I stumbled across this great initiative on early education in Ghana through good ol’ facebook. Titagya Schools is a new project started by Fatawu Abukari, Andrew Garza, and Habib Manzah and aims to provide high quality early education for children in Northern Ghana. What’s interesting about this project is the fact that it’s a partnership between Ghanaians and an American who never thought they’d be working on early education. As someone who’s from northern Ghana and who believes that Ghana’s educational system needs some fresh ideas, this was quite a happy find. Hope you guys are as inspired by Titagya (pronounced Ti-tahi-ya).

Circumspect: Tell us about yourself.
Andrew Garza (A.G.): I graduated from Haverford College in 2008, majoring in sociology and minoring in economics. After that I worked for another organization that consults with small and medium enterprises in Ghana. Throughout college I’d done a number of internships with similar organizations that promote private sector development in Latin America, the U.S. and also in Ghana. So, about eight months after graduation I worked with some people that I had been in touch with since my internship in Ghana in 2006 and together we started Titagya schools.
[Photo: (R-L)Andrew Garza, Abdul-Fatawu Abukari, Manzah Iddi Habib – co-founders of Titagya schools]
Circumspect: How come you decided on Ghana specifically? Where did that interest come from? Was there a particular experience that made you want to start it?
A.G.: The initial reason why I went to Ghana in 2006 was because the previous summer I had read a book by Jeffery Sachs called The End of Poverty talking about how there are these clusters, there are these poverty traps essentially. And the region that had been slowest to eliminate extreme poverty had been sub-Saharan Africa. So that just got me interested in learning more in the region, and the next summer I wanted to go do an internship in some country in Africa. I had researched different possibilities and Ghana seemed like the best choice for a number of reasons. One, it was English-speaking. Two, it seemed like there was a lot of need. Three it is pretty stable politically , so there weren’t any concerns – it’s fairly peaceful – so no security concerns essentially. I guess lastly, it seemed like there were some organizations doing very interesting work there. So that’s why I originally went to Ghana. So I worked in northern Ghana for two months, and just stayed in touch with a couple of colleagues from that and we decided that northern Ghana would be a great place to start our organization since the income in northern Ghana is half to a third of that in southern Ghana. And literacy rates are far less than half that in southern Ghana, so we thought the need was really there to start our work there.
Circumspect: What made you think of schools? Were you always interested in early education? Was that something you always thought you would do?
A.G.: It’s interesting because I think our focus on schools really arose fairly organically. I have two co-founders; one of them is named Fatawu [Abukari] and one of them is named Habib [Manzah]. So Fatawu, for a number of years, about four years, has been working for an educational radio station based in the village where Titagya is also based; it’s a village called Dalun . So his radio station had done kind of an informal study in the nearest town with a good early education facility. So they were interviewing teachers at the secondary school there, and found that students in secondary school who had gone to kindergarten performed much better than those who didn’t, according to the teachers. So I think that is part of what spurred the initial interest. And at the same time, the community in Dalun – for a long time – had wanted to have a place for young children to go. And it was important culturally too, to them, so older girls in particular wouldn’t have to watch their younger siblings. That would free up the older girls also, to go to school. For these various reasons we saw a need for early education.

Fatawu contacted me after that summer I worked in Ghana, saying that he wanted to start a day-care center in Dalun. So, I suggested that we research a little bit more [on] the importance of early education. And we did that. We saw that there are so many positive effects to early education. We saw that it helps develop social skills, motor skills; it prepares children academically with basic language skills – just how important it was. I think in a sense, I’ve always been interested in education, but I’ve kind of been a convert myself to the importance of early education. It’s not something I’ve always known I would be interested in, but kind of through a process of research and just seeing how effective it’s been in other areas, I’ve been a convert to that cause. And I think, it’s the same for Fatawu and Habib. That’s kind of how the idea started.
[Photo: A Titagya school facility in Dalun, northern Ghana]

