Leadership PsyD Student Travels to Kenya

By Omar Bah October 05, 2016

Having the opportunity to travel to Kenya this summer was life changing to me in many ways. I had the chance to reconnect with my roots after nine years of being away as a refugee here in the US. It was refreshing to relive the way people live there, think and interact, and see the daunting challenges of the everyday reality of the African person. Therefore, stepping foot on African soil for the first time in nine years was both elating and sad.

As I had thought, Africa is still wrought in beauty, community cohesion and most importantly, some glimmer of hope. A sign of hope and success of our work is a note I later received from one youth, Humphrey, you represented his college at our networking event at the hotel we stayed:

Dear Omar.

Sorry that it took me this long to get back to you. I had a very tight schedule last week and accessing some free time was really a challenge. I'm hoping you guys arrived safely. I can't forget to point out that meeting you people was a blessing to me. And however scarce time was, I really learned a lot and more importantly finding friends with similar mind as mine to serve and help improve our community was the best thing I could ever wished for. I'm hoping we will keep in touch as we help each other through consultation and even notification of various opportunities that may help boast our work. Thank you have a blessed time.

Humphrey later wrote about how he is implementing what he learned from us to battle depression, drug addiction, and youth unemployment:

Hi Omar,

All is well. Hope you are doing great. Yeah we will keep in touch my brother and I will be updating you on what we are doing on the ground to improve the community. And at the moment we are working on poultry farming project by providing incubators to every ward as well as providing best chicken and turkey breeds for commercial farming in my county so as to reduce the rate of youths taking into drugs due to depression and lack of employment. Will continue updating you. Thank you.

Regards, Humphrey

Like Humphrey, dozens more youth and children in school and church community have learned and benefitted from the work we did in Kenya. It was great to have the opportunity to mentor and inspire them by imbuing my own story (similar to their currently lives) to the VIA Character strengths that we used to engage them in building their self-esteem. The reality is, despite the hope expressed by Humphrey, there is still massive hopelessness in Africa. Seeing these children reminded me of my own childhood - working miles, barefooted to school. Often, it would be under the scorching sun, in tattered rags used as school uniforms. Their faces dry, hairs ungroomed with many showcasing gaping wounds. Most of them are withdrawn and look smaller in physical size than their age. Most of them are afraid to speak up as there is little self-confidence.

The time with those children prodded the most passion out of me. I saw an opportunity to offer them what I lacked when I was young and hopeless, in remote parts of my native Gambia. Our visit coincided with the visit of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. I watched his speech from my hotel room saying to Kenyan's that the development of his country did not happen out of spontaneity. He said, from the beginning, Israel had no natural resources and basically nothing. Rather, they had their MINDS and HEARTS to develop their country. That was his argument for Kenya to believe in itself as a country to pursue aggressive development as, unlike Israel, they have a lot of natural resources.

Omar Bah Kenya Visit

I found the words of the prime minister quite apt as example for the character strengths we were teaching the children in Kenya. We were teaching them about strengths that would make them hopeful, love their country, build teamwork, confidence and curiosity. Some of the strengths that had strong emphasis in our work were humanity, kindness, love, spirituality, integrity, transcendence, prudence, temperance, courage, bravery, zest. So I used the prime minister's words to bracket these into two domains - heart and mind. With these, it was easy to explore the lack of proper political, corporate, and family leadership in most African countries as compared to their most-admired Western counterparts. Initially, I had told the children that the Western world (which they loved calling the 'developed' or 'industrialized' countries) had only one thing different from African countries - GOOD LEADERSHIP. They were a little skeptical at first. However, utilizing my own story, the prime minister's speech, and the many great things happening in the Western world, the children embraced the character strengths with a more open mind. They came to understand, for instance, a conflict could be averted in a country if a president leaves power after a short time, and avoids using tribal sentiments to divide the population; they understood that integrity in leadership transcends just elected officials - that in a few years, they will be adults in public offices, and running families. Therefore, they understood that a police officer standing check of traffic could save lives if they do not take bribes to let a vehicle unfit for the road pass, or let a drunken driver pass. They understood that getting government jobs alone (often very low paying) is not the only option. They could explore their strengths of creativity to innovate and be entrepreneurial - that one can utilize the vast lands they have as collateral to develop and employ in the agriculture or real estate sector; that development starts from the individual and/or family unit where one's choices of basic things such family sizes (such as multiple wives and children that they cannot cater for) affect their economic wellbeing.

