Port Union student builds hope

David Campbell fondly remembers the sweltering 35-degree summer under the Ghanaian sun, his dirt-caked hands wrapped around a rusted shovel that would pierce the earth for the 100th time since his group started excavating. His forest-green, wide-brim Safari hat flopped about each time he dug, giving the kindergarteners a reason to laugh as they passed by him.

“The kids loved my hat,” said the architect student with a smile. “I think they were making fun of me.”

Five months ago, he boasted about his hat on Twitter. A trip to Ghana has been his preoccupation for the last several months. It’s one of the reasons why last spring you would’ve caught him sleeping soundly on the 86 Sheppard bus at 1 a.m. after a long day at school.

Settling in Ghana

The fourth-year dean’s list student, who lives in the Port Union community has been working with other students in architecture, fashion, interior design and early childhood education (ECE) programs, in a course challenging them to design a kindergarten school they would eventually build themselves.

“Working with David is quite enjoyable,” said Jennifer Yan, a student from David’s group. “He’s friendly, responsible and knows what he’s doing all the time.”

Campbell is one of 30 Ryerson University students who built two classrooms for 50 kindergarten children in Kpedze Todze, a village in a cluster of thirty other villages within a district called Kpedze.

When they arrived in Ghana they had three days to learn about Ghanaian school buildings before construction began.

“We went in and had no building drawings really until closer to the end because we figured things out with the help of all the villagers,” Campbell said.

The original school rested under a large fruitful mango tree, which allowed the children to eat mangoes right off the ground. They used it as a resting base while they built the new school.

Eventually the group set up tents a littler closer to the site of construction. They negotiated with villagers, primarily the site supervisor, the chief and the village mother (who represented the village women).

The site was moved three times. The original plotted area proved too low and would’ve flooded the school, the villagers pointed out. The second area was beside a massive anthill. They ended plotting downhill to avoid the ants.

Except on Sundays, there were about 60 villagers helping. The village women would tease the guys of incompetence if the cement they poured too much cement into their buckets.

School was still in session under the mango tree during construction and it became a daily routine for the children to visit and help on site. While their first language is Ewe, they understood English.

His camera became a way of connecting with the kids. He joined in their games, one of which included making a bike tire spin with a stick.

Inside the classroom

Balancing the Ghanaian education system with western education practices culminated in the classrooms’ final shape and set up. It honoured the rectangular teacher-focused Ghanaian classroom, where students face the teacher and the blackboard. At the same time, the clustered desks, made by interior design students, reflect the more interactive and student-oriented western practices.

The school’s opening day included a ceremony by the elders and a song performance from the children. The students received new uniforms designed by the fashion students and school bags from the ECE students.

The project ranged between $15,000 and $20,000. Part of the funding came from money they raised in Toronto.

Campbell’s group built the school in modules so the structures can function on their own, even without other rooms.

“The reality is there are a lot of groups going to Africa right now,” Campbell said. “The problem is, I’m not sure about their competence with construction methods and dealing with the culture that’s there.”

“Do we really need to go to Africa to make ourselves feel better?” Campbell asked. “It’s a little scary, I’m sure [they] do it for the right reasons but you have to realize it’s not an amusement park.”

While he admits he grew in ways he is yet to identify, Campbell acknowledges that from a professional standpoint he gained a higher appreciation of the universal basics of construction.