Young people from two of the highest-poverty areas of New York City—Harlem and the Bronx—during the past year overturned stereotypes about themselves and others by traveling to Africa to learn, work, and serve those in need.
Sponsored by two separate afterschool and summer programs for youth and headed to different countries, Ghana and Mali, the teenagers in both groups saw their understanding and perspectives change markedly because of their undertaking. They spoke recently to WKCD’s Azure D. Osborne-Lee about their journeys and their purpose.
To Build a School in Mali
Students at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics set themselves a lofty goal in the 2010-11 academic year: to build an elementary school in Mali. Between bake sales and big donors, by July they had raised $74,000 — enough to fly 12 students to Mali for two weeks to help with the actual construction of the building.
The service project was part of an afterschool partnership between BCSM and the nonprofit buildOn, which for 20 years has focused on empowering youth through intensive service initiatives. Constructing schools abroad is nothing new to buildOn, but typically multiple high schools combine to endow a single project. This time, BCSM students decided to combine ingenuity with hard work to bear the cost alone.
“We picked up trash at Yankee Stadium,” said Bernardine, 16. “After that they donated $10,000 to our Senior Class.” Bake sales, letter-writing campaigns to celebrities, and dollar-a-brick appeals to their own community got the group to its target by June, with enough to send a student work team along as well.
Hands On, Every Day
The team took off in mid-July, landing in Bamako and making its way to the village of Bla, where it would help construct the new elementary school (to be called the “Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics Mali”). During their two weeks in the village, the students lived with host families, immersing themselves in local culture and throwing themselves into manual labor at the worksite for the school.
“It was hands on all day, every day,” said Fatoumata, 14. “Using the pickax, shovel, digging out the latrines, building bricks. That's where all the interaction happens, conversing with the villagers.”
“Even though I didn't speak the same language, you could tell what they were saying,” added Aleem, 16. “I was only gonna be there for a short amount of time. I just wanted to work the hardest I could.”
Other activities—workshops on midwifery, making shea butter—also drew the Bronx visitors in. By night, they worked on their dance moves and tried their hand at drumming. Throughout, they made friends with village children.
“They'd go with us everywhere we'd go,” said one student, Alberta. “It was wonderful. The kids are so smart. We taught them games, and by the time we were coming back, they knew how to sing in English. It was just amazing.”
Summer Leadership in Ghana
In nearby Harlem, another group of youth visited Africa this summer, going to rural Ghana for four weeks of immersion in a very different culture. The trip took place through the International Study Program of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis), a nonprofit that since 1995 has provided supportive programs for the Black and Latino youth of impoverished communities.
For months beforehand, the teens engaged in deep learning about West Africa as a whole and Ghana in particular. They sampled the cuisine, studied the economy, learned about the government, all before setting foot outside of New York. “I thought it was helpful,” said Sandri, 15. “It was getting away from the stereotypes.”
In addition, the travelers spent time getting to know one another before their trip. “Six months of preparation gave us a chance to grow more as a group and get used to the people that we were gonna be around for a month,” said Tyla, 14.
While in Ghana, the students visited four different places: Accra (the capital city), Wusuta, Kumasi, and Cape Coast. They spent most of their time in the village of Wusuta in the Volta region of Ghana. And despite no electricity or hot water, these New York City teenagers found rural African life very much to their liking.
“I like to be comfortable,” said Sandri of his time in Wusuta. “I get bored quickly. So if I'm telling you that I managed to get through days just fine—no boredom, every day something new—then trust me.”
“Just having the time to be able to do anything besides being on the computer!” added Alberto, 16. “Going on walks and hikes, hunting, finding food, collecting rocks, anything small like that, that's pretty much a new adventure in my book. Africa was the best thing that happened for me.”
Not Just Fun and Games
The group's trip to Ghana was not simply an exotic vacation. Participants in Bro/Sis's International Study Program are expected to attend seminars, take language classes, give presentations, and complete final projects. The students also visited schools in the area and spent one day presenting the film “Freedom Riders”to local students. Academics, they said, perfectly balanced their other activities.
“You're gonna have to do a little bit of work to enhance the experience,” said Tyla, “so that it sticks with you 100 percent.”
During their down time, the teens interacted with local kids, talking about their lives and taking turns showing off their best dance moves. The day the students left Wasuta, the villagers threw them a farewell party.
“They were doing all the dances we taught them,” Shani, 19, recalled with pleasure. “It was very nice.”
As each group reminisced about its trip, a common theme emerged: these students all came back home changed. They had become more respectful, more thoughtful, more ambitious and adventurous, participants said. “I never woke up with any dreams of going anywhere in the whole world except Los Angeles,” Sandri laughingly admitted. “But going to Ghana was awesome. I’m tryin’ to go the next three years in a row.”
Harlem students also spoke of their increased desire to take advantage of the opportunities offered them. Family and friends have noticed the differences in their behavior, they said, and they felt motivated to share their newfound knowledge with peers. All agree that their trip to Ghana was a life-changing experience, one that they will never forget.
Meanwhile, the Bronx travelers to Mali were busy preparing to present their buildOn experience to a group of incoming freshmen in the BCSM auditorium. “We set another goal this year: to raise $75,000,” said Alberta. “This year it’s gonna be Nicaragua.”
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator