Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Connections to Ghana

Reprinted from LuxEsto Fall 2013
Kalamazoo College alumni magazine

Stephen Mohney (Photo by Daina Bowman)

Connections to Ghana        

by Zinta Aistars

LuxEsto Fall 2013 Issue
In Ghana he’s Kwesi, the southern Ghanaian name for a boy born on Sunday. Although sometimes when children see Stephen Mohney '76 walk by, they shout “Kwesi obruni.” That, Mohney smiles, means 'white guy born on Sunday,’ a name affectionately applied to every white man after the introduction of Christianity. In Ghana, in the villages of Wli and Hotopo, Mohney is a recognized man.

And a welcome sight. He brings with him the gift of a gateway. Mohney is the co-founder (with Donald Yao Molato) of Tech4Ghana, a nonprofit organization that builds computer centers and libraries in Ghana, promoting rural development and education.

Mohney, however, is not in Ghana on the day I meet him. He is in Public School 3, in the historic Bedford Village neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. He is walking the hallways, and as he passes, teachers greet him, children grin at him, and through the open door of a classroom in session, a group of children brush their fingers beneath their chins in an open-fingered wave at him.

"That's the Spanky-and-the-Gang wave from Little Rascals," Mohney whispers. He stands in the classroom door for a moment and brushes his fingers under his chin back at the smiling children.

"I've been teaching here for 27 years," Mohney says. "At this point, I teach children of parents who were my students, and it's the parents who give me that Spanky wave. They remember!

"The Bedford Village School is the oldest school in continuing operation in New York City," he adds, pointing to one of many displays he has created around the school. One display showcases the school's history, dating back to 1721. The school became a New York City public school in 1891, and integration began in the early 1900s. "By 1947, the graduating class was all black," Mohney says, "and the community experienced the flight of the whites, and many of the brownstones you see around us were cut up into small apartments. In recent year, the community is experiencing ‘gentrification.’"

Today, the school educates 634 children, kindergarten to fifth grade. The principal, Kristina Beecher, in her fifteenth year leading the school, was once a student at P.S. 3. When Mohney walks into her office, her smile widens.

"I don't know what I would do without him," Beecher smiles, and the admiration is mutual. The two banter a bit, but quickly move into discussion of the school's current problems. The population is dropping, and there's uncomfortable talk going around about closing P.S. 3 and replacing it with a charter school.

"Last year we were told to eliminate the arts," Mohney's forehead pulls into hard lines. "Arts have long been a draw to this school. And we had to cut music. Can you tell I'm not a fan of charter schools? Our school sign states it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a child to raise up a village. Charter schools get more money, but that doesn't make them better schools. We don't get rid of our children when they misbehave, but we get the kids when the charters kick them out. Why would you not fix every school for every child?"

From the principal's office, Mohney continues his walk up and down the hallways, where children move by him in orderly lines, some holding hands.

"Education has just gotten harder over the years," Mohney says. "We're up against a lot. There's a lack of parenting skills, kids are learning to solve problems with violence—" He stops. "I'm on my soapbox again, aren't I? I guess that dates back to my years at K. Ah, those radical 70s, when I was an anti-war conscientious objector with long hair. Art teachers aren't superfluous! They teach literacy with their art. They teach children how to express themselves."

Mohney's cheeks flush again, but his smile never wanes, at least not for long. He shows off the classroom at P.S. 3 where a visual arts teacher has snuck in elements of social studies to teach from his own travels to Morocco and Turkey. In the cafeteria, a science teacher has incorporated art into teaching about nutrition—the walls are lined with paintings and collages of colorful vegetable people. The school blossoms with color and the rebellion of art sustained.

Interviewing Stephen for this story in New York
Then, down another hallway, a long section of the wall is draped with the vibrant, patterned fabric of Africa. It is a student-created cloth similar to "kente," woven by the Ewe and the Asante people of Ghana. Part of the fabric is in the cool colors of blues and purples, used by the Ewe people. The kente of the Asante blazes in oranges, reds and gold.

Mohney stops. It’s a crossroads of sorts, where one home touches on another home. Staff and faculty at P.S. 3 know well about his work in Ghana. More than a few are donors to Tech4Ghana, and a couple have traveled there with him during summers. Passion like his is contagious. Picking a corner room where all is quiet, he settles in to talk about his other home.

LuxEsto pages
The story starts on August 13, 2009, with the opening of a computer center in Wli, Ghana. Actually, it starts long before that. Mohney was a kid, sizing up colleges. West Africa was on his mind, and he was looking for a college that could send him there. He had spent a couple years in Kenya when his parents taught school in that country.

"Kalamazoo College was my first choice, but it was too expensive," Mohney says. "When I didn't respond to the acceptance letter, I got a call. I didn't know about the financial aid available, and when I was offered aid, I did accept.

"When I first arrived at K, I thought I would major in sociology and anthropology. Then I took two African history classes from Dr. William (Bill) Pruitt, who I came to consider my mentor. And I soon made the decision to take as many classes as I could from [Professor of Religion] John Spencer. I was intellectually challenged and disciplined in his courses. I ended up as a religion major, not because I was that interested in religion, but because I was interested in learning all that I could from Dr. Spencer." 

Connections with fellow students were as memorable as those with professors, and one in particular would become very important.

Stephen and Case talk over Skype
Though his memory is a bit foggy on the precise timing, Mohney crossed paths with Case Kuehn ’74 through mutual friends during his freshman year. "I'm not sure when I met Casey," Mohney ponders, "maybe in the summer of '74, before my study abroad experience in Ghana, when I was in the College singers, and, as a music major, he directed us." Even before their respective graduations, the two lost touch. And with one living in New York and the other in Seattle, chances of a reunion seemed unlikely.

