Birthright AFRICA co-founder Walla Elsheikh was in her 20s when she realized that there was a paucity of African perspectives — outside of slavery — in her history education. The realization was jarring for Elsheikh, a continental African from Sudan who migrated to the United States at age 11 after growing up in Sudan, Sweden, and Uganda.
“They don’t teach it to us from this lens of African contribution,” she said. “If anything in the US, we get ‘okay, there was slavery, some civil war, we’re fighting for rights, we’ve got Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, let’s go.’ We’re here now. We’re good. So I thought I was good. And you start realizing there’s not a lot of you in that leadership.”
To help fill that gap, Elsheikh founded Birthright AFRICA, a global nonprofit committed to providing a free educational trip for every youth and young adult of African descent aged 13 to 30. Together with its program partners, the organization provides a transformative, culture-affirming exploration of self that starts at the local level and culminates with a 10-day trip on the continent.
“You get this 360-degree understanding of your heritage,” explained Elsheikh. “Not only the challenging parts of enslavement causation, but also the amazing history of our contributions throughout time past [and] even present. The young scholars understand that they are the future and can fulfill any leadership entrepreneurship aspiration. We ensure they have that pride, confidence, creativity and connection to whom they really are. And know that Africa is part of that future for them.”
One of the major barriers to traveling freely to Africa from the United States — and even intercontinental travel — is cost. Ticket prices are notoriously exorbitant, which is why Birthright AFRICA is determined to remove that obstacle.
One of their short-term goals is to raise $500,000 by the end of the year to fully fund trips for 500 young scholars. To help with fundraising efforts, Birthright AFRICA is hosting their first virtual gala, which coincides with the celebration of their five-year anniversary. The inaugural benefit will include in-person watch parties in New York, where the non-profit is headquartered, at the Tastemakers Africa House with a live simulcast airing to Republic Bar and Lounge in Accra, Ghana. It’s billed as ‘The Return of the Return,’ a nod to Ghana’s push to encourage the diaspora to come back home.
Three women who have made immeasurable contributions towards connecting the African diaspora community will also be honored: Chief Marketing Officer for NetFlix and Co-Founder of Full Circle Festival Bozoma Saint John; African Ancestry Co-Founder & President Dr. Gina Paige and African Diaspora Development Institute President and Founder H.E. Ambassador Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao.
Among the night’s high-profile performers is Grammy® Award-nominated multi-platinum rapper, singer, and songwriter Jidenna. The multi-hyphenate entertainer is a Birthright AFRICA board member and pulling double duty as gala co-chair.
Jidenna’s inclusion in the initiative was serendipitous. He grew up in Nigeria, takes an annual trip to the continent, and you can find Africa infused throughout his art. According to him, this relationship was a natural consolidation of minds that want to help people travel and trace their heritage while exploring new sides of themselves.
“I ended up literally doing a Google search for the phrase birthright Africa, and found out that somebody had already incorporated or filed for a 501(c)(3) status, and I’m like, ‘oh, wow, who is this?'” Jidenna told Travel Noire. “And it turned out to be Walla. I knew her sister first and actually did some work with her. She said, yes, my sister is actually running our organization. And I literally jumped for joy, gave her a call, and the rest was history.”
Jidenna will be accompanying the December cohort on their trip to Ghana and reflect with them on this journey which he hopes will allow them to know their place in history.
“I think that people with African roots across the world experience a sense of powerlessness in the different nations that they’re in because we are predominantly in colonized or previously enslaved areas of the world. And to transcend and level up as a people, it’s imperative to have a renaissance movement where we have a rebirth and remember the power that we do have. I believe that Africa is the gateway to that.”