Who is my neighbour?

24th January 2003 at 00:00
IF THE WORLD WERE A VILLAGE. Written by David J Smith, illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong. Aamp;C Black pound;12.99

World is crazier and more of it than we think," as the poet Louis MacNeice wrote. It's almost impossible to grasp the meaning and magnitude of the numbers that feature in discussions of the global economy, whether these involve people or dollars; harder still, perhaps, to follow the ways the latter are divided among the former. Pundits and politicians may claim to understand, if not to elucidate; but explanations that remain opaque are no explanations at all.

Now David Smith, an American teacher, has had the simple idea of taking the phrase "global village" literally. He has produced a book that treats the world as though it were a village of 100 inhabitants.

Drawing on a wide variety of sources, from the CIA World Factbook and the World Bank Development Report to scholarly atlases and UN compilations of statistics, he's compiled a description of the planet that can be grasped by primary pupils.

He accompanies us in a day's visit to our village, showing how people spend their time in work and worship, education and eating, letting us find out how long we live and how we speak to one another.

Some of the figures that emerge are fascinating. The village owns 15 pigs, three camels and 189 chickens, and 31 of us go to school, where we're taught by one teacher. There are 24 TV sets, 42 radios and seven computers, but 24 of us don't even have electricity. That same approximate figure recurs in more shocking sets of numbers. Twenty-four of us have enough to eat, but 25 spend most of the day fetching water, and most of these are girls and women. Some of the numbers are worse; 32 people breathe polluted air and 60 are always hungry.

Other figures give pause for contemplation. Thirty-two are Christians, 19 are Muslims, 13 are Hindus, and 15 are non-religious, but we're not able to get on. One hundred years ago there were only 32 of us and 1,000 years ago there were only five. At this rate, there'll be 200 of us by the time this year's babies reach the age of 50.

The pictures use muted colours and stylised shapes to suggest many cultures without falling into specificity. Faces are almost diagrammatic but people remain essentially human. They hold babies, walk with dogs or eat meals and bargain over food. We see different kinds of markets and streets; some buildings have an African look while others suggest Europe or the USA. The effect is just teasingly familiar enough to provoke the question: who is my neighbour?

David Smith wrote this book in 1989 and waited 13 years for a publisher. He was inspired by the passionate wish that the children should be equipped to solve world crises 30 years from now - that they should care about travel, landscape, exploration and reading.

The book will certainly provoke their wonder, their thoughtful indignation and their sense of moral purpose. Smith offers ideas for teachers to help these qualities grow. He revisits old educational ideas - such as learning the names of capital cities or finding the locations of news items on a wall map - with a new infectious zeal.

Smith has also been pleased to find children using the book to investigate other issues than the anticipated ones of hunger and economics. Some children have taken off into work on proportions, ratios and fractions; while others have done research and rewritten the book to describe their own community.

A amp; C Black is offering free copies to the first 10 TES readers to write with their name and school address to: Village Book Offer, TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London, E1W 1BX by February 10

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