Back From Baraka
A Kenyan School For At-Risk Baltimore Boys Holds Promise For Some, A Mere Respite From the Streets For Others
Devon’s life now provides a stark contrast to his life in 2002, when he was just one among West Baltimore’s numberless population of “at risk” youth. But that was before he and 19 other boys from Baltimore journeyed to the Baraka School, the Kenya boarding school that has spawned much media attention (in City Paper and elsewhere), and much debate over the radical way it helps the city school system’s African-American boys (whose dropout rates reach as high as 70 percent): transplanting them to Africa for two years. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady spent the past three years following The Boys of Baraka’s four main subjects: Devon, Montrey, and brothers Richard and Romesh. Over the course of more than 40 visits to Baltimore and three trips to Kenya, the two women captured a surprisingly intimate portrait of the Baraka process and local families under fire.
On a sunny April afternoon, Ewing and Grady scope out the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Brown Center, where their film will be playing as part of the Maryland Film Festival. The sleek new Brown Center is a jarring contrast to the Baltimore depicted in The Boys of Baraka, grimmer and more unremitting at times than even HBO’s The Wire. Many of the film’s 11- to 13-year-old subjects are first seen shooting each other with imaginary pistols, a chilling scene for anyone familiar with the demographics of Baltimore’s high murder rate. The Boys of Baraka sketches a city of circumscribed lives, in which abutting neighborhoods operate in different worlds, and in which hope is met with a caution born of too frequent disappointment.
“We tried to capture the reality of the kids,” Ewing says. “The MICA campus isn’t their reality—none of them will have ever have seen this, heard of it, or visited it.”
As the film progresses, it’s easy to see how all four boys fall into the at-risk category that the Baraka School targets. Devon’s mom is hopeful that her own drug abuse will serve as a warning to her son, before she succumbs to another round of addiction. We follow Richard on a visit to his father in jail where the latter’s promise—“It ain’t gonna keep us from being together; we just got a wall in between us right now.”—echoes bittersweetly.
All four kids are out of control, unable to manage their emotions, lashing out verbally, physically, or both, and racking up suspensions from school. Yet they are also ambitious risk-takers, Grady says. Not every 12-year-old, she points out, is willing to give up TV, GameBoys, freedom, and their favorite foods to travel 10,000 miles away from family and everything familiar. “Those were kids that had looked deep within and had decided I’m going to give it all up for this chance,” she says.
As the film’s well-shot digital-video footage unspools, the boys are flown to the very different reality that is Kenya, a place of excitement and experimentation, where homesick city boys awaken to the joys of playing with hedgehogs and climbing mountains. Strict policies, small classes, 24-hour adult supervision, and acres of bush in which to take meditative walks seem to help kick-start their transformation.
All four boys take on a new demeanor. Their expressions seem more open and curious; they sit up straighter. Devon, during a moment in the time-out room, contemplates the opposing desires he faces as the cause of his outbursts. Found to be reading at a second-grade level, Richard receives additional support and reads one of his poems, “I Will Survive,” in front of his schoolmates. His brother Romesh makes the honor roll. Montrey goes from truculent and mouthy to mature and thoughtful.
Yet the experience is plainly a struggle. In one pivotal scene, two fighting boys contemplate the tent they must set up together in the fading evening light. Time and the Kenyan bush are on the side of the two boys’ counselors, who have determined that a lesson will be learned before they all hike back to school. After night has fallen, Montrey, who has been in three fights in the past two weeks, becomes philosophical, telling his schoolmate: “I know people at home want you to do good in school. My mother told me ‘Just try and find a better way.’ ’Cause she said she’d never want me to be like my father.”
It’s a moment that reveals the boys’ potential for transformation as well as the deeper problems that threaten to capsize their fragile successes. Lives are at stake here, and the question of whether a school can save them remains tantalizingly unanswered. The film’s narrative punch lands after the kids go home for the summer and then find out that the school is being shut down because of security threats and they won’t be returning to Kenya. The parents receive the news that their sons will be returning to their old city schools as apocalyptic. “They’re more likely to get killed here in Baltimore, on the corner, than they would over there,” one man insists. “You’re sending them to jail,” a mom argues.
Ewing says the scene reveals “how desperate the situation is for these parents. Back to the [city] school—it wasn’t acceptable as a solution.” In one haunting scene, Romesh and his brother are hanging out on a merry-go-round, the only structure left in the middle of a burnt-out playground. Romesh muses, “I think all our lives are gonna be bad now,” a statement that, on some other playground, would sound only like teenage melodrama.
Although many of the boys actually ended up in eighth grade at ConneXions Community Leadership Academy, a “new school” housed at Northwest Baltimore’s Lemmel Middle School, Devon describes the experience as “terrible. There was kids fighting, teachers wasn’t coming.”
Despite brief success as an extra on The Wire, Richard has since dropped out of school along with his brother. Neither was available for comment for this article. “They really internalize stuff,” Grady says of some of the boys’ inability to hold on to the gains of their Baraka School year. “It’s almost impossible to extract those defeated feelings.”
On the other hand, Montrey achieved the top score statewide on the Maryland School Assessment test in math during his eighth-grade year, and is entering ninth grade at Baltimore City College this fall. And Devon is the president of his class this year at the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a new public high school in Northeast Baltimore. Using a camera given him by Ewing and Grady, he’s making his own documentary on Pastor Prentice—he takes advantage of a reporter’s visit to discuss interview techniques. This summer, he hopes to do a six-week program at Frostburg State University’s Regional Math/Science Center in Western Maryland. Ewing says with a touch of pride in her voice, “I think Devon will be the mayor of Baltimore one of these days.”
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