I have had a lot of messages from friends who have seen my pictures on Facebook and Instagram, traveling from one city to the other on the YALI trip, and they all say, “You dey chill oo”, which literally means, “You are really having fun”.
Well yeah, I’m having a helluva of a time! But I think the organizers of the Civic Leadership Track at the University of Illinois, Dr Jeff Friedman and Dr. Merle Bowen got it spot on, beautifully combining classroom work and the practical issues on the field. That’s where the fun part comes in.
In week 2, we have been crisscrossing the state of Illinois, moving from Springfield (The capital), to Bloomington to Chicago and back to our base in Champaign. On these trips, we learned in the most practical ways, the history of America, the real issues of poverty, crime in midst of development and success, community service, civic leadership and the sometimes ignorant and myopic view of the American about the African continent.
The Book of Mormon and Chicago
Let me start from the last point. On Thursday night, we were scheduled to watch the popular Book of Mormon play at the Private Bank Theater. In the entire auditorium, apart from the black casts, I think I could not spot any other black person (I could be wrong) apart from us (The 25 YALI Fellows).
The Book of Mormon is a religious satire, which sort of exaggerates Americans’ opinion about Africa and Africans. In most of the scenes, it turns very vulgar and offensive, with direct *F word insults to God and Christianity. In writer and theatre producer Jim Bennett’s words, “Indeed, R-rated movies seldom contain this much profanity, nor do they aim it at deity with such vitriolic glee.”
The writers of the play used The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the US as the focus group to sort of represent Americans, and Uganda to represent or better still, misrepresent Africa. By the time the play was half way through, most of my colleagues were so livid they wanted to storm out. But we were supposed to keep “an open mind.” Its all part of the training. Observe and make our own judgments. Honestly in the end, I didn’t know what to make of the play. The play certainly did not do any damage control and I think to a large extent, it left many of the ignorant ones thinking they were not wrong afterall. Somehow, I don’t think The Latter-day Saints; popularly called the Mormons have openly condemned the play yet for what ever reason. I’ll just leave it there.
Before we ended up at the theatre though, we were at the Chicago City Council, learning about how they enact laws to govern the city and how they are also particularly struggling with violence – known for one of the highest crime rates in the US.
The city is sharply divide, the white population on one side, Asians and new settlers in the middle while the huge black community is also tucked on one side. I don’t think Hon. George A. Cardnes, a member of the Council representing Ward 12, adequately answered my question about whether they have placed a finger on the real cause of these violent acts and how to drastically reduce it. But I’ll leave them to deal with their problems, as they seem to be looking for lasting solutions. The number of homeless people on the flashy streets of Chicago is also quite profound and any visitor to the city will easily recognize this.
Americans are big on community service and volunteerism is an essential part of American culture. Million of Americans volunteer for charitable and national service organizations in their country and outside each year because they feel the need to give back. I don’t know how they managed to get their people to think that way. But it’s a good thing to help your neighbour or a community in need. In the classroom, we studied the goals and outcomes of community service, comparing and contrasting volunteerism to community engagement. We later visited the Illinois Wesleyan University to understudy the vibrant Action Research Center, which is using innovative ideas to transform nearby communities.
We did not just listen, we got our hands dirty to paint some chairs meant for the community bus stops.
Others also painted giant flower ports which are meant to beautify a community that is largely seen as neglected and poor.
Today is 4th of July, America’s independence day.
I’m looking forward to the activities lined up for today and the fire works. Hopefully the weather will be charitable today. We’re supposed to be in Summer but the cold weather and the rains are conniving to ruin our plans. Hang on for the pictures for the 4th of July in my next blog.
And oh, before I sign out, I finally attended church on Sunday at the University of Illinois Baptist Church. Loved it!