The 100-year-old woman asked Peter Osei-Kwame to make a life-changing promise.
Would he do for others what she had done for him?
The woman — his aunt Hannah, who had adopted him when he was a young boy in the West African country of Ghana — wanted him to take care of her grandchildren, and to give a hand up to every orphan he met.
“I was an obedient child,” Osei-Kwame said recently in his Northland home as he remembered that day in 1983.
With his wife, Anna, he came to the United States and later started a small charity, the Africana Children’s Education Fund.
Working with U.S. adoption agencies, the couple has found homes for 19 Ghana-born orphans. The children now live with their new families in cities from California to New Jersey.
Osei-Kwame and his wife also have found sponsors for 45 kindergarten, primary and junior high school children in Ghana as well as six college and vocational school students who otherwise could not have afforded an education.
And with the fundraising help of a school in Washington, D.C., an elementary school was built in Osei-Kwame’s birth village of Ankaase in Ghana’s Ashanti region.
They’re older now — he is 72, she 70 — but they’re still at it. Photos of children fill living room tables and cover the walls in their modest split-level home in Kansas City, North.
They fly back to Ghana twice a year to visit children being sponsored through their charity.
“You see a child walking the street and you say, ‘Hey, come here. Why are you not in school?’” Anna Osei-Kwame said. “They tell you they don’t have money for school fees, shoes or uniform. I tell them, ‘Show me your mother,’ and she tells the same story. I reach into my pocket. ‘Here, pay your fees. Go to school.’”
She knows she’ll hear from the family again. “They tell me, ‘You have to pay for his school now because you started this.’”
So the Osei-Kwames pay. They raise money from friends, churches and schools to help them do it.
With every case there is a story. The one most vivid for Anna Osei-Kwame is that of a 7-year-old girl whose family had sold her to a 61-year-old man to use for sex.
The girl found Anna Osei-Kwame at a taxi stand in Ghana one day, wrapped her arms around her and insisted she be allowed to stay with her. Five months later, after several court appearances, the man was jailed.
The Osei-Kwames had a new foster child.
“People expect a lot from him and he tries to deliver,” said Barbara Gordon, a professor of geography and African studies at the University of Florida. She and her husband are members of the Africana charity’s board.
“Peter has a personal stake in this,” Gordon said. “He was an orphan himself.”
Getting an education
Peter Osei-Kwame’s biological parents died when he was 6 — his mother while giving birth to her 10th child and his father of what Osei-Kwame was told was a broken heart.
Osei-Kwame and his four brothers were orphaned, left to be raised by Hannah Agyei and her husband. Agyei was Peter’s mother’s sister.
Before 1960, Ghana had no orphanages, Anna Osei-Kwame said. Even today, when parents die or they are too poor to care for their children, the kids often go to a relative.
Anna Osei-Kwame also was an orphan at 6. She and her six siblings were passed to relatives, but they were poor. There was no money to educate the children. “We fought over the food,” she recalled.
Peter Osei-Kwame drew a long straw. “I was one of the luckiest boys around, blessed,” he said. When he learned he would go to live with his aunt and uncle in Ankaase, “I ran barefoot all the four miles to go live with them,” he said.
His uncle was a missionary school headmaster, an evangelist and the village pianist, herbalist and linguist, Osei-Kwame said. Education was stressed and provided.
“What I got from them was ‘If you work hard, do what we say, we will push you as far as you can go,’” he said. “My mother said that if you do good in school I will sell everything I have for you to go.
“I can’t forget this. She said this because she only had a third-grade education and she wanted us to have more than she had.”
She was 103 when she died in 1987.
Osei-Kwame became a geography professor at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. His wife was a nursing assistant.
When Ghana shut down its universities in 1983 for political reasons, the Osei-Kwames left for the United States. They landed first in Iowa and then went to Wisconsin, where he taught in colleges.
Later he began working for the Census Bureau as a geography supervisor, a job that brought the couple to Kansas City in 1998. By then they had been helping Ghanian children for years.
Family came first. The Osei-Kwames fostered nieces and nephews whose parents could not afford to educate them. Over the years, the couple bought food, clothing and paid school fees for 12 family members, not including their own two children.
They scoured the Internet and talked to friends to learn all they could about operating a children’s charity. In 1994, they started the Africana Children’s Education Fund. They registered it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2008.
Tax records show the charity has so little money on hand — less than $50,000 — that it isn’t required by the Internal Revenue Service to list its finances on its federal tax-exempt forms.
The charity’s mission isn’t to funnel cash, but to make connections. Peter Osei-Kwame links children with sponsors — individuals, families or groups — in the U.S.
People like to hear the stories of the children they help, said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch.
“One on one is very appealing,” he said. “It is more attractive to give money to an individual.”
It was Peter Osei-Kwame’s story and the stories that he told about the Ghanaian children that got John Ricks, past president of the Downtown Kansas City Kiwanis Club, interested in the charity.
“Obviously these kids are in a tough situation,” Ricks said. “It is hard for them to pull themselves out of poverty until they get an education, but in Ghana education is not public.”
Ricks has been donating to the charity for the past two years.
“The other part that moves me,” he said, “is that Peter and his wife have devoted their lives to trying to help these kids.”
Osei-Kwame said he and his wife could not do it without support from people like Ricks.
“What makes me happy,” he said, “is to ensure that the lives and fortunes of orphans and poor children I meet change for the better.”
For more information about the Africana Children’s Education Fund, call 816-436-5953 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.