My Journey

Caught between two worlds
In the summer of 2010 I had my DNA traced.

I had been researching my family tree using ancestry.com but I hit the wall around 1856 (the “wall” as it is commonly referred to, is the period in American history during slavery when records identifying slaves were not recorded in the census. Slaves were considered property, and as such, had no names). A majority of African Americans will be unable to trace their genealogy past this point.

I remembered hearing of celebrities, like Oprah and Spike Lee, who had successfully traced their DNA using a company called African Ancestry (which specializes in tracing DNA for African Americans). Today through the marvels of modern science it is possible to trace back many hundreds of years. DNA has proven to be an ideal resource to supplement historical documents and possibly extend the African-American search for African ancestry.

So, I sent in my money (about $300), received my instruction packet, mailed back my cheek swabs and waited (quite impatiently, I may add) 10 weeks for my results. While I waited I was happily planning an exciting trip to Cape Town South Africa. It would be my first trip to Africa. It was to be a trip that included exotic safaris, 4 star hotels. and game reserves.  (My plan was to include the country of my ancestry as well)

The envelope please!

Well, NO ONE could have been more surprised than I was when the envelope finally arrived showing that my mitochondrial DNA (maternally inherited) was 100% Fulani from Guinea Bissau.

What is that? Where is that?

After doing some extensive research, I learned that Guinea Bissau ranks as the 4th poorest country in the world. It has been a long and often violent battle for freedom for this tiny country.  The U.S. Embassy suspended operations in Bissau on June 14, 1998, in the midst of violent conflict between forces loyal to then-President Vieira and the military-led junta. With much sadness, I decided that it would be unsafe to include Guinea Bissau in my travel plans.

A project in the making

As things would happen and about the same time that I learned of my results, I also heard of an organization called Little Dresses for Africa. They distribute dresses to needy girls in Africa. So I decided if I couldn’t make the trip, I could at least do something to help the people.

I contacted Little Dresses to find out how I could get involved. I wanted to send some dresses to Guinea Bissau. With no sewing skills, no volunteers and no contact in Guinea Bissau, I managed to recruit caring people across the country who volunteered their time to help me send 125 handmade dresses to Casa Emanuel Orphanage in Bissau. It took 4 months for the dresses to arrive. That was truly a rewarding experience. Read more about the project here.

It Takes a Village

Maritza Alvarez-Romero is a missionary and the high school principal at Casa Emanuel Orphanage in Bissau. She was my contact person for the Little Dresses project and we became good friends during the course of getting the dresses to girls. After my dresses project was completed she told me the story of a remote little village about 168 miles from Bissau (the capital city). The tiny Balanta village of Djati is home to about 1,000 people. The village had no (permanent) school, no well and no medical clinic. Each year during the rainy season the rains wash away the hay and stick school structure, and when the rain stops, the children must rebuild the school.
Once I heard the story, I knew that something had to be done and SOMEONE had to help. I truly believed, that someone, was me. So I set out looking for available services, but what I discovered was — due to the instability in the country, outside aid is almost non existent. I could not locate a single charity that would go into the country to help me build a school or a well. So I decided to adopt this little village and do it myself! I would try to bring their story to the world (in my own small way). My African team of missionaries, included Maritza, Freddy Schafer our project manager and his wife, Raquel, a nurse.
The new school. Tress in front planted in our honor covered

The first thing I did was cancel my trip to South Africa and begin putting together a project to build a school, well and medical center for Djati. For our American team, I joined with 2 other DNA traced descendants (Randii & Willie) and Life Link agreed to be our 501c3. Together we formed the first “It Takes a Village” team. We then partnered with hip-hop artist Hasan Salaam and FLOW to complete our project team. Through various fundraisers (including a concert in NYC, and a Cd) we successfully collected funds for our project.

We have completed our 1st school, the well and the medical clinic is scheduled for Oct.

I could not have done this without my entire project team and I thank them so much for answering the call!

Work has now begun on our 2nd school in Guiledje.

The calm before the storm

During a period of calm in the country (Feb 2012), the 3 of us were able to visit our ancestral homeland where we took part in the opening of our first new school. What an extraordinary day for us — and the people — were beyond grateful! (a few months later there was another attempted coup – April 2012)
While there I was honored in a re-naming ceremony and received a traditional African name. My African name is, Nenegale Djalo. (Nenegale means “mother of the house”)
Anyone can make a difference
This has been a passionate journey. Going back in history to begin to bridge the gap between “them” and “us” — “then” and “now” has been a life changing event.My desire is to live a life of connectedness with people, with the earth, and with the motherland. My joy now comes in helping to rebuild my ancestral homeland.

With your help, It Takes a Village, will continue to change lives by building schools and wells for the people of Guinea Bissau, West Africa.

I dedicate this project to the loving memory of my mother Odessa, who never knew of her Fulani, African roots, but passed her DNA to me to be an inspiration for others to: Go out in this world and create — make something brilliant, whether it be a piece of art or a book or music or a wonderful new invention or a world-changing business or whatever it is you do in the world.

“Remember, You have not lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you” (Anonymous)

Peace and Blessings
Nenegale
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