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Ghana’s next generation

SEFWI-DEBISO, Ghana — Children, their backs perfectly straight, balanced enormous stacks of firewood on their heads as they walked the dirt roads of this West African village.
Driving by, Augustine Tawiah swerved his beat-up Toyota truck, attempting to miss the worst of the bumps in the road. Students visiting from the United States bounced wearily in the back seat.
A well-worn cassette of Acappella’s “Rescue” spun in the truck’s tape deck. Tawiah quietly sang along.
All the people who are living in the cold, with no direction, no place to call their own Lacking proper shelter, pain is all they see It humbles me completely just to know that could have been me.

“The first time I heard this song I cried,” Tawiah said, with a glance toward the children and their burdens, “because that could’ve been me.”
He was only 12 years old when he left this small village, less than 10 miles from the border with the Ivory Coast, for Accra, Ghana’s bustling capital. It’s a journey many young people make in this country of 22 million people, squeezed into an area about the size of Kansas.
“These kids who are coming into the city, they are sleeping on the streets,” Tawiah said. Many end up working in near-slavery conditions.
Tawiah was fortunate. Gifted with a sharp mind, he received an education in Accra and eventually traveled to the United States to study.
With a long list of degrees in hand, he returned to his home country and was named president of Ghana Bible College, a preacher-
training facility in the city of Kumasi.
Last year Tawiah, 46, returned to Sefwi-Debiso and launched Lamplighter Community Academy, a Christian school, to give children the chance for an education without leaving their villages. The school recently completed its first year of operation, serving more than 400 students. After attending an end-of-term service with the students and their parents, Tawiah and the American visitors packed up the truck and made the bumpy trek to Kumasi, and later Accra.
During the long drive, Tawiah talked about his rapidly modernizing homeland, and the critical importance of education for its next generation. The Ghanaian government is paving roads throughout the western region, and cell phone towers are going up near the village.
Internet cafes aren’t far behind.
Nonetheless, the cocoa farms that have sustained rural Ghanaians for decades grow smaller with each generation, as land is divided and subdivided among children and grandchildren.
In Africa, “the civil wars are not fought among the educated,” Tawiah said. “It’s always the uneducated, fighting over a piece of land.”
Ghana, which celebrates a half-century of self-rule this year, has enjoyed a relatively stable history, free of the conflicts that have plagued many of its neighbors.
Churches of Christ arrived in Ghana shortly after independence from Britain in 1957. Now the country has about 3,000 churches and 700,000 church members, according to Tawiah’s research.
“My worry about the church in Africa is the quality, not the quantity,” he said, maneuvering the truck onto the paved road. “If the church is going to have any impact, we should have sustained development of the people … more holistic ministry. We need to reach people with programs that are relevant to their lives.”
A sea of cars, buses and mopeds engulfed Tawiah’s truck as the group arrived in Accra. As the evening traffic crawled through the clogged arteries of the capital, street vendors — called hawkers here — eagerly approached the stalled motorists.
“This is Africa’s Wal-Mart,” joked Gordon McElvany, one of the American visitors, as hawkers approached with stacks of CDs, cell phone chargers and toilet paper. Most of the hawkers looked to be in their early teens or younger.
Tawiah walked these same streets at age 12, selling newspapers and washing cars. Born Yaw Tawiah, the name given to boys born on Thursday, he was one of 13 children, only four of whom lived to their 10th birthday. Childhood illnesses claimed most of his siblings.
“It was a hard step to take,” he said, remembering his family, lined up along the banks of the Bia River, seeing him off as he headed for the big city to live with his older brother.
In Accra, education was his salvation from the streets. He was accepted into a Catholic school and studied vigorously. He took on the name Augustine and even considered joining the priesthood.
But a neighborhood friend, whose home Tawiah visited for occasional ping-pong matches, introduced him to the World Bible School correspondence course. He eagerly completed the lessons and mailed them to a woman in Huntingdon, Tenn., who graded them and sent him more.
An American missionary received Tawiah’s request for baptism in 1978. Tawiah later studied at Ghana Bible College and earned a bachelor’s from the University of Ghana in Accra.
McElvany, a shrimper and minister from the south Texas town of Portland, first visited Ghana in 1986 with fellow minister Jake Coppinger to do follow-up work with World Bible School students. Tawiah, then in his 20s, interpreted for McElvany, and told the minister that he planned to travel to the United States for graduate school.
Less than 10 years later, Tawiah called McElvany from Nashville, Tenn., where he was attending Lipscomb University on scholarship. After earning a master’s at Lipscomb, Tawiah moved to Memphis, Tenn., earning two more degrees from Harding University Graduate School of Religion and another from the University of Memphis.
Tawiah met his wife, Lynn, while attending the Sycamore View church in Memphis. The couple moved to Ghana after he completed his degrees. Lynn Tawiah teaches at an international school in Accra. After one of Augustine Tawiah’s nieces died, the couple adopted her three children: daughters Abena, 12, and Adwoa, 10, and son Kwame, 8. In 2002, Tawiah was named president of Ghana Bible College.
About three years ago, he called McElvany again, this time about a piece of land he had secured near his home village. He wanted to build a school there.
McElvany said that the decision to partner in the project was easy.
“The glue that holds us together is the perception both of us have of the tremendous need,” McElvany said. “After 37 years of preaching, I’ve learned that you can’t separate Matthew 25 — ‘I needed clothes and you clothed me’ — from Matthew 28, the Great Commission.”
McElvany launched the Africa Self-Help Initiative and a Web site, africaselfhelp.com, to raise start-up funds for the school. Members of his congregation, the Grace Fellowship Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas, contributed funds to help pay the school’s teachers and build its first facilities. Members of the River Road church in Albany, Ga., also have contributed to the work.
Church members launched the school “with nickels and dimes,” McElvany said. He and Tawiah seek additional sponsors for the work, but “our goal is to reach a point where the ministry is self-sustaining,” he said.
McElvany also hopes the school will help inspire future generations of American missionaries. His teenage granddaughter, Hannah Miller, came with him to Ghana.
It was Miller’s first visit to Africa — and her first time on an airplane. She said she was impressed by Tawiah’s dedication to the project.
“He really has the drive that makes someone a great person,” she said after the trip. “It’s amazing to see his commitment to all the kids from that region — the same region where he didn’t have a chance.”
During the end-of-term service in Sefwi-Debiso, the students of Lamplighter Community Academy, in matching green and white uniforms, lined up single-file. Stomping their feet and swinging their arms in unison, they made the quarter-mile walk from the small Church of Christ to the Lamplighter campus, loudly singing their school’s marching song the entire way.
Once I was blind, but now I can see
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed, hallelujah,
blessed, hallelujah
Blessed be the name of the Lord

