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'West Africa to West Philly' Course Connects Language With Community

February 17, 2023

Students discussing African small businesses in West Philly with AFRICOM President and Chief Operating Officer, Eric Edi, PhD, and Youma Bah, a Senegalese entrepreneur, at Bah's Kilimandjaro restaurant at 45th Street and Baltimore Avenue. Photo credit: Parfait Kouacou, PhD.
Students discussing African small businesses in West Philly with AFRICOM President and Chief Operating Officer, Eric Edi, PhD, and Youma Bah, a Senegalese entrepreneur, at Bah's Kilimandjaro restaurant at 45th Street and Baltimore Avenue. Photo credit: Parfait Kouacou, PhD.

"Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, racial injustice was ripe and ready to be discussed. I started thinking about a course that would strengthen the curriculum and support the University’s commitment to enhance diversity, inclusion, equity and anti-racism. I wanted our academic programming to reflect those values," said Parfait Kouacou, PhD, an assistant teaching professor at Drexel University.

A few months earlier, Kouacou had attended a workshop held by Drexel's Lindy Center for Civic Engagement related to community-based learning and community-engaged pedagogy. Drexel supports faculty who develop courses involving Philadelphia neighbors and local organizations to combine experiential learning and civic engagement. Kouacou knew he wanted to design a course using his expertise (he teaches in the Department of Global Studies and Modern Languages at the College of Arts and Sciences), experiences (he has worked in media and international organizations) and background (he is from Côte d’Ivoire). He also wanted to introduce students to the Francophone African community located close to Drexel's University City Campus. But what to do? And how?

A few months later, Kouacou had the answers after researching, reaching out to and later partnering with the Coalition of African and Caribbean Communities (AFRICOM), which supports the city's African and Caribbean immigrant and refugee communities. The partnership led to the creation of "West Africa to West Philly" (FRENCH 350), an upper-level and community-based learning French class. Throughout the term, students would study the oral history and culture of West Africa through literature and cinema, and then use their freshly acquired knowledge in face-to-face and virtual discussions with native West Africans living in West Philadelphia.

"I wanted to introduce Drexel students to the world of the African immigrant community and help fulfill the ambition of the Department of Global Studies and Modern Languages of training students to become responsible citizens who are aware of both world issues and local concerns," said Kouacou.

The course was so popular with both the students and community partners that after teaching it in the spring of 2021, he ended up teaching the class again in the fall of 2022 — after initially planning to teach the course once every two years.

Students seated at a table after sampling African food at Kilimandjaro.

Students after sampling African food at Kilimandjaro. Photo credit: Parfait Kouacou, PhD.

Experiential learning, en français

Though a level of French proficiency is required for the course, a French minor is not. Students came from different majors and countries to speak and write in French with native speakers and consume Francophone West African works of literature and film. 

"The most common trait is that these students are curious about the African continent and the cultures, as well as about issues of social justice," said Kouacou. "Students from various backgrounds and origin bring rich perspectives to the discussions."

About 10 students and 10 community members participated in the course each term. Every week, they discussed social, cultural and political issues during in-person experiences and through group chats and virtual forums using the GroupMe app. Everyone shared their perspectives — and videos and articles found online — on the topics and the cultural offerings covered in the class.

"It was amazing to relate class topics to everyone’s lived experiences. It was also an opportunity for the students and community members to share their cultures with each other. We also learned about stories of the community members as African immigrants in Philadelphia," said Maéva Kadjo '24, a management information systems and business analytics major and real estate management and development minor, who took the fall 2022 course.

The president and chief operating officer of AFRICOM, Eric Edi, PhD, was a frequent guest lecturer in the course. In addition, he hosted the students for a site visit and African business tour in West Philly, which culminated in a dinner at the Kilimandjaro restaurant on 4519 Baltimore Ave. There, they talked with the restaurant's owner, Youma Bah, who talked about immigrating from Senegal to Philadelphia, managing hardships and being resourceful when facing difficulties. Kadjo loved the experience so much she's since become a repeat customer, enjoying the food while remembering the memories from the first night there.

"The class in general was full of exciting moments like having the opportunity to visit a West African restaurant in Philadelphia and try the foods they serve on their menu," said Churchill Monono, international business '23, who also took the fall 2022 course.

Other guest speakers included Boukary Sawadogo, PhD, associate professor of cinema and Black studies at the City University of New York, who discussed his recent book, "Africans in Harlem: An Untold New York Story," as well as the West African films watched for the class. Other cultural topics brought up in "West Africa to West Philly" covered oral and written stories and histories from different countries and time periods.

