At B.A.S.I.C.S. International school here, students are gathering for afternoon “Harambee,” a self-affirming session of song and dance.
“Jump in! Jump out! Introduce yourself!” the first song goes. “There’s Crystal! And she loves to read and write!”
They clap in rhythm to a contagious melody, with the school’s founder, Brooklyn native Patricia Wilkins, swaying in their circle.
“Everybody do the freedom rumble! Everybody do the freedom rumble! I wish I knew how it feels to be free! Wish I could break all the chains holding me!”
It’s been 17 years since Wilkins arrived in Ghana from Queens, N.Y., where at 35, she jettisoned most of her possessions and boarded a plane to answer what she believed to be a calling to do missionary work in Africa.
“I was very involved in the United Methodist Church, and had just served a year doing missionary work at an orphanage in Russia,” says this African-American woman, who at the time was making good money as a fashion merchandiser.
“After Russia, I wanted to come to Africa, and they were like, ‘We’re not sending any missionaries to Africa.’ I was like, ‘Why not? Africa needs us.’ They said there was no funding for it. So I was like, ‘Alright, well, I’m going to come myself,’ ” Wilkins recounts.
She started out volunteering at schools here and cajoling family and friends in the U.S. to sponsor a child’s education. That turned in to three schools of her own.
The first — her headquarters here in this overpopulated fishing village — opened in 2010. Today, B.A.S.I.C.S. is a recognized NGO here, tackling illiteracy and poverty among extreme poor who live off less than $1.25 a day.
“We’re a nonprofit organization providing access to education to children being deprived due to child labor, child trafficking, poverty, lack of parental care. We take dropouts, and children who have never been to school. We transition them back into mainstream education,” Wilkins says. “We also run an after-school program, a girl’s boarding house, a feeding center . . .” The list goes on.
And a developing country is hard terrain. Atop the devastating poverty, plumbing and electricity challenges abound. To work here takes real commitment.
Dependent on funding from government, corporate and individual contributions, B.A.S.I.C.S. was adopted by Ghana’s Israeli Embassy, which has provided equipment, secured activity venues, and run a music education workshop for students. Israeli Ambassador Ami Mehl is a staunch advocate within Accra’s diplomatic community, bringing B.A.S.I.C.S before other foreign embassies to seek further support.
“I was volunteering at a school in Chorkor when I started seeing kids on the streets that weren’t going to school. I decided I’d sponsor a child” to go to that school, she recalls. “It was right after 9/11. I had about four children I was trying to sponsor, and sent emails to all my friends and family, saying, ‘Help me sponsor these kids.’ I got an overwhelming response. . . . People just wanted to do something to help.
She opened her first school in 2004. And the sponsorships have kept coming.
“I went from five kids to 12 after 9/11. We had 50 kids that year, and 100 the next year. We’ve sponsored over 1,000 kids to date.
“When I first came, I thought maybe six months I would be here. Six months then turned into 16.”
Me Firi Ghana (@Me_FiRi_GHANA)