Interview with Lauren Grimanis
Founder, The Akaa Project
Location: Eastern Ghana / Boston, Massachusetts
“I love the notion of bringing things back to the village”.
When Lauren Grimanis first visited Ghana, she was a senior in high school. It was July 2007, and she was working on her college applications. She only stayed there for a few weeks, but it was long enough for her to realise that the children she was meeting in the village of Asiafo Amanfro had nowhere to go to school.
“I was applying to colleges and these kids didn’t even have primary school”, Grimanis remembers. “I had never seen anything like that”.
The experience left a powerful, emotional impression on her. She knew that the district assembly had already raised the money to buy land for a village school. “It was the organisation and the resources they didn’t have, which I could provide”, Grimanis says.
So she went back to her home town of Boston and began raising money. By March 2008, she had a basic school up and running. It was small, but it was a start. Three volunteers were teaching about 30 students. They focused on “A B Cs and one two threes,” Grimanis says, using lessons the teachers already knew. Although the school was technically private, parents contributed only a small materials fee. The rest came from donations Grimanis raised.
The Akaa Project grew slowly but steadily, adding new grade levels each year so the previous year’s students could stay in the program. Meanwhile, its staff experimented with a number of other projects. For example, Grimanis saw how local women walked a long way to gather water, and in the dry season there was barely enough to go around.
So in 2013, the Akaa Project contracted with Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and dug two wells that continue to provide clean water. A second experiment with microfinance wasn’t successful, so Grimanis discontinued it.
“We don’t have any grants from big organisations that are restricted”, she says. “So we’ve been able to try a lot of things in this community”.
Education remained the heart of the project, and Grimanis’s most serious challenges involved the school. For example, her teachers relied on caning as a way to discipline students, which frightened the kids and upset the donors. So she banned it.
“It was really, really challenging”, she says. Village parents—most of whom had never been to school themselves—resisted the ban because they believed caning improved the character of their children. And most teachers had never done things any other way. Grimanis remembers a difficult meeting where her own teachers joined with parents who wanted a return to the old way.
Eventually, she went to the village elders and explained that her donors did not believe in caning, and that the school’s funding could disappear unless the practice came to an end. The elders used their influence to bring the rest of the village around.
A similar issue involved the participation of parents. Perhaps because they had never been students themselves, they seemed to support the idea of education in theory but didn’t grasp all the details. “They don’t know that studying at night is important”, Grimanis says. “They don’t know that they have to get a pencil and a notebook for their kids”.
Similarly, not all parents were willing to kick in money. But Grimanis has made progress on that by paying attention to the rhythms of rural life. “In the rainy season, the farmers are more cash-positive”, she says. “That’s something we’ve also thought about: When are we asking for money, and is it a schedule that works for parents?”
An even greater challenge involved the transition from a private school into a public one. The Akaa Project had been seeking to partner with Ghana Education Services (GES)—the country’s provider of public education—since 2013. Grimanis had noticed that her staff was overly burdened with managerial tasks. “We couldn’t focus on literacy or computer skills because we were so concerned with the day-to- day management of the school”, she says.
She wanted Ghana Education Services to take over most of that management. But the conversion process was not easy. Key decision-makers dragged their feet and held up the change. Documents would get lost in the mail and had to be delivered by hand. Government offices lacked basic equipment such as printers.
In the end, the process took two years. But the partnership officially launched in September 2016, and this fall half the school’s teachers will come from GES.
That makes the Akaa Project’s achievements much more sustainable. Today, the school has a computer lab, a library, and 130 students. And its impacts go beyond providing basic education. “We use the school as a platform to educate the whole community”, Grimanis says, “about malaria, HIV, how to live a healthier lifestyle”.
The strength of the school is also changing individuals’ decisions about the village and the role it plays in their lives. The Akaa Project school has better resources than anything in Nkurakan, the closest nearby town. So students from the town travel to the village to learn to use computers. Other families have moved their kids back to the village so that they can attend school there.
Grimanis isn’t sure exactly what the next step will be, but she thinks it will involve bringing in many more students. To prepare for that, she’s just finished recruiting several board members with backgrounds in rural education.
“Now we’re in this place where we have a great foundation with the community”, she says. “I want to make this a conversation with people who have experience and can see the future of the project”.
Learn more about the Akaa Project’s work with training children in computer skills (including working with Young at Heart Ghana – previously profiled in this series) and their work to bring digital reading to rural Ghana.
—James Trimarco, Writer and researcher