Friday, September 18, 2009

Humble Hearts, Electrified Intellects

(Click on any photo to view it larger.)

Wow! That was my reaction when first seeing Humble Hearts School in Nairobi, Kenya. After walking through a market of nailed-together vegetable stalls, dashing across a traffic-clogged roundabout, walking down a dirt path through some concrete works, passing by rag pickers salvaging scraps from trash, stepping across some rusty railroad tracks with the slum rooster crowing back over our right shoulder, and gingerly stepping across the puddles formed by old water and recent garbage, Humble Hearts (HH) was in front of us.

Upon walking through the front gate, I knew that HH has a student enrollment of about 300 pupils from pre-school through high school. I knew that it had grown from about 150 students three years ago when it moved to this site, and I knew that its managing director is a quiet, unassuming dynamo of a lady named Beatrice Anunda who grew up in Nairobi. But what popped the “Wow!” into my head was the small size of the place and the fact that it is constructed entirely of used corrugated iron sheeting nailed with a decidedly "can do!" attitude over frameworks of 2-3" poles that were saplings not so long ago.

Yes, the roofs leak when it rains and the tiny courtyard of stones and dirt undoubtedly turns to mud, but, oh, the spirit! It's palpable when you walk into the courtyard and hear the enthusiasm emanating from within each classroom and see the learning taking place therein. At recess, we felt like rock stars as the smaller kids welcomed us by bouncing on our arms, laughing, and enthusiastically embracing these strangers.

Humble Hearts has no electricity, at least of the conventional kind. Lighting is entirely by solar—whatever filters into each classroom through an open door or window or through the occasional crack between roof and wall. But HH does have electricity of another kind—that of the human spirit being awakened by learning!

For, you see, it was immediately apparent that it's not the buildings that make a school, but the quality of the people and HH has it in spades! During subsequent days, getting to know the teachers, staff, and students, that initial reaction was confirmed again and again.

Humble Hearts began in 2003 as a school for the deaf with nine students ranging in age from 4-1/2 to 13 years of age. Founder Beatrice Anunda (affectionately called "Teacher Beatrice" by the kids), who has an education degree from Nairobi University, somehow found out that there were numbers of deaf children in the poorer areas of the city who never attended school. In many cases, it was even worse than that: because of the shame felt by the families of the deaf, they are often kept at home, out of view of the community, and allowed only very limited social contact. And deafness is more prevalent among the tropical poor because of the ravages of diseases like malaria, meningitis, and encephalitis.

So Beatrice decided to do something about it and started Humble Hearts School for the Deaf, initially funding it out of her own pocket. In 2004 she began accepting siblings of the deaf so they could learn to communicate with their deaf brothers and sisters. Soon after, she began accepting other children from the surrounding slums who were unable to attend school, so today HH has grown to about 50 deaf and 250 hearing students.

So, how is it that my wife and I were walking in the front gates of HH one Tuesday morning in September? Well, that's where Angel Covers (AC) comes in. AC is a small NGO (non-government organization or non-profit) headquartered in Westminster, Colorado. It’s mission is “caring for orphaned and destitute children around the world”.

AC raises money through local fundraisers, online donations, grants, sales of child-related products on its website, and a child sponsorship program. Profits from website sales cover unavoidable overhead costs (for example, fees on credit card donations), so it operates with 0% overhead on all donated funds: every penny goes to supported programs. (Director Kari even pays for AC’s phone line into her home office!)

Coincidently, AC was founded about the same time as HH and after about a year somehow got introduced to Beatrice; AC has been supporting HH ever since. Once a year, Kari travels to HH for a week and takes along any volunteers who want to pay their own way and work in a slum for a week. So we signed up.

In addition to Kari and us (Jill and Byron from Arvada, Colorado), Ivan from Barcelona, Spain, joined us in our volunteer week. Ivan had found AC on the web, has been sponsoring a student, and decided to take three weeks in Kenya, about half of which he spent working at Humble Hearts with us. We painted desks and dorms and shot school photos of each student for their permanent record and for sponsorship on the AC website. Jill is a nurse, so she did medical and eye exams of all 300 students with able assistance from Ivan and administered medical treatments as needed. Byron started a database to hold all the school records on three donated laptops and Ivan taught the kids some soccer (“football” outside the U.S.). And we took about half the kids on a morning outing to downtown Nairobi, sponsored by Chris, Kari’s brother from New York, who happened to be in town on other business.

