A Discussion with Reverend Wisdom Shelter Ameku, Executive Director, Good News for Africa Ministries

With: Wisdom Shelter Ameku Lillian Marshall

March 21, 2010

Background: In the following discussion, which took place between Reverend Ameku and Lillie Marshall in Ghana, Ameku recounts his life and explores his personal motivation for entrepreneurial advocacy work. He also shares his vision of its purpose and direction and sketches the partnership arrangements that allow his work to advance. The interview was conducted at the First Baptist Preparatory School and Orphanage in Aflao, Ghana where Reverend Ameku is currently the executive director. Assistance for this interview was given by John Glidden, director of Youth Creating Change of Sogakope, Ghana, who has worked closely with Reverend Ameku over the past six years.

Where do you come from? What led you to the work that you do today?

I come from Mafi-Sassiekpe in Ghana’s Volta Region, and the work I do is a call from God. I never even dreamed, earlier in my life, of becoming a pastor or championing the rights of the vulnerable.

In my early years, I went to live with my brother at Keta-Krachi to be educated. During my second year of Senior High School, I encountered many trials, and subsequently received Christ as my personal savior. It was then that I started my work with the needy. Keta-Krachi had the second largest prison in Ghana at that time, so I began ministering to prisoners: sharing foods and the word of God with them. When my cousin started the religious work of church planting back at home in Mafi, I went home to help him in 1983.

In 1987, I proceeded to Bible college in Accra, graduating in 1990. At that time, my cousin died, and I took up his leadership mantle. We had planted seven churches then, and as of now my team has planted over 60 churches and 15 schools, including this Aflao orphanage and school. We have also championed the release and rehabilitation of numerous ex-fetish slaves and created a vocational school to assist them in their reintegration with society.

Could you please explain the “fetish slave” practice and how your work has assisted its victims?

Thanks to our efforts, the practice of taking “fetish slaves” has now been abolished. But previously, in traditional Ghanaian villages, so-called fetish priests controlled much of the law. If these priests got a report of a crime, they would locate the family of the culprit and begin to mystically kill members of that family until the family ran to consult the priest for help. Africans are superstitious, I tell you! The priest would say: “To abate the death, you have to pay by sending a beautiful young virgin girl to the shrine.” Then the killing would stop… but the fetish priests would not take care of this girl or give her access to education.

Sometimes, when these girls reached puberty, they would become the wives of fetish priests. The priests would sleep with them, impregnate them, and then would not take responsibility. We reported this issue to the government, and in 1997 the government passed a law banning it! Though enforcement is a problem (many government officials were using shrines themselves) somehow this problem is improving because a lot of NGOs and my ministry rallied against it.

What projects did your organization undertake to help the fetish slaves and others in need of aid and rehabilitation?

To address this fetish slave practice, first we had to join with NGOs to raise the money needed to pay the “reparations” to free the slaves. Next, we started with the understanding that people are superstitious, and so we need to educate them. To do this, we set up schools. I started a vocational school in Frankakdua in Ghana’s Eastern Region specifically to rehabilitate these needy ex-slaves. At this school, we teach sewing, batik, hairdressing, kente weaving to export to America and male careers like carpentry. As of now, we have about one hundred people trained already, and eighty currently in the school. Recently, our headquarters received some support from the Baptist Church, and we built a new dormitory for $162,000. Now the school is running full-fledged, and it is the most beautiful vocational facility in the Eastern Region! Because it is far away—across two rivers—I have delegated the management to others and now focus on this orphanage and school here in Aflao.

I know you have many projects running right now beyond the vocational school. Could you give us an overview of these?

We have now created 15 schools. The Baptist Church Headquarters funds the money to pay teachers for eight of these schools: 30 Ghana Cedis [$20] a month, which is woefully inadequate, but at least it is something.

We are also still recruiting inmates to have training. Then we rehabilitate them and integrate them back into society to make life more meaningful for them. Whatever trade they want, our Baptist Church group provides the items necessary to begin life again. For example, if the person wants to be a hairdresser, we provide the hairdryer.

In the year 2007, we started the orphanage and school, which is named the First Baptist Preparatory School and Orphanage, here in Aflao. We have both a residential facility and a school, and though I was leading both before, now I have delegated leadership of the residential facility and have become the Executive Director of the school and church.

Our school currently has 250 pupils, including about 39 orphans. Now, however, this facility is full, and at least 10 students have to commute from town. We are trying to raise funds to expand our facilities and support more people, because there are so many children out there who are still vulnerable!

Why did you decide to found the First Baptist Preparatory School and Orphanage, and how do children come to enroll in the school? What other options are there for such vulnerable youth?

I decided on Aflao for this project because education in this area is too low and people are finding it difficult to send their children to school. We aim to support vulnerable children so they may successfully go through the system and push forward, we pray to God, to be better citizens of the country. To recruit students, we announce about our school in town through posters, megaphones, and sometimes radio. We say: “We have started a school here. Please bring your kids to study so that in future they will go on to be good citizens! We will help you and your family through our school, because without education you cannot make it in this world!

For students who do not come to our school, I believe there is no other place for them to go.

How is the First Baptist Preparatory School and Orphanage supported financially? Do you receive any assistance from governmental, local, or international groups?

Above all, we are supported by school fees, even though our fees are still the lowest around. The older children pay 25 Ghana Cedis [$18] every three months, and the smaller ones pay 15 Ghana Cedis [$10]. Orphaned children also pay, thanks to their sponsors. We would prefer not to make them pay, but we need to pay our teachers!

The government gives us no financial support because our school is private. That said, the Department of Social Services helps us by identifying and placing needy children with us. I am not aware of any Peace Corps volunteers in this area, because I believe they are placed in areas the government favors. In general, we do not feel supported by the government.

