By Joe Lamport
The other young people are taking off their shoes in preparation
for their afternoon prayers, but 14-year-old Teetee Dimson has something
to say. "I had my belly button pierced," she says, "and
my mom found out."
Somewhere else, this might be a boast. But here amid the pile of
shoes in the entryway of an Islamic center in the Bronx, it is a
confession. "I didn't know it was wrong. I felt so guilty. I came
here and the imam explained it to me that your body is sacred."
Dimson wants to be just another ninth-grader shooting hoops and
laughing with her classmates at Wadleigh high school in Harlem.
But she is also from the West African nation of Ghana, and her parents
are strict Muslims. It is not always easy to keep a balance between
pleasing her folks and playing with her friends.
"The other kids notice everything about you," said Dimson, tall
and slender. "So you do change your accent, the way you dress, how
The fear by West African parents that children like Dimson will
change too much is what has led to programs like the Yankasa Masjid
Islamic, Cultural and Educational Center, founded two years ago
by Ghanaian parents to guard against American cultural influences
on their Islamic children.
The programs serve as many as 500 children as an influx of Muslim
West Africans, particularly Ghanaians and Gambians, fills Bronx
neighborhoods. In just three years, Gambians have initiated five
such programs and Ghanaians at least two.
The parents are hoping they will help their children avoid the
horror stories that pass by word of mouth within the West African
community, tales of sex and drugs and disobedience to ones
parents, stories about children committing crimes.
"I've visited many public schools," said Mohamed Abdullah, 47,
a Ghanaian who has sent six of his children to Bronx public schools
over the last 20 years. "It's a babysitting business. There is no
More than one-third of children in New York City public schools
were immigrant children in 1996, the most recent figures available.
Immigrants make up at least half of the 40,000 children in community
school district 10, the home of Yankasa and other West African after
school programs. There are at least 120,000 West Africans in New
York as a whole, not including those who overstay months-long visitor
visas. About 1,600 Ghanaians have arrived in New York annually,
a four-fold increase over the last ten years.
The influx has focused attention on the difficulties West African
children face in public schools, from learning a new language to
dealing with peer pressure. Their parents activism is helpful
and district 10 officials hope to piggyback on it, linking programs
like Yankasas to free English classes, skills training and
"Whatever works for the community, we want to do it," said Paul
Rosa, the districts foreign language coordinator. Last year
for example, to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month,
the district organized a celebration with Bengali families, he said.
"Language and culture are tied up together," Rosa said. "We can't
negate the fact that when a first language is encouraged, a person,
particularly a child, does better acquiring a second language."
At Yankasa, the first language is Hausa, a widely spoken language
in West Africa that Dimson learned when she lived in Ghana, attending
boarding school from age 11 to 13.
She also speaks Twi, a Ghanaian language. Less than a mile away,
at another program in a mosque on Webster Avenue, Gambian children
learn in Soninke.
New York City has seven public high schools specifically for seven
newcomers, including one that has just been opened in the Bronx.
The schools admit only recent immigrants who earn low scores on
English proficiency tests. Bilingual classes are available to students
who speak some eight languages, including Arabic and Bengali
but not Hausa or Soninke.
"In the future, we're going to open our own schools and ask the
government to support us," said Imam Abdullah Gambo, the director
of the Yankasa center. For the moment, though, Yankasa functions
as an after-school center, offering classes from 11 a.m. to 2:30
p.m. every Saturday and Sunday and on some weekdays. The center
is bursting with children -- most of them, both boys and girls,
in long robes. The girls also wear headscarves. Their shoes fill
up the foyer outside.
"We open our doors to every child who comes here," said Gambo,
the school's director. "But recently we have had to stop registering
children. We don't have any more room."
Islamic ethics and conduct was the main topic for Dimson's class.
Imam Abdullah Gambo taught the youths about Muslim prayer, connecting
the discipline necessary to pray correctly with that required in
life. The youths' questions easily led the class from discussing
the life of the Prophet Mohamed to everyday life in the Bronx.
The center also tutors children in math and science, but teaching
African culture, which emphasizes respectful and moral behavior,
is the primary goal, Gambo said.
"We don't want them to forget their culture," he said. "It's not
easy at all for them to handle the two cultures. It takes time.
These are two different cultures."
West African teenagers know that well. Fusseni Ishmeal, 16, a Ghanaian
ninth-grader at Manhattan Village Academy School, said he tries
to ignore the other students when they talk during class or talk
back to the teacher, when they fight, when they discuss sex.. In
Africa, he said, such behavior simply does not happen "Here, there
is no discipline in the school. Students don't know their identities.
What they want is to have fun. That's all."
Dimson could not agree more.
"Things are definitely different," she said. "In a Ghanaian family,
most of the people are very, very strict. My mother wants me to
come right after school - I mean right after school. And my friends
they go shopping or somewhere. Sometimes it makes me feel like I'm
not an ordinary kid."
After finishing up her class, Dimson pulls off her lime green
robe. Underneath, she is wearing a black leather jacket, tight blue
jeans, blinding bright white tennis shoes with a light purple trim.
Underneath her headscarf is a white 'do-rag, which is all the fashion
in the Bronx, though not in Ghana.
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