Boys of Baraka

Jane Hoffman

The Boys of Baraka is a documentary film produced in 2005 about 20 at risk male youth who are chosen to attend a Kenyan high school thousands of miles away in the open prairie to develop academically.  The producers blanket the film with generalities that it is impossible for a Black man to make it out of urban Baltimore and succeed.  Sixty one percent of Black males only graduate in Baltimore, Maryland and 50% become criminals.  Four students are featured, Devon Brown, Montrey Moore, Richard Keyser, Jr., and Richard’s younger brother, Romesh Vance, who are 12 going on 13, about to enter the 7th grade.   The core of the academic program in Kenya at the Baraka school is to nest the boys in an environment away from drug culture and deprivation and measure their strength by how they survive in a displaced atmosphere.  The beginning of the movie shows the projects of Baltimore, crowded apartments, fences and street life which seem to drain the energy out of youth.  The only stalwart example of integrity is a Devon’s grandma, Mary, who is heartwarming cook, a family giver of the law and a disciplinarian of her daughter, who is Devon’s mother.  The mother is a drug addict who is in and out of prison.  Devon, at an early age, was attracted to the church.  He was sheltered by church leadership and given the opportunity to minister at age 12.  His preaching style is rhythmic of the Black preachers of the South with syncopated beats and gasps at the end of dialogue.  He showed a short example by saying “Sometimes when people want to destroy your joy, you just got to praise the Lord. When we praise his name, and give him glory and God will come and he will take us back to his kingdom.  All we have to do is let Jesus know and he will seal it with his angels.”  His drug addicted mother looked on and laughed with pride at the end of his speech, amazed that her son rose up to be a self-starter.  Richard tells us  “My neighborhood is mostly about drugs…people sticking needles in their arms, messing up their blood.  But I can’t let them get here. (Points to his head) I am going to keep them out there.  I am a strong man….like Frederick Douglas.  I am going to get away from here.” You can see the sorrow in his eyes and the desire to separate from Baltimore once he is accepted into the Baraka school.  His brother, Romesh, is also accepted.  The director asks the mother “What would you do if one is accepted and the other one isn’t?”  Leeortia replies “Don’t make one a king and the other one a killer.”  Richard goes to visit his father in prison before he leaves.  His father has already served 13.5 years for shooting his mother in the leg.  He has a connection with his father and is sad he is not present in his life.  “I am going to a school called Baraka so when I grow up, I can be somebody.  So I don’t have to come in here and be separated from my children.”   The father says “ You know what you’re doing, you are smart enough.  I will be rooting for you.”
Founded by the private Abell Foundation in 1996, the Baraka School — “baraka” means “blessing” in Kiswahili, the native spoken language of eastern Africa .  Once the young boys arrive, they realize that to be tough it will take more than being away from Baltimore.  They find themselves missing home a lot more than they thought.  The teachers are disciplinarians and few are empathetic.  There wasn’t a uplifting  pep talk, only a command “deal with your problems appropriately.”  There is no television, limited electricity, and limited free time. Playing on game boys and electronics is discouraged. Two develop a kinship with a baby hedgehog they keep as their pet. Montrey collected lizard eggs on a hike.   They go running before class. One boy says after about two weeks  “Some of the kids want to go home already.  I am one of them.  But I am brave and I am going to try.”  Then he wipes a tear from his face with his shirt.  Romesh packs his stuff and says he’s walking back to the airport.  Richard says, “I don’t want you to go, but if you leave I wish you luck.  We are doing this to get out of the projects.”  Soon enough, Romesh sets his bag down and Richard carries it back for him to the dorms.
The gist of the movie is that they are transporting  12 year old boys to an isolated place to become strong, independent, single minded thinkers and cultivate themselves away from street torn Baltimore.  On one hand, it is a good thing to experience giraffes, elephants, swimming holes and discipline.  On the other hand, it is not working toward the solution of fixing what’s wrong with urban plight, the educational system of Baltimore and the root of poverty that drives men and women to crime.  After the students serve one year, they climb Mount Kenya.  A chubby boy needs extra help getting up the mountain.  At this stage of the movie, one can sense the integrity the students have achieved and team work quality of sticking together.   I worked in the housing projects in Portsmouth, Virginia.  There were 1,300 residents in 400 different units.   There were people side by side who had beautifully cultivated gardens and next door ones that had cockroaches covering the house.  My best friend, Velmeta, was determined like the Boys of Baraka to get out of the projects.  She eventually got a job with the Portsmouth Housing Authority and moved out into the community.   On every corner, there was a church and a liquor store.  The path was divisive which way one could choose.  I started a residential newsletter at the Jeffrey Wilson Homes and residents could write articles and express how they wanted to improve their community.  They developed pride from a federal grant for park improvement.   In the American South, the evidence of poverty and prejudice is more apparent.  You turn one corner and there is a wealthy neighborhood adjacent to one in dire need and dilapidation.  The heat swells up from the summer sweat, people move slowly under the rays of the sun and survival is only improved with Southern friendliness.  The strength this movie gave me is a positive remembrance about being among the Southern poor but how grateful people were in the mid-80s just to have public housing before the feds dismantled most of it.  The Boys of Baraka in the movie  gained their self-empowerment from within but were also conditioned by what they were overtly taught.  They were taught that they could not succeed unless they got out of the ghetto.  They were not taught to work within the system.   
Towards the end of the movie, it was discovered that the school in Kenya had to close due to international terrorism.  The U.S. embassy closed after the 1996 Nairobi bombing.  The twenty boys were faced with having to go back to Baltimore public schools.   Montrey went to one of the better high schools and scored 397 on a state Math test, the second best in the state.  Devon the preacher continued to succeed and never lost hope through his faith.  He became student president and began his own street ministry.  Richard was losing ground by the saturation of drug culture and began slipping in school.  The scene showed an undisciplined atmosphere with nonchalant teachers.  The movie was about the decay of America who leave the poor behind and don’t provide opportunities or alternatives within the nucleus of a poverty ridden society.  One can blame the parents or previous generations but it was the desire to bring change to the lives of the pubescent boys to give them a chance outside their spectrum to broaden their world.  Those who kept their mind on their studies and away from bad influences managed to do more than survive.  At the core of the movie, it showed how family is still the strongest influence.  Good or bad, the family is what really defines a person and it is only through the exchange of that primal relationship  that people develop their identity.  The movie premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2005 winning a Special Jury Prize. The film also won the Audience Award Best Feature Film at the 2005 Silverdocs Festival at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. The film also won the Gold Hugo at The Chicago Film Festival, won the NAACP Image Award and was nominated for an Emmy.