Leaving her mark

Tell me what you do in Ghana.Lyla01b

So how it all started was that a few years ago, my mom went to Ghana to teach public speaking, then when she came back she told my sisters and I, there are these kids and they don’t have a library or anything like that. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what to do, and after a while, I was like I know a lot of people who have been able to start stuff and I think it would be cool to do something to help. I was like I’ll just collect a few books and send them over. So, I had a book drive at my high school, I was able to get one through the student council, and through that we got a lot of books. Like over 2,000. So, I was like, this is a huge deal. At first, I was kinda like, we’ll just send a few books over, maybe in a suitcase or something, but then we ended up getting a lot. Last year, at the beginning of the year, January 2nd actually, we launched this whole thing where we were gonna build a library. We were going to take a container over, we were aiming to fundraise an amount, and we were trying to collect as many books as possible, and through that we got over 14,000 books.

And these were just people from your school donating books?

So we had book drives at my high school, at my church. Sometimes people would be like I have a personal library, but I’m moving, can you come get my books? We met a lady that was going to Texas, and people just connected us. So, yeah, we got a lot of books, and at first they were all at my house, in our garage, but it was so full, that we had to move them to my high school, and they gave us storage space, so my high school helped out alot with that. We raised about $15,000, maybe a little more over time. At first, we were going to do a container, which is a 40×20 foot container, but it’s kinda small for the amount of books we had. So, we got a school in Ghana to donate some land to us for free, we just had to actually build it. So, this summer I went, this was the first time working on this project. My family’s from Ghana, so I’ve been twice before, once that I remember, but I would say this is my second official time going. When I went, we had our commissioning, so the library was done being built, but it was not where we wanted it to be, so we needed money to finish. We wanted to put in fans, because it’s hot…it was just a lot of little things that would make a difference, like fixing the windows, because the area’s really dusty, so a lot of dust would come in, things like that. It was kinda hard when we were there…at first, people were like you think since you’re from America, you can help us, like America has a lot of problems, why don’t you do stuff there first. Like yeah, there are a lot of problems, but I can do stuff here to help someone. America has a lot more resources here, and for someone to use it, even if anything, fixing the resources, but in Ghana, there isn’t anything. There aren’t any libraries. Like to not even have a public library, like that is such a crazy idea. Some schools even their libraries are empty, they have libraries, but they don’t have any books. So there’s the need for that, so when I went, it was kinda frustrating. By the end of my trip, people started helping out, so by the time I left, things were moving on. So we weren’t able to open it over the summer, so I went back this winter, I got a grant from the school to send some money over to work on the electricity and things like that. And then this January, January 6th, we officially opened.

So you were there for the official opening…

Yeah, that’s why I went, so I was there.

And how was that?

I liked it because it was lowkey, we had an academic competition, in which we had a lot of students from a lot of different schools around, private schools, public schools, everything. And I think the part that made me most happy about the opening was that a student from the public school won the competition, because in Ghana, if you go to a government, it’s lower, it’s less than school. The library is in an area of a cluster of government schools, so it’s for people who don’t have money at all. So when you go to a government school, you’re seen as a less than. I personally don’t know anyone who went to a government school in Ghana, because you don’t learn things as much, and the classes are big, they don’t have a lot of issues, and the teachers aren’t paid well and a lot of issues.

So you started this project just because you knew it was a problem, and you were somewhat connected to Ghana, because you have family there…or do you have family there or is your family just from there?

I have family there, grandparents, aunts.

So where is the library? Is it near your family, or did you just pick a random place? How did you get where you were?

So, when my mom went to teach public speaking that one summer, she taught specifically in that area. My mom’s sister, my aunt, lives around there, and that’s a bit of a poorer area. My aunt doesn’t live in that area, but she lives near there, and she was like, if you want to help people then here’s this community. And my mom is friends with a pastor who has a church there, and she was like there is really big need here, because people don’t really have money.

