African clubs help teens decode American culture and navigate high school

Eight years ago, Cynthia Mandjila got off an airplane in Washington. Her family, refugees from war-torn Congo, in Central Africa, sought asylum in America.

A French speaker who didn’t know a word of English , Cynthia had never seen snow or eaten American fast food.  And who was this Harry Potter fellow everyone was talking about?

As a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Cynthia was a stranger in the strange land of American teenagers.

Months later, she heard about the African Club. Cynthia found her way to the room of Blair faculty adviser David Ngbea, where immigrants from Africa gathered on Wednesday afternoons after school.

“It’s crucial for these kids to meet others who have been through the same thing, to feel they’re not alone,” said Dr. Wanjiru Kamau. founder and President of the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation (AIRF), parent organization of the African Clubs.

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Members of Blair HIgh School’s African Club, ninth grader Emmanuel Minja and senior Philippina Mensah flank club advisor Lydia Spitalny. (photo by Julie Wiatt)

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Safe haven

For ten years, after-school clubs at Blair and Springbrook High Schools, and White Oak Middle School have given African students a chance to find kindred spirits and cameraderie as they adapt to their new home. The groups are part support group, part oasis and have given students a place to unwind and feel safe.

“We want to know: what’s happening at home, do they need academic support, counseling, or advice?” said Kamau. Most families left Africa due to poor economic conditions in their home countries; some are the children from diplomatic or Army families who were re-located here.  But as Dr. Kamau explains, “Some teens not only face linguistic and cultural barriers, they’ve had traumatic experiences caused by war, poverty, and family separation. We are reaching out to these young people as well.  They need help and healing.”

“Many of the kids in Blair’s club are from West African (French speaking) countries, with the majority probably being from Cameroon. We also have students from Ghana and Liberia, among other countries,” says Lydia Spitalny, who runs AIRF’s after-school programs in Montgomery County.  Anywhere from 16 to 20 kids regularly show up for weekly meetings at Blair.

Flying cars and fairy tales “I actually thought there would be flying cars in America,” said Blair freshman Emmanuel Minja.  Then he continued, “That’s what they showed in the music video. I was only 10 years old, so I believed it.  I was surprised by many things: first of all the snow, which I had never seen before.  And the one-bedroom apartment the seven of us had to share. Our house in Africa had more space than that.”

It’s a common theme of African teens that have immigrated here: life doesn’t really compare to the fairy tales they heard at home.

“Our friends in Ghana were so excited when we told them we were going to America.  I was 8.  I thought, this is going to be the most exciting field trip of my life,” said Blair senior Philippina Mensah.   She continued: “I thought their would be a map that would guide me when I got here, and that I could pick money from the trees.  I still like it here. There are more opportunities — but there’s so much competition.” The Club helps students like Philippina cope with these new pressures.

Finding friends

Blair junior Larissa Sofia Taaga arrived here just four years ago, as a 10-year-old. Though she spoke English, it didn’t seem to help with her efforts to make new friends.

“In Cameroon, people are always outside, and you say hello to everyone you see,” she explains.  “Here it seems like everyone just stays inside their house.”

“I was really sad and lonely in the beginning,” said Larissa, ” and my mom had two jobs, which meant she was never home, like she was in Africa.”

After a few months had passed, another African student at Blair told Larissa that “the African Club at Blair is where you’ll make friends” –and they were right.  After making African friends, American
friendships followed.  She recently began a new job as a waitress, evidence of her successful assimilation.

Finding common ground

Although Emmanuel, Larissa, and Philippina are all from different African countries, they are quick to point out the similarities.

“We don’t all speak the same language, but we understand each other’s stories, like what it’s like to celebrate New Years  in Africa,” said Phillipina. “We have similar memories: going to church, and then joining a huge parade, with thousands of people in the streets.” Emmanuel nods.  Philippina laughs: “I was really disappointed when I learned people here sit home and watch a ball drop in New York !”

“Another thing we share,” said Emmanuel, “are many foods, like rice and beans . . .” Philippina interrupts, “or jollof (red rice, from Ghana) and fufu.”  Phlippina quickly brings up a photo of fufu on her cell phone.  She laughs when her advisor suggests it looks like a two-lobed brain.  Most West African countries have a dish that ressembles fufu, a staple made of root vegetables.

With the support of Club leader Spitalny, teacher Ngbea, and other mentors, African students learn to better navigate the waters of American high school.  Academic help, guest speakers, and community
service projects are all part of the plan. The students also make time for celebrating and sharing African culture with their high school classmates.  Soon they will perform an African dance at Blair that they created themselves, drawing on dance traditions from several of their home countries.

To learn more about the African Clubs or the Foundation, you can visit their website at: www.airfound.org.

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Alumni of local African Clubs (from left to right, seated) include: Ruby B. Johnson, Adja Koite, and Cynthia Mandjila, plus (standing) Ivan Ango and Troy-Massa Steward.  The five participated in the “African Youth Kaleidoscope” conference sponsored by the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation at Montgomery College, Takoma Park. (photo by Mark Podger)

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About the Author

sandymoore
Sandy Moore, the Kids' Voice columnist, writes for young readers and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Sandy is also a past contributor to Washington Parent magazine, a Board member of Lumina Studio Theatre, and resident of Silver Spring.