When Imani Bazzell went to Africa recently, it was for work.
But the trip was also a spiritual journey for her as she walked the same path slaves once did.
She visited a slave trading port in Badagry, Nigeria, where she crossed a lagoon in a canoe, then walked 1 1/2 miles to the Atlantic, the same trip captured slaves made. She passed under an archway, called the Point of No Return, and waded into the ocean, where the bones of those who didn't live to make the trip across the Atlantic lie.
"It's hot as hell and it's uncomfortable. But it's almost like every tiny little inconvenience, every little ache or pain or drop of sweat, that's the least I can do," Bazzell said. "Every step I took, I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground."
She also visited Cape Coast Castle in Ghana and saw the dungeons where slaves were kept for up to several months, while Anglican priests and government officials lived above them in the castle. Cannons on the castle wall still overlook the beach.
Bazzell said the experience was emotionally wrenching.
"Amongst African-Americans, it's really an important pilgrimage, even for the vast majority of us who don't think we'll ever be able to do it," she said. At the time, she thought, "I'm here because I got a plane ticket, but I'm here for a whole bunch of people who couldn't get a plane ticket. I go to witness because I think witness is a powerful thing."
Bazzell, the director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Social Justice at the Urban League of Champaign County, was in Nigeria in late February and early March to help ensure citizens there have a voice in their government. She helped train leaders of not-for-profit groups involved in civic and voter education campaigns. The training was aimed primarily at organizational development, financial planning and other technical assistance, but the ultimate goal was to strengthen the democratic process in Nigeria.
The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a nonprofit organization to strengthen and expand democracy around the world, provided the training in advance of the country's elections next month.
It's not easy convincing people their votes matter in a country with a culture of corruption. Not unlike convincing black residents in this country to vote after years of being denied that right.
"This is another country, but many of the issues they try to address there are similar to issues we try to address here, especially with disenfranchised voters," Bazzell said. "Fundamentally, it's about convincing people their vote makes a difference."
She first worked with the National Democratic Institute in Indonesia in 2001 and 2002, at the request of a college friend. The pilot training program she worked on is now a two-week certificate program through the University of Indonesia, funded by Citibank. It is being replicated in Nigeria.
"The idea behind this program is to try to build and strengthen and fortify and empower civic organizations," Bazzell said. "If democracy is going to work, people have to have an independent voice."
The training included sessions on strategic planning, problem solving, fundraising and proposal writing, financial management, program monitoring and evaluation, and constituency development. The staff discussed how organizations can be accountable and ensure priorities reflect those of their constituents, and involve people in issues rather than simply advocating for them without including them in the process.
The training also included issue-based voter education and mobilization strategies – voting based on what a candidate stands for, rather than his or her hometown, religion or ethnicity.
In addition to the training sessions, it was useful for the Nigerian organizational leaders to see how the National Democratic Institute leader in Nigeria and his trainers interacted, Bazzell said.
"They saw how he wasn't ordering his staff around. They saw the level of teamwork and the egalitarian nature of things," she said, noting such a way of working together is unusual in the authoritarian culture of Nigerian government. "They all really appreciated seeing that."
It was Bazzell's second trip to Africa. The first was in the summer of 1979, when as a college student she volunteered for Operation Crossroads Africa in Gambia and Senegal.
"Doing (the National Democratic Institute training) on the continent of Africa, as an African-American, you can make all kinds of connections," Bazzell said. "For me, it was not just a professional engagement, but also a very personal sojourn."
She said it is upsetting to see the poverty in an oil-rich nation like Nigeria and know that the country's resources are not equitably distributed among its citizens.
"They know what's right and what's wrong, what things should really be like. But it's difficult to move people to where that's a real expectation," she said. "I think that applies right here in this country. There are millions of people in this country with limited expectations."
Bazzell said Nigerians are all well aware of the corruption in their government (which is not unique to their country, she added), and they may not expect things to be fair or just. But, she said, "I didn't meet anyone – in trainings, walking down the street – who did not have a hunger and thirst for justice and a true participatory democracy.
"I think our job as democrats is to be as open and available and accessible to folks who also embrace that dream and vision," she said, "to be as encouraging as possible."