Antwerp group shows black kids the way to university


An Antwerp-based network of young professionals wants to get more students with African roots into higher education by offering them help with homework, boosting their self-esteem in the process

Young, gifted and black

Students with a migration background have long been stubbornly underrepresented in Flanders’ higher education system. Kilalo, an Antwerp-based network of volunteers, is working to help get more black students into colleges and universities.

“Kilalo was born out of my personal experiences with higher education,” explains Sandrine Ekofo, a law graduate of Antwerp University. Ekofo, who has Congolese roots, was one of very few black students in the university’s classrooms and auditoriums. “I felt very uncomfortable with this situation and asked myself where on earth the others were.”

After her studies, she started working as a legal expert, but her experiences at university kept haunting her. “It wasn’t just in the law department. There is a general underrepresentation of youngsters with a migration background in higher education, and especially young people with roots in sub-Saharan Africa,” she says. “I felt a strong need to do something about it.”

Together with a group of friends, Ekofo decided to take action. Kilalo, which means “bridge” in Swahili, was born.

Achievable dreams

Today, four years after Kilalo was founded, the core team is made up of eight volunteers with African roots who have obtained degrees from local universities and colleges. Twice a week, the volunteers, most of whom are in their 20s, offer some 50 pupils help with their homework at three locations in Antwerp.

“We give them advice on more efficient study methods as well,” Ekofo explains. “And the fact that our volunteers provide them with a role model is equally important. It shows them that higher education is not an unattainable dream.”

According to figures from the University of Leuven and the Free University of Brussels (VUB), one in two native-born adolescents pursues a higher education degree after secondary school. For students with migration roots, this rate plummets to 6%.

A majority of them could have completed technical or general education with a bit of extra help

- Kilalo founder Sandrine Ekofo

“Flanders performs poorly when it comes to access to higher education for these youngsters, compared to Scandinavian countries,” Ekofo says. “It is a massive loss of potential.”

Focusing on students in secondary education was a deliberate choice, the Kilalo founder says. “If we want to see more black students pursue higher education, it is logical to intervene at an early age. In my opinion, that’s precisely where the problem lies,” Ekofo explains, adding that youngsters with African roots are too often advised by their teachers to pursue vocational education.

“Of course, there is nothing wrong with these fields of study,” she continues, “but a majority of them could have completed technical or general education with a bit of extra effort and help.”

A curse and a blessing

Ekofo speaks from experience. “In my first year of secondary education, I was advised to switch to the technical school track because I was bad at maths,” she says. “A friend persuaded me to stay in the general education track. If I hadn’t done that, I would not be a lawyer today.”

Today, she and the other Kilalo volunteers visit secondary schools across Antwerp province to tell their stories and encourage young people to set their aspirations high. “It’s encouraging that more and more schools in Antwerp know who we are and want to collaborate with us,” Ekofo says. “Our reach is definitely growing.”

While education is Kilalo’s main focus, the team also has organised cultural activities focused on everything from black hair to intercultural dating and self-love. “A lot of young people struggle with their double identities, which can be a curse, or a blessing,” she says. “They feel misunderstood in both cultures; they are raised in a culture with certain expectations, but live in a society that expects something different from them.”

A long to-do list

All too often, she continues, “the negative aspects of both cultures prevail. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Growing up at the intersection of two worlds can be enriching. It gives them a unique perspective on the world.”

Ekofo says that, despite decades of immigration to Flanders, having roots in another part of the world still hampers a young person’s access to higher education. “We do have a long way to go, but more and more young people of sub-Saharan African descent are finding their way there,” she says.

Whether people like it or not, the future of Belgium will be coloured

- Kilalo co-founder Sandrine Ekofo

Awareness of the issue is growing, with more conversations being held on what a more inclusive education system might look like – which Ekofo says was high time. “Whether people like it or not, the future of Belgium will be coloured.”

Education initiatives focused on improving minorities’ access to education exist, she notes, but they are often focused on students with roots in northern Africa. “Black students are left out of the picture, but they live here as well. Their future is equally important.”

Ekofo says the list of things Kilalo wants to achieve in the future is long. “For sure, our main goal is to expand to other Flemish cities,” she says. “We want to reach out to more youngsters and schools to offer them our experience. In addition, we want our voice to be heard in the conversation about education.”

Photo: Kilalo volunteers during a recent homework help session
© Kilalo

Educational system

The Flemish educational system is divided into two levels: primary (age six to 12) and secondary school (12 to 18). Education is compulsory for children between the ages of six and 18.
Types - There are three educational networks in Flanders: the Flemish Community’s GO! network, and publicly funded education – either publicly or privately run.
Not enough space - In recent years, Flemish schools have been struggling with persistent teacher shortages and a growing lack of school spaces.
No tuition fees - Nursery, primary and secondary school are free in Flanders.

million school-going children in 2013


million euros Flemish education budget for new school infrastructures in 2013


percent of boys leaving secondary school without a diploma