Field Guide

By Lolis Eric Elie — February 01, 2002 8 min read
How far will teacher Debra Harley go to broaden New Orleans kids’ horizons? All the way to Africa.

After just a few introductory sentences, Debra Harley has gotten her students’ attention. She doesn’t waste it. She asks them a question that is both intimate and intimidating.

“Do you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when people talk about slavery or the enslavement of African people?”

After a brief pause, Harley repeats herself, enunciating the words slowly. She’s possessed of a quiet, disarming intensity; her voice sounds with a calm that puts people at ease. She walks through the room, preparing students to tackle the question, which they’ll return to after they’ve had some time to think about it and discuss it in pairs.

The kids are gathered here for an enrichment session in the library of Carter G. Woodson Middle School, an institution named for the “father of black history.” There are about 100 students, all African American, many of them residents of nearby public housing complexes. Harley, 43, a medium-brown woman with a short Afro hairstyle, observes as the students work on their assignment. After several minutes, when she notices the conversation is turning to idle chatter, she stands up. “Ah-go,” she calls out. From the back of the room, Clyde Robertson, a district administrator participating in the session, responds, “Ah-may.”

“Ah-go,” Harley repeats. “I just asked for your attention.” She explains that “Ah-may” is an indication that a person is listening. Soon a few children begin repeating the response with Robertson. These words, Harley tells the kids, are from Twi, a language spoken in Ghana.

Harley has a way of making the faraway seem close, and the unfamiliar, familiar. It’s a skill she’s perfected as executive director of Kids-to-Afrika, the nonprofit organization she runs in her free time, when she’s not teaching kindergarten and 1st grade at Audubon Montessori Elementary School.

Harley has a way of making the faraway seem close, and the unfamiliar, familiar.

“The mission of KTA is to build bridges of cultural and historical understanding, supported by authentic experiences in Africa,” Harley explains later. Each year, the organization, whose name uses the spelling of Africa found on old maps, takes about a dozen New Orleans students on a 12-day trip to the continent, during which they tour sites and visit schools. With no paid staff, it’s a struggle for the organization to scrape together the $40,000 the annual trip costs, but funders have come through each time. And this month, KTA will make its fifth tour.

While today’s workshop isn’t as glamorous as jetting to the other side of the world, it’s an integral part of Harley’s work. And the kids here, for whom Africa is very much an abstract concept, are fascinated. They’ll soon be watching Roots, the 1977 television miniseries based on African American author Alex Haley’s family history, as part of their regular school activities. Debra Harley actually met Binta Kinte, Haley’s eldest Gambian relative, in Juffere, his ancestral village, when she visited during a KTA trip. She shows the students some snapshots.

When it comes time to answer Harley’s question about slavery, the students get quieter. A few girls raise their hands. “I would feel uncomfortable if I didn’t know about my ancestors,” says one. Her peers clap with growing confidence.

Harley’s wanderlust dates back to her girlhood days in Louisville, Kentucky, when her grandfather, a Freemason, would pack her up in his car and take her to conventions around Kentucky and as far away as Baltimore. After graduating from Fisk University, she worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Kenya. But the impetus for Kids-to-Afrika came six years ago, when Harley won a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Program fellowship. She and several colleagues from New Orleans-area schools traveled to Zimbabwe, where for five weeks they attended lectures on education, history, and culture; visited elementary and secondary schools; and toured sites such as the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a stone complex built by the Shona people in the 13th century. The visit was so eye-opening that Harley and several of her traveling companions determined they would try to re-create the experience for students back home.

The educators, several of whom still serve on KTA’s board, decided to target 12- to 16-year-olds mostly, Harley says, because 12 is when students “begin planning and plotting their own life course. What we hoped was that it would not be limited to just staying in New Orleans.”

KTA has streamlined its program somewhat since the first trip in 1997, but the basic components remain: Each January, roughly 50 students in New Orleans-area schools apply for spots on a journey that will take place the following February. Their parents agree to pay roughly one-fourth of the cost, or about $800; KTA raises the rest of the money. Students then must attend a minimum of nine out of 12 KTA workshops, held mostly on weekends throughout the year. While these sessions focus on teaching the kids about the cultures of the countries they will visit, Harley strives to build computer literacy, too, by having kids conduct research on the Internet. Students also practice public speaking in preparation for talking about life in America to their African counterparts and discussing their travel experiences with their Louisiana peers upon their return.

