Physics Fables

25 years ago I was a young physics teacher in Ghana. I had a two year placement in a rural school 3 hours from the nearest electricity and tarmac. I was the only physics teacher. My pupils were supposedly 14-16, but some of them were older.

A physics classroom in Ghana c1996

I became really interested in the traditional folk stories my pupils had learnt as young children. Anansi was a favourite (Anansi is a West African trickster character). My pupils let me record them performing the stories (it involved small groups of them singing, clapping and telling the stories with lots of laughing. I still have the cassettes.)

I tried to use them in my teaching, but these apparently simple stories are really hard to write. I found this attempt in with my photos and thought I’d share. It’s about density.

One day, Anansi was walking back from town carrying a gallon container of water. It was a hot day and he was just about to start up the hill back to his village when he met Tortoise who was also carrying a gallon container.

“Are you taking water back to the village too?” Anansi asked Tortoise.

“No,” Tortoise replied, “I’ve got a gallon of kerosene for my stove.”

“That must be really heavy! Everyone knows that kerosene is much heavier than water,” said Anansi.

“Really?” said Tortoise, “I didn’t know that.”

“Here,” said Anansi, “Let’s swap. I’ll carry your kerosene up the hill and you carry my water. I can’t bear to watch you carry such a heavy load.”

“That is very kind, ” said Tortoise, “Thank you very much.”

So they swapped containers. Tortoise took the water and Anansi took the kerosene.

“Gosh,” said Tortoise, “This water feels much heavier than the kerosene!”

“That’s because we’re walking up this steep hill in the hot sun, ” said Anansi. “I can assure you that this kerosene is breaking my back!”

So they made their way up the hill; tortoise struggling with his load while Anansi looked fresh and strong.

My attempt at a physics Anansi story c1996 (an act of cultural appropriation I’m uncomfortable with now!)

Then I took two measuring cylinders and a balance. In one I poured kerosene and the other water. “Which one is heavier?”

Water is denser than kerosene.

The water side fell with a satisfying clunk. Did the story help teach density? I can’t remember.

My class in my garden. I have no idea what we were supposed to be doing.

Sorry if that’s self indulgent! I’ve been thinking about stories a lot and thinking about Ghana. I’ve got some more ideas for physics stories like these but I think I’ll invent my own trickster character.

My last day in Ghana -1997

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