The Strength I Needed To Keep Going
The Boy from Boadua shares your journey from a remote Ghanaian village to studying in the Soviet Union and eventually to living in America, teaching at inner-city high schools and helping others. Why was this an important book for you to write?
I grew up in a general environment that was completely hopeless. Children born in that village were not expected to be educated beyond middle school. Living in permanent poverty in adulthood as a subsistence farmer was the default expectation for pretty much everyone. As one of 14 children born to my two illiterate parents, my prospects were even dimmer than the average child in the village. There was never enough food to feed all those mouths at home, meaning that I always went to school hungry. There was no such thing as free school lunch for needy children in Ghana—we didn’t have cafeterias in our schools.
My love of reading, which began when I was a young boy in primary school, led to a series of discoveries that charted the path along which I traveled from the village to secondary schools in different parts of Ghana, to college in the Soviet Union, and ultimately to America. Due to my family’s poverty, I encountered monumental obstacles, mostly financial, at numerous stages along the journey. But somehow, I always found the strength I needed to keep going.
I arrived in America from the Soviet Union in 1992, and was hired to teach Russian and math in an inner-city K-12 public school district shortly thereafter. Weeks later, I walked into my first math classroom and had a rude awakening. The class was filled with young boys and girls, mostly minorities, who showed a complete lack of interest in education. Because of disciplinary issues, the classroom was so chaotic that I hardly did any teaching. That was bad enough, but I was even more horrified to find out in the subsequent days that the classroom picture I saw on that first day was the norm in most of America’s urban public schools, not an exception.
As a new immigrant, I had little understanding of the myriad socio-economic, racial, cultural, and other factors that combined to inspire those student behaviors. Compared to the primary and middle schools I attended in my village, the classrooms where I taught in America were state-of-the-art. The schools here had cafeterias and libraries. But the students were squandering those golden opportunities to receive the basic education that had made such a crucial difference in my life.
Confounded by that experience, I embarked on an entirely new journey to try to understand the causes of the dysfunction in the urban K-12 education system. The more I learned, the more I was haunted by the fact that given the disruptive classroom environments in urban America, had I grown up as a young Black boy in one of America’s inner cities, I perhaps could not have been able to learn and go on to do what I have been able achieve in my life.
In my students’ eyes I saw total hopelessness, which I later learned was the primary driver of those destructive classroom behaviors. That hopelessness was not that different from what was present in my village when I was growing up there. In my journey of discovery, I also became aware that this disengagement from education is the leading cause of many of the problems we find in our urban areas today—mass poverty, gang violence, broken homes, mass incarceration, and others. I was motivated to write this book to share the story of my personal journey to use it to inspire the types of children I taught in that inner-city school district. I strongly believe that the lessons and hopeful messages I share in the book can be helpful to some of those children.
I appreciated the candid nature with which you told your story. What was the hardest thing for you to write about?
That has to be my father’s untimely death, and how it led to my decision to come to America. All along, the plan had been to return to Ghana after my graduation from college in the Soviet Union. At the time of my father’s death, my fiancée, who lived in Ghana, and I were just about to welcome our first child. We planned to wed shortly after our daughter’s birth. My father had sacrificed so much for me and my siblings, and my other big dream then was to get him to retire from the backbreaking farm work that he had done for several decades to feed and take care of his large family. He was 81 years old at the time, and I wanted to do that to allow him to get some rest for the remainder of his life. His death robbed me of that opportunity, and the most painful part of it all was that I didn’t even get to pay my last respects to him. I didn’t learn about his death until I arrived in Ghana from the Soviet Union on a short visit in the spring of 1991. He had been buried 48 hours earlier.
Those were some very dark days for me. I suffered from a severe bout of depression, and coming to America was meant to be a healing mission. In writing that part of the story, it was extremely difficult for me to find the words to convey to readers exactly how I was feeling when I made the decision to leave Ghana, and how that meant I would effectively be abandoning, even if for a short period of time, my fiancée and newborn daughter.
What were some ideas that were important for you to share in this book?
I learned many important lessons along this journey. Three in particular stand out for me. One, most disadvantages should not be seen as permanent conditions. Few people are born with silver spoons in their mouths, so most of us have to start from very basic beginnings. It is not what you have at the start of your journey that matters, but what you choose to do with whatever little tools you have. You have no idea what you can achieve with scant resources until you try working with them. Two, embrace competition. Put yourself in environments where you will be challenged. Healthy competition unearths capabilities within us that we otherwise wouldn’t know exist. If you give average effort in anything, you will get average results. Three, believe in yourself. There are naysayers everywhere in this world who will always try to discourage you from doing things. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that in general, no one knows anything. Life is unpredictable; what someone might consider to be impossible can actually be possible. Again, you never know what is achievable until you put your very best effort into something.
What is one thing you hope readers take away from your story?
My entire journey began with the accidental discovery of a piece of crucial information on a piece of paper that was lying on the ground in my village one morning. Curiosity was what caused me to pick up that paper and read what was on it. There is so much valuable information out there in the world, a lot of it often hiding in plain sight. So be deeply curious. A lot of what we do in this world is based on information. If you develop a strong sense of curiosity, you will keep learning things that will tremendously help in your personal development.