Cultural exchange: Members of ROPE traveling to Ghana
Akilah Edgerton will always remember her first trip to Africa.
The 31-year-old Pittsfield woman -- now a paraprofessional at the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School in Adams -- was studying at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro when she traveled to study at the University of Ghana in 2007.
"It was five months too short," said Edgerton, who was based in the capital city of Accra, but traveled to other regions. "I fell in love with the country. The people are amazing, really outgoing and inquisitive."
She would later go on to join the Ghana Educational Collaborative, which provides scholarship support to students in Ghana wishing to go to school but who have significant financial needs.
This summer, she'll have the opportunity to return to Ghana with 15 students and educators from the Pittsfield-based Rites of Passage and Empowerment (ROPE) mentorship program for adolescent girls. For most of the travelers, it will be their first trip to Africa, and outside of the United States.
The trip, organized in collaboration with the Pittsfield school department and BART will provide ROPE participants the opportunity to spend time with students from Ghana and tour educational sites such as the W. E. B. Du Bois Center; Cape Coast Castle, a landmark of the slave trade; the University of Ghana, the suburb of Legon; and the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum.
The girls recently shared their enthusiasm for the trip with the public during a "Taste of Ghana" benefit they held last Saturday to teach community members about the food, music and dance of Ghana. They're also running an online crowd-funding campaign via GoFundMe.com at gofundme.com/8oyb0c.
"A lot of us in the ROPE group come from Ghana, so it will be a great experience to go there," said Jennifer Sanneh, 16, who is among the group members with Ghanaian heritage.
"After doing Rites of Passage, it will be something that will be meaningful to us and what we've been talking about," said Nevaeh-Skye Reed, 13.
ROPE was formed in 2010 by a local group of women professionals under the auspices of the Youth Alive organization. ROPE is designed to support middle and high school girls "in finding their inner voice and to assist their transition into womanhood as mature, resilient young women with valuable life skills." Any female with a multicultural background can apply to be a participant or a mentor.
"ROPE is about telling your story and sharing with people what you've been through," said member Sheylimar Olavarria, 16. "When I first came to the group, I was shy. But the people there, they became my family."
A major project of the ROPE Program has been its theatrical production of "Enuf!" Inspired by African-American playwright poet Ntozake Shange's 1975 Obie Award-winning production, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf," the ROPE production combines students' words, poetry and choreography.
ROPE members worked on "Enuf!" with various local mentors, including African-American spoken word artist Nakeida Bethel-Smith, theater educator Yvette "Jamuna" Sirker, dancer-choreographer Marla Robertson and percussionist Jerome Edgerton.
"We talk a lot about our relationships with other people and how to deal with different characteristics in others," said Jennifer Sanneh, 16.
The students' work toured through Pittsfield and Taconic high schools, as well as Barrington Stage Company, and Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington. Their work with the production will continue, as the ROPE students' experiences change and grow. The students said they're already planning to make public presentations in the Berkshires after their trip to Ghana.
"It's exciting," said Ty'shae Guity, 16. "It's a place a lot of people don't get to go to, and we get to experience it with friends."
Edgerton will travel ahead of the students, leaving June 23, to put the finishing touches on the group's itinerary and travel logistics. The ROPE group will be in Ghana from July 7 through 17.
The West African nation has a population estimated to be around 25,758,108 people. While English is the official language of Ghana, Edgerton said the students can expect to hear various dialects including Akan (also known as Twi), Ewe and Mole-Dagbon, among others.
"There are a lot of similarities between theirs and our own culture here as African-Americans," Edgerton said. "Daily life revolves around food, family, their belief in God."
She said food staples like beans, rice and collard greens can be found there, as well as various styles of dances that the ROPE students have learned or seen in their sessions.
Edgerton said she's also been teaching the ROPE students to be aware of cultural norms, such as how it is custom to primarily use the right hand, whether to eat, to accept gifts, show a direction, etc.
Another big component of the trip will be to connect the ROPE girls with girls their age in Ghana, "so they can have a cultural exchange and learn what it's like to be a female in a developing society," Edgerton said.
She said the Pittsfield students will also be exposed to things like poverty and socioeconomic range that they may not have experienced before. The ROPE students will be able to meet some of the youths that the Ghana Educational Collaborative supports with things like money for clothing, school supplies and other student fees.
"When we talked about putting together this trip, it was with the understanding that we're becoming more of a global society, and that it's important for these young women to broaden their horizons and submerge themselves in other cultures. It's important for them to have that perspective," Edgerton said.
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