By Kadjata Bah, Eastside News
Every Tuesday during lunchtime on the second floor of East High School, you might hear the sounds of Afrobeats, drums and African flutes from Room 2023. The music fills the room, along with the sounds of Mandinka, French and several other languages, as well as laughter. These sounds belong to the members of Africa Club — a safe space and a community for East students from across Africa.
Brendan Loula, a former East staff member, founded Africa Club in 2016. In 2019, Jarje Bah and Sidiki Bitié, two bilingual resource specialists at East, took on the roles of advisers along with their team of student leadership.
Africa Club is a sponsored 21st Century Learning Center club through the Goodman Community Center’s LOFT high school program. GCC holds a Department of Public Instruction CLC grant for East High that allows it to provide and fund additional educational enrichment opportunities during out-of-school time. Among many things, Goodman funds Africa Club’s end of the year celebration, provides prizes for youth who make presentations about countries in Africa and funds the salaries for the two Africa Club facilitators.
With the help of Bah and Bitié, Africa Club’s leadership board gives members opportunities to learn more about each other and expand their community reach. From discussion and debate to learning about new aspects of African culture, Africa Club provides a space for students to grow as students, leaders and as a family.
“I go to the Africa club because I feel safe and welcomed! The community there is loving and fun,” said Metta Jarra, who has been a member for two years. “I was born in the U.S., but the club helped me learn more about Africa, culture, traditions and different languages.”
In its advocacy for cultural competency and inclusion, Africa Club often has students share presentations on various African countries. Each club member chooses a country to research and present, and sometimes bring their very own experiences living in or visiting the country.
“Africa is big. We have different cultures, even if some are the same,” said Jainab Sanoh, a senior and a member of the club’s leadership board.
This activity not only allows students to broaden their knowledge of the diversity of Africa, but also helps them practice their communication and presentation skills with a supportive group.
Before the pandemic, Africa Club also made an emphasis on community engagement through volunteering at the Goodman Community Center. Students were able to network and build important skills while making an impact close to home.
“This was a wonderful opportunity for our students to get out of their shells and be productive members of their community,” Bitié said.
For students like Sanoh, the club is far more than a weekly meeting at lunch. Sanoh, who moved to Madison from Guinea in 2020, found Africa Club to be a useful resource in improving her English. But, most importantly, Sanoh found something she did not know she would find in Madison.
“They make me feel like I am in Africa — like I am at home,” she said.
Sanoh met some of her best friends in Africa Club. She looks to Bah and Bitié as her primary support system through her high school career. When it came to her academics, planning her future, leadership responsibilities or getting acclimated to East life, she always found someone behind her.
“I’m not doing it by myself. Everyone helps me. Jarje, Sidiki and everyone in Africa Club helps me. I’m not alone,” Sanoh said.
However, the pandemic became an obstacle for Africa Club and its members, who found themselves stuck inside learning virtually for over a year.
“It was hard to be on Zoom all day in class and also find time to Zoom during the club time,” Bitié expressed.
Still, Africa Club persevered. Bah was grateful that each student had access to a Chromebook, which allowed for a smooth transition to weekly virtual meetings.
“The Africa Club online was very entertaining because we had people from all over Africa come and talk about their culture and life experience,” Jarra said.
Over the course of the year, Africa Club hosted 11 guest speakers from 10 different countries including Sierra Leone, the United States, Ghana, The Gambia, Nigeria, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Senegal and Somalia.
“We had speakers who were born in war-torn countries, and their stories were full of courage, love and resilience. This was an especially important message during the pandemic,” Bah recounted.
“I go to the Africa club because I feel safe and welcomed! The community there is loving and fun.”
Now, more than a semester into the 2021-22 school year, Africa Club hopes to get back on track with its outreach. The club plans to restart its after school volunteering and begin fundraising by selling bracelets, headwraps and scrunchies made by club members. The student leadership board is currently working on a traditional African fashion show, as well.
As Africa Club continues rebuilding in-person activities, members have started mapping out the club’s future. They hope to grow in numbers by reaching students who have not yet been involved with the club. The club would also like to expand its scholarship opportunities and have more educational activities in the Madison area.
“We have been slowed down a little bit by the pandemic, but there is hope for bigger and better things to come,” Bitié said.
Sanoh, for one, has great aspirations for Africa Club, even as she plans to attend college after graduating in June. She hopes for greater participation and perseverance from the inheritors of Africa Club in the coming years.
“For young African people who come here and don’t know anyone, Africa Club is here to help them — to make them feel like they are home. I hope Africa Club continues like that,” Sanoh said.
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