Angel Covers isn’t a religious organization. It’s just a bunch of people who think all kids should be given a shot at success, regardless of historical or geographic accident. It’s a “virtual” organization enabled by the internet with volunteers scattered around the world who work together as a team, each doing their part. There’s director Kari in Westminster, Colorado, Ida in Texas who coordinates with sponsors, Angela in California and Nicole in China who coordinate AC’s Tibetan program, Jane in the UK who heads Angel Covers UK, Karen in Illinois who heads the Mama’s Wish program, Judy in western Colorado who handles the finances, Chris in New York who is helping to start an accounting apprenticeship program at HH, Diana in Fort Collins, CO, Lucy in New York, and all the people around the world who contribute small amounts and who sponsor children at HH and the other schools and orphanages in developing countries that AC supports.

AC runs a website ( on which people can select a child to sponsor at HH (only $20/month, Visa or MC autocharge cheerfully accepted). We had found Meldon about a year ago, a very serious, perhaps even sad-looking second grader, judging from her on-line photo, and signed up as sponsors. We sent her a couple
of small books for Christmas and, before too long, received a photo by email of Meldon holding the two books! (Still looking very serious!). Last spring, at the end of the school year, what should appear in our email but her report card and a short, very neat, hand-written note from her thanking us for our sponsorship. And the report card was all As and Bs. Somehow, I felt like a proud father all over again! Meldon wants to be a pilot

But--the real payoff was in meeting Meldon in person. Yes, she’s somewhat serious and shy, but over the course of a few days, that hidden smile began to appear more and more. And, strangely, at recess time as we were doing work at the school, I'd turn around and there was Meldon with friends sneaking a look at these strange-looking foreigners. Well, needless to say, even though we don't speak too many words of the same language, we became friends, exchanging communication with eyes and smiles.

So, back to Humble Hearts. From its humble (yes, no other word would do!) beginnings, it has now grown to educating kids with three pre-school classes (baby class starting at age 4, nursery, and pre-unit), classes 1-8 which correspond to grades 1-8 in the U.S. and Forms I-III which correspond to grades 9-11 in the U.S. In January (school years begin in January), HH will add Form IV (senior year in the U.S.) to accommodate about a dozen form III students being promoted. All primary students wear mostly-matching purple uniforms which the school has had sewn by local tailors and which have become a widely recognized trademark in the neighborhood. Secondary students (Form I-IV) wear white and plaid uniforms. Most kids only have one uniform which is used throughout the week. Teachers all dress smartly with some of the male senior teachers in crisp shirt and tie and occasionally a vest—professional all the way!

Now, with very limited resources, is an education from HH second-rate? Absolutely not! Kids attend school from 8:00am to 5:00pm Mon-Fri with a half day on Saturday. Students who finish class 8 take a standard government exam to be sure they’re ready to begin Form I (high school freshman), and Form IV graduates must pass a government-standard exam to get their diploma. And, HH stacks up well nationally, too. When we visited, it had just had one of its students (Sarah) place second in the Solo National Verse competition in Mombasa and a delegation of HH’s deaf students had placed second in a category called “choral verse” where the deaf students sign a verse of poetry to convey meaning and emotion. No, even though located in the midst of poverty, there is no poverty of the spirit at Humble Hearts!

To give a further idea of the astounding amount of value for money being created at HH, the school has an operating budget of less than US$50,000 per year. That includes a school lunch program (usually rice and beans with some vegetables) so the kids get at least one hot meal per day; every kid also gets one serving of Ensure each week to prevent nutritional deficiencies. There is at least one teacher per class with several being qualified to teach the deaf. One is nearly moved to paraphrase Churchill: “Never has so much been accomplished for so many with so little.”

HH benefits from a big oversupply of teachers in Kenya, so it is able to attract highly-qualified individuals willing to work in the slum for about a third the salary paid by government schools. So, here’s the situation: oversupply of teachers, oversupply of children not getting an education, undersupply of schools; HH is helping to fill the gap, and is doing so with excellence.

