Background: Agnes Appiah is a true social entrepreneur with a passion and mission to help neglected and marginalized children. This discussion took place between Ms. Appiah and Lillian Marshall in Sogakope, Volta Region, Ghana on March 21, 2010 as part of the World Faith Development Dialogue's exploration of how religion and development work intersect in Ghana. In this interview, Ms. Appiah, who has created an independent school and residential home focused on needy and orphaned children, describes the challenges of running and financing such a school, including interactions with the government and with a variety of Ghanaian and international volunteers and financial supporters. She also discusses the motivation she draws from her own childhood as a “modern slave," and from her born-again faith.
You have mentioned that you, yourself, were a victim of forced child labor. Could you please tell us about your childhood?
I was born in Tamale, in the Northern region of Ghana, in 1958. My father was a civil servant and my mother was forced to marry him at the age of fifteen, as was custom. When I was 2 years old, my father asked us to move to my mother’s Volta North hometown while he stayed behind. Once we arrived, my mother asked someone to write a letter for her to her husband. My mother was illiterate—she could not read or write—and so she did not realize that this person she asked to help her was an enemy. They went on to write a letter to my father with terrible words. When my father wrote back that the marriage was over, my mother was so shocked and upset that she went mentally crazy.
My mother and grandmother couldn’t find money to take care of me so when I was 3 years old, they gave me to a woman in a far away village who wanted a maid. I grew to school age, but the woman said I could not go to school. I should just be a maid and take care of the woman’s house and children. Each day, I had to climb a mountain to farm, sell vegetables all over town, and clean the house and cook. I didn’t even know where my mother and grandmother and siblings were. I was suffering so much, but I was cornered and could not be free. If I cried too much, I was beaten. When the local schoolteachers came to ask why I was not in school, the woman in charge of me threw me on a bed and cut me with her fingernails. She said, “Why did you tell the teacher those bad things?” Nowadays we call what happened to me “child labor” and “child abuse.”
One day, a woman who knew my family came to town and recognized my nose and my tribal mark. She told my grandmother about my plight and, thank God, my grandmother came to take me home. Because my family still had no money, I had to work selling firewood and cocoa to pay my school fees. But I realized: I needed education. Why? My mother was illiterate and that was why we had all fallen into this situation. And so I said: “I will go to school ‘til I am torn apart!”
The suffering I underwent in my life is one reason I have vowed to help needy children today, as I needed help back then.
How did faith come into your life and begin to guide your work?
After elementary school, I had a great deal more hardship. A woman tricked me into leaving the roadside restaurant where I was working to come live with her in Accra, where she forced me to be her maid and spend all the money I had saved for my education on her food. When she threw me out onto the street, penniless, I was taken in by a woman whose son raped me, taking my virginity. I next worked as a cook and cleaner in the Chinese worker quarters on a ship in Tema harbor. Life was so bitter. Then I worked for a woman’s shipping business until I found out she was involved with armed robbers. I began working for a man and living in his garage with my sister.
Then on June 7, 1981, God blessed me and I became a born-again Christian. Due to the suffering and hunger I’d experienced, I developed an ulcer, and I thought I was going to die. Through that sickness, Lord Jesus himself came to my room and spoke with me. I became an Evangelist and started to get up early each morning to preach at soldier camps. I told the people of my suffering and how the Lord had helped me.
When I became sick again and was in a coma for three months, the Lord showed me a revelation of a machine being broken and transformed into a beautiful new machine. The Lord told me: “The old you must be broken so you may become clean and start anew.”
I went to the Assembly of God Temple and fasted without food or water for seven days. The Lord came to me and said, “If you obey me, one day I will make you great. The work I have assigned to you is to reach out to the poor and needy children who are in the same situation as you have been.”
How did your faith-based development career begin?
After I had completed three years of Bible college, a great Christian man sent for me and said he had a vision that I must travel to a remote village to plant churches. I said, “Why does God always put me in a hard corner?” But I went, even though I didn’t speak the language of the place where I was sent. With a team of four we planted eleven churches, but I saw the children didn’t know how to learn because they didn’t go to school. So came back to Accra for an intense course in teaching, after which I had a certificate that allowed me to establish a school.
I prayed and God told me to start a school in Sokpe, in the Volta Region of Ghana. In partnership with Kid’s Foundation, a secular Ghanaian organization, and a German woman, I started a school for orphans and needy children, which grew from four pupils to seventy-two. But things were very bad financially, and my support from Kid’s Foundation and other groups ceased after conflicts. Around the year 2000, I decided to move my work across the Volta Bridge to start a new school in Sogakope: Living Faith Preparatory School and Home.
Can you describe the growth of Living Faith School and Home, and how it was funded or supported along the way?
Living Faith Preparatory School currently has 152 students, 12 teachers, and two staff. Sixteen of the students come from particularly deprived backgrounds and so live here with me under my care. Three of those boarding students are orphaned. The youngest child we have here is 3 years old, and the oldest one who has been through this school is 21 and is currently at university, sponsored by a kind international donor.