We have several international supporters, including one small partner in the United States, and two volunteers from Norway who stayed with us for one and a half months last year and returned this year with $9,000 they fundraised to help us build much-needed new classrooms. In gratitude, we wrote “House of Norway” over the doorway of the new building! In fact, it attracts us more supporters in the community if they see we have the assistance of Whites.

We were also able to obtain shoeboxes of school supplies which the U.S. Reverend Billy Graham shipped to Africa through his ministry. Though we had to pay a fee to collect them from the ports, these supplies have been a great help in our school and in recruiting new students and supporters from the community. We shared them for free with everybody— Muslims, Christians, Traditionalists—to show that the most important thing is education and helping others.

As for feeling supported by our community, we feel support only from those few who care about the plight of children.

What is the role of faith in your school’s curriculum?

The role of religion in our school is to mold the lives and morals of the students. Every Friday we have devotion and we get the word of God across to them: they must be well-behaved, good citizens, because it is crucial to the survival of our society.

We do not force children from other backgrounds to become Christians. There are Muslim children here but we don’t push our beliefs upon them.

How do you perceive Christian duties around orphan care? Is institutional care preferable to placement with extended family?

One of the mandates that the Bible gives us is to take care of orphans and widows. However, it is often a question of whether we actually have the resources to help! Lack of resources is what cripples our Christian efforts. If the Christian community is needy in the first place, where will our support come from for those who are even more unfortunate?

The orphans we see are sometimes AIDS orphans, and sometimes orphaned from natural deaths. In Africa, everyone is struggling to support his or her immediate family, so it is hard for many to care for orphaned children of extended family. People say, “I don’t even have the means take care of my own children!” There is also a crisis of parental responsibility due to poverty and lack of education and morals. Women give birth and then run away from child. Through both my work and government initiatives, we are trying to reduce the instances of this.

Ghana’s government is now trying to discourage orphans and other needy people from going into residential facilities. They are now interviewing the people responsible for bringing in the child and if they find the family has resources to care for the child, the government will prefer to place them in the care of a family. This way the child can learn family values, family history, and feel linked. If the child is living in an institutional facility, he or she may forget the family system.

I think this government initiative is good because it helps control spending, and it’s better for the child. I also like the idea of a compromise, where the child may live with a family, but our school would contribute money towards care and feeding, and frequently visit the family to supervise that the child is being cared for well.

We are currently in the process of acquiring and developing two hundred acres of land in Ho, Ghana into a school which would collect students from caregivers each day and provide each child with one hot meal per day so they could focus on their studies.

What are the most pressing issues you see in your community, and what do you think is the role of the church in addressing them?

By far, the most pressing issue is poverty. And what is the role of the church in this issue? Our role is to bring some light into the dark places: to bring hope to the hopeless. Poverty is the root of all this fighting, this crime, this sickness, this sadness. As our nation develops and the government helps reduce poverty, these problems will cease. The church is here to proclaim the word of God for the transformation of the people so there will be peace. It is the word of God that tames the people and gives hope.

It is our job to show people farming and other trades so they can come out of poverty. We teach them to take opportunities. We don’t only focus on spiritual aspects. We teach them good morals. We talk to recalcitrant boys and girls and even allow them to stay with us. We also teach people how to enjoy marriage and solve marital problems.

We do a lot, our organization! We do almost everything! Often, if the police can’t take care of travelers who have been robbed on the way from Nigeria, they ask us to! We have a fellowship of all pastors of the Keu District and I am chairman. The local police trust us, and whatever happens that they can’t solve, they call on our fellowship.

I think we need more education to help the great disease of conservatism. In Africa, we are suffering because too often we say, “This is the way my grandfather and mother did it, so this is the way I’m doing it.” That is why we’re not making it, because even if we are taught mechanized framing, we don’t want to take it, because it’s a different pattern of planting than we are used to!

Now, there has been a government intervention so pregnant women can give birth free of charge in a hospital, because it used to be too expensive for anyone to go. Even so, many women still don’t want to go to the hospital because of conservatism. What is the solution to these problems? More education to lift people out of poverty and decrease superstition!

Are you aware of national development strategies in your area of work?

One national initiative is called Youth in Agriculture. It is a government intervention to place youth in agriculture because white collar jobs are becoming scarce. These days, you can’t find an office job until someone dies or is fired. Yet so many people are lazy and just want to be in an office!

Another initiative is that men and women can form cooperative groups, register them, and access government loans. But the impediments they put in their way are too much, so those without patience and some funds cannot receive the money. To get a loan, the cooperative needs to submit a standard project proposal, but most don’t have the education or resources to do that without paying for someone else to help them. People prefer quick, inexpensive solutions!

As far as I know, there are no government initiatives for orphans beyond placing them in schools like ours through the Department of Social Services.

What are your hopes and plans for the future of your projects?

We want to increase the number of children we support, because there are still so many vulnerable ones out there. We are currently in the process of acquiring and developing two hundred acres of land around the town of Ho in Ghana’s Volta Region. Our dream is to expand our schools up to university level.

Right now we have an offer of 6,000 acres of land that someone would like to donate to us to farm, so we are trying hard to find the resources to do so. If we could acquire the farming tools and begin cultivating that land, we could feed the orphans and needy children we serve through proceeds from the farm.

Could you please close by explaining how your work has been inspired by your faith?

Every believer or Christian has a call to do something specific for God and humanity. The call that I have is to develop not just facilities, but people. Through the creation of schools, churches, and this orphanage, I have trained fourteen of our pastors, and hundreds of our youth. I never dreamed at first of doing this work, but now I realize it is a call from God to help.

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