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While making African tribal masks, students learn here how scarcity of goods leads to conflict


Art, Social Studies  


4, 5, 6, 7  


Title – Empathy through Masks
By – Michael Learn
Primary Subject – Social Studies
Secondary Subjects – Art
Grade Level – 4-7

Empathy through Masks

Description: Creating African tribal masks with limited supplies. This is a good introductory lesson looking at one cause of conflict between two ethnic groups with Rwanda being the focus, but it can also be utilized in other areas of Africa.

Goal: The goal of this lesson is to help students understand the causes of ethnic conflict and how scarcity of goods leads to conflict.

Objectives: Students will

  • increase their understanding of African culture
  • look at the interconnectedness of scarcity and conflict
  • examine some of the causes of ethnic conflict
  • empathize with victims of ethnic conflict by gaining a more thorough understanding of its root causes


  • Paper Plates
  • Assorted yarns (separated)
  • Colored paper (separated)
  • Markers, pencils, and crayons
  • Decorative materials (separated)
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Handout on Rwandan History from website


  1. Introduce the lesson by explaining the use of masks by various cultures in many activities such as warfare, festivals, and decoration. If possible show samples of masks from around the world and have the students look at what materials are used, what the purpose might be, and the styles.
  2. Divide the class into three groups: Group 1 has five students; Groups 2 & 3 are equally divided with the remaining students.
  3. Explain that they are going to create their own African masks using only the supplies handed out to their group; they cannot borrow supplies from other groups. Group 1 receives samples from all of the supplies and can get more if they need them. Groups 2 & 3 only receive a limited quantity of certain supplies, and cannot get more if they run out. For example, Group 2 might only get yarn and crayons & Group 3 might get only colored paper and markers.
  4. Allow them to work on their masks. Hang them at the front of the room by their groups.
  5. Conduct a discussion on the appearances of the masks; ask the groups about any problems that arose, or whether they would have wanted additional supplies or different materials. Have the groups look at Group 1’s masks. How do the students react? Was the exercise fair to all of the groups?
  6. Write the word scarcity on the board. Explain to everyone that Groups 2 & 3 suffered from scarcity and see if they can come up with a definition for the word.
  7. Based on student ideas, steer the discussion toward the case of Rwanda and the scarcity of land and resources. Read the handout about the history of Rwanda.
  8. Label Group 1 “Europeans,” Group 2 the “Tutsis” & Group 3 the “Hutus.”
  9. Explain that Europeans colonizers in Africa would either buy or take by force any supplies that they needed. The Hutus and Tutsis could not buy supplies so they could only take them through force.
  10. See if the students can come up with any problems that Group 1 might face (the smallness of their population and the continual use of force as the other groups wanted to gain access to supplies).
  11. Suggest that Group 1 supports Group 3. If so, then what happens to Group 2? What happens when Group 1 returns to Europe? How do the two remaining groups react? (Combine Groups 1 & 2 into the Tutsi majority, but tell them that Group 3 still controls all the resources.) How can Group 3 remain in charge? What can the Tutsis do? In Rwanda, scarcity of land caused the fighting.


  1. Through participation,
  2. or you could pose a question and/or alternative scenario and have them react to it.

Handout from

E-Mail Michael Learn !

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