Education / Environment

Rocking the Boat hosts visitors from Africa

Cole Rosengren

Foreign exchange students learn about the Bronx River.

Students from nine countries come to Hunts Point to learn about conservation

Rocking the Boat team member Franchelly Blanco sat at the front of the Intrepid, a 17-foot Whitehall rowing boat, emphasizing the importance of environmental stewardship to his crew as they rowed on the Bronx River. Thanks to the efforts of environmentalists and concerned community members, he said, rivers like this one have made remarkable recoveries in recent decades.

But the crew that Blanco had taken out on this early August weekend was not a typical group of Bronxites discovering the river through Rocking the Boat’s free community rowing program. Instead, they were among 40 students from nine countries in northern and western Africa who had come to Hunts Point to bring lessons from the South Bronx back home. 

“Every body of water is connected – no matter how small they are, no matter how big they are,” Blanco told them.

The group had come to Hunts Point Riverside Park on August 2 as part of an international exchange program hosted by the University of Connecticut, called the Study of the U.S. Institute for Student Leaders on Social Entrepreneurship. The program is one of many such exchange programs sponsored by the Department of State throughout the country.

The students had just spent a month studying policy issues and developing business plans for social development projects they hope to spearhead when they return to Africa. After hearing a presentation in Connecticut by Rocking the Boat’s founder and executive director Adam Green, they were so impressed they decided to add a visit to the South Bronx to their itinerary during a final week road trip along the East Coast.

Karim Mabrouk, one of the program’s academic directors, said the goal of the trip was to expose the students to successful social non-profit organization models, like Rocking the Boat.

“Volunteering is not part of their culture,” he said. “Why would someone do something for free if they can’t even feed themselves?”

In the nine countries the students hailed from, Mabrouk said, chronic unemployment is a problem of such magnitude that antisocial or criminal behavior—-even terrorism—- can seem like opportunities for young people who lack constructive options. When the students return to their countries, they will apply for funding, in hopes of launching social projects to help their struggling communities.

Some of the students’ ideas included plans for a company in Morocco that would hire single mothers to cook meals for local universities, and a campaign to provide solar-powered carts and more efficient scheduling for people in that country’s largest city, Casablanca, who eke out a living by selling discarded rags and other items from mounds of garbage.

The students were excited about their trip to the Big Apple.

“Times Square was so wonderful. I loved the lights, it was so fun,” said Fatima Zahra Mechyakha, a student from Morocco.

Some students seemed hesitant about getting in the rowboats at first, but they returned to shore with high energy, and happily posed for photos.

“Once you know how to do the game it goes all swiftly and it’s very good,” said KB Innocent, a student from Cameroon.

On average, Rocking the Boat students take about 70 people per day onto the Bronx River during summer weekends as part of the group’s community rowing program, both to show residents the joys of the outdoors and to educate them about ongoing efforts to clean up the Bronx River.

For the visiting students, the next planned stop was Independence Hall in Philadelphia, then Gettysburg, and finally Washington D.C. to present their business plans to State Department officials.

David O’Keeffe, administrative director of the exchange program, said Americans would do well to look outside their borders for a broader perspective for their problems at home, as well as creative solutions to overcome them.

“We don’t know as much about the rest of the world as the rest of the world knows about us,” he said. “They’re facing the same issues in their countries as we are in ours.”

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