This was the second course I had offered on Democracy in Africa. The first was on Mozambique. I had no baseline of what students thought or perceived about democracy on the African continent before the course began. I along with my colleagues felt that this would be interesting. I had done an examination in the first course but it was based on their recollection of what they thought several months after they returned.

As I sat with the students of the African Democracy Project/Botswana (ADPB) one on one, I was genuinely interested in what they really knew or even thought about democracy. I had encountered the thirteen of them along with the two graduate students as a group once before over our “traditional” African dinner at my home as we all got to interact and, in most cases, got to meet for the very first time.

Now, with only a video camera between us, I urged each of them just to talk about their impending study in the course and to reflect on democracy in general, about their own democracy (mostly U.S. citizens), and about what each of them thought, no matter what, about African/Botswana Democracy. I wanted their very first recollection of Africa. Three things became clear:

Few had any exposure to Africa; those who did agreed that there information was nothing more than stereotypes that they had learned from the popular media, and a significant number had heard only of Africa from a single event: Rwanda, Darfur, AIDS, or starving children. Two or three, though, had fairly significant views and experiences. Two had actually lived in an African country, albeit before the age of 10. Two actually had written papers on Africa in previous classes another had written a significant paper on Ghana.

But the general lack of sophistication about things “African” was not at all surprising. What was surprising was what I learned next. I asked each about the perception of democracy in general and African democracy in particular. Many students took democracy for granted. One of the first week’s readings was a chapter from Robert Dahl’s On Democracy where he raises the question that was the sub context of the course and the challenge to our thinking for the entire democracy project.  Dahl wrote:  …….Just what do we mean by democracy?     What distinguishes a democratic government? from a nondemocratic? ……..If a country is already democratic, how can it become more?democratic?

The students struggled with the concept and democracy and they struggled even more with how a democratic country such as Botswana was different from the West. They knew with certainty that it was. How it was different from Western democracies was vague. To several the questions seem confusing.

By the end of the first class, however, they had delved into the readings for the course and those readings had had a huge impact on their views of democracy — African or otherwise. ! The students had begun to focus on their own issues about democracy. They were critical of Dahl’s formulation and had begun to see real issues with Botswana’s government in its treatment of the Bushmen in the Kalahari Game Reserve as well as to deal with concepts of democracy that had heard in their own homes among family members. They question some of the basic tenets of western democracies. They were beginning to look at the very structure of government as vehicles for democratic practices.

What was clear was that these students had, after one week, arrived at a different place. It was not always the same place as each other, but it was different for each of them from their work just a week before as they sat before the video camera. When I read some of their blogs this week it confirmed for me that the greatest learning was going to be, not in the readings in syllabus alone, but in the deep honest examination that each was about to undertake of her or his own value of democracy, regardless where it was. I fully expect that each will rewrite Dahl’s framework for examining democracies or become advocates for Botswana’s Bushmen!