WHEN Celine Tshibamba first came to school here, classmates believed every African child was starving from years of famine and war.
"I show them pictures of a beautiful house, mango trees, peaceful kids playing." And they still didn't believe her, lamented Celine.
"Our Africa is a beautiful country. They should have a program here teaching students about Africa," said Celine, who arrived from Zambia in 2005.
"Africa is not a country. It's a continent," said Dakota classmate Madeleine Musenga, echoing a frequent complaint from African immigrants who find their classmates woefully ignorant: " 'You're from Africa? Were you poor, were you sleeping on the street?' "
Across Winnipeg, children are coming to our schools from dozens of African countries, from diverse and disparate cultures and experiences, some who've rarely, if ever, been to school as they fled war and famine and grew up in refugee camps.
Some are here by choice, their parents having lived in peaceful surroundings, with jobs and homes.
"I went to a private school in Kenya; they spoke British English," said Madeleine, who has Congolese parents.
Fellow Dakota Collegiate student Maliky Cole arrived from Sierra Leone at age five and learned English here.
"There was a war going on in our country," he said.
Celine went to Wellington, Elmwood and Victor Wyatt schools before arriving at Dakota.
"I was surprised how people talk to the teacher. I was shocked how the teachers get treated by the students, very disrespectful."
The students agreed corporal punishment is taken for granted in many African schools.
"In Africa, if a teacher tells you, 'Don't do that,' next time you get a slap," Madeleine said. Here, "The student is higher in the school than the teacher."
The African kids barely recognize school here.
"The environment in the class is really different," said Ruth Mukuna from Congo. Back home, "I was whipped on my thigh several times because I was writing on the book covers. My principal was my aunt, she took no pity on me. I see the students here writing on the tables, I tell them, 'You're very lucky.' "
"When they take you to the office, that is the worst thing ever, " said Florent Alimasi, who was educated in Congo and Uganda.
Half a dozen students shivered in recollection.
For all the attention the department of education gives to English as an additional language, there's no French as an additional language.
Students from African francophone countries naturally gravitate to the Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine, where they make up 15 per cent of the student body at Collège Louis-Riel.
"My dad wanted me to go to English school at first. I said, 'Dad, I'd rather go to French school. The English will come,' " said Borel Fotsing Neche of Cameroon, who ended up in St. Boniface via Italy and Montreal.
Fairouz Kadarchi took all her courses in Morocco in Arabic, though her family spoke French. "English is my third language -- we never speak in Morocco English."
Inna N'diaye from Mali took a while to get settled, after assuming everyone would make friends with her the first day. "After the first day, I hate this school," she said somewhat sheepishly. "An older African student explained how things were different."
Ruth rescued Nelson Mituma -- he's from Cameroon, his mother is from Congo and his dad from Burundi. "I got lucky, because Ruth helped me the first day," said Nelson, now a member of the student council.
Louis Riel School Division operates the René Deleurme Centre in École Lavallee, helping newcomers get settled. There have been 35 African students among the 193 immigrants to the division since August.
Grant Park High School has one of Winnipeg School Division's intensive newcomer support centres, where those lacking English start the transition into the school system.