For the past seven years, a group of students at the middle school level have embarked on a voyage that takes them from the classroom to West Africa. These students, called “fundishwa wasafiri” — a Swahili term that translates to educated traveler or enlightened traveler are given the opportunity to take an in-depth look at African and African American history that stands to transform the way they see themselves and their world.
The Rites of Passage, a Stamford Public Middle School District supported program, was born primarily out of a desire to educate. Retired school administrator Rodney Bass, the founder and community liaison for the Rites of Passage, first traveled to West Africa with his church in 1994 where he became acutely aware of the gaps in his own knowledge of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
“I was one of the people there — a grown man with three or four degrees to my name — but I knew nothing about what the curator was saying. I thought, this information would be so valuable," Bass said.
The program has become a life changing experience not only for students, but for parents and teachers who have accompanied them on the journey. After being selected for the program, students embark upon a 14-week course in African and African-American history — reading, journaling, and learning from guest speakers. Even the format of the classroom is in itself a learning experience, an environment where everyone has an important role to play.
“Many kids sit in the back of the classroom and, unless you call on them, they won’t respond. Even if they know the answer, they’ll allow bolder students to answer,” Bass explained.
“It is a sixth day of school, but I stress that it’s a very different learning environment,” Sharon Wade, Communications Coordinator and Office Support Specialist at , said. “There’s no front of the class, no back of the class, the kids learn to work together and become a family.”
On the first day of class, students are assigned a line number for role call that they will carry with them throughout their trip. They also select one of the seven Nguzo Saba principles that they will carry with them throughout the session: umoja/unity, kujichagulia/self determination, ujima/collective work and responsibility, ujamma/cooperative economics, nia/purpose, kuumba/creativity, or imani/faith.
In a Rites of Passage classroom, when a question is asked, every student who believes they know the answer stands up. Then one by one, they respond, first stating their name, their assigned line number, their Nguzo Saba principle, and their answer. Additional students add to their response until the teacher is satisfied with the answer and everyone sits back down.
In the classroom, students learn about the Atlantic Slave Trade from a team of teachers — both retired educators and current teachers — who rotate through the session to teach the course.
“They realize how valuable their heritage and history really are,” Bass said. “These were not individuals of weakness, but of tremendous strength.”
The program culminates in a trip to West Africa where students visit many locations that will validate what they learned in the classroom. Perhaps the most powerful is the visit to the Door of No Return in Ghana where Africans passed through as they were taken to the New World as slaves.
“We actually walk through the Door of No Return and then we turn around and walk back through it,” Wade explained. “It's what the people then could not do, we come back for them.”
The group visits villages and does community service work where they’re needed, they also have a chance to visit African schoolhouses and see the lives that children of their age live.
“Most have never seen the abject poverty — they see people who are surviving. They are not dependent on technology, they see how they use their hands to create crafts,” Bass said. “Learning opportunities are all around.”
“They become so appreciative of their education,” Wade said. “When we visit the schools there, they have dirt floors, no electricity, the little chalkboards that remind you of “Little House on the Prairie.” I think it makes them come back and do great things, obviously it isn’t all from Rites of Passage, but I think it does change them. If that’s what they get out of it, then we’ve done our job.”
Another part of their job is working as a team to fundraise and defray as much of the cost as possible for the students going to Africa.
“Seven years and we’ve always been able to get them there,” Wade, who first came onboard as the program’s fundraising coordinator, said.
Applications are still being accepted for this year’s program and interviews will follow for candidates who meet the academic requirements. Learn more and download the application here. This year’s students will travel from July 10—19 visiting Senegal and The Gambia, but also having an overnight layover in Casablanca, Morocco. Their journey as a group will begin on January 7.