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  • Diversity is More than Skin Deep:An Academic's African Memoir
  • Evelyn Avery (bio)

In a few moments my husband and I were to take off for an experience that would shape us for the rest of our lives. Surrounded by incredulous parents, grandparents, and a few friends at Idlewild Airport in 1961, we waited anxiously for the American government chartered propeller to fly us thousands of miles to East Africa. While our mothers wept, our grandparents prayed and blessed us. Off in a corner, our fathers, shaking their heads, stared ahead stone-faced, unable to comprehend what we were doing. Adopting a false bravado, so as not to increase their panic, I joked about our great adventure, although I, too, was a nervous wreck about teaching in East Africa for two years. Little did I realize then, forty-eight years ago, the impact those two years would have on my future educational choices, views towards multiculturalism and the world. How could I have even guessed at the challenges and rewards that awaited us, teaching in Uganda, traveling throughout East and South Africa, where the majority of people were Black but very different from each other, a concept not understood in America then and even less so today with all the contemporary rejection of racism? Actually one of our reasons for enrolling in Teachers for East Africa was our desire for change

Newly married, in our early twenties, neither of us had ever lived outside our enclaves in Brooklyn. I, in particular, was born and raised in Borough Park, an homogenous large Modern Orthodox Jewish community where I attended day school for several years, lived partially with my grandparents, and joyfully celebrated Jewish events. On May 7, 1948, for example, Borough Park streets were teeming with Jews, singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and dancing in the streets that had been roped off by the police. We all joined in to recognize Israel's independence. Nothing in my life at that time could have foreshadowed my unusual future outside the Jewish community. In fact years later, attending Brooklyn College with a 98% Jewish population simply reinforced my background. However, I had not counted [End Page 163] on extraordinary professors introducing me to communities beyond my own, and to meeting my future husband, Don Avery, a student of John Hope Franklin, with a passion for African American history. In 1960 we were Kennedy kids, motivated by our young idealistic president to improve the world. As a young woman, who had spent twenty years in Brooklyn, I was ready for something different and to make a difference.

After teaching in New York ghetto schools for one year, we were inspired to join Teachers for East Africa, sponsored by the United States and the United Kingdom, with existing native governments participating. Teachers College, Columbia University organized the program, recruited and trained 150 high school teachers for one month, followed by six weeks at Makerere University (later the University of East Africa) in Kampala, Uganda, before our two-year teaching assignments started. Our initiation began at Columbia University with four weeks of introductory lectures and study of East African geography, tribal and colonial history, and Swahili, the language used everywhere except ironically in Uganda, where we were to be posted. On our last evening in New York, the distinguished Julius Nyerere, future president of an independent Tanzania (then Tanganykia) moved us with tales of his country, the beauty and promise, the problems and conflicts, the need for our skills and passions. We could hardly wait to board the plane the next day.

Intent on our emotional airport goodbyes, I had momentarily forgotten that this was my first flight, and naively assumed that the U.S. government would provide us, its valuable charges, the best accommodations possible. Were we surprised when an aging propeller rolled in and we were told to prepare to board! Several of our group wondered how such a "puddle hopper" would make the several thousand mile journey across continents, but it was too late; we were being ushered on the plane where more surprises awaited. Directed to take our seats, we discovered that there were only 148 seats for 150 of...


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pp. 163-169
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