Then, not long ago,Kuehn found himself musing about finding a good cause to support. Paging through old College yearbooks, browsing through the pages of to check on old friends, Kuehn came across Mohney—and wondered what he was up to all these many years later.

The friends reconnected online. One thing led to another, and, after 40 years, Ghana would become their virtual meeting point.

As Mohney sits in a room at P.S. 3 in New York, Kuehn pulls up a chair to his desk in Seattle, and both boot up their laptops. With the help of Skype, images pop up on their laptops. This will be the first time they’ve seen each other in four decades.

"So that's what you look like!" Kuehn gives a whoop.

Mohney laughs. "That's me."

Last time they saw each other, Kuehn grins, his hair was shoulder length and curly and his chin bearded, but Mohney's long blond locks dangled somewhere near his elbows.

Today, Kuehn is CFO of Loud Technologies, one of the world's largest professional audio and music products companies. "Stephen and I have complementary skill sets," Kuehn says over Skype. "When I was feeling that I needed to do something beyond my sphere, and I tracked him down on LinkedIn and read about Tech4Ghana, I thought I might be able to help."

Kuehn had his own African connection, having spent time in Zambia as member of a music group. "The fact that Tech4Ghana was so grassroots appealed to me. After I contacted Stephen we began e-mailing daily. Tech4Ghana struck me as something tangible that I could be involved in, and I knew my contacts, my experience, and the legal services to which I have access could all be beneficial."

Mohney adds: "I jumped at the opportunity to work with Casey. Aside from my own funds, his was one of just a few donations I received, and now we have submitted the paperwork to become a 501(c)3 corporation. That will make all donations tax-deductible.

"When I travel to Ghana, I usually take along six or seven laptops," Mohney says, "but with the funding that Casey is helping us obtain, our goal is to bring 35 to 40 laptops along each trip. We take our ability to communicate worldwide for granted here. At the Tech4Ghana computer center, people come in longing to see and touch the computers. In Ghana, many students must learn computer skills by textbook only, without access to any computers. I showed one of these teachers a jump drive, and he had never seen how such a thing actually works. I saw another teacher break out into a sweat; he was so excited to be able to touch a computer. In 2011 we opened up Wli’s library there."

Stories about the Tech4Ghana enrich the two friends’ conversations. Kuehn looks forward to a future trip to Ghana to see the library and computer center for himself.

"Another issue we are working to address is gender equity," says Mohney. "The computer center draws boys and adult males, and some of them stay for hours, practicing and learning. Children come in to look at the donated books or to play games on the computers while learning computer skills. But the girls want to learn, too."

Girls in Ghana, Mohney says, have far more responsibilities at home, and education is not seen as a priority for females. Mohney has observed teen mothers, babies on their back, walking by the computer center slowly, looking in. He and Kuehn are brainstorming about ways to increase access for girls and women, perhaps even bringing laptops to their homes.

This desire to increase computer and library access to both genders is shared by other Tech4Ghana team members. Kofi Anaman, a Ghanaian-American who lives in New York, and his wife, Susan Ewurasi Anaman, a teacher at P.S. 3, and their daughter, Adjoa, are deeply involved with the organization.

"If we want to prosper economically and socially,” Anaman says, "we can't leave the girls and women behind."

Anaman and Mohney met in Ghana 25 years ago. Anaman had just completed junior college, and was doing his obligatory year of national service. "Stephen was in Ghana to film videos to educate children,” says Anaman, "and a year later I was able to come to the United States to help him with the videos."

LuxEsto pages
Children in New York, Anaman says, need to see how children in Ghana live. In Ghana’s urban areas children experience skyscrapers and modern amenities—but life in rural Ghana is quite different. Education, he says, can make an immeasurable difference in these areas. Anaman brings his daughter along on his visits back home, because it is important to him that she experience the cultural differences and be aware of the privilege she enjoys.

"Stephen is a very giving person," Anaman says, "and he would give his last penny. Even a little goes a long way in Ghana. Stephen gives money, but also his knowledge and his time. He understands the importance of education; he was more thrilled than I was when I earned my master's degree here in global business and finance. I credit that in great part to Stephen."

The library that Tech4Ghana is building in Hotopo will honor Anaman's father, who lacked college education himself, but held firmly to its importance for his own children.

Tech4Ghana’s co-founder and co-director in Ghana is Donald Yao Molato, who serves as the organization’s eyes and ears and hands on site, keeping the computer center and library running smoothly, and designing and supervising the expansion of the educational campus.
LuxEsto pages
Last summer Tech4Ghana  hosted its first Kalamazoo College intern, Gift Mutare ’14, an international student from Zimbabwe. Mohney glows with satisfaction at how the puzzle pieces have been falling into place.

"I want to do more and replicate the work to the next community, and then the next,” says Mohney, “until we've truly bridged the digital divide and offered opportunities for many more people and addressed the gender bias in Ghana.

 "When Casey showed up and then committed himself to help, I knew I was in good company and that, together, we could do this."

One day some 40 years ago Mohney sat in a Kalamazoo College classroom, taking notes and listening closely to his professor and mentor, Dr. Pruitt. On that particular day his professor had invited a guest speaker to class, Kofi Awoonor, a writer and professor (SUNY Stony Brook) and years later Ghana’s ambassador to the United Nations. Mohney was mesmerized. At the end of the class they met, and Awoonor pointed a finger at Mohney—fresh from study abroad in Ghana, brimming with his unforgettable experiences. "Now," Awoonor said. "What are you going to do for Ghana?"

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