Educator Ani Mwalimu facilitates trips for youth to reclaim identity

Ani Mwalimu always knew he was going to be a teacher. And he has realized that vision with several years of experience teaching high school students, in addition to working in administration in Columbus, Boston, and Camden, New Jersey. But his calling was extended when he was given orders by an elder on a trip to study abroad in Ghana.

“Go back and tell the descendants of our ancestors that we welcome them and we want them to come back home," a Queen Mother told him in a village outside of the city of Kumasi.

“I took that very seriously,” Mwalimu said in a late-February interview in a Clintonville cafe.

Admittedly more of a visionary than a master of logistics, Mwalimu dove headfirst into organizing a trip to Ghana with students from Boston International High School in 2010. He secured some grant money, but the rest of the funding came from selling food and candy around the city, as well as his own pocket.

Now, eight years later, Mwalimu is planning his third “Sankofa Sojourn” abroad for youth (he has also organized three adult trips). Participants include high school students from Baltimore, Camden and — for the first time — Columbus. The trip runs from June 19 through July 1.

“Literally [the Ghanaian term] ‘sankofa' means ‘to go back and get it,'” said Mwalimu, who is facilitating the trip under his nonprofit, Pan African Connections (PAC). “We should go back and take our history and our culture and bring it forward.”

The trip, presented in partnership with the Columbus Sister Cities International organization, is specifically for people of African descent. Many feel they have lost parts of their identity, given their ancestors' removal from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade.

“Being forced to lose a name, lose a culture, lose a language, lose a way of being, lose a way of seeing yourself [and] lose a way of seeing the world, it has come at a cost,” Mwalimu said. “So the trip is designed to help people get some of those missing pieces to help fortify who they already are, or … completely redesign who they thought they were.”

“I wanted to get a better understanding of me and where I come from because none of my family members have been to Africa,” said Cleopatra Featherstone, a participating senior from the Graham School in Columbus.

“All my life I've been taught to love … my skin tone, [but] I've never had the opportunity to go to Africa,” said Graham School junior Nia Richardson, who is also going on the trip.

While the students will no doubt have fun at the beach and Kakum National Park, Mwalimu stresses the experience is not a vacation. There will be opportunities for learning at museums, monuments and universities, and also emotionally heavy moments at places like Elmina Castle — a significant slave trade center.

“We ask the kids, ‘Imagine that your ancestor went through that door and is with you now. … What do you think they would tell you?'” Mwalimu said. “The type of connections they make, the experiences that they have, nothing can prepare you for that.”

Prior to the trip, all students have to complete a year-long leadership development program and pass a history course. In Africa, they will serve as ambassadors, speaking before councils and sharing art from Columbus. When they return, they will be required to give three public talks about the experience.

This year, the cost of the trip is supported through a variety of sources, including the City of Columbus, students' fundraising efforts and an online “Pledge a Passport” campaign. The public can learn more at a launch party at the Columbus Metropolitan Library on Wednesday, March 7.

“The goal is to provide access for every black high school student in Central Ohio with the opportunity to study abroad,” Mwalimu said, thinking about his future efforts. He referenced the Birthright Israel organization, which provides free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, as a model.

“I don't think there's any other people on the earth who are more deserving and have a birthright to return to their space … than folk who came involuntarily through the slave trade,” he said.