It’s kinda funny…have you ever heard of SPAID at William and Mary? It’s this thing through Branch Out Alternative Breaks and we essentially go to Ghana and help build, like physically build, a library. And we go and conduct ethnographic interviews and try to help the community in ways that we can. It’s good timing, cause I just signed on for the trip for this summer.

I’ll be there too!

When?

As soon as possible.

You’re going back to work on your project?

Yeah, we’re trying to do more.

What else do you do on campus? I feel like you do a lot. I always get emails from you from Botetourt Hall Council.

Yeah, I do Hall Council. I’m in Virginia21, which is non-partisan political engagement. So last semester I had a job which was focused on non-partisan voter education, which is like handing out nonpartisan voter guides, so people are informed, it’s not just you have to vote this side or this side, but here is everything you need to know about everything, basically, and also registering people to vote, but not affiliating with a certain party. I joined that because I’m interested in being socially and politically aware. I do club volleyball, I’m on the lower team, where it’s more casual, the white team. I don’t really do much else, I do InterVarsity, the Christian fellowship.

One of the questions we’ve been considering in Humans of WM this week was when was the last time you did something out of obligation? When was the last time you did something just for fun?

That’s a hard question. It’s crazy because I don’t even like watch TV or anything. It’s not like I’m always doing stuff, sometimes I don’t do anything. One thing…I remember more recently, during break right before we came back. I’m really into writing and stuff, I guess about myself too. I definitely spent some time writing just for fun. Just different stories that come up, reading things.

Tell me what you like to write about.

One thing I’m trying to do is write more about my grandfather, and like find out more about him because I didn’t really know him. He died like a while ago, so I never had that chance to know him. And his life was so interesting, he did a lot. So that’s one thing. And also, it’s weird, but I like to read history books.

Like textbooks? Or historical fiction?

Both. I want to be a history major. So over break, I read a lot of books about the impact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, especially on the identity of African Americans, because my parents are Ghanaian, and I know where my roots are, but it’s interesting that people who might’ve been from the same place that I’m from don’t know that. I really like learning about the Holocaust. I guess that’s why I’m inspired to do things. So, I started first learning about the Holocaust when I was in 4th grade. My parents bought me a book for Christmas or something, a children’s book, and it was really good, I just read it so many times. It was called Hannah’s Suitcase. I was home-schooled at the time. After that, I just started reading more about it, learning more, and then, by the time I got to middle school, I heard of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. And I read Night, and I read Dawn, and I read Day, which is the Night trilogy. And I just started reading more of his works, until when I got to high school, I started reading his speeches and listening to them. One speech that is definitely my favorite is called “The Perils of Indifference.” In that, one thing that he says is that in denying the humanity of others, we betray our own. And that is so compelling to me, because I feel like it’s so important to help people, because there’s only so much you can say or think and so many times you can protest. But once you go and help a person, like go feed the hungry, go take care of the sick. And so many times, people are always like, you’re the girl who built and developed the library in Ghana, that’s such a cool, amazing thing, but yeah, it’s like you can do things too! It doesn’t always have to be something like building a library, I just had the connections, but there are so many little things too. You can start picking up trash, or informing your hall-mates. We have middle schools and elementary schools close by and partnerships with these schools, and you can go volunteer through that. That’s why I want to be a history major, because it compels me to do something to change the way we live now, to make an impact now.

That’s interesting, because I’m in this class called The Historian’s Craft that’s all about the study of studying history. And we’re reading this book where the common theme is this idea of whether we’re really different from the people of the past or whether we’re all the same. What do you think? Do you think we’re that much different from the past?

No, I don’t think people have changed. Human nature will always be the same. You can think humans are bad inherently or good inherently, I think humans are just humans. We have the choice to just do things.

I hate to use the cliche, but we can learn from the past kind of thing.