But, that’s not all! Some 35 of the deaf students come from other parts of the city and have no means of transportation, so they’re housed by HH in dormitories. How is this possible on almost no budget? Here’s the really amazing part. Beatrice’s mother, Dorene, has built girls’ and boys’ dormitory buildings in her back yard from used corrugated iron and saplings. With the help of a couple of staff members, she houses and feeds these kids year-round. Yes, it’s very crowded with double and triple bunking, but it works. The dorms are called Angel Cottage.

Relief is on the way, though. For the last several years AC has been raising funds to build a proper dormitory facility and it’s steadily been under construction as funds allow. We visited the construction site which is in a much better neighborhood than HH and, again, it blew my socks off!

Total cost when complete will be about US$90,000 and fundraising and construction are about 85% complete. There are two buildings, one for dorms and one for kitchen and dining facilities. They total more than 8500 square feet in area which works out to a construction cost of just over US$10.00 per square foot, very cost-effective in any country! In keeping the costs low, much credit must be given to Nixon Anunda, Beatrice’s brother, who has been functioning as general contractor and has worked closely with the contracted engineer in design. He has hired, fired and supervised laborers on a daily basis to assure no shortcuts have been taken in the quality of work. Construction, indeed, appears to be very sound.

Buildings are of cement block with smooth plastered walls on the interior; the exterior will be finished to resemble finished stone block in the same manner as the middle class housing rising all around it, very attractive. Initially, the facility will have space for about 80 students. Foundations have been engineered to support the addition of as many as nine more stories, so there is the possibility for it to house classes in the upper floors and become a major institution in the area. This facility is also called Angel Cottage which will replace the old one in Dorene’s back yard.

Word was received at posting time that the last $13,500 has just been raised with a grant, so the first kids are expected to move in in November!

We spent a day at the new Angel Cottage site with about 50 upper class students to apply the first coat of paint to the interior plaster surfaces, and we got ‘er done! It was really heartening to see so many young people working so hard. After we had been at it for several hours, I walked into one of the large rooms and here were a dozen or so boys up on makeshift ladders sanding and painting and enthusiastically singing a resounding chorus of “I Have a Good Life”. Next door three girls were harmonizing in another song, truly beautiful.

So, in walking back across the dusty railroad tracks for the last time on this trip, what is one to make of all this? Well, certainly one lesson is that seemingly impossible things can be accomplished through the dedication of one or two talented individuals and help from many others who share the vision. Another is that with a supportive learning environment, even kids from very marginalized backgrounds can have that spark of intellect ignited and achieve astounding levels of achievement even with almost no physical resources.

And, in a larger sense, it validates what the rest of the world is just beginning to learn about aid to developing countries. Some trillion dollars has been poured into African aid by governments over the last 50 years and it has produced no discernable increase in living standards because of corruption, incompetence, and waste. The UN, IMF, and NGOs of the world are beginning to see that it is the tiny grass-roots efforts of organizations like Humble Hearts, Angel Covers, Kiva, and Vipani that produce results. Now, where do we go from here?

Additional photos at

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mognori - Back to a Simpler Time

It was a privilege. Not just to crawl up on the roof of the chief’s house to see an overview of the village in the full moon (it was magical!). Not just to see shea butter being made by centuries-old methods. Not just to meet the medicine man who collects traditional herbs and roots from the surrounding forest or trades with other villages to get what he needs. No, it was a privilege most of all because we got to live in a traditional village of mud-brick and thatched-roof houses for two nights and get at least a tiny feel for how some of the people in Africa have lived for hundreds if not thousands of years.

The village is Mognori in northern Ghana, just a few kilometers west of Larabanga outside of Mole National Park. Some 600 people of the Gonja ethnicity live in the village and most make their living by subsistence farming of cassava, yam, maize, and vegetables on the surrounding land. There is no electricity in the village, so “after dark” really means “in the dark”. But as city dwellers we forget just how much one can really see by the light of a full moon, even obscured by light clouds. And each family compound maintains a small cooking fire or, for special occasions, will burn a little shea butter for light by a makeshift candle. The village is Muslim, so there is a small mosque and the muezzin chants the call to prayer about 5:00am entirely by lung-power alone, no loudspeakers as on city mosques! In addition to Islam, traditional beliefs play a major role in the lives of the people. Hundreds of similar villages dot the landscape across the West Gonja district in northern Ghana.

