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The Statesman


Semester at Sea: One man beats the odds in Ghana

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 21.34.54
From left, Fred Frimpong, Mike Allison and Barbara Allison sit on the steps of Semanhyiya American School. PAULA PECORELLA / THE STATESMAN

Over 500 students representing universities across the globe set sail on the MV World Odyssey this January for the Spring 2016 Semester at Sea program. Their floating campus will take them around the world to 15 cities in 11 different countries in just over 100 days. Among these world travelers is Paula Pecorella of Stony Brook University, who will serve as a correspondent for The Statesman this semester.

School is hard; it’s especially hard if students don’t have any books or paper or pencils to write with. Tests are challenging too, particularly when the results of one middle school exam determines whether or not student have a shot at escaping the poverty cycle that entrenches them and everyone they know.

Harsh as it may sound, this is the reality that the children in rural villages throughout Ghana face as a result of government corruption and the lack of funding in their schools. Though Ghana is typically considered one of Africa’s more developed nations, the education system remains far from adequate.

Every day thousands of young Ghanaians go to school hungry and without proper school supplies, only to be met by teachers possessing usually no more than a high school degree and still using corporal punishment to control the overwhelming class sizes that average about 60 students per one teacher. The classrooms are grim and barren with the exception of a blackboard and a couple of flimsy wooden desks that multiple children attempt to share. The feeling is more that of an open-air prison cell than of an environment meant to foster learning and creativity.

In 7th grade, every student in Western Africa takes the Basic Education Certificate Exam, which evaluates their proficiency in subjects that range from English and history to math and integrated sciences. In Ghana, those who pass move on to high school while those who do not face a much less hopeful future. Most will return home to work on their family’s farms and in time produce children of their own who will grow up to face the same fate.

But some beat the odds.

Meet Fred Frimpong. Every day as a child, he walked two hours to school, carrying a chair from his home in the remote rural village of Senase, determined to get an education.

“My school didn’t have a classroom or a structure. It was just a black wooden board that was nailed to a tree,” Frimpong said. “My teacher was a junior high school graduate who would come and just write on the board and teach us how to write ABCs, and if it rained, there was no school since it was under a mango tree.”

He credits his mother for instilling in him a deep commitment to his schoolwork, recalling the late nights and early mornings she would force him to study by the light of a lantern in their home, which was devoid of any electricity. Miraculously, Frimpong passed the junior high BECE and went on to complete high school. But despite all of his hard work, he was met with the same fate as so many of his peers: He could not afford to go to college.

Still, Frimpong had dreams for himself that were bigger than submitting to the monotony of the poor village lifestyle he was raised in, so he moved to the capital city, Accra, and began selling trinkets on the streets to try and save up for college. It was three months later in the fall of 2009 when the MV Explorer, carrying over 600 students on a Semester at Sea, arrived at the port in Ghana. In meeting and talking with students, Frimpong found that many came to his country in hopes of giving back. But he was confused as to why they were in the city, which was already so developed, when the people in villages like the one he grew up in still needed so much help.

Right there, he saw an opportunity to connect tourism with service work and began giving tours to his village in Senase, 10 hours north of the city by bus. Each semester that the ship pulled into port, he would organize groups of 20-30 Semester at Sea participants through Facebook and take them to Senase where they would stay with members of the community and be exposed to the conditions his people live in. But when the ship pulled in during the spring of 2013, it was carrying someone very special this time — someone who would change the lives of the people in Senase forever.

Barbara Allison, a lifelong learner traveling with Semester at Sea, said goodbye to her husband and four grown children in San Diego and set out for adventure. When she signed up ahead of time for Frimpong’s village tour on Facebook, neither of them knew that the courses of their lives was about to change drastically.

“We went to the schools, and I was shocked and so saddened by what I saw, because my kids at home have had great educations and all the opportunities in the world, and here I saw kids that were really smart, and they’re growing up without much of a chance of ever getting out of the poverty they’re living in,” Allison said. “So I was kind of impressed with this guy [Frimpong], and he had this vision of what he wanted to do with his life. He really wanted to bring quality education here for the kids in his village. So I called my husband from the ship, and I said, ‘Hi honey, I just offered to pay for this young Ghanaian’s college tuition.’ And he trusted that I had this gut feeling that Fred would use the opportunity we gave him to do something great with his life.”

So by the next fall, Frimpong was enrolled in college and began pursuing his undergraduate degree in social entrepreneurship at Hult International Business School in San Francisco. His long-term goal was to one day open up a school back in Senase.

