A Religious Studies major with a minor in Anthropology, Ben spent the 2005-6 year studying at the University of Ghana/Legon with a program through North Carolina State University. The Evans Scholarship made it possible for him to precede his study abroad experience in Ghana with a summer project in the country. He spent the summer of 2005 working at a new school, Heritage Academy, established by a friend and teacher from high school, Kwesi Koomson, F&M Class of 1997. Read about Ben's experiences in the following report.
In the summer of 2004, Kwesi Koomson and his wife, Melissa Schoerke, moved to Ghana, where Kwesi had grown up and which he had left 13 years before. They planned to start their own school, Heritage Academy, for the children of the town of Kwesi's family, Bremen Esiam in the Central Region. This past inaugural year the school had only 32 students, all in the equivalent of an American 7th grade. In the second year and for years to come, the school will continue with the original 32 as well as all the grades below them.
All children attending Heritage Academy scored very high on an entrance exam. Children from outside of Bremen Esiam are encouraged to sit for the exams. The highest scoring students are admitted to the school on full academic scholarship. Scores that are good, but not in the highest percentile, earn those students a full scholarship to stay in their own schools. The scholarship funds are administered and raised by the Schoerke Foundation, Kwesi and Melissa's NGO.
Heritage Academy is a unique school. Its philosophy of accepting only the highest-scoring students and giving them all full scholarships derives from its philosophy that more students from agricultural-based villages in the poorer parts of Ghana need a chance of getting to the university level. Gifted students often find themselves stuck in an environment that doesn't meet their intellectual needs. Putting all of those students in one classroom with good facilities-including a solid library-can permit these kids to soar. Kwesi and Melissa have used their own limited funds this past year, and with just that they have done a lot. A typical student pays only $13 for school fees throughout the year. But they need help and are grateful for donations; donors can sponsor one student or a family throughout a year.
Teaching at Heritage in the summer '05, I learned that a little goes a long way. If we want a brighter environment for our children, this world needs better parents and teachers, people who want to involve themselves in children's lives. Any progress in saving this planet will be slow, local, and environmental. My mother's advice lifted a burden off of me: my students most likely won't remember that I taught them fractions or verb agreement. They will remember that a white man came to their village for one summer, and he was engaging and enjoyable. For those children who don't get to ever leave the village life, that connection is invaluable.
I had a rough shock for the first few weeks. The food, language, and all the self-awareness that comes with being in the racial minority forced me into seclusion. I quickly read all the books I had brought. As long as Kwesi and Melissa were there, I was just talking with them, depending on them to show me the ropes. Once they left, I began talking to the local boys, who were always around the house. I was by myself and needed to talk to others. Although Kwesi and Melissa were vital to introducing me to the country, their departure was a blessing in disguise. Being on my own, I was obligated to converse with Ghanaians, with no safety net to fall back on. I began to enjoy the food and music. The boys and I did a lot of things that they would have felt uncomfortable doing if Kwesi and Melissa had been around. Most nights we watched pirated movies on my computer, crowded close together to see the tiny screen and hear the weak speakers of my laptop.
School, however, never got easier. I had never taught before. I am not a strict person, so any flexibility I gave the kids in class was often abused. But as I previously mentioned, the kids will remember who I was more than what I taught. Remembering this drove me to hang out with the kids more during lunch and after school.
The most rewarding part of the summer was working on the new site. Although village carpenters and workers did most of the grunt work, I joined them for a couple of weekends. Kwesi had bought an abandoned palm oil factory, which had just been sitting for several decades, collecting dust and overgrown flora. It is only a 15 minute walk down the road from Esiam to Ajumako, the district headquarters. Melissa spotted it one day from the passenger seat. It has turned out to be a great investment. No school in the area meets the size and grandeur of the new Heritage Academy. Most of the buildings are painted a light blue with brown trim (Kwesi's choice of school colors - don't ask me). The brush has been cleared and burned. A father of two students has started planting tomatoes around the school. More plants will be planted and the school can use these in the future for lunches. The library at one end of the buildings has over one thousand books donated mostly by my high school, where Kwesi, Melissa, and I met in the first place.
The future for Bremen Esiam and the surrounding villages is a little brighter because of Kwesi and Melissa's efforts. The effects of Heritage won't be noticed for some years. Once I realized that my goals had to be small, something as simple as getting to know one of the quieter students better, the days were easier to bear and the homesickness and culture shock dwindled. My life at the university in the 2005-6 academic year seemed luxurious compared to where I had been in the summer; but the combination of the two experiences gave me a much fuller picture of Ghana.
Moving to the big capital city, Accra, allowed me to see all the results of Ghana’s awful rural to urban migration problem. Many villagers leave their homes very young to seek a flashier and richer life in the city, only to suffer horrid working and living conditions in the slums. At Heritage, we are showing children how this trend hurts Ghana, as well as many other developing countries, and encouraging their involvement in nation building. Many opportunistic Ghanaians will leave their country and never return, seeking a “better” life in developed countries. Instead, the Heritage philosophy shows that there could be nothing more honorable than helping one’s fellow countrymen. I have stuck by the saying: “Most of all, Ghana needs Ghanaians.” Any help towards Kwesi and Melissa’s project is welcome, whether it be a small donation that could help a child through a year of school, or by actually going to Ghana yourself to teach. Spending a year studying and traveling throughout West Africa was magical, and seems like a dream. Someday I will dream of it again.