"I enjoyed reading the stories of 18th century queen and Baoule ethnic group founder from today's Côte d'Ivoire, Abraha Pokou and 13th century prince and Mali Empire founder, Soundjata Keïta, as they depict a traditional West African take on personal worth, communal service, leadership and oral tradition. Upon the completion of these readings and the corresponding class discussions, I was able to draw parallels between West African philosophical views and Arabic, Chinese, ancient Greek and Western thought," said Iulia Cazan, a graduating political science major with minors in French and philosophy, who took the course last term.

Outside of the classroom, students conversed with native speakers in a forum, including alumni of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program who had been chosen by the U.S. Department of State as some of Africa's young, promising civic engagement leaders and had taken professional development and leadership skills training at Drexel. The graduates of the program, who were connected to the class by Drexel's Office of Global Engagement, talked about life in their countries, including Madagascar and Tchad. Other participants in the forum included those students had met during site visits as and people Edi brought in from AFRICOM.

Students listening to Senegalese entrepreneur and West Philadelphia resident Youma Bah at her restaurant.

Students listening to Senegalese entrepreneur and West Philadelphia resident Youma Bah at her restaurant. Photo credit: Parfait Kouacou, PhD.

Looking Backwards and Forwards

Edi, with AFRICOM, had previously worked with the University's A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and received seed award funding for certain AFRICOM projects, including a 2018 grant to design short, animated videos spreading autism awareness in the Greater Philadelphia area's African and Caribbean immigrant communities. He was happy to partner with Drexel again because the "West Africa to West Philly" class aligned with AFRICOM's mission and goals.

"The partnership with Dr. Kouacou is also critical to advance AFRICOM's network, programming and recruitment of volunteers, and rekindle AFRICOM's tradition of working with academic institutions," he said. "As an educator and community leader, I firmly argue that the partnership is critical to improve social justice in Philadelphia. I learned through pre- and post-experience conversations with Dr. Kouacou that this partnership could expand into new program ideas."

For Edi, who has more than 30 years of experience working with African immigrants in Philadelphia and has taught at various universities, the opportunity to be actively involved in the students' classroom experiences was appreciated. 

"It is always a pleasure and exciting to be in the classroom and meet with students from diverse cultures," said Edi, who added that "international students' curiosity to learn about immigrants' lives is always wonderful,” as it prepares the future generation for a globalized society. 

"I am from Africa, Cameroon to be precise, so I took this course because I felt it would be a perfect opportunity for me to learn the history of West Africa and other countries' cultures," said Monono, who said he had also taken two other French classes with Professor Kouacou.

Kadjo, an international student from Côte d’Ivoire and native French speaker, signed up for the course to speak French again in an academic setting and with other fluent speakers, and learn more about the West African presence near where she now goes to college. It also offered the opportunity to finally take a community-based learning course before she graduated — something she had wanted to do as a teaching assistant for the CIVC 101 civic engagement course required for all first-year students, a Drexel Community Scholar, a mentor for the Lindy Center's Living Learning Community and volunteer at several Drexel events. 

"I enjoyed listening to my classmates’ perspectives on the topics we covered in class. Everyone had different experiences and so many stories to share. We all related to the class in different ways and that contributes so much to the learning experience," said Kadjo.

For Cazan, an international student from Romania who has interned at the Romanian Mission to the United Nations, this class helped her think more broadly about international relations, traditions and viewpoints.

"I believe that international bodies sometimes err in prescribing or imposing a worldview that does not necessarily coincide with the needs and lived experiences of those living within those respective regions. I believe this class reinforced my belief that you cannot understand or help people while being ignorant of their history and traditions. I also hold that international policies that aim at supporting development in the West African region should devote more time to engaging with a wide variety of community members from West African countries when designing initiatives," said Cazan.

“West Philly to West Africa” has been an interesting course to teach, Kouacou said.

"In a community-engaged course, students are active learners, not just recipients of knowledge," he said. "Student learning takes place in some form beyond the traditional classroom format, through dialogue with guest participants, the community, and other experiential learning." 

He's thankful to the other faculty members who had supported him and helped him on the path to create "West Africa to West Philly." His then-department head Rogelio Miñana, PhD, (now Vice Provost of Global Engagement) incentivized faculty to take the steps to design and teach a community-based learning course. Brenda Dyer, teaching professor of French and director of Modern Languages, encouraged him to tap into his expertise and the Francophone African community. Another colleague, Steve Vásquez Dolph, PhD, an assistant teaching professor of Spanish and Faculty Fellow at the Lindy Center, shared his experiences teaching a community-based learning course in Puerto Rico and helping then-environmental science major Alexis Wiley '22 develop a community-based program in Philadelphia; to talk, they met up for lattes at some of Dolph's favorite coffee spots around campus, which he introduced to the newer faculty member.   

"The support among my colleagues and the need for a course of this kind led me to design the curriculum. The impact on students and community members is my best reward," said Kouacou.