Each extended family lives in its own compound with a courtyard in the middle formed by several houses (called kpeduu in the Gonja language) connected by chest-high mud walls. The houses themselves are constructed of dried mud bricks finished on both sides with a plaster mixed from locally-made ingredients including shea butter which helps repel the rain; a thatched roof completes the building. Visitors are welcomed by the opening of a wooden gate into the compound which keeps out wandering animals.

My wife and I stayed with a very gracious lady named Memuna and her four children; she was widowed some years ago. Our daughter was especially privileged by getting to stay in the chief’s compound and she learned much about village life by chatting with the chief’s 15-year old son.

The village has three such houses set aside for visitors. Each house is a single room and contains a double bed with a mosquito net hung from the ceiling which completely encloses the bed in canopy fashion. A hand-hewn wooden bench for sitting or luggage completes the furniture accoutrements. Two concessions to modern technology for visitors are a tiny LED light powered by three “D” cells hanging on the wall and, surprisingly, a nice battery-powered electric clock on the wall.

In addition to our house in the compound, the owner and her children occupied another single-room house. A third building functions as combination storeroom and rainy season kitchen. And a fourth building may be used as an enclosure for animals. Cooking is done over a small open fire in one corner of the courtyard and most other family activities occur outdoors also; these include making shea butter, producing gari from cassava, making soap from cassava and shea butter, peeling yams, cleaning vegetables, and, of course, dining. There is a small walled off bathing area where one uses a small pail of water to have a “bucket shower”. A towel is provided for visitors.

Toilet accommodations, you ask? Of course. For simple tasks one heads into “the bush”, grassy meadows dotted with trees surrounding the village or into small thickets for more privacy—your choice. For more serious business, head to the village toilet located a small walking distance outside of the village. A special bonus of your commune with nature at night is to see the fireflies winking and blinking in all directions as you walk to and fro (that is, if you switch off your little flashlight).

Water is supplied by another concession to semi-modern technology, two hand pumps located a city block or so from the village and far from the toilet. Life can be very simple and yet function very well! No water lines, no sewer lines, no electrical wires, no TV antennas, no satellite dishes, just meandering dirt “streets”, mud-brick houses and thatched roofs, goats, chickens, children, and wonderfully warm people you meet when you stroll through town.

The few bits of the modern world I’ve mentioned seemed quite incongruous when encountered. I had bought a bottle of Star beer to drink in the taxi on the way out from Larabanga. The empty sat around forlornly in the corner for two days, looking as out-of-place as the Coke bottle in the movie “The Gods Must be Crazy”.

Mognori is one of the pioneers in a community-based ecotourism program established in northern Ghana just two years ago. Visitors pay a small fee per person for the overnight homestay (5 Ghana cedis, or about US$3 as of August, 2009) and may be served a traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner for additional small amounts. All funds are paid directly to the village; the host families receive a portion and the remainder is used for village purchases of things they can’t make themselves (e.g., water pump maintenance, perhaps). For the privilege of experiencing a slice of life in a rural community mostly untouched by the modern world, it’s a tremendous value proposition.

One young man in the village, Abukari, who speaks some English in addition to the native Gonja language, functions as the coordinator for the village with “the outside world” and functions as translator and cultural go-between. He has a cell phone which he uses to arrange visits to the village in response to calls from tour guides in the surrounding region. We made our arrangements from Tamale.

When the homestay program was established, three families in the village had been selected by the chief to participate, one of which is the chief’s own family. Each family received a series of special trainings from the Ghana Tourist Board in how to make accommodation for outside visitors. These included the provision of a bed, how to equip it with sheets, pillows, etc., how to deal with guests, and a bit of background about western tastes and needs.

