It started off easy. Like, who wouldn't know the answer to this:
"In the early 19th century, this military leader united the Zulu nation."
Mac McGarry, host of "It's Academic," put the question to his contestants at the U.S. State Department. But before McGarry could even utter "nation," Jacob Oppenheim was clicking his buzzer.
"Shaka," the 17-year-old student blurted out.
"Shaka is the right answer," McGarry shouted, and Oppenheim smiled triumphantly. He's a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology near Alexandria, and a virtual gladiator in yesterday's special quiz-show arena.
McGarry: "In 1414, to promote trade, the sultan of Malindi sent the emperor of China this long-necked animal as a gift."
"Giraffe!" shouts Rachel Okunubi, 17, of the District's Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. And she put the fear of failure into her fellow contestants by answering in quick succession that Angola once was ruled by Queen Nzinga; that the ancient kingdom of Kerma today is known as Sudan.
Who says kids don't know a thing about the world?
Well, maybe many don't. But that certainly didn't apply to the high school students who participated in a special "It's Academic" program taped at the U.S. State Department yesterday and focusing solely on Africa. That continent is the subject of much ignorance, although Oppenheim, Okunubi and the seven other contestants clearly had boned up a bit in advance.
The event was part of a day-long Teach Africa Youth Forum sponsored by the National Summit on Africa and the World Affairs Council, with the State Department playing host.
Hundreds of kids swarmed the marble corridors at Foggy Bottom, on hand to cheer for one of the three groups -- Team D.C., Team Maryland, Team Virginia. -- vying to outsmart one another on African history and culture.
It was downright shocking, the things the contestants knew: That Swahili belonged to the Bantu family of languages, for instance; that the Serengeti Plain is the enormous wild animal habitat straddling the Kenya-Tanzania border.
They were urged, through the day, to be citizens of the world, to know the world. And it sounded like some kind of recruiting campaign when Secretary of State Colin Powell spent a few minutes urging students to look seriously at diplomatic careers as they spent the day at his headquarters.
"I hope that some of you are touched and say, 'Hey, this is pretty interesting,' " said Powell, whom the young audience greeted with a standing ovation. " 'Maybe I should be in the State Department. Maybe I should have a foreign service career.' "
The day held much in store: videos, workshops, even an interactive chat with students in South Africa.
But the morning spent playing "It's Academic" let the kids stoke those timeless D.C.-Virginia-Maryland rivalries. Unlike most tapings of the show, which is starting its 44th season on WRC (Channel 4), the Africa segment is not for airing in the regular season; rather it is to be used by U.S. embassies abroad and perhaps by some foreign television programs, said Sophie Altman, one of the show's producers.
To throaty cheers, the District team, led by Okunubi, held the lead almost to the end. But she got ahead of herself and jammed her buzzer too soon when McGarry began to say, "This young Ghana-born . . . "
"Kofi Annan," she belted out. But actually the question was "This young Ghana-born soccer phenomenon plays for D.C. United." (That would be Freddy Adu.)
And the Virginia team, led by Oppenheim, couldn't name that popular Ghanaian cloth the world knows as kente.
Maryland seemed to struggle, though with some flashes of inspiration, as when McGarry asked which East Africans go through an initiation as boys by killing a lion. The Masai is the answer.
The winners received no special award beyond "bragging rights," as Okunubi put it.
In the end it was Oppenheim for Virginia who was able to brag a bit.
He knew the answer to this: "The last outpost of the French Foreign Legion is in what small, D-initialed East African country, located on the Gulf of Aden."
Oppenheim didn't hesitate.
"Djibouti," he said. He did not study hard, just reviewed some of the capital cities, he said later. And, he offered up, he has a 4.0 GPA.
"I'm just interested in Africa and in history," he said.
Okunubi didn't seem too terribly dejected.
"It was a good game," she said, notwithstanding her tendency to "buzz first, think later."
By then, though, it was academic.