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"Ilunga's Harvest" Lesson

fish farming harvest

Students examine the culturally based impulse to share with others versus the impulse to watch out for oneself or one's immediate family.

Supporting resources

demonstration of fish farming

Ilunga's Harvest

By Mike Tidwell - Peace Corps Volunteer

About the Story

"Ilunga's Harvest" is a fascinating sequel to "I Had a Hero." In it, Tidwell writes about his extraordinary friendship with the African village chief Ilunga. This time, Tidwell writes about an incident with Ilunga and the people of Kalambayi that caused him to become aware of, question, and come to grips with his own deep-rooted cultural beliefs as he had never done before. The experience he describes in "Ilunga's Harvest" raises complex questions that have no easy answers.

As noted earlier when introducing "I Had a Hero," Tidwell met Ilunga during his Peace Corps service in the chiefdom of Kalambayi, in the African nation of Zaire (since 1997, the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Tidwell's assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer was to teach the villagers how to build and stock ponds for raising fish.

We chose "Ilunga's Harvest" as the first story under the theme No Easy Answers because we think it presents an invaluable opportunity for students to learn about cultural differences—and to think about times in their lives when they faced questions or situations that had no easy answers. In "Ilunga's Harvest," Tidwell describes an incident in which there is no clear right or wrong course of action. On one level, the story deals with a people's struggle to survive. On a deeper level, it deals with issues of generosity, justice, individualism and community, and the complexity of cultural differences. It demonstrates the way in which our cultural upbringing influences our beliefs, our behavior, and the decisions we make. The story also illustrates how the experience of going from one culture to another caused Tidwell to raise questions—not just about the new culture, but also about his own. The questions that Tidwell confronted were the kind that are not easily answered.

About the Setting
To help your students understand the impact of the story, review with them the information provided for "I Had a Hero" about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire (and, before that, the Belgian Congo). Tidwell, in his introduction to The Ponds of Kalambayi, describes the Congo River and the chiefdom of Kalambayi in the very heart of central Africa. The description of the Congo River Basin was included as a separate worksheet with "I Had a Hero" to be photocopied for students. Have students review it, or, with younger or less able readers, read it to them.

When you come to the section of the lesson (Day One) that recommends that students read Tidwell's description of the setting, there are two important concepts to revisit with students:

  • The meaning of the word "traditional" as Tidwell has used it. Explain to students that the word traditional in this context refers to a place where life is the way it has been for many years. It is a place far from the flow of modern technology—where children grow up and do the same things their parents have done, where family ties are extremely important, and where habits and values rarely change. In the sense that Tidwell used the word, it is the opposite of what we in the United States would construe as "modern." Thus, on one level, "Ilunga's Harvest" is about a "modern man"—Tidwell—encountering a "traditional" culture.
  • The meaning of Tidwell's statement: "What I gave these people in the form of development advice, they returned tenfold in lessons on what it means to be human." As students are reading "Ilunga's Harvest," ask them to look for exactly the kind of lesson the people of Kalambayi taught Tidwell on "what it means to be human."

Note to Teachers
Cultural anthropologists might classify Ilunga's culture as a "collectivist" culture. They might classify the culture of the United States as a more "individualistic" culture. For more information on individualistic and collectivist cultures, see the Peace Corps cross-cultural training manual Culture Matters: Fundamentals of Culture 1: The Concept of Self


Day One
To introduce students to the story "Ilunga's Harvest."
To stimulate individual and group reflection about the story's meaning.

Day Two
To have students probe the deeper meanings of "Ilunga's Harvest."
To stimulate active engagement with the ideas of the story.

Day Three
To engage students in a closer analysis of the text.
To have students consider how the local culture influenced the events in "Ilunga's Harvest."

Day Four
To have students examine the impact of the events in "Ilunga's Harvest" on the author, on Ilunga, and on the people of Kalambayi.
To have students develop an extended response to literature.