They kept singing after they reached the humble classroom on the school’s campus. Nearby, a second classroom building was under construction.
Most of the school’s teachers — and many of the craftsmen building the new facility — came from larger cities, including Kumasi and Accra, said Diamond Castro, a minister in the nearby town of Bibiani.
“Why? Because we have no access to good education,” said Castro, a member of Lamplighter’s board of directors. To serve children in a changing Ghana, “it has become very necessary to develop the talents that God has given them,” he said.
Mason Shirley, a member of the Grace Fellowship church, helped raise funds for the new building and traveled to Ghana to see it. So did Robby Brown, one of Shirley’s roommates at Abilene Christian University in Texas. The two students visited with the children of the village and asked them about their goals. Brown also taught them how to arm wrestle.
“I know that it’s worth giving these kids a shot to become more than just farmers … giving them a chance at their dreams,” Brown said.
“Lamplighter can provide them with an opportunity to be hopeful of the future and also help them know who they are — children of God.”
Village children followed the visitors wherever they went. Most spoke only their tribal language, but Lovia, age 8, used the opportunity to practice the English she learned in her first year at Lamplighter.
Lovia flooded the visitors with questions — especially Hannah Miller. She wanted to know about their homeland and families. She interrupted each answer with “You say?” forcing Miller to repeat herself slowly. Concentrating with furrowed brow, Lovia absorbed every word.
Miller asked Lovia what she wanted to do when she grew up. Lovia said she wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor.
“But first I must pass,” she added, with a look of determination uncommon in 8-year-olds.

For more information, see africaselfhelp.com.

Filed under: International

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