As AFS prepares for the 50th anniversary of its activities in Ghana, we find ourselves reflecting on our longstanding ties to Africa. With 54 countries, 2,000 languages, and 1.216 billion people, the continent of Africa is incredibly diverse and fast growing. AFS has been active in Africa from its very beginning as a volunteer organization, and continues to create impactful and meaningful experiences with students and communities there today.

AFS has roots in Africa as early as World War II, when the organization sent ambulances and drivers to Kenya and then set up an AFS overseas headquarters in Cairo in 1941. During their experience evacuating the wounded in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, the AFS volunteers interacted with local communities and civilians.

Many of the same men who served in North Africa during the war helped create the AFS secondary school exchange program in 1946. The first African students traveled to the United States on an AFS program from South Africa in 1958, and they were followed over the next decade by students from Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Swaziland, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia). AFS opened regional offices in Uganda and later Kenya in 1972 to further coordinate the exchange of youth from that region.

AFS Americans Abroad participant Joseph Harrison with his host family in Uganda in 1972. Photograph courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs.

One Kenyan student who traveled to the United States during this time was Peterson M. Munene, who later became secretary of Kenya’s Public Service Commission. Munene credited his AFS experience in 1961 as a key inspiration for his professional success in public service, noting, “Intercultural learning experiences are possibly the only proven way to world peace and progress.”

Unfortunately, political upheavals and conflicts led to the permanent closure of several AFS offices in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The challenges AFS faced in Africa were similar to but perhaps more acute than those the organization faced around the globe: relevance, accessibility, and impact. To combat some of the challenges, AFS began exploring new types of programs and strategies, including establishing an “African Desk” at the AFS office in Rome, Italy, between 1986 and 1989. Among other projects, the African Desk coordinated the delivery of a program for African museum professionals with the International Centre for Conservation and Restoration, which, over four years, hosted more than 60 participants from 22 countries. The program had a huge impact on the heritage field in Africa and eventually led to the creation of museum training centers in Kenya and Benin. In addition to coordinating new initiatives, in 2015 AFS created a regional body to foster closer regional cooperation and to represent AFS to regional stakeholders.

The AFS in Africa (AiA) group was responsible for putting together the winning bid, submitted by AFS Ghana, to host a network-wide AFS meeting with participants from more than 50 countries in October 2017. In AFS’s long history, this is the first time a major event is being held on the African continent. Rev. Allan Okomeng-Mensah, the board chair of AFS Ghana, expressed his enthusiasm for the meeting: “It is our hope that the meeting will provide the AiA the opportunity to showcase the celebrated diversity of the African continent and engender a new image of the continent. We in Africa and Ghana await the rest of the world with our warmth and smiles.”

Yamoransa Primary School students and their craft creations in Ghana in August 2016. Photograph by Terry Little.

The international meeting will include a panel featuring young AFS alumni from Africa and a public-facing global citizenship educational forum focused on connecting local educators, students, and intercultural learning practitioners and researchers with policy makers, nonprofit organizations, employers, businesses, and others interested in ensuring quality education relevant for the 21st-century job market in Africa.

“We in Africa and Ghana await the rest of the world with our warmth and smiles.”

–Rev. Allan Okomeng-Mensah

We are pleased to highlight some outstanding AFS initiatives in Africa in this article. Moving forward, AFS is dedicated to developing active global citizens, empowering schools and institutions, and increasing access to intercultural education in Africa. Africa is not only a continent where AFS continues to run our flagship school exchange programs but also a place that offers ample opportunities to expand the ways we pursue our mission of creating a more just and peaceful world.

Ghanaian AFS scholarship recipient Bosompemaa Dankwa with friends in the Czech Republic in 2016. Photograph courtesy of Bosompemaa Dankwa

Empowering Underserved Communities in Egypt

In 2014, AFS Egypt launched a program called Tanweer (“enlightenment,” in Arabic) to help children from underserved communities get a better education and take an active part in improving their communities. To date, 300 children have participated in exploring intercultural learning, improving leadership skills, learning about healthy lifestyles, and developing sustainable urban green spaces. Organized in collaboration with NGOs in several small villages and towns, this program was awarded the 2016 AFS Changemaker Award and is shortlisted for the United Nations Intercultural Innovation Award.

Building Bridges of International Understanding

Developed in the aftermath of September 11, 2011, the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program is an innovative high school exchange program funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. AFS works with like-minded organizations to coordinate the exchange of students from predominantly Muslim countries, including many in Africa, to the United States and vice versa on full scholarships.

On the Forefront of Global Education in Tunisia

In July 2017 the AFS in Africa: Global Citizenship Education Forum addressed the status of and possibilities to advance global citizenship education in Africa. It included experiential learning workshops with 150 teachers to enhance their intercultural skills. This was the first forum of its kind in Africa, organized under the official patronage of the Tunisian Ministry of Education and featuring a distinguished group of keynote speakers, including Wided Bouchamaoui, 2015 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and representatives from UNICEF, the Anna Lindh Foundation, University of Tunis El-Manar, and the Intercultura Foundation.

Strengthening a Community in Ghana

In 2012 AFS Ghana started a partnership with the Yale Alumni Service Corps (YASC) to engage in sustainable development and cultural exchange with the village of Yamoransa. Since then, YASC participants have spent each summer teaching children, conducting sports and arts workshops, running a medical clinic, and providing college and business mentoring. This partnership also resulted in a new information communication technology center and library, a venue for expanding access to information and for community meetings.

Learning about Wildlife Conservation in Kenya

Since 2016 AFS students from the United States have had the opportunity to participate in a Global Prep program focusing on wildlife conservation in Kenya. In addition to learning some Swahili while staying with local host families, the participants engage with Kenyan culture and diverse communities while exploring the sustainability of Kenya’s wildlife. In the words of Sunwoo Kim from San Diego, who participated in this program in 2016: “Kenyan culture is so different, and yet so similar, to ours. Learning about it—living it—gave me an inexpressible appreciation for diversity.”

Investing in Africa’s Future Leaders

Launched in October 2015, the “Investing in Africa’s Future Leaders” program has provided scholarships to nearly 50 African high school students from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Tunisia. One scholarship recipient, Bosompemaa Dankwa from Ghana, reflected on her yearlong exchange program in the Czech Republic in 2016: “One of the most important lessons I learnt is how to socialize with people from all over the world, from different cultures and with different opinions. It is fascinating to have two different families and homes and still call both of them my homes and loving both families. They unconsciously shaped my opinions about life and how I see the world. This experience has made me more curious about other cultures and helped me be more open-minded.”

Co-written with Terry Little, Business Development Specialist Africa at AFS Intercultural Programs. This article is published as a special preview of the AFS Janus magazine, printed in celebration of the 50th anniversary of AFS Ghana! Stay tuned for the full Fall 2017 issue, coming soon.