Kristine Reid and Betty Jamison teach sixth grade in adjacent classrooms at the William S. Cohen School in Bangor. They need only walk a few steps to say “hello,” but over the years, side-by-side, they’ve walked much farther.
They’ve trekked Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness and voyaged down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, but it was in Ghana that they found their calling. In 2007, the duo embarked on their greatest adventure yet, one that continues today.
“It was a rainy day in the jungle when we stopped at the orphanage,” said Reid, glancing at Jamison, who continued, “It was way back in the bush, on a muddy, muddy road.”
Deep in the West African bush, four miles from the nearest electrical pole, the two teachers stepped out of an air-conditioned tour bus to be greeted by more than 100 orphans, eager to learn. They had just one day to spend with the children of the Baptist School and Orphanage Complex, commonly known as BASCO, then they were off again on the Primary Source tour of African schools.
It only took a day’s worth of rich memories to pull Reid and Jamison back to that very spot in Trotor, Ghana, a year later.
That time, they were on their own and would stay for several weeks.
The volunteer house, the nicest building in the complex, had no running water, but the children never let the water barrel outside their door run empty — and they never allowed the teachers to lug their own buckets from the well.
“It’s like someone dropped a dime in the middle of the jungle,” Reid said.
BASCO was founded in the mid-90s by African Baptist minister Victor Ofori-Amoah, who after seeing homeless children sleeping under trees, took it upon himself to provide for them a home and future.
At BASCO, more than 200 children are educated through eighth grade, including the 100-plus orphans who live at the complex.
The children’s clothes consist of second-hand donations; their school books are old and sparse. They live on a diet of rice, pasta and a cornmeal mash called banku, served under a tin roof in a tiny kitchen open to the elements, as well as the goats and chickens roaming the 9-acre complex. To Americans, the orphanage might appear destitute, but to the children, it is a haven. It is their home.
“If you go to a place like this, it really puts things in perspective,” Reid said. “They planted a coconut tree and when they could cut down enough so every kid got a coconut, it was like Christmas.”
“You just get a warm and homey feeling that the kids are in a great place,” Jamison said.
In addition to training orphanage teachers, Jamison worked every morning repairing and altering clothing, and Reid worked with older children on their literacy skills.
“If there had been 20 of us, we would have been busy 24 hours a day,” Reid said.
In return, the children showed them fields of crops, the local corn mill and a church with services brought to life through African drumming and traditional dance. And they shared their stories.
“Many of these kids come from violent, horrible backgrounds, and often they don’t speak the same languages,” Jamison said. While English is the official language of Ghana, individual tribes speak different dialects for daily conversation.
One family of four siblings, in particular, holds a special place in Jamison’s heart.
Sandra and her three brothers joined the orphanage after their parents drowned. They were crossing a river when their canoe capsized. Augustine, the oldest of the four, knows the exact date they came to the orphanage — Nov. 7, 2009.
“I like everything about being here,” he told Jamison.
Though the teachers rarely talk to the children about their life in Maine, they do share with them some joys of the western world.
From Maine, they ship barrels of clothing, solar lights, utensils and math materials. They also raised money to buy the school two laptops, an LCD projector and generator. (In Ghana, the sun always rises at 6:30 a.m. and sets at 6:30 p.m., so they run the generator a few hours every evening to prolong their daily activity.)
“One night, we played ‘The Lion King’ in the middle of the jungle with the generator,” said Reid. “The community [not just the children, but people from nearby villages] sat all around and watched. They were crazy about it.”
This year, “Stuart Little,” both the book by E.B. White and the 1999 movie, is a BASCO favorite. “Stuart Little” is, perhaps not coincidentally, an orphan mouse.
In 2008, a classroom was converted into a lab with 14 computers, a server and printers, thanks to Student Bridging the Education Gap Inc. of New Jersey.
And in 2011, it was time for Reid and Jamison’s big project. The returned to Ghana during the summer and started planning a stone, enclosed kitchen with a place to prepare, cook and eat food.
For funding, the teachers turned to friends and family to raise $10,000, a goal they reached by Christmas. The kitchen is now nearly complete.
But there’s always a project to be done. A health clinic is on the horizon for the many children and nearby residents dealing with serious health issues such as sickle cell anemia, AIDS and tuberculosis.
Then there is the matter of higher education — in this case, high school, which in Ghana costs about $1,000-$1,500 a year, said Reid, who estimates that about 30-40 children at BASCO are eligible but can’t afford to attend.
Many stay at the orphanage, where they are always welcome. They look up to Prosper, one of the original orphans and BASCO’s big success story. He graduated high school at age 22 and is now completing an internship at an insurance company in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
“I’m still overwhelmed every time I go back. I’m overwhelmed by how lucky we are,” Reid said, then sat for a moment in silence. A smile spread across her lips as she continued, “But they have things we don’t have — Africa is alive.”