  • Tilapia: The kind of fish Ilunga raised in his pond
  • Manioc: A plant grown in the tropics, also called cassava
  • Parlay: To increase into something of greater value
  • Largess: Gift; generosity
  • Plankton: The minute animal and plant life of a body of water
  • Denouement: Grand finale; conclusion; culmination
  • Montage: Mosaic; mixture
  • Incredulous: Disbelieving
  • Booty: Treasure; prize; reward
  • Ensued: Followed
  • Cultural imperative: Something a particular culture requires and expects to be done
  • Gouge: To overcharge or cheat
  • Myopic: Narrow-minded 


Day One

  1. Provide students with a brief review of Tidwell's work with the Peace Corps in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) using the information provided in the Background Information. Explain to students that in "Ilunga's Harvest" they will be reading a sequel to "I Had a Hero." In it, Tidwell describes what happens to Ilunga's extraordinary fishpond and how that caused Tidwell to think about things in a way he had never done before.
  2. Have students review the Congo River Resource Sheet so that they have a feel for the setting—the rural chiefdom of Kalambayi.
  3. Remind students that the two main characters are the author—returned Peace Corps Volunteer Mike Tidwell—and Ilunga, the chief of the African village of Ntita Kalambayi. Ask students to discuss the following questions with a partner: What do you already know about Ilunga? What is he like as a person? What more would you like to find out? What do you think his harvest will be?
  4. Journal Entry. Ask students to think of a time in their lives when they faced a question that had no easy answers. Have them jot down some notes about this incident in their journal. Then ask students, as they are reading Tidwell's story, to ask themselves: What are the questions and situations in this story that have no easy answers?
  5. Refer students to the vocabulary list and ask them to read the story. When the students are partway through the text, have them stop reading for just a moment and discuss with a partner: What is really going on here? What does Tidwell want us to understand—about the fishpond, about himself, and about Ilunga? Then have the students finish the story.
  6. Ask students what all the different emotions were that Tidwell wanted to convey in this story. What do the students think was going through Ilunga's mind as he gazed into the shallow fishpond and saw no fish? What do they think was going through Tidwell's mind? What are the questions with no easy answers that the author struggles with after Ilunga gives away his fish?
  7. For homework, ask students to reread "Ilunga's Harvest." Provide each student with a copy of "Ilunga's Harvest" Discussion Guide and ask them to jot down notes next to each question as they reread the story.

Day Two

  1. Prior to class, post five sheets of chart paper around the room, with ample space between each of the sheets. Write one question (and its number) at the top of each sheet of chart paper. Number the questions as they appear on Carousel Brainstorming Questions, Figure One:Use masking tape to tape a felt-tipped pen next to each sheet of paper.
    • What is Ilunga's crisis? What does it have to do with the fishpond?
    • Describe Ilunga's efforts to feed his fish and what this revealed about his character.
    • Why did Tidwell "pray like hell" that the promises he made about helping Ilunga rise out of poverty were true?
    • What made the argument Tidwell had with Ilunga such a heated and emotional one?
    • What do the incidents in "Ilunga's Harvest" make you wonder about?

2. When the time comes for this activity, begin at the front of the room and ask students to number off from one to five. When students have their numbers, ask them to move to the paper on which their number is written.

3. Then ask students to discuss the question on their group's sheet of chart paper for five minutes. Before the discussion begins, ask each group to select a recorder. As groups are discussing their question, the recorder's role is to record the group's responses on the chart paper using the felt-tipped marker.

4. Call time after five minutes. Then give the recorders time, with help from their group, to summarize in writing the group's responses to its question.

5. Now, ask each group of students to move to the next piece of chart paper. The process repeats, with five minutes for discussion and recording, until you once again call time. Groups again move to the next sheet. The process continues until all groups have discussed and responded to all questions—and the groups have arrived at their original question.

6. Ask groups to read the responses to their question that the other groups have written. Ask groups to select a reporter who will provide a summary of what the group thinks are the most interesting responses. At the end of all of the summaries, ask why some of these questions have no easy answers.

7. Conduct a class discussion on the remaining questions in the Discussion Guide (Worksheet #6). Try to elicit as many different responses as you can; e.g., What is important to you about this story? What questions did this story raise that have no easy answers?

