People often wonder how an organization such as Kente Connect begins. For us, it was an organic process and if you have a few minutes, we invite you to read the story as told by Sam, one of the co-founders of Kente Connect.
I was teaching particle physics and computing at the African Institute for Mathematical sciences. This is me wearing my “kente” shirt during a tutorial session. Ruby is the woman in the center of the photo who sent me to Ashanti.
“Oh, but this is not kente Sam! This is fake, for the tourists.”
Honesty at its Best
This mission began in 2018 when I was teaching a course entitled “The Life of a Particle” to a cohort of post-graduate students at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Biriwa, Ghana.
The class was an intensive three-week course focused around Monte Carlo simulations and particle physics with the aim of bridging the realms of science, math, and programming for a cohort of masters students from all around Africa. Each day was chalked full of for loops and googling Stack-overflow, tools that are essential to any proficient programmer.
One weekend, I took an excursion to be a “tourist” and found a small shop on a beach selling what looked to be local, authentic and fabulously colorful clothes known as kente cloth.
“Perfect! Finally I can have one of those amazing colorful shirts like my students!”, I thought. So I bought a “kente” shirt from the seller and was super excited to return to class on Monday. I walked in, proudly wearing my new shirt and was met with a very blunt reception from one of my students, Ruby:
Ruby : “Please Sam, what is this?!”
Me : “It’s my kente shirt.”
Ruby : “Oh, but this is not kente! This is fake, for the tourists. You must go to Ashanti to find real kente.”
In Search of "the real" Kente
Two weeks later the class ended and I hopped on a bus and took the seven hour journey to Ashanti. At my hostel in Kumasi, I was advised to visit the village called Adanwomasi to find “the real kente”. “All of the tourists go to Bonwire,” she said, “You will like Adanwomasi. It is relaxed, the people are welcoming.” Since I had already had my experience as “the tourist”, I took her advice. The next morning, the taxi dropped me in Adanwomasi, pointed me to the end of a road and told me to ask for “Eric”.
I walked down the road and entered the small building and then I saw it – “the real kente”. All around me, hanging from every wall were colorful bands of hand-woven cloth. For the next two hours, Eric lead me through the entire process of how kente is made, starting from raw fibers and dyes. Weaving is wondrous; a programmer’s “for loop” but instead of working with 1’s and 0’s, the weaver casts thread after thread into wearable art with deep blues and greens interleaved with vibrant yellows and reds.
Upon finishing the tour, we returned to the shop so I could finally buy my “real kente” and I was then introduced to Sir Phillip Bimpong. A scientist and educator like myself, Phillip and I clicked right away and he invited me to visit his school the next morning before leaving. I eagerly accepted.
Upon entering the Adanwomasi Kente Community Center, I met Philipp (left, sitting) and Eric (right, standing). Both have served integral roles in the founding and continued development of Kente Connect.
At the end of the visit, Philipp showed me how to properly wear real traditional kente cloth. At that point, we did not yet know the project on which we would be embarking in the future.
I met the students (top) at Bobiam Junior High School as well as the staff in their school library (bottom). All classes and instruction is carried out with no digital devices of any kind.
A School Like My Own ... but in Ghana
The next morning, Phillip and I travelled for two hours to arrive in Bobiam where Phillip teaches. As we toured the school and I met the students and other teachers, we continued getting to know each other and came to realize how similar we actually were though coming from opposite sides of the world.
And while discussing with the headmaster about how the school was run, the courses they taught, how the students behaved (… and mis-behaved), and what they did after graduating it quickly occurred to me that this school and the community was so very similar to Chazy Central Rural School in northern New York where I had grown up.
Similar in many ways but one which became clear when the headmaster showed me the printer that the school had newly acquired. It was plugged in and the LED display was lighting up, but hanging from the back of the printer was the cord that would normally be plugged into a computer.
Their school, the entire community, had zero computers! This was the difference, the difference which took my breath away and which made an indelible mark on the perspective of my, and their, intellect.
Computer Class without Computers
I had first been introduced to computers when I was too young to remember and had dedicated courses throughout my education where each student operated their own computer. The skills that I formed from a young age gave me a foundation on which my career, and that of millions of other people around the globe, rely.
To not have access to these physical resources or the knowledge to become digitally literate at such a formational age as secondary school is an injustice.
Phillip asked one thing, “Can you help us get a computer?”
“Can you help us get a computer?“
Me with Philipp (far right), the Bobiam Junior High School headmaster (middle right), and the mathematics teacher (far left).
My brother and sister-in-law reformatting the computers and preparing them for donation in our living room during the family holiday.
My whole family helped get the donation prepared for shipment to Ghana.
The small-town post office in Chazy, NY thought it was hilarious that we wanted to take a photo with them. They also were surprised when we told them where the shipment was going – another first for the post office in small-town Chazy.
It Takes a Village
I returned to the US to continue my research and months passed. Always, in the back of my mind was Phillip, “Can you help us get a computer?”. And then, while preparing to return home for the holidays, I reconnected with my high school English teacher who helped me come to realize that one’s work should not be confined to a job, office, lab, or classroom but spill out into the broader world. She helped me realize that the answer to Phillip’s question was “yes!” and over the course of the next three months, we worked to make it a reality and acquire a first donation from my former high school in Chazy.
During the course of Christmas vacation in 2018, my family helped wipe the hard-drives of these computers and prepare them for shipping to Ghana. This was done in my parents living room and with the help of friends and families.
A Return to Bobiam
Two months later, I was returning to Ghana to again teach at AIMS in Biriwa. But this time, instead of going alone, my friend and colleague Dr. Claire David was accompanying me to teach and instead of one bag each, we had three, full of laptops, power strips, mice, and a brand new printer purchased from donations from the village of Chazy, an ocean away.
The entire community of Bobiam came out to welcome us and with the help of Phillip and the entire school, we were able to create its very first ICT-enabled learning environment.
The entire town came out to welcome the donation prior to us beginning work at Bobiam Junior High School.
One year later, in the same Bobiam Junior High School library room where I met the staff of the school, we set up the twenty laptops and printer for the first time and gave tutorials to the ICT teachers of the school.
The students have use the computers on a regular basis in their new ICT lessons that can leverage actual hands-on experience as opposed to learning ICT “in theory”.
And this all started because of that “fake kente” shirt I bought and a series of events that introduced me to Phillip, another science teacher. Like me, Phillip recognizes the value that technology can bring to a community to empower individuals. It was this value that, like kente, wove our ambitions together to create better education for rural communities in Ghana and one which I am excited to pursue together with your help!
- Sam Meehan, Co-Founder, 2020
321 Homewilde Lane
P.O Box KJ 785
Kejetia – Kumasi, Ghana