Circumspect: How did you go about setting it up; with regards funding, staff, building the school structures and so on?
A.G.: In terms of raising money, we just recently opened our first pre-school for 50 students. And our model is going to be in villages throughout northern Ghana. We’re specifically focusing on villages rather than towns since that seems to be where the need is greater. We’re planning to start these clusters of schools; a cluster will entail one pre-school, one kindergarten and then a shared administrative center and computer center between the two. So the children are exposed to that kind of technology at a fairly young age. That’s kind of what we’re trying to pursue. We went about raising money mainly by reaching out to personal contacts; initially people in our networks. So Fatawu reaching out to people that he’d worked with in Denmark; he’s gone to Denmark a couple of times for training programs. Then I reached out to my network, and we got funding from a small non-profit called Hands on the World Global. 

We started small, and it’s really around now that we reaching the point where there’s really this increasing pressure to scale up, and we’re writing larger grants. For instance we recently submitted a grant application for $90,000. So yeah, I think that’s kind of part of the process so far. And it’s really been Habib and Fatawu managing the process on the ground in Ghana, and then I’ve been doing a lot of the institutional work here in the U.S. in terms of raising money. In the summer we got incorporated in New York State, and managing interns in the U.S., so those are some of the areas that I focus on.

Circumspect: Where did you go to find the information you needed to decide whether to set up or not. And how did that process go?
A.G.: It’s interesting. I would say, Dr. Google, and then – the most important source – I think we relied a lot on Google Scholars to find different reports that focused on the importance of an early education. And we found some great ones; we found a couple of reports by the U.N., we found a report by the Government of Ghana – I believe from 2003 or 2005 – that laid out a vision of how the government wanted to expand its early education program and have almost every primary school in the country have a kindergarten attached to it by 2015. So we thought that was very interesting, that the government was already trying to pursue some of that work. And then, we just found a variety of other studies; a key one that was supported by the University of Sussex in the U.K. So, we tried to look at a variety of sources and it seemed like there was just this general consensus that early education was strongly needed, that many times – and this is throughout a lot of the country in Ghana – that a lot of times children would arrive at primary school and secondary school, not really adequately prepared for the work.They might not be studying effectively because they were not ready for the educational level that they were in at the time. It was just a fascinating, eye-opening process for us. Yeah, there were some nights when I had a hard time going to sleep because it was just amazing reading all of these different reports.

Circumspect: What has the community’s reception of the school been? Do you get support from local agencies or the government?
A.G.: In terms of the local community, the reception has been extremely positive in Dalun. I think the opening of the school has been the buzz of the town for quite a while before the opening. At the opening itself, which took place in November [2009] we had more than 120 people come, and the Chief of Dalun came, and he strongly endorsed our strategy and was telling the community that they had a responsibility to help us keep up the school, that parents have to work closely with us, so that we can really offer a very effective education. So we had his strong personal support and that of local politicians, other officials, local head masters as well from other schools, community leadership as well. Most of our parents were there with the students and other community members. It seemed that most people were very excited to have this high quality option for their children. So that’s in Dalun.

In terms of working with the government; we’re collaborating fairly closely with the government; the government will be paying for three teachers at our school. Naturally, it’s an important part of our strategy. That really forces you to scale up what you’re doing more effectively, whereas if, I think, non-profits just work on their own in isolation in a country like Ghana – where you do have a fairly reasonable government that you can work with – I think that’s an ineffective strategy because you’re not really sharing your lessons learned as much as you could be, or gaining from the government’s experience in learning about what’s worked well in the area and what hasn’t.

[Photo: Fatawu showing the Chief of Dalun (yellow gown) some of the books for the school during the opening ceremony of Titagya Schools.]

