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Experts bring Africa alive for young students

Carlos De Loera, a seventh grader from St. John the Baptist School in Baldwin Park, didn't know that French was the official language of the Republic of Benin, a country in West Africa. On Saturday, May 30, however, he learned this fact from no less than the Beninese ambassador to the United States himself, His Excellency Segbe Cyrille Oguin.

NIK 5800Carlos was one of nearly 1,000 middle and high school students from the Los Angeles region who came to UCLA to learn about Africa directly from experts on African history, culture, youth, cinema, natural resources and many other facets of life on the continent. The Teach Africa Youth Forum held at Royce Hall was the last and largest event in a yearlong collaborative effort carried out in Southern California schools to increase awareness about Africa and its place in global affairs.

And it gave students a more multifaceted perspective on Africa than the one they
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Photos by Rich Schmitt.
gained from textbooks. This was Africa, as seen through the words of Zimbabwean musician Chiwoniso, who told the story of her coming to the United States and returning to her birth country later in life. That impressed Estefania Barragan, a sixth grader, and several of her Gage Middle School classmates, especially when Chiwoniso plucked the metal keys of a mbira dzavadzimu, which reminded the students of a "circular guitar."

Sixth grader Max Flores said he didn't expect to hear about diamond mines in Africa, much less learn that children his age and younger were forced to work in them in Sierra Leone.

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Ambassador from Benin, His Excellency Cyrille S. Oguin.
At a session on forest ecology taught by geography graduate student Erin Streff, a group of Dorsey High School students reacted with awe to the news that the Sahara Desert was green as recently as 4,000 years ago.

The forum was sponsored by the Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa, the Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership and UCLA's James S. Coleman African Studies Center, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Graduate students from the African Studies Center taught many of the breakout sessions on art, history, media, the environment and current affairs. About 45 volunteer UCLA students, alumni and staff helped to put together the event, stuffing giveaway bags with games, books, videos and T-shirts.

The young participants came with ideas and enthusiasm and left with good feelings about Africa and UCLA, reinforced by Diddy Riese cookies that were passed out as they prepared to leave campus.

When Streff asked students to list the benefits people derive from forests, one answer brought the most smiles: "chocolate."
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