Daryl Binitie keeps a set of hand-carved, wooden African statues in a suitcase under his bed in his dorm room. They remind him of a vibrant culture, one that he believes is often overshadowed by stories about war and poverty.
"We have to acknowledge the positive things, too, like the arts," said Binitie, a freshman at Eckerd College and a native of Ghana.
Binitie's homeland is taking center stage all year long at Eckerd as the college focuses on "The Plight & Promise of Africa."
The initiative features special exhibits, performances and lectures, including a talk Thursday by Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on the failed international response to the Darfur genocide.
"The plight part of it that we're looking at right now is the genocide in Sudan, the rapes in the Congo. But people don't know as much about the promise of Africa," said Eckerd political science professor Bill Felice, who helped bring in many of the speakers.
"In the fall we turn our focus to the promise — the successful economic growth in countries like Rwanda and Ghana — and end the year on a more hopeful note."
Humanitarian John Prendergast, who will join Wiesel in Thursday's lecture, is a scholar-in-residence at Eckerd this semester.
He said he focuses on students because they are the best catalyst for calling attention to Africa's issues.
"Where you get the real passion and the real commitment … is in high schools and colleges, because their minds are open," Prendergast said. "And they're like okay, where do I sign up? That's what makes change happen."
Binitie hopes to be part of that change.
"There are countries in Africa, like Ghana, that are showing change,'' he said. "That is the promise."
how Eckerd students are involved with Africa, see age 10.
Brad Alderton has visited Africa several times, twice to volunteer at an orphanage.
That's where he met Kazembe. The little boy, Alderton said, made an impression, always eager for smiles and attention from the student volunteers.
"He was always dancing and singing," said Alderton, a junior. "He had so much personality for a 3-year-old."
Alderton was among a group of Eckerd students who taught reading and math at Kazembe's home, an orphanage in Malawi's Chigamba village. The orphanage is run by Little Field Home, a Maine nonprofit group.
During their stay, the Eckerd students also visited surrounding villages to give talks on malaria and HIV/AIDS. They passed out pamphlets, mosquito nets and condoms and hoped their message fell on listening ears in a country where the average lifespan is just 37 years.
But it was their work with the children that made the student volunteers feel that they were making an impact in the face of daunting problems, said Alderton, 21.
"In the courtyard at the orphanage the kids kick around this ball made of rolled-up plastic bags," he said. "They wear the same clothes every day. They eat rice every day. They walk a mile to pump water from the ground. They need help, plain and simple.
"But they're so grateful for everything."
Daryl Binitie's favorite piece in the collection of art he keeps under his bed is a statue of three intertwined figures symbolizing unity.
"Each artwork tells a story," he said. "The artists are molding their feelings into their art. To me, that's promising."
The international business major recently started African Art Exchange (africanartexchange.net), an online company selling paintings, masks, drums and other African artwork to an international market.
The 19-year-old hopes his business will bring recognition and money to an under-recognized, hard-to-reach set of artists.
"I have to help people back home," Binitie said. It's my responsibility, because I've had the opportunity to come to the U.S. and come to Eckerd from a place where not so many people have that opportunity."
Binitie, who is from Accra in Ghana, keeps up with the issues and politics back home by reading Ghanaweb.com every morning.
His native country, Binitie said, is proof that there's hope for the rest of Africa. "Ghana is doing well," he said. "There is no war. Democracy is working."
As Bradley Ennis snapped pictures of students at the Mekele School for the Blind in Ethiopia, the senior was struck by one thing: how many of the cases could have been prevented.
Many of Ethiopia's blind, who are treated as second-class citizens, lose their vision from diseases like smallpox, measles and trachoma, Ennis said. Several students at the school also were abandoned by their families, he said.
His portraits of the blind students are featured in an exhibit that opens Friday and runs through March 27 at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg.
"The visual element can be the biggest teacher," said Ennis, 22. "I want to show the plight and promise of humanity because it should be shown and shared by everyone."
He was one of 16 students who traveled to Africa in January to visit the school for the blind and a women's school in Rwanda.
It was his second visit to Africa; three years ago Ennis went to Ghana. Eckerd used some of his photographs from that trip on brochures promoting "The Plight & Promise of Africa."
Schools like the one for the blind in Ethiopia offer a lifeline to some people, Ennis said. "To see these blind students who don't have canes running and walking around on rock-strewn dirt made me realize the chance they had," he said. "If it wasn't for the school, they'd be begging or involved in prostitution."
Ennis hopes his pictures and his school's effort will shed much-needed light on the need to take action — even if someone can't visit Africa.
"There's that quote about Africa: 'God left that place a long time ago.' The trouble has spread so far. It's the epitome of plight," Ennis said. "But Africa is a diamond in the rough."
See Ennis' photos on tampabay.com in the All Eyes Photo Blog.