ON THE WEB
A Heck of an Experience!
By Charlotte Hill O’Neal
I watched the car bump down our Imbaseni road and waved at the diminishing figures inside until they were well out of sight. I was aware of the most poignant feelings seeing them leave and memories came flooding back of the adventures that we had all shared and the lifelong friendships we had made. My melancholy faded rapidly giving way to a broad smile of joyful reminiscences. As Marty had said many times during their stay here…it had been indeed, “a heck of an experience!”
Marty Young, Derek Harris and their counselor, Mr. Marc Wilson, all from De La Salle Education Center, located in Arusha’s Sister City of Kansas City, Missouri, arrived to Imbaseni on May 17 to participate in the Heal the Community 2002 program. De La Salle has supported and been an active participant in every Heal the Community program since its inception both sending students from that school here to Arusha and hosting Tanzanian students to Kansas City.
Mr. Pete O’Neal, managing director of the United African American Community Center, UAACC whose main office is located in Imbaseni Village, near Maji ya Chai, founded the Heal the Community program in 1995. This internationally recognized and lauded program targets at risk youth in American communities (who are selected through essay contests) and gives them the opportunity to spend several weeks in Tanzania learning about the culture and unique spirituality of this country’s people.
“Our wish is that active observation of the strength and positive example still apparent in the Tanzanian family structure, especially in the rural areas, will impact upon the youth participating in the Heal the Community program and will in turn hopefully, be an influencing factor in their future personal choices and community commitments,” comments Pete O’Neal.
The young men, both recent graduates of DeLaSalle, and Brother Marc (as I came to know him), hit the ground running and from their second day here they were immersed in non-stop cultural experiences.
They met more than 60 youth who had gathered together at UAACC to honor their tribal legacies through dance, poetry, fashion and song during a “Day of Cultural Sharing”. Students from the art, English and computer classes at UAACC teamed up with youth from Aang Serian (a strong community organization of youth dedicated to preserving the cultural traditions of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the world community) and provided Derek and Marty with a crash course in what it means to be young, African and brimming with pride! The déjà vu familiarity of the afternoon struck hard as memories of the 60’s flooded my mind…I’m Black and I’m Proud! we’d shout in those days, with fists pumping the air. I beamed with the knowledge that those words were still being sung (albeit in a different language) but the tune and the significance was still the same.
The African Traditional Dance Group kept the tempo going the very next day, with their driving drumbeat and elaborate dance steps and the community attending that ngoma celebration roared their approval of these Kansas City Sons of Africa, returned home!
It was May 20 and time to pack up for a journey to Maasailand. The group had already done more than most people they know could have ever even dreamed of, and their Tanzania experience had barely just begun. As they stepped from the four wheel drive vehicles that had taken them past otherworldly sights of green shrouded hills covered by damply rolling clouds they were met by the elders of Oluwaii, who honored their return to the land of their ancestors by spraying them with streams of frothy milk and sharing the saliva of powerful blessings into each of their palms.
“It’s been a heck of an experience these last few days and we’re just getting started good!” Marty said while helping to slaughter a sacrificial goat and prepare it for roasting over an open fire (a big difference from the plastic wrapped and frozen cuts of meat that usually makes it to their family tables!) Who would have thought that these urban youth from the streets of Kansas City, would ever have the occasion to dance in the firelight with Maasai maidens; practice ritual jumps with proud morani warriors and sit in smoke filled bomas absorbing words of wisdom from elders draped in red tartan blankets and dangling beaded jewelry. It must have all seemed a dream.
The contrast in atmospheres was incalculable a couple of days later, as we sat contentedly sunk into the plush cushioned seating arrangements at the beautifully decorated Impala Hotel awaiting the arrival of the Mayor of Arusha, Honorable Paul Laizer, who was hosting a lunch for the Heal the Community participants from our Sister City. Mayor Laizer urged the Kansas Citians to take back the message to their hometown that Arusha has a lot to offer and plenty of projects that we can collaborate on together that could be beneficial for all.
Derek told me later the next evening, that as he panted and sweated up the Kili trail he remembered the email message that I had written to them a few weeks before they left Kansas City, describing the “Day Hike of Mt. Kilimanjaro.” “This climb is pretty strenuous,” I had warned them, “and it takes an average of three hours to reach Mandara, the first officially recognized point at 9,000ft. You will have lunch at Mandara, rest a bit, visit a crater in the area (if you aren’t too worn out) then come down for the three-hour descent and return to UAACC for rest, relaxation and hot showers! You’ll need it!” We laughed together recognizing that my prophetic words proved to be all too true!
Our compound was once again full with the voices of scores of young folk who were there to attend one of the HIV/AIDS awareness seminars recurrently held at UAACC. The initial shyness that might have been felt quickly evaporated as the discussions became more and more applicable to them as youth growing up in this much-changed world of the new millennium. Passionately delivered messages of safe sex, of abstinence and monogamy were repeated again and again. Questions about lifestyle changes were asked and answered frequently by onetime UAACC volunteer, Ms. Selamawit Desta assisted by Derek and Marty, who were using materials that they had received and studied from the American Red Cross. In the informed and lively dialogues that filled that afternoon, the tremendous need to alter sexual behavioral patterns was emphasized vigorously. Throughout the day, it was hammered home over and over…change or die!!
The days multiplied and the memories continued to grow through the wilderness of Serengeti and Ngorongoro to the narrow, twisting, incense scented streets of Zanzibar and the harrowing, stomach-turning ride on a sea bus bound for Dar es Salaam, but one of the highlights of the whole program, for me, occurred one evening during a jam session with Aang Serian musicians and the Kansas City crew!
Well known recording artists, Gsan from the group X Plastaz and his co-producer, Brother Prosper, set up a temporary studio in the UAACC multi-purpose Malcolm X theater and for hours and hours until the wee hours of the morning, they worked, blending and layering the voices of all those young people whose message was “Heal our Communities…”
”Heal our Communities!” they said, “with knowledge of self; with pride; with hope; with determination; with love!”
I got goose bumps on my arms and chills down my spine as I was taken over by the pulsing beat and I listened intently to the words rapped out in a variety of languages…”Africa! It’s time for you to Rise!” they said. “Africa! You got to open up your Eyes! Africa! You got to show ‘em you’re Alive! Africa…nakupenda!”
click here to go back to the Articles Page