Image courtesy of Birthright AFRICA.

Birthright AFRICA Wants to Connect Young Black People to Their Cultural Legacy With Trips to Africa

We speak with one of the program's creators about its mission, growth and why connecting Africans in the diaspora to their heritage matters.

Birthright AFRICA is a program dedicated to helping black people outside of the continent reconnect with their African roots. The project, founded and helmed by Walla Elsheikh and Diallo Shabazz wants participants to have transformative, immersive experiences that connect young black people to their heritage and history. Last year, Birthright AFRICA helped send a group of college students on a pilot trip to Ghana, and the results are what Elsheikh describes as "life changing."

Next, the creators want to expand Birthright AFRICA to make it a globally recognized experience available to black people across the diaspora. We spoke with one of its creators, Sudanese-American educator Walla Elsheikh about the program's mission, its growth, the power of reconciliation, and how others can get involved in ensuring that people of African ancestry throughout the globe finally receive their birthright.

Read our conversation below.

Image courtesy of Birthright AFRICA

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What led you to register the domain name for Birthright AFRICA years before the program had even started?

When I learned about Birthright Israel, I said, "Wow, why isn't something like this happening for black people, for the people of African descent to connect with the continent?" I was going through my own understanding of how much I didn't know about my history as a person of African descent growing up mostly in the US, and having Westernized education, all my life.

There's so much more to the story of who we are as a people, in terms of the great civilizations and kingdoms and queendoms that our people developed—the science, the technology, the arts, the culture. But unless you had that parent at home that really got you to read or share those stories with you, you don't know this information, you don't know this history. I told myself "I want to bring others along on this journey of trying to discover who they are, and so, I came up with the concept of Birthright AFRICA," and went to see if anyone else had already started it.

While there are groups that are already going to the continent, a lot of times you have to pay for it and it's a barrier, especially for those without the money, we're looking to build a system of organizations to make it a reality.

How has the program grown since you first came up with the concept? Where is it now?

Because I wanted to really make sure I understood what I was doing and develop myself professionally to be able to lead this mission, I actually jumped into the education sector first and have worked within it over the last 10 years, knowing I could bring all that understanding to how to build Birthright AFRICA and essentially that's what I've been able to do the last couple of years. We piloted the program for the first time at City University of New York last year.

I identified the space of college and career readiness and learned that we were developing young people for this 21st Century economy that's really driven by creativity and innovation. A big part of that is helping young people understand the skills and knowledge that they need for that. I tied it back to having an understanding of who we are, of our legacies as people. And for people of African descent, those are really the stories and the narratives that are missing for us, to understand not only historically, but also present day. As part of the program, you explore cultural sites, museums and universities to hear from professors of African studies, African American studies, and Black studies, but we also visit innovation partners, and these are organizations owned, managed or led by people of African descent.

Image courtesy of Birthright AFRICA

To be clear, you encourage not only African Americans who don't necessarily know where exactly in Africa they're from, but also "first generationers" to participate in the program as well?

It's anyone who identifies with being of African descent, so it is your African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Latinos, Afro-Europeans, or Afro-Asian. I represent that first generation continental African who grew up in the US. My parents are from Sudan, but I didn't grow up there, so I feel very much disconnected as well.

Unless you got to go home every summer, or your parents took you to a specific school that really allows you to gain a sense of history and culture, you don't have as much of a connection. Just like me— particularly because we had political asylum, and we couldn't go back. The program is definitely targeted to first generation Americans of African descent as well.

The inaugural trip to Ghana took place last year?

Yes, it was a pilot trip with scholars. Myself and Ashley Johnson, our first participant as a Founding Fellow, went in October 2016 to lay the groundwork and essentially test out what 10 days would look like, where we should be going, who we should be trying to meet at these different locations, and building relationships to ensure we could come back and be able to execute the mission.

What was the response like from the students that went on the 10-day trip, how did it impact them?

