Carrie Brown is taking strides to eliminate the stigma of disabilities in Africa. Ali Hibbs/Spotlight News
BETHLEHEM — Carrie Brown was just 16 years old when she first visited Africa on a two-week safari through Kenya with a group of classmates and teachers from Bethlehem Central High School.
“It was amazing. I knew I really wanted to go back,” she said. “But it didn’t happen right away.”
In 2002, while studying photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Brown was given the opportunity to return to Africa. This time, she traveled to Ghana for six months as a photography intern for a nonprofit volunteer organization called Cross-Cultural Solutions.
The First Reformed Church of Bethlehem helped Brown raise money for her next visit in 2003, after she completed her master’s degree, to begin an after-school photography pilot program in the Volta region of Ghana.
“It was so successful,” Brown said, “and the community I lived in was so excited about the project that a local paramount chief held a photography exhibition at his house.” The chief, Togbe Addo, was the one who first proposed the idea of starting a photography school.
Initially, the idea was to use photography to help educate Ghanian girls. As Brown began noticing that there were other children summarily excluded from public education, however, that idea began to evolve. Today, she works to help educate children with mental and physical disabilities, a segment of the population often stigmatized and alienated in many parts of Africa.
In 2005, Brown returned to Ghana and spent more than a year traveling the country, visiting schools, learning the culture and developing a vision of the kind of work she would ultimately do there.
“That’s when Kekeli, Inc. was born,” she said of her organization, a small nonprofit aimed primarily at empowering disabled children in Volta. “Then I came home to begin the work.” She returned to the states, incorporated as a nonprofit and began to develop Kekeli’s programming with the help of several like-minded friends made during her travels.
“There is a big stigma attached to children with disabilities in Ghana,” said Brown. “They’re often hidden away and, in extreme cases, sometimes killed because they’re believed to be wicked or devil children or things like that.” The major goals of her organization are to raise awareness about people with disabilities and to educate families about available support services, as well as advocate for more services to be made available.
When Kekeli goes into a new community, Brown said it typically makes contact with the tribal chiefs first before holding a community meeting where they start a dialogue and are able to begin to understand the specific challenges facing that community. “Stories will start to come out to us,” she said. “You start to hear about people with disabilities, and children, who have been abused or denied certain rights within the community.”
Kekeli means “light” in Ewe, a language spoken in southeastern Ghana and neighboring Togo. Brown has spent the last decade living in Ghana, coming home just once a year to visit family and raise the funds needed to continue her work.
Currently, Kekeli is working to introduce inclusive education to Ghanian schools — a public schooling initiative that accommodates children with disabilities, allowing them to become socialized with other children and develop the confidence and skills to improve their own lives.
“It’s a concept that’s very difficult for people to understand,” said Brown. “When segregation has been happening for so long…. Without teachers being educated on disability issues and without the resources and special education teachers in schools, it’s been a huge challenge.”
Right now, Brown is trying to raise the money needed to build a model inclusive education classroom that will be used to teach local educators how to understand and educate students coping with disabilities. Right now in Ho, the capital of Volta, Brown said that there are only nine special education instructors serving more than 100,000 children in the region. In addition, many classrooms contain 40 to 60 students and untrained teachers are simply unable to address the additional needs of students with special needs.
Ghana Education Service has agreed to supply educators for the model school and several local Rotary clubs have promised to provide supplies and teacher training — Kekeli now has only to find money to build the classroom, something Brown hopes her fundraiser in Bethlehem this weekend will support.
Slowly but surely, Kekeli is changing the way people with disabilities are perceived in Ghana. In addition to the work it does with students, which Brown says has also empowered parents to advocate for their disabled children, Kekeli also works with women who have disabilities. Brown told of a mentally disabled woman named Patience whose family thought she would never be able to take care of herself. After spending several years working with Kekeli, ‘Pat’ now has a job as an apprentice with a seamstress in Ho and is able to get to and from work on her own.
Brown has clearly developed strong ties with her African home. “I can’t be gone too long,” she laughed ruefully. Before she returns to Africa, however,
She plans to hold an “African Festival” fundraiser at the Delmar Reformed Church on Delaware Avenue to share her work abroad with the town where it all began. Between 2 and 5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 22, attendees will have the opportunity to not only learn about Kekeli’s work but about Ghanian culture as well.
“There will be a lot of drumming and dancing,” said Brown. “People will also have an opportunity to make traditional jewelry.” There will also be a silent auction and an activist folk singer
“We are always working,” said Brown. “We have opportunities to donate online, where we share lots of stories.” The biannual newsletters posted in June and December highlight personal stories and talk about the successes or failures of Kekeli’s various endeavors, as well as feature photographs taken by Brown.
Those wishing to learn more can either visit the website at http://www.kekeli-ghana.org/ or attend the festival on Sunday.