Vondae Donaldson admits that she was a little nervous about traveling to Ghana on a student trip earlier this year.
But what the 18-year-old senior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School found in Accra, Ghana’s capital, was vibrancy, hardworking skilled laborers rich in kindness and spirit, and a culture rich in history that connected them to the struggles of African Americans in the United States.
Donaldson, who lives in the Northeast Washington community of Deanwood, was one of six students who participated in the inaugural international studies tour sponsored by College Bound, a District-based nonprofit organization that helps prepare students in grades 8 through 12 for college. College Bound Executive Director Kenneth Ward, a former teacher, wanted to incorporate an international studies program in College Bound after seeing the impact traveling abroad had on previous students.
“They’ve been widely successful,” Ward said of student travelers. “They’ve, for the most part, . . . all gone on to college. They’ve just done really well, so I wanted to continue that, but I wanted to find a way to make it relevant for the current work that I’m doing with issues of college advocacy and access.”
The organization received a $10,000 grant from the American Institute for Foreign Studies, and the student ambassadors had to raise an additional $1,500 on their own. Before spending nine days in Ghana, the group stopped in Amsterdam, where they visited the home of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. Ward said he wanted the students to understand that, “no one group of people has a lock on suffering.”
“Since we live in a society that is often fractured amongst cultural lines, I thought it would be very important on this excursion to also expose them to the suffering of Jewish people,” Ward said. “I think sometimes our students feel they are powerless in the situations that life has dealt them. But I want them to understand that even in a situation in where you feel powerless, you can emerge pretty much as a figure that stands against oppression for generations to come and that’s what Anne Frank has emerged as.”
In Ghana, the group of College Bound students visited craft villages, where they saw people making wooden stools and walking sticks. They participated in creating adinkra and kente cloths. They blogged about their time in a fishing village, touring the memorial of Kwame Nkrumah, the nation’s first president, and seeing the home of African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois.
An emotional trip was also made to Assin Manso, also known as Slave River. It’s the site where many Africansreceived their last bath before being sold into slavery.
But it was the slave castles that moved Aaron Jones. The students toured the slave dungeons and the cells, where rebellious slaves were put to die. Jones, 17, hasn’t been the same since walking through the “doors of no return” at the Elmina and Cape Coast castles. Slaves were led through the doors before being loaded onto slave ships.
“I’m most grateful for the experience to step foot in the places where my ancestors were held captive, sold into slavery,” says Jones, a senior at Capital City Public Charter School. “Reading about the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade is another thing, but being where your ancestors were in slave dungeons, I think that that’s an enlightening experience. And if someone leaves that castle the same, I don’t care what they look like, what they do, where they’re from, something’s wrong. You know, you just take a new lease on life.”
The College Bound students stopped at two schools for cultural exchanges.
Angel Brock, a senior at McKinley Technical High School, was surprised by the Ghanaian students’ image of young Americans.
“The first question that one of the kids asked was, ‘Why are Americans so violent?’ ” remembers Brock, 18. “They also asked: ‘Why are teenagers having babies?’ and ‘Why are kids dropping out?’ Ghanians basically had a stereotype of Americans just like how Americans have stereotypes on Africa.”
What really surprised Brock, however, wasthat once Ghanaians reach middle school, they have to pay for their education — books, uniforms and tuition. One of the schools the College Bound students visited had a classroom of about 40 students between ages 11 and 15. The schools didn’t have electricity, but the students were eager to learn, says Brock.
“They didn’t complain at all about the circumstances and were very determined to get their education,” says Brock. “When I saw that, it made me think about how here in America it’s totally different. Some people that attend public schools don’t have to pay for education but still drop out. The kids in Ghana take full advantage of their education, and it not even given to them like it is to kids in the U.S. like me.”
Jones was taken aback by how friendly the Ghanaians were. The College Bound group was greeted with enthusiasm everywhere they went. That’s rare in the District, Jones said. In the city, people don’t talk each other and some don’t even know their neighbors, he said.
“I’m from D.C. I love D.C., and I don’t want to down talk it, but it’s a very hostile place,” said Jones, who lives in Ward 8’s Congress Heights neighborhood and has dreams of becoming a filmmaker. “It can be a place filled with hostility and, I think, pent-up anger.”
By the time the students left Africa, they had a renewed sense of purpose and a new appreciation for life.
“Everything was not what I expected, but it just made me look at my life as blessed,” said Donaldson, who will be attending Florida A&M in the fall.
Jones agreed. He realized that many young people in the United States don’t take advantage of the resources here. The teen will be traveling to India this year.
“I feel like in America we have so much opportunity, we feel as though they’re always going to be there,” Jones said.
Brock, who will be attending Penn State in the fall, says before going to Ghana she had only heard negative stuff about Africa and wanted to see if it was true. The trip dispelled the myths. Like Donaldson and Jones, Brock is a little more grateful for her life in the United States and plans to send clothes and supplies to the schools they visited in Ghana.
“I was happy to see a different culture and meet new lifelong friends,” Brock said.
Ward says the mission of the College Bound tour was to give minority students an international perspective.
“The purpose was to try to help them understand the cultural bond that connect people regardless of ethnicity,” Ward said. “But also giving students of color some type of platform to appreciate their rich culture.”
Read more on The Root DC