Circumspect: How many staff do you have and what are their focus areas? 
A.G.: We have two administrative staff in Ghana and we have three teachers. In the U.S., I’m the main full-time person and we have a number of people who have been advising us, volunteering for us, helping with fundraising, designing the website, designing marketing material, so really helping in all areas of the organization. So we’re fairly reliant on volunteers and their amazing work. I guess that’s part of our model.

Circumspect: What’s the financial commitment for individuals whose wards attend Titagya schools?
A.G.: We have a policy where 20 percent of our students don’t pay anything; and the 20 percent of students are people in the community whose families don’t have much money and otherwise would have a very difficult time affording an education at our school. For the other 80 percent, people pay approximately 5 Ghana cedis a month; right now that’s about $3.50 a month. We set that rate because it’s similar to a couple of other kindergartens in other towns that we enquired about. We thought it was at a level where the money would significantly help us with our operational costs, but it wouldn’t be overly burdensome to the families.

Circumspect: What’s an average day at Titagya like?
A.G: My average day would probably include some kind of meeting with Fatawu. Until recently we’ve been using phone cards. But that’s quite expensive so we’re trying to shift over to Skype, and there’s been a little bit of a challenge with that because the reception isn’t that clear yet. But, we’re trying a couple of different things to make that work better. So it would include a meeting with Fatawu and likely, some kind of fundraising meeting during the day or in the evening. Meeting with a potential funder or meeting with someone who might be interested in helping us to raise money. At the moment one of our key priorities is to get our 501(c)(3) status. So it involves, right now, a fair amount of research into what we need to do, and working on the paperwork for that. Also getting our financial statements into the form that they need to be with to submit properly for 501(c)(3).

In Ghana, the focus recently has been on making sure our first school runs very well. I think that’s our top priority. Yeah, the quality has to be very high and I think with any new organization, when you’re establishing a model you have to anticipate that there are going to be challenges and be kind of be open to troubleshooting them. So we’re really trying to keep our eyes wide open and make sure the quality is very high. So Fatawu spends a lot of time at the school right now in making sure things are going very well. In the near future we’re going to be looking at other villages where it would make sense to expand our program in the future. So that’s also going to take a fair amount of his time.

Circumspect: Have you had any challenges? Culturally- related to the people you work it? Do speak Dagbani? How does that go?
A.G.: I think that’s been one of the most interesting parts of the experience so far. There has been – I don’t know if challenge would be the right word – I think certainly that adds an interesting layer to what we do; that there is this element of cross-cultural communication between Habib, Fatawu and I, and others. But it’s really been an enriching process for, most importantly, for the school. Because I think when you come from different countries you question one another’s assumptions. So there might be, for instance, a certain policy that I think we should have in the school. But Fatawu would say, ‘Wow, I don’t know if that would work there. Gee, I don’t know if that would be culturally appropriate.’ There might be other areas where there’s something that I suggest we might do, that’s not necessarily the norm in the educational system in Ghana – which works well in other areas – and might work well there too. For instance, I think with a number of schools in Ghana – and a couple that we visited – the education, even at an early level, is fairly top-down and almost based on a university style lecture model in some sense; even if it’s very young children who can’t learn most effectively that way. So part of our model is going to be having a very interactive classroom experience, where there are lots of stories and role-playing games and small group activities to really get the children thinking and excited, and developing their different thinking capabilities. I think that’s an instance where it’s helpful having people from different areas working on this project because it really helps to germinate new ideas.
[Photo: Andrew Garza giving a speech – with a translator- during the opening of Titagya Schools.]

I speak a few words of Dagbani. And I’ve asked Fatawu to send me a list of more words so that I can become more proficient in Dagbani. So I speak a little bit, but I think it’s important that I learn more.

