Through fufu and sambusas, Rochester students counter misinformed ideas about Africa

Students enjoy ethnic foods
From left to right: John Marshall High School students Vanessa Hill, Maddie Satre, and LJ Thompson enjoy ethnic foods during the Tour of Africa-Taste of our Heritage event at Marshall High School in Rochester.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Senior Adina Campbell lined up plates at a food station during a recent lunch period at John Marshall High School in Rochester. 

Sambusas, jollof rice, fufu and an array of traditional African dishes were on the day’s menu.

“Fufu is in almost every African country and they all kind of make it a different way,” said Campbell, whose mom is from Togo, a country in West Africa. “My mom, she’s made it with peanut sauce, and chicken, spinach, tomatoes, onions — a lot of stuff.”

It’s usually pretty spicy, said Campbell. But knowing the audience, she said her mom toned it down for this event, which was one of several planned by members of the newly formed Black Student Union during the school’s Black History Month celebrations. 

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Sambusa is one of the ethnic foods
Sambusa is one of the ethnic foods students enjoyed.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Junior Avery Lenz was among dozens of students crowding the room for a taste. 

“A lot of different cultures have amazing foods,” she said. “And it’s awesome to get to experience new things. Because you might find something that, it’s not your new favorite food, but you would have never known before. This is a great way to show people that you can go out of your comfort zone, try new things.”

That’s the whole point of the lunch.

The group organized this meal to counter school programming that they say poorly represents their cultures and traditions.

That’s especially true for recent immigrants to America or students who are first generation, said Black Student Union advisor Olandis White. 

“We wanted more activities and more events that would actually reflect who we are,” said White. “And let’s help dispel some of some of the myths that people have about Africans and African Americans.”

Students talk
Teacher Olandis White directs John Marshall High School students Christion Mosley (left) and Akon Amoot as they refill ethnic food tables.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

‘Africa isn’t what you think it is’

Student Hannah Boakai lived in Ghana and then New York before she came to Rochester. She said she’s experienced some of those stereotypes.

“You have the kids who are poor, you don’t live in a house, you have to hunt for your food,” she said, rattling off a few statements she’s encountered. “That’s not actually Africa. Africa isn’t what you think it is.”

Boakai wants her peers to know that they have all those things — it’s just different in Ghana, and she’s proud of that. 

African and African American students are sometimes viewed by their white peers as a monolithic group with identical life experiences because of the color of their skin, said school Equity Specialist Rodney Sharp, who has been helping the Black Student Union with their programming. 

A student refills silverware
John Marshall High School student Hannah Boakai refills silverware.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

And those uninformed views have created tension among students. 

“A lot of people from the outside just see their skin color,” said Sharp. “And they say, ‘Oh, they must be African American,’ when a lot of the Africans are like, ‘Well, don’t take away from our culture, and say that we’re African Americans.’”

Common ground in shared history

Dispelling stereotypes that white students have about their African peers is one goal of the Black Student Union. 

Another is helping group members dismantle stereotypes they have about each other.

The aftermath of a long civil war in Sudan still pits some students with ties to the region against each other, said Abuk Adeer, who is from South Sudan. The predominantly Christian country split from the mostly Muslim northern region of Sudan in 2011.

Adeer said old stereotypes and misconceptions frequently surface in her conversations with other students in the Black Student Union.

Students talk
John Marshall High School student Damaire Jones talks with friends while trying ethnic foods.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

But she said the group members keep talking and students are finding common ground. In fact, her best friend is from the northern region of Sudan. 

“We would always have long conversations where we would just sit and just talk about the wars, about our families, the struggles we have similarly, because both our families are at home right now. They’re both struggling with the floods and the bombing and the war,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who are lost from their families. We bond over that.”

There is one thing, though, that members of the Black Student Union say they may never see eye to eye on, and that’s which country has the best food.