To start the school, I registered with the Ghana Education Service and the District Assembly gave me land and a loan for this school. Two of our classrooms were also bought with materials on credit from a government loan. I have paid off both of these loans through school fees. At every level, I call on the government for help, though I don’t always feel supported by them. The District Chief executives have said they would try to give me teachers in the future for which they might help pay.
Two of our classrooms at Living Faith were built with money from past foreign volunteers. The money for this room we are sitting in right now, where I sleep and where the little ones sleep on a mat on the floor, was donated in 2003 from several ladies from Holland who came to teach as volunteers from the Student Youth and Travel Organization. In 2005, volunteers from the Pentecostal Church of Canada visited to volunteer and they saw our suffering. They realized how much more we could do with increased resources. They saw we were five on the same bed with kids lying on top of me, and they all began to cry. So they gathered money first to pay for a big bed for me and the children and in 2008 helped roof two classrooms. Then God touched their heart to pay for the beautiful new home being constructed over there which is almost completed. This house will have three bedrooms for myself and the deprived boarding students, a kitchen, and a toilet in the house!
Canadian Educators Without Boundaries have come two or three times a year to help train our teachers in how they should teach reading and writing. There have been many other international volunteers who donated time, resources, and money. The Ghanaian Toyace family has also given a great deal of help to the school.
Living Faith School has also had a partnership with Youth Creating Change of Ghana for several years. YCC has trained dozens of our students through their Reading Clubs program, and through the Cross-Culture MAP Commonwealth exchange program with Kingston, United Kingdom, which will help several of our deprived students to travel to London this August!
Unfortunately, recently I was detained by police for no reason on the accusation that I was conducting sacawa—internet scams—to wrongly get money. I give thanks to God that the police found me innocent and released me.
As for who supports us, anyone who comes and sees what we do and the Lord touches their heart to help, I accept!
How do children come to enroll in Living Faith School and Home?
We enroll needy and deprived children who are brought to us by the governmental Department of Social Services, but we also accept students from less needy families who want to enroll. Other people have established private schools for profit, but Living Faith is essentially an NGO. The attack that people give on this school is that “It is not good because it was founded by a stranger.” But what belongs in a place is what God brings.
People try to sabatoge the school. Some won’t pay their school fees because they will say, “I thought this was a Christian school.” But we continue on with our work.
Is your school in any way connected to a larger denominational hierarchy? What is the role of faith in the school?
I’m doing all of this work individually—not as part of a larger denomination. I am an Evangelist and church planter, but I earn no salary from a church. Since I am an Evangelist, my first priority is that I should bring up children here in the Christian faith. You can achieve the whole world, but without Christ you are nothing. But I do not discriminate against other religions or force my beliefs upon them. I allow even Muslims to come to this school. I educate them about Christ and then I direct the choice to the children’s own hearts.
What do you believe is the best home for orphaned children: institutional care or family placement?
Some families have come and taken their children from my care without a word. I understand why they do it, because the best place for a child is with his or her family, but it breaks my heart every time. Imagine: I have lived with this child for months and months and he or she has taken me as a mother. We slept in the same bed and they urinated on me. I took care of them when they were sick. And then their family takes them without a word? It is very difficult for me. All the same, I am doing God’s work.
In the case of a deprived student like Harry, if he were living with his family in the village instead of with me, he would never have had access to this level of education, nor to the YCC-run exchange program with London.
What are the most pressing issues you see in your community?
The problem I have realized is that education is not valued so dearly in this community as my heart desires. So many go on to Senior High School but end up selling bread or coffee or oysters their whole lives on the street. But to me I believe there is so much more they should be doing instead! They think, “If I send my child to school, what will he or she become? School will not help.” But education is everything!
Other problems I see in our community are polygamy and alcoholism. But perhaps the biggest problem is that people who don’t want to be successful will pull down the ones who do want to rise. Citizens are not encouraging us enough in the work we do. They throw allegations against me without a cause and try to spoil all we do. But God sent us, so we don’t mind these harsh words and actions.
What are your expectations and hopes for the future of Living Faith School and Home?
I hope one day to have a high school or vocational school so that the disadvantaged can have access. Those who are not rich or brilliant still should have something. Skills should be given to them so they can make it.
We also need to find funding for a fence around the school, because often cowboys bring all their cattle and sheep right through our yard and don’t mind that they almost trample the children! I have to gather the children and run. Also, sometimes our most stubborn children will try to run away because we don’t have a fence.
It is difficult to do this work as an unmarried woman. I hope to marry someday soon because with a man at my side, the community will give me less trouble and say fewer cruel things, and I will be able to control the most stubborn boy children better.
But overall, my hope is that the children we train will go on to become good future leaders: people who everyone will be proud of. Orphans and needy children should go beyond Junior Secondary School and Senior High School. They should go on to become big people in this world!