Every Child is Our Child, giving orphan children the chance at a bright future
I visited the Every Child is Our Child program in Eastern Ghana from December 2-7, 2017. The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) began its collaboration with the Manye Krobo Queen Mothers in 2005, launching this program which would go on to change so many lives.
The Manye Krobo people had been very successful farmers until British and American aluminum corporations built the Akosombo dam which created the largest man-made lake in the world, submerging the Manye Krobo farm land beneath its waters. With no compensation from the aluminum companies, the Manye Krobo people moved to marginal land which couldn’t be farmed, but it had some trees. The industrious Manye Krobo used the trees to become the coffin makers for all of Ghana. Others sought whatever paying work they could find in Ghana’s cities and neighboring countries and, along the way, contracted HIV/AIDS at the highest rates in Ghana. Many died or were incapacitated leaving behind hundreds of orphans and vulnerable children.
Ghana has an unusual way of governing itself. Like most other African countries, they inherited a European form of government with a Parliament and a President. However, unlike many of its neighbors, Ghana kept their indigenous chiefs and Queen Mothers who continue to guide their people at the local level. Chiefs and Queen Mothers are of royal blood and they are also elected by their people. As confusing as these overlapping forms of governance seem to be, the system works well. What to do about orphans and vulnerable children in the community was considered a situation that the Queen Mothers should handle. The Queen Mothers established certain principles: 1. There would be no orphanage. The children would live in families; with the Queen Mothers, or with the children’s own extended families, or with other families who could take them. 2. The children had lost their parents, so the Queen Mothers took the role of parents became parents to all the children in need. They said “Every Child is Our Child.” They and the community became loving parents to the orphans and the vulnerable children.
Fran Mercer, Genia Peterson, and Richard Ford came to the Manye Krobo Queen Mothers in 2005 and asked how the UU-UNO could help. They had heard too many stories of well-meaning American organizations coming into communities in the developing world and informing the locals of what they intended to do – removing agency from the community leaders and communities themselves. The Queen Mothers said that they were doing well at raising the children, feeding and clothing them, and caring for most of their needs. However, they found sending their own children and their newly acquired orphaned children to school to be more than they could manage. That is the area where the Queen Mothers asked for our help. Since 2005, that is what we have done, and by so doing, Every Child became Our Child, too. To promote gender equality and girls’ education the program admits two girls for every boy. It also provides access to the national health care system for all the children in the program and every member of their giving families.
We began by supporting orphan and vulnerable children up to grade 10 to do our bit to fulfill the 2000-2015 United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Specifically, the Every Child is Our Child program works towards: Achieving Universal Primary Education (MDG2), Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women (MDG3), and Combatting HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Diseases (MDG6). Over the years, some star students have emerged. When I visited the program this year, I found that many of the children we help rank at the top or near the top of their respective classes. The Queen Mothers tell the children that for the help they are receiving they are obligated to study hard and do their best.
Mercy is a girl with deformed hands and feet, which makes it very difficult for her to walk and write, but she, too, is at the top of her class. Every one of these remarkable students does their best against all odds. They live in dusty neighborhoods in desperate poverty, yet when I visited them I was amazed to see that they themselves were spotlessly clean, with clean pressed clothes.
When some of these children completed 10th grade with honors despite all the obstacles, the Queen Mothers convinced us to support a few of the very best in high school. We wish we could support all of the children through high school but the school fees are two to three times larger than for elementary and junior secondary schools. High schools are mostly residential, so room and board costs are included in attending high school. Now there are three exceptional girls ready to go to college. We don’t have the funds to support them, but they deserve to go.
We support 120 students in three communities which were the worst effected by deaths due to HIV/AIDS. Each of these three communities has an elementary and junior secondary school where our children attend.
Every school in Ghana is required to provide computer classes three times a week. For most, these lessons consist of the teacher drawing a computer on the blackboard and pointing out the screen and keyboard. In one of our schools, the headmaster started building a concrete block building in 2012. I asked him what the building was for. He said, “It’s for a computer lab.” I asked if he had any computers or any electricity. He said he didn’t. I asked how he expected to have a computer lab without computers nor electricity. He said that he’d build the lab and the computers and electricity would come. I thought he was nuts.
Two years later, I visited the school and there was the room full of students working on their computers hooked up to the local power grid. I asked the headmaster how he did it. He said that the Lord had provided. I asked again how he really got all this done. He told me of the mountains of paper work he had to fill out to get a grant from USAID.
When I went back this time, I was so very sad to see the concrete classroom with serious structural damage. The electricity is still there and the computers are in good shape, but the new headmistress fears that the building could collapse on the students, so she limits the time the students are in the lab.
The test scores of all the students in this school with the only real computer lab in the district are far above those in all the other schools in the district. I know the computer lab is part of the reason for the enhanced scores. A contractor has estimated that $4,000 will repair the structure.
One highlight of my visit was my meeting with the new Paramount Queen Mother. She is young and fluent in English. After the death of the previous Paramount Queen Mother, the 300 Queen Mothers elected her to lead them. I also met the King, the Paramount Chief of the Manye Krobo people, Nene Sakite II. He was also elected by his people. He studied and then taught at Clark University in Massachusetts. He left a comfortable life in the United States to serve his people. He serves on the Ghanaian national education commission and recently met the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, Robert Jackson, inviting him to see the work his community is doing to raise orphans and vulnerable children.
Nene Sakite II and I had the best conversation in my 10 years of meeting with him. For the first time, we really got to know each other. He comes to the USA every year to visit his child. I told him that I’d love to organize an event at the United Nations for him to speak about his work and to organize this with Permanent Mission of Ghana to the UN. He hopes to speak about the special work that can be done through collaboration between traditional indigenous leaders and civil society. I look forward to helping make this happen.
I also met my friend Ambassador Robert Jackson and also invited him to visit the Manye Krobo project. He expressed his great interest and told his assistant to make the arrangements. Rob Jackson and I served together in the American Embassy in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire from 2000-2003, where he was the Political Counselor and I was the Regional Refugee Coordinator.
I also told Amb. Jackson, Nene Sakite II, and all the Queen Mothers, care-giving mothers, teachers, and girls in our program that we had just elected for the first time a woman as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). I wish you could have seen the smiles and joy on the faces of young and old, inspired at this marvelous news. I said that I hoped that I would be able to bring UUA President Rev. Susan Fredrick-Gray with a group of donors next year to see this amazing program. Perhaps you can join us. It was my privilege to visit the program with UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford in 2008 and UUA President Rev. Peter Morales in 2012 along with donors who support the life-changing work we are making possible alongside the Queen Mothers. Seeing is believing. When you meet this community, its leaders and the children, you join with the queen mothers to affirm that Every Child is Our Child.