When the spring came, Barbara Allison and her husband, Mike, decided it was time to start making this dream a reality and get started building the school. They began by soliciting donations from friends and family, and when Frimpong won the Social Innovation Challenge at his university that came with a $15,000 prize, they finally had enough to build the school.

In January 2015, construction officially began. They started with just three classrooms for preschool, kindergarten and first grade, and they aim to add one classroom per year as donations come in and the students move up. By August, the Semanhyiya American School opened its doors to its first generation of students.

“What we are doing here is trying to give them the best education so that they can pass this exam and go on to high school.” Frimpong said. “These kids are not dumb. They are living in a cycle of poverty because they don’t have the right resources. No one is giving them the right platform to show their potential. If you go to school without a paper and pen, how are you going to succeed no matter how smart you are?”

Students at Semanhyiya are provided with uniforms, backpacks and school supplies, and they engage in a learning environment very different from that of other schools in rural Ghana. Pictures, drawings and motivational posters cover the walls, while a playground in the shape of a ship emblazoned with the words “MV Explorer” sits in the yard. They have various learning material from Legos for visualizing math problems to storybooks for practicing how to read.

With the generous donation of 13 laptops and a wireless router, plans for the future include teaching the students how to use technology and browse the internet. This may be a slow process, however, as the teachers themselves do not yet know how to use a mouse or a keyboard. But Frimpong is hopeful that after a summer of volunteers helping out, everyone at the school will become technologically literate. Field trips are also in store for the students when they grow older in order to expose them to life beyond their rural borders.

“Some of these kids never get to see what a city is like,” Barbara Allison said. “They’ve never eaten pizza, they’ve never seen a plane, they’ve never ridden on an elevator so they just don’t know what’s out there.”

But perhaps one of the most notable differences between Semanhyiya and other local schools is in the method of teaching. Along with having a low student-to-teacher ratio, the school has a zero-tolerance policy for corporal punishment. Barbara Allison and Frimpong have noted that their students are not afraid to ask questions and get the answers wrong for fear of being whipped with a cane.

“I like going to school at Semanhyiya because the teachers don’t beat you. Where I was going before, they beat you if you talk,” first-grader Martina Adugyamfi said before showing off her math skills by counting to 100 by twos.

“When I started the school I wanted to do something different because I knew that the school I went to was a nightmare for me and I didn’t want any child to go through that,” Frimpong said.

In creating his vision for the school, Frimpong said he carefully thought through each step that goes into a typical school day to create a new model that would be effective for his students. In Ghana, the school day traditionally starts by lining the children up and marching to the beat of a drum in order to “wake up.” But Frimpong saw this routine as mundane.

“What is the difference between marching and dancing?” he asked himself. “It’s just that dancing is more fun. So I said to myself, ‘We are going to dance!’ ”

And keeping true to Frimpong’s word, each day at Semanhyiya begins with the students gathering together for a quick Macarena dance.

But what Frimpong and Barbara Allison have in mind for the future of Semanhyiya students extends far past the classroom.

“In the long run I want to be able to build the next generation of entrepreneurs where they can start something new for themselves and their communities because Senase will never be able to hold the students that we are going to build,” Frimpong said, explaining that in his village there is no work for anyone and even the educated people are limited to life on a farm or driving a taxi. “There is so much we take outside of the country and after that import it back into the country. Most of these kids’ parents are cocoa farmers, and most of them have never seen chocolate before. Why can’t we get factories here to train us how to make chocolate so that this can provide employment?”

Part of the larger problem Ghana suffers from is “brain drain,” a social pattern in which those who get educated leave the country in search for work elsewhere because there is nowhere in the country to be employed.

“I want to see the people who grow out of our school thinking about how to better their lives within the community and not how to just travel to the U.S. with their degree to apply for a good job,” Frimpong said. “Training them in a way where they will think about solving the problems in Senase to be able to get to the level of a city is what’s going to help us get out, and I think that’s my goal and that’s what I want to achieve.”

At 25 years old, with his school just under a year old and college graduation right around the corner, Frimpong has already changed the lives of so many young children who can now dream of a day when their village might thrive. He said that education is the best thing a person can give.

It is unclear to Frimpong whether crossing paths with Barbara Allison and Semester at Sea was luck or destiny, but it has surely changed the course of both of their lives forever.

Oh, and the English translation of Semanhyiya? It means “What if I never met you?”

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