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Esko student learns leadership in Africa

Sam Rengo (front row, third from right) poses with the Zebra Crossing Adventure group at a visit to Robben Island where Nelson Mandella was jailed for 27 years. Contributed Photo1 / 4
Sam Rengo (black shirt holding basketball) listens as another coach talks to the youth before a scrimmage. Contributed Photo2 / 4
All hands are in for a game of basketball between the locals and the Zebra Crossing Adventures group. Contributed Photo3 / 4
Sam Rengo visits the prison that held Nelson Mandella. Contributed Photo4 / 4

Sam Rengo's adventure began when he went to a leadership basketball camp at St. Thomas University a few years ago.

His instructor, Chad Songy, said he was impressed with Rengo's leadership skills and asked if he might be interested in going to Africa with a group for 10 days in April for some hands-on experience with Zebra Crossing Adventures.

According to, Zebra Crossing Adventures offers a growth experience by bringing diverse leaders to Africa to learn through cultural experience and teaching sport. "We don't go to 'serve,' we go to learn," the website explained.

Rengo, a 16-year-old who just finished his sophomore year at Esko High School, was excited for the opportunity to experience life outside of his own small bubble in Esko. He tried to drop any expectations and just embrace the experience in Africa.

After Rengo was accepted, he was required to read the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" to help open his mind and cause him to question norms before the trip began.

Rengo was the youngest of the group of nine that went April 2017, ranging in age from 16 to 55 years, who came from all walks of life around the United States.

"We started the week (by being) thrown into a mixing pot of diverse people," said Rengo enthusiastically. "It set the tone for culture and new experiences in Africa. The people in the group came from a variety of religions, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and atheists, as well as different ethnic backgrounds.

Once the small-town teen reached the destination of Cape Town, Africa, he was introduced to two locals who taught the group the history of the area over the years.

Capetown was chosen due to its historical significance in apartheid history, including the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.

The group stayed in a small house and shared bedrooms with bunkbeds, like a summer camp cabin.

The group explored several places of interest around Cape Town as they learned about each other. They maintained their conversations whether they were riding together in a van or as they climbed Table Mountain, a popular destination with breathtaking views of the town, harbors and water.

Most buildings in Cape Town, population 433,688, had bars on the windows and doors, but Rengo added that it was a safe area.

"I learned a lot of things and where I stand on issues such as race. I believe everyone is equal," said Rengo. "I discovered my 'privilege' as a white male automatically makes me biased, because that is how society makes us."

Rengo also heard stories about injustices other people had experienced first-hand because of skin color, religion, etc.

Locals Ricky, a black man in his mid-60s, and Greg, a white 45-year-old man, played a vital part of the group's experience.

"They are two of the wisest people I ever met," said Rengo. "Ricky had a first-hand experience of being arrested six separate times. He was beaten by white people and attacked by dogs."

As the group ate meals and traveled with them, the two men told stories of what it was like to grow up in a racially divided Africa over the years. They also took the group on tours around town so the group could teach local children how to play basketball, and they visited Robben Island, where they viewed Mandela's cell where he was held as a political prisoner for 27 years.

"There was never a shortage of things to talk about," Rengo said. "Everything was questioned." He added that everyone listened respectfully to each other and were open-minded to learning from each other.

Greg, being younger, only experienced the later years of apartheid. He wanted to help end racism and was frustrated by being seen as the oppressor. Since they met, Greg and Ricky have worked together to end racism in their community. One of the projects they did was provide a community garden for people to work on together toward a common goal.

Another person in the group, Tyrone, a 55-year-old black man, came from the suburbs of Los Angeles. He shared some of his life experiences growing up, including receiving what he said was unfair treatment by law enforcement over the years.

While Rengo admits the stimulating conversations made him think more about things he had learned, and maybe question a few, his core beliefs on race, religion and politics have not changed.

"Everybody was very unique and brought something different to the table," said Rengo.

Rengo still retains his enthusiasm of his experience and wants to make the world a better place by sharing what he has learned. He is hoping that if he educates a few people it will have a ripple effect.

"I loved everything about the trip," said Rengo. He said the experience made him much more aware about many of the subjects the group had discussed, now that he has faces to put to some of the common issues.

Rengo has already talked to Songy and is hoping to make the trip again and possibly play a more active part next time.