From Kalamazoo to Kroo Bay, Sierra Leone- My experience with Urban Youth for Africa: By Justin A. Moore (Ph.D. candidate, Clinical Psychology)
This past summer, I had the experience of a lifetime. As part of a Kalamazoo-based group called Urban Youth for Africa (UYFA), a youth program of the Kalamazoo Deacons Conference.
I had the chance to take a journey to Africa to help a community outside of Sierra Leone, to see sites and meet people whom I know I will never forget. Our group was made up of 13 Michigan residents: eight high school students who have had some hardships in their lives and five adult mentors. I was one of the five adults who mentored the younger students over the year, helping to build leadership characteristics and instilling a globalized perspective within them. In the course of a year which culminated in our trip to Africa, we helped the students to envision the world and their own lives beyond their current circumstances, with the ultimate goal of working to change not only their own communities but, someday, the world.
Our journey started on 8th of July, as we flew from Detroit to Sierra Leone, Africa. After traveling for a day, we reached Sierra Leone. We were there to work with the children in the slums of Kroo Bay, a sub-community within Freetown Sierra Leone. It was during the rainy season, and I can still vividly remember the humidity in the air when we first set foot on the soil. There were people waiting from a local agency called Word Made Flesh (WMF) with whom we were partnered (WMF is an outreach agency based in Africa that runs tutoring programs, day programs, and food initiative programs). For the journey to Kroo Bay, twenty of us squeezed into a Poda Poda (minivan) with wooden seats and drove six hours through the night over rugged terrain. On our journey we sometimes found cemented streets and at other times drove over unlit and uneven dirt paths. When we finally arrived at Kroo Bay, I was shocked. I had never seen anything like it before. The streets were made of mud and were flooded. There was a stream were people were relieving themselves and bathing. There were countless pigs, dogs, and chickens wildly roaming around (and defecating everywhere) in the same streets and stream used by the people. Many of the people did not have food to eat and lived in tin shacks with no doors.
Walking through Kroo Bay, I found myself changed in so many ways. I was immensely inspired by the resiliency of the people of the Bay. In the face of adversity, the people remained joyful and pleasant. The children’s smiles were magnetic; they pulled you in and you couldn’t help but to give them a hug. Our student mentees from UYFA seemed to deeply and genuinely connect with the children in the village. Our journey halfway around the world was worth it, if for nothing else than to watch the students and the children cheerfully interacting. We spent two weeks helping with the tutoring program, feeding children, mending wounds, and spreading joy! We also dedicated time to help clean up the WMF facilities; we donated money, purchased paint, and repainted the building, among other projects. We conducted team-building activities where the children from UYFA and WMF could share stories with each other. During our time there, we found our efforts rewarded simply through getting to know and sharing stories and faith with our new friends in the Bay.
While we were in Africa, we also visited Bunce Island, a place where captured slaves were held until they could be shipped off along the Middle Passage to the Americas. From Sierra Leone, we boarded a Pom Pom (boat) and traveled the same route that the slaves generations ago would have taken from the mainland of Sierra Leone to Bunce, to await the next leg of their captive journey. It was an eerie feeling to set foot on land where such atrocities had taken place. We each had a boiled egg for lunch and emotions ran so high when we arrived to the slave quarters that one of the UYFA children tensed up, squeezed his fist, and squashed his egg. Returning from the island, it seemed a long trip back to the mainland, as we sat on the Pom Pom and processed our tour of Bunce. While certainly not a positive memory of Africa, that experience was still a valuable and life-changing one for me, and will be with me forever. When we arrived back to the mainland we went to reconnect with the children of the Bay. Every day we grew closer and, on the last day before departure, we all shed many tears because our new friends would be greatly missed. Leaving Africa, we spent two days in Paris en route back to the States. Despite being in such a vibrant city, walking under the Eiffel Tower, I still found my thoughts drifting back to Africa, as we all processed the things we had seen and experienced in Sierra Leone. As memories of those children, the village, the boat ride, the island, and our shared joy floated through my mind, I found myself truly grateful for the opportunities that I have had here in America. And I could not help but think to myself what a fascinating and diverse world we live in, and how valuable is the chance not only to see it, but to do something to change it for the better.