We had numerous wonderful experiences while staying in the village, some planned, some spontaneous. For instance, to get a little cross-breeze, we left the door to the courtyard on our house open at night after we retired. After some time had passed, I heard my wife whisper loudly, “Shoo! Shoo!”. It turned out the family’s pregnant mother goat and her kid had wandered into our room and were checking out the contents of my open backpack. With goats’ notoriety for eating anything and everything, my wife decided that the goats should go back to sleep in the courtyard, so we propped the door so they couldn’t re-enter.

Our planned experiences included a tour of Larabanga to see its famous mud and stick mosque dating from before Columbus was born. We also visited nearby Mole National Park to see forest elephants in the wild (they're b-i-g!). Back in the village, we went on a canoe safari a short distance down the nearby river and had a walking tour of the village. This included meeting the medicine man and seeing where the sacrificial pigeons are kept. A pigeon is sacrificed on special occasions or serves special needs as they arise in the community. For example, when a child breaks a leg, one of the pigeons will be selected to have its leg broken in approximately the same place. The pigeon’s leg is then bound up as is the child’s and the healing of the pigeon’s leg is thought to aid in the process of healing the child’s.

People in the village all know about the visitor program and are very accepting of having their visitors snapping photographs of them. Children especially are almost always eager to pose. Once you take a picture, though, be prepared to show it to everyone in the photo. Everybody then points and visitors and villagers alike share a big jolly laugh!

At night there is no sound of autos, radios, or TVs, only the gleeful laughing of groups of small children playing in the distance and the low murmurs of adult conversations in the dark of neighboring compounds. All of course are accompanied by a background stereoscopic track of chirping and twittering insects, birds, and frogs coming from all around. For entertainment? People actually sit around and talk to one another! And with their children! Either completely in the dark or by a little fire. Or they may just sit in silence, content merely to spend time with each other in the Ghanaian tradition, a notion which has come to seem strange to us in our hectic western lives.

One special occasion that took place on our behalf was a celebration of traditional drumming and dancing the second night we were there. About two dozen people performed a number of ceremonial dances for us with the men having bells on their ankles and lots and lots of rhythm! The energy was something to behold. I’d venture to say that nearly half the village showed up for the event which was clearly welcomed as a break from routine life.

Stepping out of our house and courtyard into the village before sunrise was special indeed. Goats were lazily rousing from their rest, chickens were strutting about pecking at the odd seed or bit of feed, and Mamuna’s few egg-laying chickens housed in a little mud enclosure called a buzani built into the compound wall were clucking and cooing. Being rainy season, things were a bit damp, but oh-so green!

I say that visiting such a village is a “privilege” because it allows us media-sated westerners to experience some real “genuineness” in seeing how other people live and it helps us understand different ways of relating to our world. Yes, of course there are a few “rough edges” in such a visit, such as no A/C on a humid African night, a roof that may drip a little during the rain (it seems to have patched itself soon after it started, though), but that’s part of the experience. This is not a Disney-esque exercise where everything is so pre-planned that it’s completely sterile!

And the experience won’t be around forever; change is coming. Only 10 years ago, the village got its first primary school; a few who have the means can attend secondary school at nearby Mole. With education, inevitably, comes different ways of doing things. It is expected that within a few years, the government will be extending electrical lines to villages like Mognori. And with electricity comes, you guessed it, television! Then the floodgates begin to open. Already, we observed that several of the young men besides the tourism coordinator have cell phones, even though they have to travel a number of kilometers on foot to nearby Larabanga or Mole to get them charged and to buy airtime!

So if you’re even remotely interested in how life was lived in a completely different time, go and see before such cultures become serious diluted with modernity. You can book a visit to Mognori through a number of different agencies in Tamale. We used Walisu Alhassan in Tamale who also functioned as indispensable tourguide, navigating travel accommodations from Tamale and back and accompanying us on our stay in the village. Walisu is professionally trained and in fact spent a couple of years working for the Ghana Tourist Board where he helped establish the community-based visitor program in Mognori. He’s very experienced in dealing with western tourists and besides that, he’s a heck of a nice guy. He can be contacted on mobile at 0243822633 from within Ghana or by adding 233 before the number to call him from abroad; his email is