‘The mission of KTA is to build bridges of cultural and historical understanding, supported by authentic experiences in Africa.’

Debra Harley,
Teacher and
Executive Director,

Although the small number of spots and the financial requirement mean that only a tiny fraction of New Orleans students can go on the trip, Robertson, who’s also a KTA board member, notes, “One student who’s impacted has the capability of impacting hundreds of others.”

On its inaugural trip, the group visited Senegal and Gambia, countries from which many enslaved Louisianians originated. The destinations vary from year to year, with visits to Gambia, Ghana, and other English-speaking countries. But the itinerary also includes visits to Francophone countries, such as Senegal and Benin, so kids can appreciate the value of studying foreign languages. This year, for the first time, KTA is going to South Africa.

KTA leaders set up visits to schools and sites through a Ghanaian travel agent who has helped them connect with African counterparts since the beginning. The itinerary includes plenty of informative sightseeing, with excursions to historic places like the slave dungeons on Goree Island in Senegal, where Africans awaited ships to the Americas. This kind of tourism is definitely more like school than spring break, notes Rossly Zapata, now a junior at Warren Easton Senior High School, who traveled with KTA in 1999, and sessions during the trip further the educational component. “Everywhere we visited we had a meeting that night before, so we were able to ask intelligent questions,” she recalls.

Akita Evans, now a junior at Tugaloo College in Mississippi, traveled to Senegal with KTA in 1997 and credits the experience with correcting her mistaken ideas about Africa. “I was especially surprised by how well- received we were because I was always told that Africans looked down on African Americans because our blood had been tainted and stuff like that,” she says. “I was surprised at the development of the metropolitan areas. It looks like parts of the United States.” The trip to Goree Island was particularly moving for her. “That was the first time I can remember that I actually felt a real connection to Africans,” she says. “Since then I have traced the lineage of my father’s people, and I think they came from the Senegal area. Also, in that area, the people looked like me and the food was similar to the food that I eat at my grandmother’s house. It was like home almost.”

Participants note that many lessons occur at unlikely moments. Haneef Hassan Shaheed, a 12th grader who traveled to Ghana in 1998, recalls one such experience: “One morning, Miss Harley wanted us to wake up early so we could see the sunrise. Everybody was staggering.” Then, he says, the group roused: “We saw kids walking back and forth to the fields, and this was before they went to school. A lot of times we take things for granted. These kids were like 8- or 9-years-old.” Yet despite their tough lives, he recalls, “They didn’t have any anger on their faces.”

“I know a lot of people said that they were going to try to be a little more focused when they went back home,” Evans adds. “They felt sort of ashamed that we take so much stuff for granted.”

‘One student who’s impacted has the capability of impacting hundreds of others.’

Clyde Robertson,
KTA board member

Harley aims to put together a trip that’s well-structured and crammed with learning, but she sometimes faces serious—and funny—setbacks. Talk to her for a while, and the occasionally thorny stories about traveling with a dozen teenagers and a handful of chaperones come trickling out. There’s the one about the boy who fainted on his second day in Ghana because his mother had been giving him malaria tablets daily instead of weekly as prescribed. Then there was the time when there weren’t enough seats on the flight from Benin to Ghana. Harley, who stayed behind to catch a later plane, suddenly realized that she was holding the passport of one of the kids who’d already left.

Ultimately, though, Harley believes she’s involved in a profound endeavor. “I love seeing the kids experience Africa,” she says. “That is the greatest high for me. Yeah, you watch nervousness come out as silliness. But you also get a chance to see them expand and accept a different way of life. . . . You find that they are not so locked into their own patterns of behavior.

“There was that one group in 1999. At the slave castles, the girls were in tears, and the boys were comforting them. They had just been that moved by the history,” she recalls. “Watching these experiences is better than seeing their ranking on any standardized test scores because you know a change has taken place.”