My Story of Blackboards for Children in Togo, West Africa
Tue, 25 Jun 2019 20:10:37
My Story of Blackboards for Children in Togo, West Africa
How did this all begin? I was living in the hotel Saint Bernard in Kpalime, Togo, West Africa, and just down the hill from the hotel is a small compound house where maybe eight families live. I call it a house, but really it’s a series of about eight to ten rooms. Each of these rooms is rented to one person, or a family. Some are bigger than others but, generally, its community living where everybody shares two outside toilets and two outside dip shower stalls. They go to a common round well for water, and they pull water out of the well, put it in a bucket, then carry it to the shower area to bathe. They also use a bucket of water to flush the toilet.
My friend Kuku, a Togolese man, took me from the Hotel down to show me a room. At the time, I was investigating another project about putting screens on windows to prevent malaria, and I needed a place to store the materials.
Well, inside the compound house, I already knew two or three people, so I had friends that lived in this place. The manager lady showed me a one-room apartment - not what you would call an apartment, but I would. The room was only for sleeping; all the other daily activities, like cooking, lying around talking with friends, showering, eating, and even going to the toilet, were done outside the sleeping room; the only private activity was sleeping.
The cost was 3,500 CFA per month; it intrigued me - it was amazingly cheap at $6.05 per month. This is the approximate cost to live in a room for one person, and a family would often pay 10-12,000 CFA, for a two-room place.
I gave my new friend, the mother of the compound house, the patron, 10,000 CFA deposit, and laughed, as I realized this little 20 dollars deposit was three months rent. And, as I started laughing to myself, I could not stop chuckling; it was a discovery of a lifetime. If my whole world went to pieces, I could come here and live for the rest of my life with barely the savings in my bank account. The idea of paying for a room for the rest of my life with just the savings I had in the bank that day!
I had enough money to pay 25 years rent in advance - this was exciting. The idea of never again needing to pay rent felt good. I could, if I wanted, escape working, or the need for money. When I have a place to sleep, everything else, to me, is a luxury.
Well, I rented the room, then thought about it for a couple of weeks. At the time, I was paying 5000 CFA per day, around 10 dollars, for my room in the Hotel Saint Bernard. Each day of living in the Hotel would approximately pay for one month in this Togo compound house.
As a lark and for fun, I decided to move into the room. I paid for an electrical meter to be installed, then had to purchase a very expensive mattress at 40,000 CFA - 80 U.S dollar is a month’s wages in Togo.
I acquired more things, put screens on the windows and doors, purchased a fan or two. And as I shared this place, where it is impossible to be private, I learned how the locals lived. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Well, living there, I noticed that the patron. the lady, kind of the mother that ran the property, who also had a sewing shop at the front of the building, had one boy that learned mathematics with a tutor. There was this large wooden blackboard, that they would take out of a room, and the teacher would write on it, and the student, her son, would learn. The landlady was probably a little richer than the rest, so she was paying extra money to guarantee that her young son would learn.
Now, in the past, in the north of Togo, in the city of Kara, I had seen where local people had paid a cement worker to create a black wall chalkboard. They mixed a powdered black chalky substance into the cement then screwed it onto the wall. This was a great board - very permanent, and it looked exactly like the slate ones we used in the United States, but this was cement. Oh! What a great idea - looks like slate, but radically cheaper.
So, as I'm living in this house, I think to myself, “Hey this is cheap, I will pay to have a really nice blackboard made for my shared home. I can put it on a vacant wall on the side of the building, and life will be good. Children could play, I would watch them, and I would feel good.
I proposed the idea to the landlady, a nice woman, that for all practical purposes seemed like a great mother. Yet, what didn't really come to my attention at the time, was the fact that she took the blackboard out of a private room, then stored the blackboard when not in use? It took me a long time to realize she didn't want any of the other children to learn.
This was the inspiration; this was the problem to solve…
Therefore, I talked and she promised, I talked, and she promised, and she talked, and she promised, and we never had a blackboard made. She would say she would talk to the cement person, but she never did it.
Now, I did a lot of construction in the United States, and this seemed logical. You go talk to a construction worker, we ask the prices, we agree on a price, and you give him half the money to do the work. Essentially, you work with a contractor to have it built, the construction worker controls the job.
Well, I failed in my first attempt to have a blackboard made: that was two or three years ago. I felt bad that I never got a blackboard made, though it was a simple construction job.
Now, I'm a guy that can make just about anything. I always knew that I could do the work and actually make the blackboard if I wanted to, but that doesn't unravel how to do it in Togo; it just means I did all the work. I did a ‘me’ thing, not a ‘we’ thing, I wanted to make a blackboard, to share with my friends in the compound house.
To make many blackboards, I would have to have the help of Togolese workers. So, I went out and about, and I would talk to concrete workers and they all promised, and told me yes, and all sorts of things - but, they would never tell me the price, or they would tell me this ridiculous price like $100.
