What Sharing Really Means

Lesson 1 for Sharing in Africa

Students will examine closely the meaning of generosity and how sharing can be a cultural trait.

About the Story

In "Sharing in Africa," Tidwell tells how he experienced the overwhelming generosity of the local villagers, who plied him repeatedly with offers of food—and even of wives. Despite the generosity that surrounded him, Tidwell describes how he could not bring himself to share his food, belongings, or living allowance, until an embarrassing encounter with a beggar helped him question his own cultural values. Students will appreciate Tidwell's insight and humor and his ability both to analyze his reactions and to laugh at himself as he discovers the nature of true sharing.

Two other excerpts from The Ponds of Kalambayi, with lessons for the classroom, are available in the Peace Corps publication Voices From the Field.

About the Setting

"Sharing in Africa" takes place in the remote chiefdom of Kalambayi in the heart of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (and before that, the Belgian Congo). Straddling the Equator, Congo has the third largest population, and the second largest land area, in sub-Saharan Africa. It includes the Congo River Basin, which encompasses an area of almost 400,000 square miles. Despite vast natural resources, including copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, and petroleum, Congo at the beginning of the millennium had a per capita annual income of $82. Agriculture, the main occupation, includes cash crops such as coffee, palm oil, rubber, cotton, sugar, tea, and cocoa, as well as food crops such as cassava, plantains, and groundnuts—the term in Africa for peanuts.

In recent years, Congo has sustained brutal internal strife, with a lingering civil war producing high numbers of casualties, massive dislocation of the population, and starvation on a broad scale.


  • To examine how different cultures have different attitudes toward sharing
  • To question limits on sharing and if it is possible to be too generous


  • Congenital: Existing at the time of birth
  • Manioc: [MAN-ee-ahk] Also called cassava; a tropical plant with a starchy root used for making bread and tapioca
  • Ungrudging: Willing; generous
  • Incapacitate: To make unable or unfit
  • Regime:: [ray-ZHEEM] French for a bunch, such as bananas (an entire bunch, as it grows on a banana tree)
  • Absurdity: Ridiculousness
  • Doddering: Feeble
  • Septuagenarian: A person whose age is in the 70s
  • Michel:: [mih-SHEL] French for the name Michael
  • Perplexity: Confusion; bewilderment
  • Waive: To give up a right to something
  • Reciprocate: To give or act in return
  • Haggard: gaunt; tired looking
  • Unkempt: Untidy; messy
  • Intimidate: To make someone afraid
  • Improvise: To make up on the spur of the moment
  • Bludgeon: To strike, as if with a club
  • Permeating: Penetrating; spreading through
  • Mitigating: Making less severe; moderating
  • Appalling: Dismaying; shocking 


Suggestion for teaching the lesson: Cut and paste the story from this volume in three sections. The three sections:

  • To the end of the paragraph that starts: "It was truly overwhelming...."
  • From "Barely three months" to the end of the paragraph that starts: "A moment later he finally stopped...."
  • The remainder of the story.
  1. In preparation for reading the story, have students brainstorm a list of celebrations and holidays. List them on the board as students suggest them. Have students also come up with some foods associated with those days. Students may suggest items such as Valentine's candy; Easter eggs; matzoh for Passover; Halloween candy; Thanksgiving turkey; Christmas candy canes and fruitcake. Ask students why particular foods are served on these holidays. Emphasize that this is part of culture—and that those who are part of a culture share in the celebrations. Explain that certain foods have symbolic meaning for different groups, and that food is part of tradition in social gatherings.
  2. Ask students what they think is meant by the term "breaking bread." Point out that in many cultures, eating together goes far beyond merely satisfying hunger; it provides reinforcement of the ties of family and friendship and involves the act of sharing. Suggest to students that this will be a theme in the story they will read.
  3. To help students understand the context of the story, give them background on the author, Congo, and the Peace Corps, provided in the background information. Point out the location of Congo on a map of Africa. Then read them the following passage, which is excerpted from Tidwell's introduction in The Ponds of Kalambayi.