Yeah, that’s so important, because it’s there, it has happened. People just don’t realize the things that happened just a few years ago…it might have been 50 or maybe even 100 but it’s literally the same concept. I’m in International Politics, and it’s interesting because you can compare the Cold War to the Peloponnesian War, which was in Greece in the 5th century, Athens against Spartan. One of them was building up their security, making the other afraid, it was conflict from that. It started out a large war, and I guess the US and Russia kind of avoided it, but it could’ve really escalated to that point where it was a full out war, because they both had similar capabilities and power. You can learn a lot from the past, and that’s why I’m interested in the Holocaust. There’s that quote…they came for whoever, and I wasn’t that so I didn’t say anything, and then they came for me, and I didn’t have anyone to speak out for me. I went to this thing and one of the questions they asked was what fires you up, and one thing that I care about is kids. Kids are just discredited, knowledge-wise they’re seen as less than, and that just makes me so mad. That’s one of the nice things about the way I grew up, my parents were never like you’re just a kid, they listened to what I had to say, and what I thought, and what I felt, and that it was just as important as anyone else. In one of my classes, we read this memoir, this girl’s parents pretty much told her, you’re a child, whatever you say and think doesn’t matter, just stay in your place. It’s so frustrating, and in the same way with women. Sometimes, I think women hold other women back in the same way.

I’m more aware of those things now that I’m on a college campus. I take a lot more in and listen a lot more, and I notice those things to a greater extent.

Yeah, because even sometimes if I’m in class, and I’m doing well or if somebody male or female looks at me, I’m like what did you expect. And also being a minority sometimes it’s hard, because people have lower expectations. From where I’ve grown up, my parents knew I could achieve higher things. And here, it’s not that diverse.

You’re totally right, and so many people agree with you. It’s important to make that distinction. We’re not as diverse as a lot of people would like to see.

It’s hard because if you can’t find a professor that looks like you, then how are you gonna learn? I’ve loved my professors, I’ve had really great professors since being here, which is one nice thing. Even for it to be so institutionalized at a higher level, imagine how it is for students. My high school was a minority school pretty much, it drew in a lot of people for the IB program. When I went to talk about William and Mary, they were like I’ve heard that there aren’t that many students of color. Its definitely a hard thing to talk about. I don’t feel weird about it, but at the same time, I do wish there was more diversity.

It’s something that not enough people talk about. Like I’d like to think everyone recognizes it…

I mean some people don’t. My roommate was like, woah, it’s really diverse at this school, because she lived in China for so long. She’s half-Chinese, half-Egyptian, so she was always the different one. So, here, it’s like…

We were talking about this this weekend. One of the RAs in Spotswood put on a race talk, and it was so interesting. I mostly sat there and listened, because a lot of the times, I really don’t have anything to say because as a white person, like what do I have to say? So I just try to make sure I listen to what other people say. And we were talking about the fact that your background really determines how you perceive diversity. Some students were saying that their high school was super diverse, so they come here and don’t see any diversity, and vice versa. So I think that’s an interesting idea, it all depends on what you’ve experienced in the past. But we were also talking about how the faculty doesn’t always reflect the diversity that we want to see in the student body as well.

I remember my first choice school was Amherst College in Massachusetts, and Swarthmore College was my second choice, and I remember every time they would post on Instagram, all their professors, and they so many different professors, it wasn’t always a white man. So it drew me in even more. This school wasn’t really my first or my second choice, but I don’t know, I enjoy it so much more. Everyone’s so nice.

What do you think ultimately brought you here?

Circumstances was a main thing, also in state, it was close to home. The main thing was when I came for Day for Admitted Students, and everyone here was so nice. I was like, “What? I don’t even know these people!” And I stayed overnight for Sneak Peak, and then my host was this girl named Katie Lott, and she was just so nice and so patient, and I was like “Is it just her?”

And we went to this Baptist Campus Ministry party and all the people were so nice, so I realized it wasn’t just Katie. That definitely drew me in a lot.

Do you think that’s something that’s continued and lived up? Do you still see that kindness around campus?

Oh yeah, definitely. Even yesterday, I was getting water and this other guy was getting water, and we just started talking, like casually. And it’s cool because you can just do that and it’s not weird. My one friend was saying one time this person just came and sat with her at lunch, it was kinda weird, but it was just like casual, just engaging in conversation.

I like that you can talk about real things with people you’re not the closest to, like you can have meaningful conversations. And that’s why I love Humans of William and Mary because it allows me to do that.

