Several months ago, the Africa-America Institute (AAI) launched an internship program. Starting AAI’s internship rekindled memories of my own enriching experience with internships over the years. The mission of the internship is to provide professional work experience to undergraduate and graduate students interested in African affairs. My love affair with unpaid work began right after high school with my first two internships at the American Institute of Architects and the Belle Bonfils Blood Center in Denver, Colorado.
Even as a high school graduate, I developed a sense that work experience matters, but there is always a catch-22: No one is going to give you a meaningful job without work experience. But how can you acquire work experience if you are never given the chance to work?
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I received my Bachelor’s at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah. Although BYU is a great institution and I had many wonderful personal and educational experiences there, it was sorely lacking in racial, cultural, and religious diversity. As a Congolese national, I longed for the continent.
Frankly, I longed to see more brown and Black faces, period. It did not matter where they were. So during the spring semesters, I searched for internships that would take me away from Utah for the summers. As a result, I interned in Atlanta at the Carter Center one summer. Another summer was spent in Denver working odd jobs.
After countless experiences, I landed the holy grail of internships: going abroad. In my case, the internship would take me to Kenya. I was thrilled! The organization that was sending me to Kenya had also sent me to Bolivia (pictured above) for two weeks, where we built a dispensary.
Traveling to Bolivia was educational and enjoyable, but the internship in Kenya was a dream come true. After leaving Liberia in 1989, I was happy to come back to the continent. It was an opportunity for me to learn and to discover the continent from the Kenyan perspective. With dreams of someday seeing my family again in Congo, I could also improve my Kiswahili, which had become abominable after not speaking it for 10 years.
With a group of Americans and me being the only Black person in the group, off I went to Kenya. Though the group would come back several weeks later, I committed to stay for an unpaid six-month internship in Mwanawinga, a rural setting an hour outside of Mombasa.
My job was to document the daily social, economic, and educational events and send my observations to the headquarters in Utah. Here is one of my handwritten journal entries on March 6, 1995:
Recently, the primary school had a PTA meeting. The meeting was poorly attended by the parents. Many parents did not attend because of lack of knowledge about the meeting, busy schedules, or illness. Most of the members of the PTA are women and they are the major fund-raisers. The purpose of the PTA meeting was to discuss the recent test scores released by the government and how to improve things at this very poor school. I have also attended three meetings on primary health care.
The community realizes the importance of such meetings but are bogged down with so many worries. Most of the women are illiterate. The meetings are dominated by the elites of the community and government officials if they are present. The community is dependent on these individuals to articulate their needs. My attendance was appreciated but I declined the invitation to participate in the decision-making processes. However, I did ask questions when applicable.
I was energized by my participation in this community. The goal of my written observations was to give the staff back in Utah the cultural, social, and economic context so that they could create a development project that was based on expressed needs, wants, and solutions instead of imposed quick fixes and fabricated vulnerabilities.
This approach spoke to my values of how I wanted to participate in the development of the continent.
When I think back on my experience in Kenya (pictured), I am reminded that most interns or volunteers who go to the continent are not African youth in the Diaspora: Rarely do you find a Nigerian or a Zambian youth who came to the U.S.A. as a young person return home to do volunteer work or intern in Ethiopia or Senegal. It is often White middle-class youth who take advantage of these opportunities.
Some might say it is because many African youth in the Diaspora can’t afford to work for free because they don’t have the financial means to do so.
Others say there is a psychological barrier or classism at play that does not allow middle-class and elite African youth and their parents to see themselves working for free in these settings.
Cynically, some of us may also believe that we have escaped poverty, and by all standards have succeeded in the world and therefore don’t need to remind our children of where we came from.
Whatever the reason, African youth in the Diaspora are missing out on an important aspect of their education in understanding how the world works in an African context.
Internships and volunteer work will not only give you important work experience, especially at the start of a career or as an opportunity to discover your talents, passions, or learn new skills, but it will also allow you to peek in to an unfamiliar world and gain new perspectives and deeper understanding of yourself and the continent that many of us call “home.”
Furthermore, if we want to own Africa’s development and understand what is happening on the ground and be effective drivers of change, we have to start by working with each other at all socio-economic levels.
Alternately, these experiences will enrich paid professional opportunities and make you more attractive to potential employers. There are more international NGOs in Africa delivering services and working on issues typically managed by governments, private sector, or local NGOs than anywhere else in the world.
Yet, the leaders are rarely Africans and the program design is typically not done by Africans. No matter the good intentions of the projects or the individuals involved, many international efforts in Africa are implemented with serious blind spots.
While some blind spots are innocuous and easily corrected, others can be very detrimental and counter-productive. For example, Tom’s Shoes (pictured at right) is a company that gives one free pair of shoes to needy children for every pair it sells. Without much thought, it sounds like a great mix of philanthropy and business; however, upon further reflection, the business model is actually quite damaging to the production of shoes locally, which could be a source of employment and increased wealth. With more income, people can choose to buy whatever shoes they want. Second, the company needs needy children with no shoes to stay on mission, and now, Tom’s Shoes is bringing its free shoes to Kenya.
At the same time, there are many Africans in the Diaspora who also use a Westernized lens to analyze challenges and determine solutions for some of the continent’s intractable problems. It has been my experience, though, that as a Diasporan youth working in Africa, people will call you out on your blind spot.
I find this refreshing and loving.
Moreover, if you participate in volunteer work or an internship and approach it from a place of learning, open-mindedness, and humility, then your ability to be of service and have an impact in ways that are empowering will increase exponentially.
Now you may ask, what did I accomplish during my six months in Kenya? What impact did I make? I am certain that the people of Mwanawinga taught me more than I taught them. Most importantly, I have become incorruptible and focused on acquiring the mind-set necessary to ensure that whatever engagement I have with Africa, it is not detrimental or disempowering to my African colleagues.
My evolved understanding of the continent started with this internship and the process continues today through my professional and personal experiences. In whatever position I am in, I have become an avid defender of all that is good about the continent. That is what Kenya and the internship did for me.