There’s something about Africa that gets under your skin and keeps you going back again and again once you’ve made the initial leap to visit the continent. Over the past 45 years I have had the good fortune to experience most countries in Africa and to lead six adult and student trips for ITWNE to Ethiopia, Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland and Uganda.

 

Thom Henley meeting with the Ashanti chief responsible for youth in the Ashanti Kingdom

The ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of the Ashanti King’s mother on Dec. 3, 2017

West Africa: Ghana, Togo & Benin

We are always scouting new destinations, so this past November I was able to explore the West African countries of Ghana, Togo and Benin. All three countries hold promise for future adult and student trips with a focus on African history and the slave trade. Benin and Togo are two small countries where the Voodoo religion originated and spread to the New World with the slave trade. It is still a vibrant part of the social fabric in Brazil, Haiti, Martinique and Guadalupe. To see the joyous, community spirit of a voodoo ceremony is to get a very different take on a religion that is often depicted as dark and dangerous in the West. Here in West Africa, voodoo is accepted by all major religions as an ancient animistic belief that honors the spirits of ancestors and the elements of earth, air, fire and water.

Another amazing feature about West Africa is the extent to which tribal traditions have survived centuries of colonization. In Ghana, the former Gold Coast, the Ashanti Tribe still retains their Kingdom and their ceremonies are both elaborate and vibrant. I had the honor of attending the one-year anniversary to mark the passing of the Ashanti king’s mother. As Ashanti culture is matrilineal, titles, property and prestige always pass through the mother, so this was a very big event with clans and tribal chiefs in attendance from all parts of Ghana.

It is amazing the extent to which West Africa has influenced the world through music, dance and sports, but Africans have much more to teach the world, and students in particular. We don’t always realize what competitive cultures we come from and how competitive our education system tends to be until other societies open our eyes to it.

A voodoo ceremony in Benin, the birthplace of voodoo, is a joyous community affair

African Children Taught Cooperation

An anthropologist once proposed a game to the kids in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the kids that whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats.

When he asked them why they had run like that as the first one to reach the tree could have had all the fruits for him or her self they said: ”UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?” ‘UBUNTU’ in the Xhosa culture means: “I am because we are”

An African children’s unity and cooperation circle

Africans Helping Africans – An Exemplary Service Project

In May 2017, Khartoum American School (KAS) in the Sudan engaged in a service learning project through In Touch With Nature Education (ITWNE) that will provide lasting benefits to one of the world’s most marginalized peoples – the Batwa ‘Pygmies’ – the oldest surviving tribe in Africa.

For countless centuries the Batwa shared the resources of the rainforest with their closest neighbors – mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. When asked what life was like sharing a forest homeland with two of the world’s most powerful apes, Batwa elders will tell you that they kept their distance from the gorillas “because they are so big.” They say that chimpanzees would often climb the same trees as the Batwa for fruits, nuts or honey at which times the Batwa would retreat as the chimps were just too strong and dangerous.

The Batwa were clearly at the bottom of the primate ‘pecking order’ and posed no danger whatsoever to gorillas or chimps. Still, when the ‘Impenetrable Forest’ was declared a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 as the world’s only forest that supported both chimps and gorillas, the Uganda Government expelled the Batwa from their homeland for ‘conservation’ reasons in clear violation of the United Nations Charter on the Rights of Indigenous peoples. With no compensation or alternate land to move to, the Batwa had no choice but to live as squatters on the edge of the village of Bwindi, seeking handouts or stealing corn from fields at night simply to survive. According to Ugandan Law; ‘’People who live a wondering life as nomads who never settle in one place have no land claim” so the government feels it has no legal obligation to compensate the Batwa whatsoever.

During an ITWNE trip to Uganda in 2016, the students of Khartoum American School first met the displaced Batwa peoples and learned of their plight. Food security was identified as the most pressing issue so funds were raised to construct a chicken rearing facility in 1917 near the Batwa settlement to help meet their protein needs. The service project was a huge success, reports our local ITWNE guide Tomas Tumwesigye as the Batwa now know everything they need to sustain and build their flock of chickens to guarantee eggs and meat. KAS is returning to Uganda again in 2018 to offer further assistance to the Batwa.