Colby African Society strives to educate students
Four years ago, Abby Cheruiyot ’12 discovered Colby through the help of a scholar-athlete program called the Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project (KenSAP), which helps some of the region’s best and brightest students gain admission to America’s most prestigious colleges and universities.
Since her arrival, Cheruiyot has served as the head of the Colby African Society (CAS), a club that helps African students in their adjustment and gives them an opportunity to share the many cultures of group members with the community. “Globally people misconceive that Africa is one place with one experience,” Cheruiyot said.
Cheruiyot identified correcting America’s misconception about the continent’s cultural diversity as a major motivation for CAS’s various events and weekly dinners, hosted every Thursday in Dana, to discuss issues of politics, economy and culture. “People sometimes tell me that they have visited Africa, and it takes some extra questioning to find out that they had traveled to Kenya.”
Papa Loum ’15, an economics and global studies major from Dakar, Senegal, and an active member of CAS, concurred, saying, “There were a few culture shocks upon my arrival, but the biggest shock by far was the shallow understanding many people have about the continent.”
“One girl asked me if we have ice cream in Senegal. And for some reason, someone had it in their head that we rode lions around the city,” he laughed. In retrospect, Loum jokes about some of the more outlandish questions, yet this type of misunderstanding is also a primary reason for his involvement with CAS. “I’ve had a chance to travel to many different African countries, and they differ greatly in terms of climate and people. Cameroon has over 260 ethnic groups, and Nigeria has 508 living languages. It’s a very diverse continent, so while a safari in Tanzania may be an African experience, it’s not representative of the African experience.”
Fadoua Rhazoui, a Fulbright scholar and Arabic-language teaching assistant, noted that many Americans tend to discount her native Morocco. “People often mistake African for black, and there is definitely an ignorance about the geography.”
Rhazoui added, “When people think of Africa, they think of the third world.”
Loum agreed, saying, “Because of the media, people associate Africa with negativity, poverty and starvation. But that is not what I see—that is not what I know. The Colby African society is trying to spread a different message, one of Ubuntu.”
Ubuntu is a Bantu philosophy originating in southern Africa, which focuses on the relationships between people and forming a lasting bond between those individuals.
The members of CAS hope to spread their understanding to their peers on the Hill. “We want to share the places where we, as individuals, come from,” said Cheruiyot. “We have seminars and show documentaries about African role models, we share the food we eat around our tables back home and we tell the stories we grew up with.”
Many of the African students have found that CAS serves as a way to stay connected with their homelands, as well as to connect their friends here at Colby to their families, their friends and their cultures.
“It can be very hard to be away from home,” said Rhazoui. “You begin to miss the food and the traditions. But the Colby community has helped me adjust in two ways: the students running the Colby African Society are so engaged and they really helped me get involved here, and the people I’ve met and worked with have kept me busy, entertained and made me feel very welcome.”
These kinds of connections are at the center of what CAS strives to achieve. “There is a Swahili proverb,” said Loum, “it is better to build bridges than to build walls.”