Mr Fletcher’s Ticklish ‘Fro

How does a teacher’s hug and ticklish afro make a little Italian girl feel welcome in a new country and class? I enjoyed my interview with Valentina and although it’s a long one, I would encourage you to read it all because every word counts.

I worked very closely with Joan van Geel, an extremely committed and fun member of the research team. I enjoyed our Skype calls and every time the draft of the workshop came back from Joan, it kept getting better and better.  As part of the workshop, interviewing was very important. Asking questions and understanding each other.  I had the privilege of taking a walk on the beautiful grounds of Chateau Bethlehem with Professor Valentina Mazzucato who leads the research team of very committed and caring academics in this work. Interview by Franka Maria Andoh and transcribed by Abi Twum Ampofo.

Location: Chateau Bethlehem, Maastricht, Netherlands.

Franka: One of the students asked, “Why Ghana?” and I would like you to expand on that bit. Why did you decide to do your research in Ghana?
Valentina: I started becoming interested in the topic of migration, and because I had lived in many different African countries for quite some time, I decided to focus on migration from Africa to Europe and vice versa. I researched which countries will be the best fit also taking into consideration the fact that I was living in the Netherlands. There were many Ghanaians living in the Netherlands so there was societal value to focus on them since they were more. Once I focused on that, it created opportunities for me to travel to Ghana and throughout the years, I have developed very nice friendships with people there and a wonderful collaboration between colleagues at the University of Ghana, Legon. That subsequently led me to continue to develop research projects with and among Ghanaians?

F: What were you hoping to achieve from this workshop?

V: Working with young people is especially important to me because their voices are often not heard. In most researches on young people, you will hear their stories through the voices of adults. As researchers, we would usually ask their teachers, parents, social workers or health professionals how these young people are doing. We also interview these young people through tests; we do not really seek their opinion. We only test their level or ability to do a particular subject like Math. With this project, I wanted something that will listen to the stories of young people and convey these stories to a wider public. The project involves researchers who are relatively young so it is still the voices of the young people going through the researchers. The aim of the workshop was to give voices to the young people so that their stories could go directly from them to the people who were interested in these stories. I think creative writing is a wonderful way to release their creative energies and also to realize their talents and abilities which may not be usually valued in a school system, where other skills are trained with creative writing being the exception. The workshop we both held in Aburi for young Ghanaians was for example a great success and it was beautiful to see the products that came out of that initiative. I thought that we could do something similar with young Ghanaians in Europe and this was a gamble for me because young Ghanaians in Europe are different from Ghanaians in Ghana so I was not sure how this was going to work out but in my research I like to take risks because I believe it is only through risking that anyone can obtain something new and innovative. I had a lot of faith in our experience in Aburi that this would work. Indeed I enjoyed working with you and seeing you work with the young people.

F: I get a genuine sense of love and care for these kids and wanting them to do well. Do you think that in your case, because you have been to different places, you understand what it feels like to be in another space totally different from one’s space?

: I’m glad that you asked this question. I was reflecting on the way I teach and what I teach about including migration and issues related to globalization and developing countries. I realized that no matter what I teach, I am always trying to convey a sense of empathy to the children. I want them to be able to step into someone else’s shoes; someone whose condition might be extremely different from theirs and to try to understand why people think and act the way they do. Over the years, I have developed exercises that can help them empathize with others especially migrants because in the last few years, I particularly teach on migration. I think that if you can teach young children to empathize, that becomes a key ingredient to making the world a better place. If we as politicians, heads of companies and teachers can empathize, we can do our jobs much better and reach a greater good. In this particular case with young migrant kids, I know from research that they are facing a lot more hurdles in their educational system than a non-migrant child. Whether due to racism or ineptitude on the part of teachers, they have to face many more hurdles. In my view, these kids are exceptional because they achieve much more against certain odds which other kids do not have. Therefore instilling the knowledge in them that they are wonderful for achieving what they have achieved is very important because I think they do not hear it often. They do not hear it enough from their teachers and I also think this is an issue with Ghanaian parenting in the Netherlands. I believe Ghanaian kids deserve more encouragement than they often get at home. There are exceptions but for the most part, I see many kids suffering because they are not getting the needed support both from home and school. In my little way, as a university professor, I can contribute a little bit to what they know and how they do things and that means a lot to me.

F: What did Mr. Fletcher do for you that may have started this journey in an unconscious way?

V: Mr. Fletcher is this amazing second grade teacher I had when I was in the United States. He was the first black person I ever saw in my life. He had a humongous afro that wiggled every time he shook his head. I remember the moment he saw me, he gave me an enormous hug and this shocked me a lot. Firstly because I had never seen a black person before and never felt hair like that before. Secondly, I came from a very formal educational system and no teacher had ever expressed themselves that way to me so it was an amazing experience for me. Slowly, even though I was an introverted child, I grew so affectionate and was drawn closely to him. Even though I did not want it to seem like it, I always placed myself close enough to him so that I could get a big hug from him. I think this is indeed a great life lesson that children need care and love because each of them is born with a gift and we need to care enough to provide them with a good foundation for them to blossom. As they grow, they also need to be taught hard work and the fact that things do not just come to you. So for me, it is love, care and hard work. You need to praise them when they work hard and they produce something.

F: With all that is going on in the world regarding migration; people losing their lives in an attempt to move from their usual space etc. Do you think this is the right time for the work you are doing?

V: I think what is happening is terrible but I also want to say there are so many people who do not migrate by boat but by plane and  are suffering just as much. Many of such people are undocumented too. We have had these migrants in the Netherlands for a long time; before the focus on the people on the boat came up. When I started this work, I was encouraged to do it precisely because I saw these wasted lives and I think that the history of migration has always been accompanied by the waste of life. I say waste because it is not necessary. I believe you can use the talents and resources available in your country to make people feel welcome and valued. This in turn contributes to your own country because these people will begin to feel grateful and then they become loyal to the country. On the other hand, if you treat people as unwelcome, they will be here only because they have nowhere to go. They’ll feel discriminated and will develop grudges against the system. They will feel like they have no need to be loyal to the country. Thus for me, it is a win-win situation.

F: Thank you. That was amazing.

V: Thank you too, Franka.

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