In everything we did, we involved their families by having them go home to talk to family members about their family history's sources of strengths. They shared stories and examples of why they felt connection to particular strengths and we helped them build public speaking skills and other attributes of strengths such as sharing, and active listening. I made them vote in everything they did so as to build a grassroots approach to understanding the strengths of integrity, honesty and citizenship. That way, they would get used to active listening, humility in accepting loss of elections to potentially avoid conflict. It also helped them understand how the Western societies they so admire, work. A good number of their time was spent in pairs or in teams. For instance, for the purpose of the final presentation, my class of about 70 students (7 and 8 graders) were divided in four teams namely Team Humanity, Team Courage, Team Temperance, and Team Transcendence. The leaders of each team were voted for, and the topics and processes of preparation were also chosen through voting.

At the end of two weeks, the children had mastered the VIA character strengths so much so that they were directing their own presentations in front of hundreds of other students, teachers, the sub-county director of education, and parents. They had gone the extra mile to add a drama skit and a poem dedicated to me and their class teacher as a surprise gift to us.

In the end, we had bonded so strongly, and inspired each other so dearly that we left with a sense of satisfaction that we had achieved something meaningful. Like my colleagues, I had come to appreciate how much work one can do within just two weeks. We had inspired students, teachers, Kimo Wellness Foundation (a team of local psychologists and counselors whom we partnered with) members and the entire parent community. On our final day, the children of my class surrounded me - each of them weeping deeply while some held my hand and begged that I did not return to America.

Omar Bah Kenya Visit

My time and passion were made meaningful through the representation of three events. First was the realization of a highly gender biased song in which a whole stanza states "...Our sisters, come to Jesus … for salvation…" The song stays mute about the 'brothers'. That lifted my valence about the need for rejection of the source of economic and social stagnation in many African societies. Many Africans still think and believe that it is okay for an entire section of a country's society to be deemed gone astray or less than equal and thus need to "come to" salvation. I made an economic, social and equitable argument that all women be considered equal and deserving of equal respect and opportunities. I emphasized the need for the elimination of gender based and domestic violence and joblessness of women.

So I started what I called the 'REVOLUTION'. I changed the age-old song by adding a new line to it. So when it was sung, we would follow the call for the sisters to come to salvation with a call for the brothers to come to salvation. The students loved it. The boys were humble, saw the logic, and embraced it. They taught the new song to the rest of the children in the school, and presented it in front of their teachers and parents. The revolution is that there should be a ripple effect that will take it to the community and across Kenya, hopefully the entire Africa. So that at the end, the thought process and position of women in that society could change.

The second event is the story of a young man called Ishmael. He is just 12 years old. He has charisma, passionate, a sense of leadership and highly articulate. He is the ideal child, the ideal leader I wanted to create. The third is a young boy. I cannot remember his name. And I know why. He was so quiet, withdrawn, and exhibited depressive symptoms that attracted my concern. I hardly noticed him in class as he was always standing behind others and making efforts to avoid to be seen or noticed. His English was extremely poor for an 8 thgrader. That boy (like the high end inspiration that Ishmael gave me) was the reason why I wanted to give all I could during those two weeks.

So at the end, as I left the school and watched the dozens of children cry and struggled to hold back my tears, I was happy, with a great sense of fulfillment. On that final day, for the first time, that boy - the quiet and withdrawn boy, stepped forward, approached me, and asked that I took a photo of him and his friend as souvenir. I was happy. I had done something in thosechildren, their community and country. That was my intention - to create many Ishmaels. My professor, Dr. Claire, had suggested something like taking such successes with a big heart. I did.

Omar Bah Kenya Visit