Sowing the Seeds of Service
Seth Owusu was eight years old, a pair of Italian missionaries visited his school in remote Nkwabeng, a little town in the Brong-Ahafo Region of Ghana. He vividly recalls the Land Rover driving into town bearing strangers wearing white dresses and head kerchiefs. These foreigners carried with them with luxuries – paper, pencils, and crayons – which they gave the school children.
“They were very friendly,” remembers Seth. “Although we could not understand everything they said, no one could believe that we were receiving such great treatment.”
While the missionaries’ simple lesson focused on teaching students to color and fold a piece of paper into a Christmas card, it was their kindness and desire to help the children that made a lasting impression.
As the child of a teacher, Seth was no stranger to service. His father chose to work in the neediest villages of Ghana. Before he could even speak, Seth often went with his father to school and watched him teach in buildings without walls, electricity, and other basic resources. Growing up in this system, he watched friends drop out of school. Families struggled to pay tuition, and, at the same time, they needed their kids to help them work the land on their farms. Most parents didn’t believe that school was a priority for their children.
As Seth continued his studies, the image of those white-cloaked missionaries coming from so far away to help school children stayed with him. When he graduated from junior college, he participated in Ghana’s national service program as a teacher in a small rural town. His work with 10-year-olds reinforced for him the challenges that families face to keep their kids in school, especially their daughters. “Parents have to decide if they should spend money on tuition or use it to put food on the table. Since daughters get married and leave the family home, parents would rather send their sons to school.”
A year of teaching gave Seth a deeper understanding of the family pressures, as well as their beliefs that rural schools don’t offer much that helps students learn to farm or care for their families.
Seth hoped to find a way to make school more relevant and useful. At the time, he saw the United States as a land of opportunity that might help him figure out how to make this happen. His cousin, who lived in Maryland, invited him to visit and bought him a plane ticket. “It was the best gift I ever received,” says Seth. He used that visit as his chance to research options for fulfilling his goal.
Soon after he arrived in the United States, Seth saw a computer for the first time, which crystallized in his mind a vision for improving rural education: “The tricks the computers could do totally fascinated me. I knew their capacity was what the villages needed.”
Since rural school libraries are woefully understocked, Seth recognized that providing computers would unlock all kinds of learning opportunities for kids.
“Books were always what I wanted most,” he explains. “You couldn’t check them out because we did not have a library.” The few books the school did have were often agonizing to read: “just as a story was getting good, you’d turn a page only to realize that several pages were missing.”
By providing computers loaded with books, tutorials, and research tools, Seth believed he could add value to village schools.
While watching what others could do with technology amazed Seth, his first experiences using computers were intimidating and filled with questions: “Am I going to break it? What if I punch the wrong key? Why is it so difficult to locate some letters, and why are the keys not in alphabetical order?”
Seth set himself on a path to learn as much as he could about computers. Staying in the United States and enrolling in a technology programs would help him offer African children resources and skills that students in the United States take for granted.
Now, when Seth gives computer workshops in rural villages, he hears students ask the very questions he did as he first placed his fingers on a keyboard. “The kids cannot stop laughing when I tell them about my personal experience,” he notes. “The underlying lesson for them is that their frustration is not unusual. Everyone goes thought the same process during their first encounter with computers.”
When Seth began a technology program in Maryland, he worked full time to support his family and pay for school. While his wife and young son slept, he studied and taught himself how to type. Within one year, he went from being completely computer illiterate to racking up more certifications than anyone else in his class. Six months later, he was on Best Buy’s Geek Squad fixing computers for others.
“Hard work has been part of my upbringing,” explains Seth. “My experience showed me that if people are serious, they can achieve anything.”
As Seth worked on his technology certificates, he ended up building three complete computers, and he decided to buy two more with the idea that he could donate all five to the high school he attended in Ghana.
When he first approached his former school, the administrators laughed: “NGOs often visit schools and say they’re going to do things that never happen. I wanted to do something different.”
Since the school didn’t have any money to install or maintain the computers, Seth worked to ensure that they would, in fact, make an impact. He brought the computers to the school, set them up, and trained a teacher to help students use them productively. Not only that, he opened the lab with a donation ceremony for the entire village. “I wanted everyone to see that the machines were working and what they could do.”
During this first installation, “The joy in the faces of the students, the local officials, and the PTA” showed him that he was on the right track. “The many ‘thank yous’ from the students during the workshop gave me a soft invitation to keep on making the change we wish to see in rural education.”
Since setting up that first computer lab in 2004, Seth has returned to Ghana every year, building between two and four new labs per visit, all the while working two jobs to support his family and his philanthropic organization.
In the early days, Seth refurbished old computers to set up the labs. On his days off from his paid jobs, he worked on the machines in his kitchen. In addition to the computers he collected on his own, Best Buy donated used machines to the cause. Sometimes his Geek Squad colleagues helped out as he prepared the computers for Africa.
Seth spends all of his vacation time traveling to Africa to set up new labs, check in on existing labs, and to work on his newest project, a farm institute. As his reach has grown, he saw a need to expand his efforts to help end the cycle of poverty. While the computer labs focus on developing computer literacy in kids, the farm school will focus on training adults to raise farm animals as a means for boosting local economies and helping farmers through the drought years. This will improve the quality of life in the villages and create jobs for technologically savvy village students who can help farmers participate in the global marketplace. Seth hopes to open and welcome the school’s first participants in January of 2016.
“Growing up in a village, you think you’re on the outside of all good things,” says Seth. “I envied the kids in the cities and bigger towns because I heard that they had better things.” He wants his programs to combat this inferiority complex. He sees the computer lab projects and farm school as invitations for people to stay in their villages and make better lives for themselves there.
“We need everybody to participate to help the community,” Seth tells listeners at every dedication ceremony. He hopes his initiative to help others will be contagious.
Like the missionaries who inspired him, Seth hopes to sow the seeds of kindness and generosity in the next generation. He makes the effort to return and serve with the hope of helping students understand the importance of remembering their roots and supporting their communities.