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Africa Comes to Houston Schools Via Youth Forum

A youth forum sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Houston, The Africa Society and other groups with an international focus brought more than 1,500 sixth to 12th grade students together this month to learn more about Africa. But one of the things they learned is that it is not easy to develop a simple concept for such a large and diverse continent.

The purpose of the Teach Africa Youth Forum was to expose students to the real continent of Africa and its many countries and peoples as opposed to the somewhat distorted idea they might get from the news media or popular culture.

Ambassador encourages dialogue

Among those on hand to provide perspective was Angola's ambassador to the United States, Josefina Diakete.

"When we talk about Africa it is really important to keep talking and talking and engaging so that, at the end of the day, we will succeed in terms of changing perceptions about the continent," she explained.

One of the perceptions organizers of the forum stressed was that Africa is a huge, diverse continent that cannot be easily fit into one stereotype.

"There are 54 countries in Africa. There are over 2,000 languages in Africa. There is an extreme diversity in Africa that our students, unless they go out and seek the information, just are not getting and this is why we have Teach Africa," explained Jomo Bellard, who is with the Africa Society, a sponsor of the event.

Forums engage student discussions

As part of the planning for the event, students from some schools prepared poster displays about various African nations, showing the variety of climates, terrains, cultures and resources contained by this very large continent.

Some student participants, like Barry Authenreith came to the forum with little knowledge of Africa beyond some general impressions about cultures in different nations.

"Their religion, their customs, their dances and music," he noted.

He is one of the many students who thinks of going to Africa mainly to see pyramids in Egypt or wildlife in the large parks of Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa. At the Teach Africa Forum instructors tried to engage students in discussions about Africa's resources and the potential its nations hold as a trading partners.

Economic situation intrigues some

Crystal Bain is planning to go to Africa with a missionary group later this year and she was intrigued by presentations on the economic condition of many African nations.

"It posed a few questions about trade with Africa, detriments and benefits. It made you kind of think about what you can do to help or what you should not do to help," she said.

The man presenting the economic picture for the students was Gregory Rehmke, who operates an educational company called Economic Thinking out of Seattle, Washington.

"I am encouraging students to read books and follow up and study these issues and the best they could do for Africa and for themselves is become an entrepreneur or businessman doing trade and investment in Africa. There are huge opportunities there," he said.

Student finds forum helpful

One student who brought some special perspective to Rehmke's class on economics in Africa was 14-year-old Loyce Gayo, who came here from Tanzania two years ago. She says this forum was very helpful.

"For example, the stereotypes: It kind of helps students here get more understanding on what Africa really is and my country, Tanzania," said Loyce.

Gregory Rehmke says students from Africa like Loyce are in a unique position to help American students better understand Africa and the world in general.

"It is so great for American students to have international students in their class. The students here learn more about Africa from a classmate who is African than they ever could from a book or in a classroom," he said.

This daylong forum was part of a multi-phase program that included workshops for teachers on how to raise awareness of Africa in classrooms.