For a few moments at the 9:30 a.m. worship service Sept. 15 at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, all eyes focused on a bright-red smartphone held up by the Rev. Craig Duke, one of the church’s pastors.
Through its tiny speaker came the voice of church member and retired Snider High School teacher Francis Mustapha from half a world away.
It was the voice of a man about to realize a dream.
Long before Mustapha retired from teaching in 2011, the long-time Fort Wayne resident had been planning to return to his native Sierra Leone in Africa and build a school there. Now, after two years on site, he had an announcement to make.
The school’s construction was finished. Teachers, aides and a principal had been hired and trained. A giant shipping container of books and school supplies, many of them donated by Good Shepherd families, had arrived.
And classes at the Madina Village School, a place that had never had a school before, were to start the next day.
“We just wanted to hear your voice,” says Duke, who earlier noted that Mustapha, 65, had to drive to a mining camp outside Madina just to get cellphone service. “Is there anything more you want to say?”
“The final thing I want to say is thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” Mustapha says. “You, Good Shepherd, are part of the reason this dream is coming true.”
“Wow,” Duke says after hanging up the phone. “He’s thanking us. He’s thanking us.”
Sierra Leone is a small country by African standards, tucked along the central West African coast. It’s the kind of country that can get overlooked amid the continent’s continuing desperate reports of war and famine, ethnic violence and racism.
Nonetheless, it’s a place where people have shouldered their portion of hardship. Most live in poverty, and families remain scarred by a brutal and bloody civil war that spanned nearly a decade, beginning in the early 1990s. Mustapha’s brother, and more than 70 others in Madina, were killed.
A rural village about 140 miles northeast of the nation’s capital of Freetown, Madina is where Mustapha, 65, grew up and members of his extended family still live. The village has few resources. Electricity is scarce and provided only by generators.
Water-borne and other diseases are common, and doctors are rare; Mustapha developed typhoid fever and malaria while building the school, and one of his young great-nephews died of the latter. Mustapha had to drive himself to the nearest medical clinic 20 miles away to be treated.
The nation’s infant mortality rate, though dropping recently, remains among the highest in the world. And, Mustapha says, two-thirds of the population is illiterate, with only one in five people able to read or write beyond even the most basic level.
Mustapha himself was an unlikely exception. A sickly infant saved by a nurse while his twin died, he was allowed by his father to attend school. Encouraged by Methodist missionaries to persevere, he graduated from high school in Sierra Leone and came to the United States for college.He received a degree from Marion College, now Indiana Wesleyan University, in 1972, and became an award-winning teacher in Fort Wayne Community Schools.
But during his career as a teacher, he says, he remained haunted by the fact that most children in Sierra Leone, where half the population is younger than 18, never had any educational opportunity.
He used $50,000 of his retirement savings as seed money and began fundraising through Good Shepherd and other churches, civic groups, former students and other personal contacts.
Ground was broken for the school in 2011, with villagers doing the actual construction from bricks made of sand and mud. The school was painted blue and white, two of the colors of the Sierra Leone flag. In July, people waited in long lines on its porch and in the schoolyard to sign up their children.
Joanne Cearbaugh of Fort Wayne, a Good Shepherd member and a teacher at Forest Park Elementary School, was there, having traveled to Sierra Leone for about five weeks to help train teachers with Mustapha’s wife, Bobbie.
“Children (were) so excited, mothers and fathers expressing deep appreciation, teachers meeting their students for the first time – it’s a day I’ll always remember,” she says.
Duke, 53, will be traveling to Madina for the school’s Oct. 25 dedication. He plans to take a church member who is a photographer and videographer to record the event and make a documentary about building the school.
The hope is to show the video to other church and community groups to broaden the school’s financial support, he says.
About 270 children enrolled – and some, he says, had to be turned away.
“We wanted to start with younger, elementary-age children and children who had never been to school at all,” Duke explains. “We had to turn some away, unfortunately. We were very sad about that.”
But Mustapha still has big plans, Duke adds – classrooms for children when they age out of the primary grades, a medical clinic, a playground, perhaps a chapel someday. A Methodist congregation already has been established, Duke says.
The next step, he adds, is raising money to support the operation of the school, estimated at $80,000 a year. So far, Duke says, the project is not in debt, but a new sponsorship program for students and staff has begun. Thirty dollars a month sponsors a student, $100 a month funds a teacher’s aide and $250 a month pays for a teacher.
The school is its own nonprofit organization, separate from the church, although people affiliated with the church serve on the school’s board. Teaching at the school is Christian, although it accepts students of all religions, including Muslims who reside in some of the about 14 villages served.
Duke says the school has become a major and meaningful mission for the congregation. It’s helped members put their faith in action and see the effect of their donations and prayers, he says.
Despite the long road to a school for Madina, “Now, the school is there. … Kids are in school. People can see things are happening,” Duke says.
“Our goal is to continue to … come alongside them and encourage their vision.”