Country Director and Co-founder of The Yonso Project
Kwabena Danso is a 29 year old native of Yonso, a village located in the Ashanti region of Ghana. I first met Danso in 2005 while attending the University of Ghana. He was just a regular friendly third year student who would come to my residence and hold meetings with some American students in the kitchen. He was talking to them about supporting the work of the Yonso Students Union, a group of university students from Yonso that helped needy children from their village to attend school by giving them scholarships. Five years later, the kitchen meetings (along with visits to Yonso, and an amateur documentary about the village), have turned into a full-fledged not-for profit organization called The Yonso Project (TYP) of which Danso is the Country Director.
The Yonso Project is an organization made up of Ghanaian staff and volunteer American staff. They work to improve educational and economic activities in Rural Ghana to alleviate poverty. One of the main ways they achieve this is by providing need-based scholarships to rural kids so that they can attend school. The team also renovates school infrastructure, and organizes field trips and educational awards programs for rural schools and organizes educational awards programmes for rural schools. Through my interview with him I learned more about the inspiration behind TYP and what makes Kwabena Danso, an ordinary young man, extraordinary.
Tempo: What was it like growing up in Yonso? For instance what were some of your favorite things and some of the difficulties?
Danso: It was not easy growing in Yonso. I grew up with no fatherly figure to look up to and my grandmother who took care of me and other family members did not have enough to support all of us. I remember sometimes, I had to wear torn clothes to school. It was hard for me and dealing with the issue of not having a father was always tormenting me. I always thought nobody cared and I only looked up to my grandma for hope and inspiration and it was my hope that I would become somebody in future to take care of her. One thing I liked about Yonso was the friends I made who were very supporting and I also saw how united the community was. We could eat at any of my friend’s house without any fear and their parents were like my parents.
Tempo: On your website the mission of the Yonso Student’s Union, (the group originally providing scholarships to students in Yonso) is summarized as “if we were able to beat the odds to graduate from school…we should/help other kids do the same.” How were you able to “beat the odds” and attend university?
Danso: The schools in Yonso lacked the necessary educational materials, adequate teachers and infrastructure and since I was from a poor home, it was not easy getting support for my education. I did not have adequate school supplies for my studies and the worst thing was that I had to go hungry at times. Sometimes, I had to use one exercise book for about three subjects. I also had to walk about four miles to school everyday at some point in my school life. My grandparents were really a source of encouragement to me and they always advised me not to give up.
Tempo: What was the inspiration behind The Yonso Project?
Danso: I had my inspiration from the fact that, after going through all these troubles and by God’s grace being able to make it to the high level, I saw the need to help the younger ones and the poor to be able to break the cycle of poverty. I was inspired by my past and I think my co-founders too were inspired by my past life.
Tempo: How did your scholarship programme come about and who qualifies for it?
Danso: The scholarship programme was started after realizing some kids had dropped out of school and others in school were facing enormous problems due to poverty. The programme is strictly on a needs basis and for one to be accepted, the person has to prove that he/she is needy.
Tempo: How does The Yonso Project ensure community ownership over the project?
Danso: The Yonso Project develops the communities at their own terms and we do not impose anything on communities. For every project that we embark, discussions are held with stakeholders and the community. The communities are involved in the planning stage of every project and so they feel part and parcel of the organization.
Tempo: Have any of the people you’ve helped really touched your heart?
Danso: Several of them have touched my heart. I have seen several of the kids improve both in the school attendance and academic work after receiving the scholarship. For instance, in 2009, about four of our kids came out with distinctions which has never happened in any of the communities since 1993.
Tempo: What are some of the challenges you face as an organization in your efforts to continue having a deep and sustainable impact?
The major challenge we face is funding. We have huge requests but we have only little funds to support our programmes. Aside from this, we have also had challenges with some of the communities [in which] we work. For instance, people tend to bring all their problems to you to solve to the extent some will try to bring their family problems to you. I for one have been in and out of police cells due to the fact that someone thinks I am becoming famous through the work I am doing and has to bring me down. These things are done to frustrate you so that you could stop the work you are doing.
Tempo: You have a “Teach Abroad Programme”. What do you hope that the volunteers in this programme will gain from this experience?
Danso: Although we expect our volunteers to approach teaching as committed professionals, we also want to ensure that they have ample time and support to travel and enjoy the rich geography and cultures of Ghana. Primary school teachers will be assigned to one class, while teachers in JSS (middle school) will be teaching 2-3 classes a day. Volunteers are invited and encouraged to travel during school breaks and on the weekends.
While living in their host community volunteers will be fully immersed in the local culture of the town, food and language included (although English is also widely spoken in Ghana). As honored guests, volunteers will be invited to observe and participate in traditional festivals, leisure activities, and perhaps even be asked to play in an afternoon soccer match.
Tempo: We want to show young women the many ways they can impact people’s lives; Were there any women in your life who were an encouragement to you as a child or as an adult?
Danso: My grandmother was such an inspiration to me in my whole life. Her advice has gotten me this far. She was the one I looked up to. Initially I thought she was my mother. Even though she had no education, she was bent on spending her last penny on my education and on the days she did not have money, she would try to prepare me food so that after school I could have something to eat.
Tempo: What motivates you to do what you do?
Danso: I am being motivated by the fact that I am helping solve the world’s biggest problem (Poverty) in the small way I can. I am happy I am doing a good thing and helping people.
Tempo: What encouragement do you have for other ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things?
Danso: I will tell them not to give up when challenges come. We are able to improve when we are faced with challenges. As social change agents, there would be a lot of challenges in our work but we should look at these challenges as blessings that have come to teach us new lessons in our field. And when problems arise, we should not look at the problem but we should look at the impact we would make on the world when we are able deal with the problems.
Tempo: What advice would you give readers who are hoping to start their own initiatives to give back?
Danso: A fulfilled life is one that has impacted on others. Giving back to your communities is one of the best things you can do. The world needs a change and we need all hands on deck to make this change happen and for my brothers and sisters who want to join hands to make this change happen, I say welcome. This work also has its own problems but with positive mind and being focused, I can promise you, you will conquer and make an impact.
Danso, he has a Masters Degree in Business Administration from the University of Ghana and is recently married to Grace Asibi Danso.