Documentary Tracks Lives Of Black Students In Wisconsin City

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) — Paul Agbashi was 17 when he left his lifelong home in Nigeria to attend UW-Eau Claire.

In addition to the normal challenges of starting college, he was forced to adapt to an entirely new culture and to being part of a racial minority for the first time — routinely finding himself the lone Black student in his classes.

Considering his family was more than 6,000 miles away, he faced the hurdles without the possibility of a weekend reprieve at home, something so many other college students take for granted in times of stress.

“I found out pretty quick that life in America is not like it is in the movies. I realized some people don’t like you just because you’re Black,” Agbashi said. “Being a Black kid in Eau Claire is anything but easy. We go through so much.”

A new documentary created by recent UW-Eau Claire graduate Olu Famule seeks to give viewers a glimpse into the world of the small community of African students at UW-Eau Claire.

The film, which was scheduled to premier Saturday, is titled “Ndani Eau Claire,” which means “inside Eau Claire” in Swahili, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported.

For Famule, 22, who spent the first 10 years of his life in Nigeria and came to Wisconsin after his father took a job teaching art history at UW-Superior, the goal of his first documentary was to illustrate the joys, sorrows and unique challenges confronting African students in Eau Claire in a way that could offer comfort to others in similar situations and greater understanding for Chippewa Valley residents who might never have contact with students of color.

“I want to help people of Eau Claire be literate in other cultures,” Famule said. “It shows you a different perspective on a place you’re really familiar with by highlighting a culture that maybe you normally wouldn’t engage in.”

“Ndani Eau Claire” tracks the daily lives of three African students at UW-Eau Claire in fall 2020: Agbashi, who was just getting used to life in the U.S.; Iman Dikko, a Nigerian who was nearing the end of her studies at UW-Eau Claire; and Bella Sackey, a Ghanian American whose family immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago.

The 47-minute documentary, supported by a grant from the Eau Claire Public Arts Council, follows the trio as they face the COVID-19 pandemic as well as obstacles associated with being Black at a predominantly white institution.

“Things were very difficult that semester,” Famule said. “It was a moment that felt pivotal, and I wanted to add to the conversation. I wanted to archive that moment in time.”

He characterized the documentary’s overall message about being African in Eau Claire like this: “It’s scary and it’s tough and you have to adapt, but there are people in Eau Claire who provide support. Eventually, you will see the positive and grow and meet new people. It’s bittersweet.”

Agbashi agreed, saying he wouldn’t do anything differently despite the difficulties he has endured in Eau Claire.

Still, he expressed frustration with the persistent cycle of racist incidents on campus.

“Every semester there is always an issue with racism, we complain and management says they will do something about it,” said Agbashi, now 19. “Then everything dies down and it happens again.”

The issues make it difficult to know who to trust, often leading African students on campus to form a tight bond that shines through in parts of the documentary highlighting the African Student Association at UW-Eau Claire.

The best path to progress, Agbashi said, is for the university to prioritize hiring more qualified Black employees from cooks and custodians to counselors and professors.

“If we have professors that look like us, that would make us feel more comfortable,” he said. “How do we feel comfortable when we don’t feel represented?”

Colleen Marchwick, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Center for International Education, said it can be a challenge for international students to show up on campus without an understanding of the complex nature of race in America.

Students from majority Black countries in Africa, for instance, might not understand why they face the stereotypes and microagressions that African Americans, unfortunately, have grown accustomed to and know how to respond to, Marchwick said, noting that the Center for International Education tries to address such uncomfortable issues during orientation sessions.

“Ndani Eau Claire” also explores youth-led protests against police brutality in Nigeria — traumatic events that had a major impact on the African students despite going mostly under the radar among their American classmates. The highlighted students show their support for the protests by participating in a demonstration with other Africans in Minneapolis.

Famule said many African students felt helpless and distracted from their studies as they watched social media reports about the government’s violent response to the social unrest inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

“Everytime I opened Instagram or social media I saw people suffering and dying,” Agbashi said. “I felt like I should be there.”

Meanwhile, life went on in Eau Claire, and Agbashi is pleased that Famule was able to capture it on video.

“I loved it,” Agbashi said of the documentary. “I think he did a marvelous job with it.”

Dang Yang, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said he is excited about the release of Famule’s film.

“To see it come to fruition is amazing,” Yang said. “What this documentary does is asks us as viewers to consider what it means to be an international student and to be Black and to form a new and nuanced picture of those two unique experiences.”

Famule, who believes the arts can be a tool for creating a more equitable and empathetic world, said he hopes the film shows Chippewa Valley residents that the region still needs to strive to diversify the population, provide support for minorities and seek out the perspectives of people from all over the world.

Eau Claire has made great progress in becoming more inclusive, he said, “but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.”