American Businessman Makes Education Possible for Ghanaian Teens
In some rural areas in the West African country of Ghana, educating young girls is not a priority.
Parents in these remote, farming communities often work hard to send their sons to school so they can better support their families. But their daughters stay home to work on the farms.
Young girls in Obodan, about 90 minutes from the capital of Accra, did not go beyond junior high because there was no high school. That is, until African-American businessman Don Felder stepped in to help build an all-girls’ high school there 12 years ago.
Obodan's Diaspora Girls’ Senior High sits on the side of a narrow, paved but unlined road, surrounded by pineapple fields and lush mountains. Its one-story, white buildings form a long L-shape behind a large grassy yard where students lay their clothes out to dry on Saturdays when they run out of clothesline space. Lov Amengor, a home economics teacher at Diaspora, says the school was sorely needed. “It means a lot for this village,” Amengor said. “If you go around the whole community, there's no girls’ schools around. So we have a lot of students who want to come here but there's no space.”
Last month, John Agbogo attended a standing room only PTA meeting at Diaspora, held in a large, open-air hall that overlooks pineapple farms. As he waited in line, trying to feel the breeze from the whirring ceiling fans inside, he said he is glad his 18-year-old daughter was accepted at the school. “It's very good and I like it,” Agbogo said. “[If the school was not here] she could go elsewhere but I'd find it difficult and expensive, very expensive."
As some mothers tried to quiet crying babies wrapped in bright-colored cloths around their backs, Nancy Beni and other students moved chairs and passed out bags of water to parents. The 17-year-old Beni says she enrolled here for several reasons. “I wanted to go to a girls’ school,” Beni said. “This place is very good. I like the environment and I think it is best for me to get knowledge because there’s no disturbances, no noise. This place is a peaceful area.”
Senior Ethel Gomashie, who wants to study accounting when she graduates, likes the environment as well and says Diaspora has done a good job in preparing her for college. “The teachers are very good and students are striving hard to achieve their ends here,” Gomashie said.
Prior to the PTA meeting, Diaspora graduate Mary Sassa proudly gave a tour of the school and pointed out new dorms being built. Sassa, now 28 and a member of the school's board, said Diaspora is a blessing for Obodan’s girls. “Most people believe if you send a girl to school she will only end up in the kitchen,” Sassa said. “They think she will come back as someone's wife in the kitchen most of the time, so education is not all that necessary for a girl child. Girls are to help parents work on the farms to help boys go to school.”
Businessman Don Felder heard similar stories when he visited Ghana on vacation with his family in 2001. “As we were passing through the village of Obodan, we learned that girls didn't go to high school,” Felder said. “So, when I heard that, I looked at my wife and said I can do a school. What's involved?”
Felder, head of Kriskor Inc., a New Jersey-based, international telecommunications company, contacted Vida AmaadiYeboah, a former Member of Parliament and Education minister. She was a key player in establishing Diaspora. “She secured the land from the chief of the village and had an architect do drawings. I told her to tell me how much money she needed and when she came to the U.S. with the drawings, I started sending money as needed,” Felder said. “I think I spent about $25,000 to $30,000 and the Rockefeller Foundation matched it two to one and the school was built.
The school opened in 2002, but according to school officials, because many of the girls had not attended classes since junior high, they had to go through a one-year remedial program first. Principal Emelia Amartey Quarcoo says it was a calculated process. “They went through the community to pick the girls,” Quarcoo said. “Some were advanced in age. They gave (them a) remedial program to retune their minds and focus them on education. The girls had stopped school. Some decided to give birth without marriage, so we brought them in, confined them to get them focused on school.”
An all-girls school was a major new concept for the people of Obodan and some predicted it would fail. They were wrong. The school went from fewer than 30 students when it opened to about 350 today. Nearly 200 live on campus and Felder said most are doing well academically. “I got a report from the head mistress a couple of months ago telling me that over 90 percent of the girls had passed their exit exams,” he said.
Over the years, Felder has become the school’s biggest supporter and fundraiser. He has given Diaspora officials cash donations, funded scholarships, built a library for the school’s and community’s use, donated computer furniture and supplied books and other classroom materials. “I’ve seen his contributions in support of the school’s needy students and to support us to establish a home economics department,” Quarcoo said. “(That’s) very important because home economics is a practical subject. They can enter the job market and develop their catering skills and become caterers or dressmakers, fashion designers, there are so many skills they can take up.”
In addition, Felder secured donations from churches and large shipments of supplies from the Westbury School District on New York’s Long Island. The school district got involved after Felder met, through an acquaintance, with the superintendent and other administrators. Several Westbury schools collected supplies for Diaspora. “I started shipping 20 ft. containers, 40 ft. containers to Obodan and shared with the primary and middle school in Obodan and the high school. We had so many containers that we supplied schools in five villages because we got so much from the Westbury School District,” Felder said.
Felder also paid the shipping and taxes on the materials so the containers would not sit on the docks, waiting for paperwork to be processed for a tax exemption. Students and school officials said they look forward to Felder’s once or twice a year visits. He doesn’t come alone, but always brings former and potential donors with him. “They go into the school and they find out what the teachers need and what the students need to assist them and they send it back, or they come back with it or they’ll give it to me and I’ll it take back,” he said.
Diaspora lost a major fundraiser when Yeboah died in 2006, after being denied a Visa to the U.S. for cancer treatments. For a time after that teachers and others weren’t being paid. When Felder found out, he paid their back salaries and helped the school convert to a government-funded school in 2009. Headmistress Quarcoo said Felder’s work with the school will have long-term implications. “We have a lot of students here who are out of funds or are from poor homes whose parents can’t provide funds or meals for them,” Quarcoo said. “We are believing at the end of the day, if we are able to educate these girls, we will be able to build our nation.”
That belief is slowly happening in Obodan. Last year, 163 young girls graduated from Diaspora and a few are now attending college.