It was life changing. Many had all the misperceptions that most of us here receive through the media: Africa is underdeveloped, disease-stricken, overcome by war and poverty. What was really inspiring and joyful for me though was seeing how the local community embraced them. The Ghanaian people really wanted to engage with them. That is another one of those myths, the idea that since they're Americans and they're Africans, there's going to be this barrier. It was completely the opposite. That was really thrilling to see. There were a lot of eye-opening moments, like, "Oh my goodness, this feels like home," for those who were Afro-Caribbean. Literally landing there, they were like, "Oh, this could be Jamaica."

We went to Kumasi, there's an Ashanti Kingdom and when you go there, they have a museum and effigies of the Kings and Queens. There we learned that the flag colors of the Ashanti are the same as the Jamaican flag. One of our young people his name is Geno Ware and we found out that one of the Ashanti leaders was King Ware, spelled the same way as his last name. That blew his mind. In Ghana, the day of the week that you're born is also considered part of your name, so his was Kofi for Friday. By the end of the trip, he went from being Geno Ware to Geno Kofi Ware. Another young person said one of the kings looked like her late father, so she was in awe of that. Those are the kinds of things and connections you have to get there. It's life changing and literally everyone had their version of that moment. That vision that we have for them was also solidified. We asked them if they felt more confident and they now all feel like they have more resources and belief in themselves to pursue their career and life aspirations.

Image courtesy of Birthright AFRICA

I feel like we're seeing this conversation come up more and more now, especially with movies, like Black Panther, about reconciliation between African Americans and Africans on the continent. I'd like to hear from you where exactly you think this program fits into this broader conversation that's happening?

Absolutely. The timing of Black Panther couldn't be better. One of those fears is if we are going to have folks who really want to connect and are not phased by this historical narrative of how there's a disconnect. Our generation particularly, we grew up with each other more and are more connected through technology in a way that our parents weren't, as the movie showcased, and as we at Birthright AFRICA see, the desire to connect to African roots and legacy are very strong in the diaspora and we exist to help make it happen as a birthright at no cost."It's not a surprise to me that Black Panther is also this diasporic effort. I loved that component. I loved the way the movie also highlighted science and technology and that innovative spirit we have as a people.

What are practical ways that people can help or get involved to make sure that the program expands and grows. How can people help? How can people get involved?

We are positioning ourselves to create this ecosystem of individuals and organizations that want to support expansion. So, if you are connected to an educational organization, whether it's a university, a college, a community-based organization that is serving youth and young adults of African descent, let us know. Were looking for people between the ages of 13 to 30. If you have an interest in bringing this birthright opportunity to those young people, we want to collaborate. If you are a leader or entrepreneur of African descent, founded your organization or you're in a management leadership position at a corporation, let us know about what you're doing, so we can highlight you as an innovation partner and have you interact with the young people because they need to hear from you.

If you are someone connected to the philanthropic community that is looking to serve youth and young adults of African descent, reach out to us, we have the platform where you can sponsor and we can highlight you as a funding supporter or founding support to the Birthright organization. Obviously, any individual can donate. Our website is Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We're also on LinkedIn.

We have a campaign to raise $50,000 for this coming year's cohort. We plan on taking 10 students from CUNY and we want to work towards expanding to high schools for next year in New York, and also expand to the D.C. area.

If you represent or are working with African governments we would love to engage the ministries of diaspora affairs, the ministries of trade and tourism, presidents of those select African nations we know we can make the birthright journey to. Part of what makes Birthright Israel sustainable is that they're getting funding from the government. If we can really get that pride and that consciousness happening at the earlier stages, countries on the continent will have future tourists, vacationers, business men and women as well as trade and investment for eternity.

Lastly, what, if any, is your relation to Birthright Israel? In some parts of the world Birthright Israel is seen as endorsing Israeli policies.

There is no connection between Birthright AFRICA and Birthright Israel. The issues you raise are also very important to our board of directors, and we have been discussing how to incorporate these topics into our program which prepares participants to become global leaders. We adopted the name Birthright AFRICA because its an accurate description of the ancestral connection we are trying to create, and because Black people throughout the diaspora have earned it.

Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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