On the other hand, I definitely like having deep conversations, but I like having them with people who are open-minded and willing to listen to both sides. Because a lot of people that I’ve had conversations with, are always like “No, that’s wrong.” It’s not necessarily that it’s like moral choice, or right or wrong, or that person’s a bad person or not, but I think if you’re engaging in conversation with someone, it’s important to listen to their side and say “Ok, yeah, I don’t agree with you, but this is why and this is what I believe in.” You can have your beliefs and I have my beliefs, but I wont discount your beliefs as being less than. I’m still very much exploring, I know what I believe in, but it’s not necessarily, I’m this or I’m this. I don’t really like labels. If I’m ever like I believe this, and people are like no, that’s wrong, it’s like well, I have a story and this is why. Then they’re like it makes sense, but no it’s still wrong. At least just accept that it’s my opinion, and you have your own opinion.

People forget that other people have stories and that other people have that humanity, and I think that’s one of the biggest problems I observe in the world. People forget that we’re so much more related. Everyone has a story and everyone has something to say.

Even religion, since I’m a Christian, that influences a lot of what I believe, and people sometimes discount it. You have your set of beliefs, I have my set of beliefs, just because I believe in God, doesn’t mean that it’s not as relevant as your calculations and stuff. I believe that God does science, and things like that. It’s nice because you can talk to people about deep things, but sometimes, other people are a bit closed-minded, which is kinda hard.

Switching gears here, because I’m interested, how much of your family history do you know? Were both your parents from Ghana?

They were both born there. I don’t know anything really past my grandparents. It’s there, I have the names of my great grandparents written down somewhere because I don’t ever remember, but yeah, if I ask my parents or my grandmother to tell me about a certain person, it can go back pretty far. Since I went to Ghana, I learned a lot about Ghanaian history and oral traditions that have been passed down, and what people believe in and what may or may not have happened, but family-wise, I don’t really know.

Did they meet in Ghana and then immigrate here?

So they actually met at Oxford. My mom was at school in Oxford, she went to Oxford, her dad also went to Oxford. And then, my dad was working there. They’re seven years apart, so a bit of an age gap. It was pretty coincidental, my mom had just gone over to England, and since she was at Oxford, it was nice to know another Ghanaian. So someone was like there is this guy who lives there, so then there was a connection, and then marriage.

And then how did they come here?

They liked England as a place and they had a lot of family and stuff, but they didn’t like the healthcare system and things like that. So they were thinking because they were gonna have kids, we want them to have a better life, and also with American citizenship. My mom was a citizen, so I guess all of us would have it anyway if we were born out of the county. I guess it was just that pursuit of the American dream, which has worked out pretty good for them.

So overarching message, you would say anyone can do anything?

That’s one thing that frustrates me. People are like, oh but you’re you, and I’m like, and you are you, and you can do things too…

What do you think your advice would be for someone who just wants to help?

Start small. Start locally, at home. It’s so cliche, charity starts at home, but it literally does, the little things you do. Like if you’re at school here, there are so many opportunities to be involved. Like I know they just started a group, sending students to be mentors in the juvenile prison…

Yeah, I do that! Merrimac Mentors.

Lyla01b.jpgYeah, things like that! There are so many things on campus. You don’t even have to leave, you can just walk out of your room, and there’s a new thing to do. Start here, and now. Even if you do want to go abroad or do something in another state or something, there’s also resources for that too. Just get involved. Don’t blame school, you live at school, you have enough time to do work, you have enough time to study, you have enough time to do all the things. So take some time out to help someone, because that is what’s gonna matter in the end. The impact you made on someone’s life. Not necessarily looking at it like you’re such an amazing person, you actually cared enough to do something for someone. If you change someone’s life, that’s all you really need. You don’t have to aim to change someone’s life, but aim to do something to help someone else.

I like to look at it as a cycle. If you do something nice for someone, it makes them more likely to do something nice for someone else. And that’s what we need.

It is really a cycle. You help someone, and they probably end up helping you even more.

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