By Judith Nelson
In summer 1962 I had the greatest adventure of my life, but at age 19, I had no clue that my trip to Africa would live in the forefront of my mind, lo these many years.
I went to Africa under the auspices of “Operation Crossroads Africa” an NGO begun by Rev James Robinson of Harlem in the late 1950s. Rev. Robinson saw the emerging African nations and their young leaders on the one hand, and students in the US on the other. He felt that manual labor was the best environment to bring them together and begin life long bonds between the US and the new nations. So summer of 1962 saw about 300 US & Canadian students arrive in various parts of Africa – at the invitation of local governments – to work on construction projects.
Many of these 300 idealists would later go into the Peace Corps, into government and diplomatic service, return to Africa, marry and stay or marry and return to the US. Some would support schools. Some still do. Glenda McCoo Wina was the easiest for me to track as she became a news anchor. I reconnected with her when she covered the Voyager planetary flybys; at the same time I was a receptionist in the newsroom of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
One of the members of my group, Cedric Robinson, a firebrand later became a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He headed the Department of Black Studies and the Department of Political Science and served as the Director of the Center for Black Studies Research. He authored several books and was beloved by his students; he died in 2016, the year I returned to visit Africa.
One of Cedric’s colleagues in a Black studies group was Shyamala Gopalan. She and Cedric were lifelong friends. She eventually became Kamala Harris’ mom.
I met Cedric during orientation and training for our Crossroads summer. His first words to me were, “You’re too tall.” Cedric had the compact body of a gymnast and I was too slow to say, “No, you’re too short.” Cedric was funny and energetic. He frequently alluded to E. Franklin Frazier whom I had not heard of at the time. Cedric’s intellect and knowledge intimidated me. Ten students including Cedric and me built a school house in Tsabalala Township outside of Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
I, of course, revisited the site in 2016. Tsabalala is a crowded, bustling town and our brick school house has long been replaced by something larger and sturdier.
For me life has always been about the people I meet, the connections I make. I am a very ordinary person who has had the privilege of acquaintances and friendships with many rather extraordinary people. Because I traveled a lot – when I was young – I met and made connections in this hemisphere, Europe, and Africa. These connections seem to surface serendipitously in these, my later years, and bring a smile to my face.
Photo credit: Judith Nelson