I knew a hundred dollars was ridiculously too much money, because a bag of cement only cost 4000 CFA, maybe 8 dollars. And I knew a worker in Togo didn't earn more than $10 a day, so I knew the total price ought to be between 20 and 40 US dollars. And I've long learned that you should never overpay anybody in any country, or they turn into beggars and you can't get rid of them. if I allowed them to gouge me, every single contractor in the town would be at my door trying to get me to pay them to do a job - “Let’s go make a killing with the stupid white guy”. (Yevo in the Ewe Language)
Now, my premise, that you first talk to a contractor, is the same as I would do in the USA. But that is the USA, which was totally wrong! It took me three years to finally unravel how they do things here in this country of Togo. I dwelled on this: how can I fail to make a simple blackboard in Togo?
I kept looking at construction jobs in progress, and thinking. I finally realized that the construction workers could not be trusted as far as you could throw them. If you gave them 5,000 CFA, 10 dollars, they would never do the work. Essentially, every house or building built in Togo was built as if the owner was the general contractor. This person, the owner, buys all the materials, places them near the job, ready to be used, in a place where they won't get stolen, and then goes about finding a person to do this specific job with that material.
You buy the materials before you arrange for the worker. Only when workers can see all the materials needed to do the job, will they even come to the job. Because they want to earn money every day, they don't want to talk about jobs; they only want to work. For one lost day of work, they lose roughly 5,000 CFA, or approximately 10 US dollars: they earn $300 a month and they're highly paid here in Togo. For example, a person that cleans a hotel room would make approximately $50 US dollars a month, while the construction worker makes 300.
Well, this time, when I returned to Togo, I would go to the Africa Bar and eat breakfast every morning. The lady Yawa, which means “born on Thursday” in the Ewe language, was highly intelligent and very honest. I had taken to giving her 10,000 CFA in advance, so I didn't need to get change from her everyday for all her money. I’d give her the money, eat my 500 cfa breakfast daily, talk with her, laugh, joke and have a good time, and thought we were friends. I would often come back in the afternoon to drink a soda - everything went on this tab until it was finished, then she gave me a piece of paper with the complete bill and I started over.
She was to be trusted: not easy to find in Togo. At the Africa Bar in Kpalime, Togo, there are always 3 to 7 kids playing. Judith, Agnes, and Yawa all have children. Then, the children of the neighborhood all congregate there and play.
I thought to myself, “What a great place for a chalkboard!” Any place that children play in one spot is a great place to have a chalkboard, so they can play on the chalkboard, write words and draw pictures. There are many of these little wooden chalkboards that are used for many things. I talked to Yala and I talked to Judith, and after a few days we decided the front of the building would be a great place for a chalkboard. Yawa could use the top to write a menu or special foods for sale. The bottom could be used by the children under eight to play.
Now, like the woman in the other house, Yawa wanted to call a mason. I keep saying, “Please, just buy the concrete and I'll buy the black powder coloring for the cement.” Quite by accident, I discovered in a bookstore that they sold this powder; a man by the name of Kojo, the owner, showed it to me. His name is Monday-born. Just for reference, I am Komla; I am Tuesday-born. I am Andre in French, which is a pretty great name because it's one of the 12 disciples in the Bible - not that anybody here knows that, but I keep asking if they know! Maybe one in 30, even though they go to church every weekend, knows Andre was a disciple in the Christian faith.
So, everybody's walking around with the Bible, but they don't know the 12 disciples’ names and the books of the Bible.
Well, every day, Yawa would tell me the mason was coming. Because I trusted her, I had given her the $20 in local money. As if God was intervening, there happened to be a cement sales shop right next door. With tons of work, I discovered that a wheelbarrow full of sand cost 1500. The powdered chalk cost 2500. I didn't know how much the worker would cost, but I figured I could stand the risk. In the end, she only paid $3,000 for the work.
2500 powder black
3000 for labor
Okay that's 11,000 right?
Because I was so excited, I promised Yawa I would give her 10,000 more if she got it done. I knew if I had one example in the city, I could build 50 or a hundred of these chalkboards. They don't really understand words, or the written word, or anything like that; you can only say, “Please, make one of these.” I can point at the chalkboard and say, “I want another one”.
I'm now trying to talk with a few young men and women to pay them 5000 commission to have them made in various locations. I cannot talk with the owner of a house; if I did so, they would want 50,000 safe to have one made for their children - $100.
Whenever somebody talks with me, all they can see is dollar signs and their greed kicks in and they go crazy wanting money. I need to be like a secret advisor giving these people money, and they will never tell anybody because they don't want to share the money.