Circumspect: Can you tell me about one experience that resonated deeply with you?
A.G.: One experience that was especially strong for me was at the opening of the school when we had most of our first 50 children actually sitting in chairs with their parents, in their uniforms, excited, smiling, running around before the ceremony started. I think that really hit it home for me; how amazing it is that we’re starting this up and that this is going to be starting soon at that point. How real it is. A lot of my personal work has taken place from the U.S.; getting ideas for the curriculum, incorporating that with the town’s curriculum, raising money, marketing and all of these things. But I think being on the ground and meeting some of the children and seeing them in their uniforms; that was pretty impactful for me.
[Photo: School pupils, parents, and Dalun community members at the opening ceremony.]

Circumspect: What exactly does “Titagya” mean? Where did that name come from?
A.G.: “Titagya” means “we have changed” in Dagbani. It was Fatawu’s idea to take that name. It’s interesting because I think in Dagbani it has slightly different connotations than in English. In Dagbani it has very positive connotations, more along the lines of “we have grown”. We thought that was a great name to talk about how education can really transform someone’s life opportunities.

Circumspect: Where do you see Titagya in the next five to ten years?
A.G.: With Titagya, I see us expanding fairly progressively throughout northern Ghana. I think initially in the northern region and the total Kumbungu district; but eventually in many other areas. I expect, within five years, to have schools in a number of parts in Northern Ghana. We’re planning to have three schools in 2010; three more schools. In addition to that, we are planning to start a scholarship program for children who need assistance to pay their school fees and buy their books for primary and secondary school. And a third component of what we’re doing , that we’re weighing at the moment – kind of a strategic decision –  is deciding how we’re going to ensure that children who go to our school and finish well and have this great head start, how we continue that momentum.

I think the direction that we’re leaning with that is to have a program where we work with other local primary and secondary schools to help refurbish the physical structures. For instance, in schools where they need help to put things like fans so children can focus better in the very hot dry season. So items like that. And also helping in areas where it’s desired, to incorporate more interactive exercises in the curricula; to really strengthen the academic foundation of the children going forward. Lastly, just partnering with the government; especially to get their feedback on what we’re doing and see suggestions they might have for improvement. And where appropriate, offering our suggestions on ways that public schools might be strengthened based on our experience.

Circumspect: What about Ghana’s educational system?
A.G: I think what we’re really hoping to be a part of – we’ve seen that spending on schools had increased towards the final years of the Kuffour administration in northern Ghana, certainly continues under the new administration, although it’s not clear to us exactly how much. We’re hoping to be an important partner with the government as it tries to scale up early education and the government has already identified that as a priority early. Yeah, we’re hoping to be a useful partner in that area. I’m certainly hoping and expecting that Ghana will have success in instituting a greater quantity of very high quality early education facilities.
[Photo: Fatawu speaking during the opening ceremony. Chief of Dalun (yellow) and head of Ghanaian Danish Community Program (blue) were among some of the dignitaries present.]

Circumspect: What words of advice do you have for young people who are interested in pursuing projects like yours?

A.G.: If people are still in college – or high school even – I would certainly suggest taking relevant classes. Taking classes in a variety of areas: economics, sociology, political science. I think they come to mind for just being, kind of, an institutional sense of how change happens. And then, things like writing classes, English classes, other languages – they’re also important for how you can convey your ideas. And I would say, even technical classes like accounting, corporate finance, statistics; I think those could be very useful for some of the nuts and bolts activities of running an organization. I guess I would suggest taking a variety of classes in the areas that people are interested in. Also, going out of their comfort area a little bit to take some of these other classes. Meet speakers; reach out to alumni in areas that people are interested in. That’s kind of in an academic and networking sense.
[Photo: Some of Titagya’s students at Dalun]
Aside from that, I would also definitely suggest trying to get some great relevant internship experience in a variety of fields, especially concentrating on areas that the person is interested in. Maybe one or two summers where it’s something that’s a different experience that you think you’ll be interested in. So for instance if you’re planning to go into healthcare and do that from the non-profit sector, maybe spending one sector working in the private sector so you have that experience as well. Yes, I think I would definitely suggest taking advantage of the internships for all that you can.

Photo Credit: Andrew Garza