have put myself more strongly in the schooling camp than not. There is a need to respect traditions and customs but respect doesn’t mean acceptance, especially where physical and emotional damage is done. Teaching people to read and write is key. It opens doors that may previously have been shut. Many African languages exist in written form, mostly in Latin and/or Arabic script. Every African person I’ve met, or read about, speaks at least two languages and often they speak three or more. This isn’t to imply fluency in all these languages but it does infer the ability to communicate with a wide variety of people. Madjidi and Restoule caution against a focus on language that demonstrates persisting interest in the outer, and some would say ‘safer’ forms of Indigenous culture. This resonates with me and I will take this into account moving forward. I would like to think my interest in languages and literacy development doesn’t remain at a superficial level, but I need to look closely at what I actually do.

This summer I was fortunate to be able to return to Port Elizabeth, South Africa for the third time. This year I worked with a woman who lives in Joe Slovo township and we ran classes for the four to ten years olds during the holiday break (two weeks). We worked with the children for four hours and incorporated reading and writing instruction along with gross and fine motor activities. The woman I worked with has worked in schools in the area and she is very critical of the school system in general. Zukiswa is a dynamic and creative person, but this threatens teachers who have been doing the same thing for possibly decades, and who are incapable of change. There is not enough space here to discuss the dire state of schooling in South Africa, but to tie this in with the film, I question how I approach literacy instruction with this group of children. Reading time tended to be time to choose freely among the books we had on hand. The younger children didn’t speak much English so I wasn’t able to check their understanding of text and pictures, but Zukiswa could do that. Writing instruction came in the form of an About Me book. I would model the sentences needed using a book I’d made (from paper) and would write these sentences on the board. If the children wanted to write in Xhosa, that was encouraged. I only had two weeks there this year but Zukiswa is there year round. The tensions that arise for me come from a potential need for direct instruction, despite my belief in constructivist education. In “Other People’s Children”, Lisa Delpit affirms

Acquiring the ability to function in a dominant discourse need not mean that one     must reject one’s home identity and values, for discourses are not static, but are   shaped, however reluctantly, by those who participate within them and by the form             of their participation.

The internal debate that takes place in my heart and intellect swings backwards and forwards and this gives it momentum, but I doubt it will ever be resolved, and be still. Education is never static, it reflects a dynamic world, and reflects dynamic relationships. What we must never lose sight of are the needs of our students. We must be open to distinct forms of schooling and we must tread carefully if we wish to effect change. To quote Freire, we must help students to ‘read the word and the world’.


Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people’s children: cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New    Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton.

Madjidi, K. & Restoule, J-P. (2008). Ch. 4 “Comparative Indigenous Ways of Knowing” In                         K. Mundy, K. Bickmore, R. Hayhoe, M. Madden & K. Madjidi (Eds.), Comparative             and International Education: Issues for Teachers. New York: Teachers College Press

[1] The books were not originally written in Xhosa but they work well as they are culturally inoffensive. I think the books are translated into all the South African languages (eleven official ones).

[2] There’s always a risk of generalization but there are certain similarities that exist across sub-Saharan borders.


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