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Camden kids travel to Ghana on journey of self-discovery

 Ryan Olan, rising sophomore, is traveling to Ghana with classmates from  Mastery High School of Camden.(Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Ryan Olan, rising sophomore, is traveling to Ghana with classmates from Mastery High School of Camden.(Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Terrance Cosby has never flown in a plane before. He’s always lived in Camden, and he’s never traveled farther than North Jersey.

If, however, you are reading this after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, June 27, you’ll have to reread that paragraph in the past tense. That’s when a jet carrying Terrance and five of his classmates from Mastery High School of Camden was set to lift off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, bound for Africa.

“I’m telling you,  the takeoff is the best part,” Terrance’s mother, Narda Santiago, assured him as they parted ways. “Once that plane starts going down the runway, it’s the best part.”

“I’m not a big fan [of] planes,” said Terrance, a rising 10-grader.

He and his classmates will eventually land in Accra, Ghana. They’ll spend about two weeks touring the country and learning about its past, with a special focus on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Each student contributed $1,000 toward the cost of the trip, many by selling candy to their classmates during lunch.

The students, who completed an eight-month African history course taught by teacher and trip organizer Ojala Mwalimu, also gathered three hours every month in special, after-school sessions.

“So many things in young folks’ lives is just paper. It’s just a thought. It’s not real to them,” said Mwalimu.

He hopes the trip will bring students face-to-face with their history in a way they’ve never experienced before. Mwalimu — born Robert Wallace Jr. — said he changed his name after spending a semester abroad in Ghana his junior year and learning more about his past.

Rising sophomore Ryan Olan, who is half Puerto Rican and half African-American, said he’s heard stories passed down through generations about his Caribbean ancestors. He knows relatively little about his African lineage, and hopes the trip to Ghana will fill in those blanks.

“I want to learn more about my heritage,” said Ryan. “If I don’t know about it, I don’t feel complete. And I want to feel complete.”

Ryan imagined Ghana would feel hot and dry, perhaps a little dusty.

“Maybe some animals on the streets,” he said. “I don’t expect monkey or elephants, but at least more stray dogs and more stray cats.”

Ryan’s dad, Reuel Robinson, believes his son will return from Africa with a greater understanding of himself and the relative advantages of life in America.

“I would hope for him to come back with a different perspective and say, ‘I’m appreciative,'” Robinson said.

Santiago also hopes the trip will broaden her son’s perspective.

“I need him to experience this,” she said. “I hope it will open his mind to make him travel more.”

To help her son reach his $1,000 goal, Santiago sold doughnuts to her colleagues at Cooper University Hospital. It wasn’t a tough sell, she said. Now she can brag to her friends, co-workers, and anyone else willing to listen: “My son is going to Africa.”

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