When Chris Bashinelli made his first visit to Africa, he expected to see people mired in poverty, war, and starvation. In short, to see what was represented on TV in the United States reflected in reality. What he found, however, was not what he expected. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, his life was devoted to acting, appearing on the television series, such as “The Sopranos.” His trip to Africa transformed him from an actor to humanitarian, developing a desire within him to help his generation use their youth and energy to make a difference in the world. Through “Bridge the Gap TV,” Chris hopes to entertain, educate, and empower his generation by presenting information about the developing world that is not fixated on bad things, but rather hopes to illustrate the power of the human spirit and how by working together people can unite to “change the world for the better.”
In his pilot episode, Chris visits Tanzania and examines urbanization, the education system, and cultural immersion through the eyes of development workers and Tanzanian youth. It is here that we learn of the lack of opportunity facing rural youth and the inability of the Tanzanian government to provide basic education for their children. It was noted that only 6% of Tanzania’s children enter secondary school because their families cannot afford the fees or can send only one child to further their education. Since the average Tanzanian’s annual income is $450, it seems unrealistic to expect families to pay $160/per child each year to attend secondary school, thus reducing the likelihood that the children will be able to gain the means to move beyond the subsistence lifestyle common in rural Africa.
In an effort to increase their opportunities, many Tanzanian youth leave the safety and security of their rural homes to seek employment in the city. While in the countryside, these youth have access to the safety net of an extended family to provide them with the basics of food, clothing, shelter, and a sense of community. Employment opportunities in rural areas are often limited to working mines for $16/month and life is often supported on a subsistence level only. Yet, Chris shows that after the youth arrive in the city full of hope they are confronted with the reality of few job prospects, no support system, and often dangerous conditions as each person is left to fend for himself. One development official in Tanzania considered the unemployment rate to be in the double digits throughout the country. Furthermore, once in the cities, young Africans (for indeed this is not only a Tanzanian problem) will take any opportunity to provide themselves with a meal and shelter. This reality is one I noticed for myself quite often while I lived in Ghana. At first, I did not realize how many teenage rural girls were in the capital of Accra, Ghana until a friend pointed one out to me—she was one of the many market girls who carry baskets full of items for shoppers, easily identified by the scars on her face. After I saw the first young market girl from the country, I quickly noticed how many there actually were in all parts of the cities of Ghana. It is unknown how many African youth return to their rural homes after a stint in the cities, but it is quite clear that the citizens of developing countries have the motivation to change their lives for the better, yet lack the resources to do so.
Due to lack of resources, Chris illustrates how the Tanzanian government has established community-based education programs where local communities pool their funds to establish a school, pay a teacher’s salary, and provide the basics of education. Likewise, many developmental organizations and individuals are providing money and support for young Tanzanians to attend school. One of Chris’ guests has paid for one or two students to attend school on her own. As we can see through Chris’s “Bridge the Gap” episode, many students cannot further their education without this extra support even though they have the motivation to improve their lives any way possible.
While development organizations often provide resources to a community with no local input about what the people actually need, through “Bridge the Gap,” Chris aims to show his generation how they can make the world a better place by understandings another’s culture. For me, this is the best place to begin if you want to help someone, because you cannot truly support someone if you do not have a basic understanding of the cultural mores. Chris shows how important this is through his own immersion—learning Kiswahili, dancing, teaching a class, cooking (something Tanzanian men are never supposed to do in public!), and discovering that catching a chicken is not that impressive when compared to killing a lion. It is difficult, if not impossible, to improve a situation or change someone’s life if you do not change your mindset and listen to what someone else needs, not what you think they need. Often, I would hear of organizations planning to provide computers to a school in a developing country. The first thing I always wonder after hearing this is: “Do they have the infrastructure to handle these computers? Or, wouldn’t it be better to provide basic necessities for the school first?” When I lived in Ghana, I knew of an all-girls school where 300 girls shared only one toilet and some girls began lining up for use of the shower at 3AM. Perhaps instead of computers, we should first learn about the people we want to help, listen, and try to understand their basics needs, and strategize from there: a plan of action Chris goes to great lengths to promote through “Bridge the Gap TV.”
Please enjoy Bridge The Gap’s two part pilot in Tanzania and feel free to share this with your students and to incorporate it into the curriculum:
Chris Bashinelli, founder of Bridge the Gap TV, is a Melibee Global speaker! Learn more about him, his presentation on Global Citizenship and how you can bring him to your campus, conference or event.
About the Author: Katie Ahlman has a MA in Comparative and International Development Education from the University of Minnesota. Her work focuses on internationalization of higher education and helping international students transition into a university environment. She has lived in Ghana, Costa Rica, and Cuba and will soon start a new position at Connections Academy in Baltimore, Maryland. You may contact her at email@example.com.