Which is also the same problem with knowledge; nobody will share knowledge here, because the person with knowledge can earn money. A school teacher does not teach a student to be smarter than him or her. They do not want the students to learn more than them! Why? Everyone is afraid of losing their job: if anybody becomes smarter than them, that person can then take over and get their job. School teachers have no desire for the students to learn much more than just reading a little and writing a little. If they do too good a job, the students could become teachers and they might not be able to keep their own job as a teacher
This works the same for the trades - electricians, woodworkers, metal workers, generator workers, sewing and hairdressers. There will be 10 apprentices, all working for free for 2 to 3 years and the master will never teach them how to do the job properly. The only way for the apprentice to learn is to somehow see it done and be smart enough to learn without having a teacher.
Learning in Togo works this way: nobody can use a teacher, they must be self-taught or they will never learn.
Nobody will give away knowledge, because knowledge is power.
Now, it's quite simple to make a blackboard. I buy all the materials, I put it in front of the area, along comes a mason and he does the job.
I am will pay locals to work, and pay them between 5,000 to 10,000 CFA to talk with owners of houses to allow us to install blackboards. I've proposed this to two or three people now. Strange: you would think they would all jump at the chance to make 5000 in a day, which is 2 times their normal daily wages.
But Togolese people don't really work for money. Something else motivates them; I'm not quite sure what, but maybe it's family.
Anyone in a new business has a very difficult time surviving, because all their friends will mock them. it's very cruel what people do here to people that have good ideas; they mock them and they make jokes about them and they treat them like they're stupid. The only safe way to start a business is to copy another business.
And, essentially, I'm starting a business - a social business. I'm a social entrepreneur.
For the people finding location for blackboards, to earn the 5000,10,000 CFA, they will be required to make a small video and put it on YouTube for me, maybe in the end I need to pay them 10000, this is not yet decided. I don't know if this is like a business - how much you have to pay to get it done. Maybe in the long run, the masons will understand and start finding locations.
it's like all the other businesses I've started: you try something and it works, or you try something and it fails, but you keep trying until you put together the right formula.
I started a GoFundMe page because I don't want this to be a ‘me only’ business; it’s not a business where I'm making money - I don't want to make money, and I don't really even want to install chalkboards! I want to be the entrepreneur, the innovator and the motivator.
Like a film producer, I want to put this all together and create a great story where other people can copy my idea.
Yet, in the end, invention and innovation require a lot of money. I want children to learn and I want them to learn in public, so that nobody can hide the learning behind closed doors.
By using blackboards in public areas, the students will teach each other how to read and write. I'm sure some of them will draw pictures and become artists. I've seen some amazing mathematics on some of these boards: there are smart children here in Africa that need a chance.
For Africa to develop, they need self-taught children The eight organizations in this city have constructed four or five libraries, maybe more. But there are no books in the libraries, because it's way too expensive to have books shipped here - but they can collect donations by putting up the building.
I have videos of these libraries. It’s sad; you get large amounts of money from people in Europe or America, they put up a building for a library, and there are no books in the library.
I have another idea, how to give them ebooks with comic books and other books that they could put on their smartphone.
Yes, a mother and father will buy a smartphone before they'll buy a mosquito net!
A smartphone is a sign of social status, along with a motorcycle. It's much more important that the family to look like a big man or woman in the village by owning a smartphone.
This is how the story of my first chalkboard started.
A self-taught person is called an autodidact. I know that all the knowledge that I've ever acquired has only been achieved by mentors and being a self-taught person myself.
I taught myself how to make websites. I taught myself how to learn anything. I myself am a self-made man: I cannot blame it on anybody else! I am 100 percent responsible for who I became.
Life is good. Please share this story with your friends and send your money to my GoFundMe page, because it cost a lot of time and money to commandeer this project.
I believe in, “First, do no harm”. I will never give money to anybody for nothing. All it does is make beggars out of my friends. it hurts me greatly when somebody gives my friends money, because I know they are spoiled from then on: they know some silly person will now give them money for no work. All they have to do is look poor, act stupid and people give them money!
Knowledge is the one thing you can give to a child or family that they don't abuse. More correctly, the tools of knowledge can be given: how to download free ebooks, or these blackboards.
Don't be fooled. Only one child in 50 is going to be able to be self-taught. But it's the one in 50 that changes the world.
Most have no desire to learn; they only have the desire to earn money to buy a smartphone or a motorcycle. They have no desire to be educated.
Again it's the one in 50 that changes the world: it's the 2%.
If only 2% of the population of Togo understood how to read books on smartphones, the world could change for the better in Africa. I just start with the beginning: they need to learn to read and write as small children. And learning to read and write while playing with other children is a great start.
Your friend, Andy Lee Graham of hobotraveler.com - a person that has lived in 112 countries while traveling non-stop for 21 years.
Help me to see and pay for the solutions to make life better around the world.
"What man be a man that doesn't make the world a better place"
-- Film The kingdom of heaven.
Help me help...