8. Journal Entry. For homework, ask students to respond to the following prompts in their journals:

Day Three

  1. Tell students that sometimes, when readers really want to go deeper into the meaning of a story, they take a paragraph or part of the story that seems important and they study it in depth, really trying to think about what the author means and how it relates to life and their own thinking.
  2. By way of example, say something such as the following: "There is one passage in 'Ilunga's Harvest' that seems especially important to me. I'd like to share it with you and hear your thoughts on it."You gave away too much, Ilunga. You can't keep doing this. You can't feed the whole village by yourself. It's impossible. You have to feed your own children and take care of your own immediate family. Let your brothers worry about their own families. Let them dig ponds if they want to. You've got to stop giving away your harvests. … Stop the giving and the community-oriented attitude, and you can escape poverty. Build a pond and make it yours. And when you harvest it, don't give away the fish. Forget, for now, the bigger society. Forget the extended family. Start thinking of yourself.
  3. Then tell students that this passage raised many questions in your mind, such as:
    • Did Ilunga really give away too much?
    • Can someone be too generous?
    • Does generosity have a limit? If so, how do you know what the limit is?
    • When is taking care of the individual more important than taking care of the group? When is taking care of the group more important than taking care of the individual? Why might the answers to these questions vary from culture to culture?
    • Would it have been possible for Ilunga to "stop the giving and the community-oriented attitude ... and forget the extended family," given the culture he was raised in?
    • Did Ilunga's brothers have a responsibility to dig their own ponds and raise their own fish?

4. Have students form groups of four to discuss these questions. Photocopy the questions and give one copy to each group. Allow groups 10 minutes for discussion. Ask each group to select a reporter to summarize the group's thoughts for the rest of the class to hear.

5. When the summaries are complete, ask students why these are examples of questions that have no easy answers.

6. Explain that the culture in which people are raised exerts a strong influence on their behavior. For example, Ilunga's culture actually required him to share the fish. In his culture, it was the right thing to do. It was expected and normal. It was, as Tidwell phrased it, a "cultural imperative." In Ilunga's culture, taking care of the group is a value that takes precedence over taking care of oneself. In Ilunga's culture, people survive by taking care of one another.

7. Ask students in what ways the culture of the United States differs from the culture of Kalambayi. Which words and phrases that Tidwell used in explaining the argument he had with Ilunga over the fish were an example of a cultural value that was ingrained in him, having been raised in the United States?

8. Ask students to discuss these questions in their groups. Then ask for an example of the words Tidwell used that demonstrated the difference between his culture and Ilunga's. Undoubtedly students will cite this example: "Build a pond and make it yours. And when you harvest it, don't give away the fish. Forget, for now, the bigger society. Forget the extended family. Start thinking of yourself." Encourage students to come up with other examples from the text that demonstrate how Tidwell's culture influenced the way he saw the world, himself, and others.

9. Then ask groups to discuss why they think Tidwell became so angry when Ilunga began giving his fish away that he said, "Fury and frustration crashed through me with the force of a booming waterfall." What caused this intense reaction?

10. Finally, ask students whether we in the United States take care of our own relatives and friends as well as Ilunga took care of the people in his village. Why or why not? Which way is better? Does this question have an easy answer? Why or why not?

11. Role-Playing Option. If time permits, this would be an excellent place to stop the discussion and ask groups to prepare to role-play in the next class. Students should plan to take roles in the argument that took place between Tidwell and Ilunga that begins with the words: "After Ilunga's sister left for the market, I couldn't hold my tongue any longer. We were alone at his house." Using this option, give the groups of four some time at the end of this class and the beginning of the next one to prepare for the role-playing.

12. Journal Entry. Conclude today's lesson by saying to students that, just as you selected a passage from the text that had particular meaning for you, you'd like them, for homework, to go back through the text and select a passage that has particular meaning for them. Ask them to summarize the passage in their Reading Response Journals and write about what it means to them. Have them jot down any questions the passage may raise in their minds. Tell them that you will ask them to share their selections in class the next day and suggest that their ideas might help others in the class learn something from the story that they might have missed.

