The Boys of Baraka is an inspiring documentary that follows the lives of four 12 to 13 year old boys from the, quite literally, “urban ghettos” of Baltimore, Maryland. It’s an area inundated with crime and poverty but even amidst such hardships and with all the odds stacked up against them, these four boys have hopes and dreams that transpire above it all. Aspiring for more than what Baltimore and its educational system can offer them, they are offered an opportunity of a lifetime.
An opportunity to study abroad at the Baraka School in Kenya, East Africa for two years.
It’s not only miles away from home, with all its drugs, violence, despair, but it’s also a whole new environment in every sense. The school is a far cry from the schools in the inner-city; the Baraka School focuses on “cleansing” the spirit of these youth, if you will, by instilling values and responsibilities that will carry them far in the long-run. The regiment is strict, of course, with none of the home comforts they are all used to. They have to get up bright and early to exercise, there’s no TV, nor GameBoys or CD players except during a pre-defined “free time”, no junk food (in fact, one kid, in the first video diary home, requests for “some gum, some soda, some chips and some candy”), no girls, and strict discipline being enforced for bad behaviour. It’s a huge culture shock, to say the least. It seems overwhelming at first, not remotely representative of the norm back in Baltimore, but they can see it is for the greater good.
They can’t leave everything behind though. As they go through their exciting, new experience at the Baraka School, the woes and tribulations emanating from home continue to hang over the heads of the young boys. Devon, for example, has a mother who is addicted to drugs and the entire family is immensely worried about her future. A Christmas video message sent to the all the boys from their families brings Devon some repose and hope when he sees his mother on the road to what appears to be in the right direction. Appearances do lie, however, he will soon learn.
The documentary follows them for their entire stay at the Baraka School. They seem to be making leaps and bounds in the right direction — good grades, changes in behaviour, a new outlook on life. Unfortunately, there are extenuating circumstances way beyond their control that changes everything for the worse. The Baraka School is forced to close its doors just one year into the boys’ two year program due to terrorist attacks and the closure of the American embassy in Nairobi. They must all return to Baltimore, a discernably huge setback in everything they have been working towards.
Once they return home, you can see how much these boys needed the Baraka School. Many of them regress back into the same old aimless lives they led before going to Africa. They return to the inner-city high schools, which lacks disciplinary measures and structured curriculum, and the run down parks. However, some of the boys have seen what they can accomplish and make strides to continue down the path set out by the Baraka School. Montrey, who is seen in the film as the one with the worst behaviour problems, scores top marks on a math test and is admitted to the most competitive high school in Baltimore. Devon works towards his life-long dream: to become a preacher.
The Boys of Baraka seems to do two main things. First, it sheds light on the need to restructure the educational system in inner-cities. These schools have long been swept under the rug, along with its students, and it is doing more a disservice to the youth than anything. This film proves that even under the worst circumstances and all the odds piled against them, these kids just want to learn in order to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty, drugs, violence, etc, representative of “urban ghettos”. The U.S. policy of “No Child Left Behind” seems kind of ironic, really. They aren’t just leaving them behind, they are not even giving them a chance to catch up with the rest of the kids of better socio-economic status. It really is time to rethink how to deal with schools in troubled neighbourhoods because indifference begets indifference and if we have kids with blase attitudes towards education, you can imagine what avenues they turn to.
Second, if the systematic approach is not feasiable or has failed, it illustrates how understanding the problem in idiosyncratic ways can be helpful. Maybe an upheavel of the educational system is too big of a task or logistically impossible, so let’s start with tailored programs for at risk youth. One changed individual may incite positive change all around, goes the theory. What I found amazing about the Baraka School program was that each child was dealt with in specific ways according to their problems or strengths. When problems arose, there were sanctions but they were also taught the errors of their ways. For example, when Montrey and another boy got into a physical fight, they were both sent (along with an instructor) to repent and reconsider their actions upon a gazebo type place outside, quite a distance away from the camp. They are encouraged to talk out their differences during the hours they spend there, until they finally reconcile. Had this happened in school back in Baltimore, they likely would’ve been dealt with in a whole different manner. Perhaps a suspension to punish the behaviour/actions, without really addressing the underlying conflict.
A few years have passed since it was filmed, but if you are interested in reading the update to the boys featured in the film, you can visit the official website.