Why Africa?

International Youth Leadership Institute (IYLI) promotes travel and study for African American and Latino youth. Since 1990, IYLI has conducted nearly 50 programs in 17 countries in Africa, Caribbean, and Latin and South America. In addition to exposure to other countries and cultures, these programs celebrate the African Diaspora and the common bonds that connect us as people of African descent.

Through enslavement our cultural identity as people of African descent has been severely damaged. Though frayed, the connection has not been broken and today many of us embrace our heritage as a vital wellspring and source of inspiration to overcome the centuries of brutality, abuse and degradation that our people have endured in the Caribbean and Latin, North and South America.

The assault against Africa has been no less intense. Dubbed the Dark Continent Africa has been systematically portrayed in print and electronic media as the source of bad things and not for Africa’s glorious contributions to the human story throughout the ages.

When I was 8 or 9, my Sunday school teacher told me, “Africans living in the jungle cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless they have been baptized.” Images of the popular television show Tarzan filled my mind and I could envision an endless procession of Africans headed toward the gates of Hell. Even at that young age, I knew that there was something terribly wrong about what she had said. Over the years I heard echoes of her words in the portrayal of Africa on television, in books, in magazines and newspapers.

I hear those echoes today.

IYLI conducts a workshop, Let’s Combat Stereotypes About Africa,” for African American and Latino high school students preparing to travel to Africa to study in our summer programs. We begin by asking a question, “When you hear the word, Africa, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Sadly, the responses haven’t changed much over the last 25 years (although ebola has been added to the mix): war, disease, AIDS, jungle, animals.

As people of African descent, the popular devaluation of Africa is a key factor in the formation of our identity. Often we do not embrace our inherent power and beauty and look instead to European derived cultural ideals. When we devalue our African culture and heritage there is a negative effect on the way we see ourselves and each other.

IYLI creates opportunities for face to face interactions among African American and Latino youth and their counterparts throughout the African Diaspora to dispel negative stereotypes, build consciousness and cultural awareness, and learn from each other how to apply more holistic and global perspectives to our community challenges.

That’s why we are here, why we return and why Africa. Our culture, our heritage, our legacy.

Dispelling myths, telling the truth, building positive identity. Michael Webb, Executive Director, International Youth Leadership Institute. http://www.iyli.org

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