Day Four

  1. Journal Walk. This is a strategy you can use to help students think more deeply about other portions of the story. Ask students to open their Reading Journals to the pages on which they wrote down a passage from the text and described why it seemed important to them. Then ask them to circulate silently around the room reading various journal responses of others, thinking about the passages others have selected and reflecting on how they might add to their own responses, based on what they've read. (Note: If some students prefer to keep their writing private, provide them the option of turning their journals facedown.)
  2. Provide 5 to 10 minutes for this activity. Then have students return to their seats. Give them time to add to their own journal responses based on what they've read in their classmates' responses.
  3. Now read students the passage in the worksheet #1 on the Congo River Basin in which Tidwell remarks:

    On the way to the center of the continent, one passes through ever-tightening circles of poverty until, inside the final, smallest ring, one finds Kalambayi: a 400-square-mile patch of simple mud huts and barefoot people.... There are few places in the world where the people are as poor and the life as traditional.... For two years, I lived among the Kalambayan people. I spoke their language and taught many of them how to raise fish. My goal was to increase family protein consumption. But what I gave these people in the form of development advice, they returned tenfold in lessons on what it means to be human. There, at the center of the continent, they shared with me the ancient spirit of Africa's heart.
  4. Ask students what lessons Tidwell learned on "what it means to be human" from the people of Kalambayi. Ask students first to discuss this question with a partner, and then have partners join another group of partners, forming a group of four. Then ask the groups of four to discuss what Tidwell meant when he said: "They shared with me the ancient spirit of Africa's heart."
  5. Journal Entry. Have students return to their seats. Then conduct a class discussion about the lessons Tidwell learned from his Peace Corps service in Kalambayi. Conclude the discussion by asking:
    • What mark did Tidwell's Peace Corps service leave on the people of the chiefdom of Kalambayi and on Ilunga?
    • What mark did the people of Kalambayi and Ilunga leave on the author?
    • How was each changed by encounters with the other?
    • Did each leave the other with questions that have no easy answers?
    • If so, what were they?

6. Conclude the lesson by asking students to respond in their journals to the prompt: What mark do you hope to have on others?

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring Understandings

  • Everyone has a culture. It influences how we see the world, ourselves, and others.
  • In some cultures, people believe the group is responsible for the well-being of each individual. In other cultures, people believe individuals are primarily responsible for themselves.
  • Life can raise questions with no easy answers.

Essential Questions

  • How does our culture influence how we view the world, ourselves, and others?
  • When is taking care of the individual more important than taking care of the group? When is taking care of the group more important than taking care of the individual?
  • Why are some life questions so hard?


National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association
Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world.
Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

National Council for the Social Studies
Theme 1: Culture. Social studies programs should provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity so that the learner can explain how information and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference.


  1. Working in groups of four, develop a script for a dramatization of the main events in "Ilunga's Harvest." Perform this dramatization for a class of younger students. Each person in the group should be able to provide a summary of the background of the story and explain the story's significance. After the dramatization, ask the younger students: What would you have done in Ilunga's situation?
  2. Write a paper describing Tidwell and Ilunga's friendship and how it developed, from the events Tidwell described in "I Had a Hero" to the events he described in "Ilunga's Harvest." Describe the challenges their friendship faced. Explain their growing mutual respect. Describe the mark each left on the other and how their friendship may have changed each of them forever.
  3. Write a letter to Ilunga describing the impact he had on you. What mark has he left on you? Use examples from "I Had a Hero" as well as from "Ilunga's Harvest." How have you changed as a result of getting to know Ilunga?
  4. Write a letter to Tidwell describing what you learned about him as an author and a person. Describe the way his writing in "I Had a Hero" and "Ilunga's Harvest"affected you personally.
  5. Write an essay describing a time in your own life when you faced a question with no easy answers and how you resolved (or didn't resolve) it.
  6. Write an essay addressing the question: When is it more important to take care of the group, and when is it more important to take care of the individual? Why might the answers vary from culture to culture?
  7. Write an essay addressing the question: How would life in our school be different today if everyone in our school shared the values of the people of Kalambayi?