    The Congo River

    Bending and arching, looking curiously confused, the Congo River makes its way through central Africa, crossing the Equator twice. It's an enormous river, dominating both geography and human life in Zaire. In his famous novella Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad wrote of the Congo: "There was in (the world) one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on a map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land." 

    Actually, the Congo has several tails. A dozen major tributaries spill into its serpentine body. These tributaries are themselves fed by other rivers, each farther and farther lost in the depths of the land. One such branch, running through the grasslands of south-central Zaire roughly 1,000 miles east of the Congo's main body, is the Lubilashi River. On a map the Lubilashi appears as an unremarkable ribbon meandering among the others. But on the ground it is wide and powerful; an impressive river. At one point along its banks live 20,000 people banded together in a chiefdom called Kalambayi. Like the river along which they live, the people of Kalambayi are lost, their lives barely touched by the hands of the 20th century. To this place I journeyed with my newly acquired duffel bag as a Peace Corps Volunteer....

    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. They shared its hopes, its generosity. Above all, they shared its unbending will to survive in the face of adversities so severe I nearly lost my life more than once just passing through.

  4. Ask students to read the first section of "Sharing in Africa." (Point out that the author is called Michel because French is widely spoken in Congo.) Have them consider these questions to guide their reading:
    • How does Tidwell feel about fufu?
    • Why do the villagers offer it to him?
    • Why does he keep eating it?
    • What is the meaning of sharing food in Kalambayi?
  1. Hold a class discussion addressing these points:
    • What does Tidwell want us to understand about fufu—and about the local culture's values regarding sharing?
    • Why doesn't Tidwell just refuse the food and explain that he is not hungry?
    • What foods do we eat that are similar in texture to fufu? [Oatmeal, cornmeal mush, polenta, mashed potatoes.] What would it be like to eat this staple three or more times a day?
    • What would a villager from Kalambayi think if you took him or her into a modern American supermarket?
  1. Comprehension Strategy. Explain to students that in order to go deeper into the meaning of a story, readers sometimes take a paragraph or part of the story that seems important and study it in depth. They think about what the author means and how it relates to their own lives and their own thinking. By way of example, read aloud Tidwell's words:

    It was truly overwhelming, all this giving. The Kalambayans were some of the poorest people anywhere in the world, and yet they were by far the most generous I had ever met. Indeed, each time I thought I had been offered everything they had to share, something new was laid at my feet.Discussion with the class
    • Why did Tidwell encounter such incredible generosity?
    • How can we know when we've shared enough?
    • Is it ever possible to share too much?
    • What did Tidwell mean by his "being incapacitated by too much generosity"?
  1. Journal assignment. For homework, ask students to read the next section of the story, ending with the phrase "… so boil them first and add a little salt before you eat them." Have them highlight the sentences that have the most meaning for them, or write them in their journals, for discussion in the next day's class.
  2. Optional Journal Activity. For homework, have students write a journal entry as follows: Describe an occasion when someone was extremely generous to you, or you were extremely generous to someone else. What were the circumstances? How was the giver generous? Why? What difference did this make to the recipient? Who do you think got more pleasure—the giver or the receiver? Why? Try to use concrete details, as Tidwell did, to make your narrative seem real to the reader. 

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring Understandings

  • People of different cultures have different attitudes toward sharing.
  • To understand people from other cultures—and to avoid misunderstandings—sometimes we have to try to see the world from their point of view as well as from our own.
  • In some cultures, people believe the group is responsible for the well-being of each individual. In other cultures, people believe that individuals are primarily responsible for themselves.

Essential Questions

  • What are attitudes toward sharing in the United States? How is sharing viewed in another culture you might be familiar with?
  • How do we know when we've shared enough? How do we know when we've been generous enough?
  • What, if anything, do we gain from trying to see the world from another person's perspective?
  • 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?
  • What does this story teach us about the challenges of serving as a volunteer in another culture?


English Standards: 1, 3, 6
Social Studies Standards: I, IV, IX
National Geography Standards: 4, 6, 10, 11, 13
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB, linked above).

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