United by diversity of thoughts and actions
One is often told – “You don’t look Indian,” to which the 1.2-billion dollar question is: “How do Indians look?”…What, one might ask, is the context of this statement? It stems from the fact that some notions are just that, notions and pre-conceived – for the celebration of a country’s unity lies in her diversity across the board.
Trick question number two… “How do Americans look?”… Ampofo Mensah Jr was left to ponder this when his family moved from Ghana to the United States and settled in the Big Apple. “It was a revelation for me,” Mensah said. “I faced struggles with the paradigm of my immigrant family seeking to adjust to living in the US from Ghana, West Africa.”
Mensah was getting a brush of the ‘big, bad world’ out there, but then again, his parents decided that they were going to go all out to encourage him and his siblings to focus on their goals, of acquiring education and overcoming challenges and the perceptions of the people with resilience, taking the high road, that of non-confrontation, and keeping their heads above waters.
Fast-forward to 2019, Mensah, sitting in a resource room in Lower Buxton Primary School in St Ann, is able to relate to his growing up in New York as a turning point in his life and is now able to guide youngsters to shape their lives in meaningful ways.
A Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), primary literacy advisor, Mensah has been, since 2017, putting plans together to build reading and comprehension skills, building capacity, offering mentorship, and critically interacting with and increasing local community and parental support to bring about changes in the school, nestled in the lush, green hills of St Ann.
He got cracking as soon as he arrived in Lower Buxton to use his experiences, educational qualifications, zeal to bring about change, and one of the first tasks he took on was to develop a computer laboratory. Mensah and his team of teachers at the school decided to participate in that Flow Foundation Literacy Video Competition in 2017. They went on to win the competition, and the school was presented with the winning prize of a Mimio Teach Portable Interactive Classroom Solution.
“I am immensely proud of this achievement,” Mensah said.
He has a lot of other things to be proud of – bringing about visible changes, harnessing the aptitude of the students.
“Since I have been here, I have been encouraging the students to improve their phonics, and I have been using Patois (which he lists as one of the languages he is proficient apart from Twi, which is a Ghanaian dialect) and coaching them in English,” Mensah said.
Beyond the classroom, he is mentoring the students, especially boys, to stay to develop leadership skills and helping them in staying focused on their goals, which he says takes him back to his childhood. His father drove a taxi and his mother did day jobs to see Mensah and his siblings through school and university.
Mensah, with a first degree in social interdisciplinary studies, from Binghamton University, State University of New York, said that he sees potential in every student, regardless of the social strata they come from – The bottom line: if he could do it, every child can.
“I am trying to motivate (the students) and teaching them life lessons,” Mensah said, adding that he is coaching them volleyball and football (soccer in US parlance).
On the whole, he is thankful for the Peace Corps experience.
“My interest in Peace Corps was primarily driven by my longing to become well rounded in my knowledge, skills, and focus on the cultures that are represented in America,” he said.
Living in Jamaica, he said, has grounded him further and strengthened his appreciation for diversity, a word that defines him and by extension the United States of America as a country.
He got the students to write letters to children in Ghana, and they got responses to their letters, which made them super-excited. “There is a big world out there, and they need to explore and at the same time be thankful for what they have,” Mensah said.
Taking back love
Now at the end of his two-year tenure, Mensah is, apart from leaving his mark, taking a piece of Jamaica with him.
“I am taking back love, loads of patience, respect for cultures,” Mensah said.
“Mensah has been able to identify the weaknesses of the students and convert them into their strengths. He has taught the students a valuable lesson,” said Opal Brown, principal of Lower Buxton Primary School. “What does not break you, it makes you … and that is the only way out of any challenge.”
Could not have been said better, and for a New Yorker living in an area that is not on the radar of Google Maps – well that’s another story and a lesson, too. Technology makes you run around in circles, literally and figuratively. The best way to get from Point A to Point B is to ask a human – no better GPS than that.
As for the question we asked in the beginning, it is an ongoing debate, to which we are trying to seek answers.