Alumni Profile: Kofi Amouzou
from NYU Alumni eNewsletter, 2010
Kofi and Megan Amouzou meet for a routine lunch in the cafeteria of International House, an international-student residence hall on the Upper West Side. That is where Kofi, now an international-student adviser at Columbia University, met Megan more than a decade ago.
Kofi, who had immigrated to America from Togo in 1995, lived at I. House while working on a master’s in tourism and travel management at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Megan, now director of admissions, was working there as the assistant director.
Seeped in international education, the couple’s life seems rather normal. Two sons – Liam, 5; Seth – 2. Nine-to-fives. A home in Westchester. A daily lunch rendezvous. The couple has a mission, though, that is rather extraordinary. Since 2002, they have been developing a not-for-profit, one might even say “grassroots,” effort to support and encourage education in Kofi’s native country and surrounding areas in West Africa.
As a non-profit, their budgeting practices, their aid efforts are atypical. They seem to have cut the bureaucracy out of foreign aid and are creating opportunities for children to gain an education through a practical, hands-on approach.
The couple’s history begins in 1996, when Kofi moved into International House. After moving out in 1998, Kofi and Megan forged a relationship, and in 2000, they were married. “He says he left here in order to pursue me,” Megan jokes. In 2002, Megan and Kofi visited his home in Lavié, a Togolese village of no more than 5,000 people. What began as a homecoming would soon evolve into the impetus for their current efforts. “Many people have never heard of Togo. I never had before I met Kofi,” Megan recalls. “He was showing me around the village. I would see some kids going to school and some who weren’t. I said, ‘why aren’t those kids in school?’ and he said, ‘because their parents can’t afford to send them.’ The next obvious question was, ‘well, how much does it cost?’”
At that time, the answer was surprising for the American tourist. For a year of school in Togo, it cost the equivalent of between three and four US Dollars, prices differing for boys and girls. Since, that price range has gone up one dollar. “It’s difficult, coming from here, where certain things are taken for granted, basic education being one of them, to imagine not being able to read and write because of a few dollars – the price of a Starbuck’s cup of coffee,” Megan says. “I thought, ‘oh my gosh, we can get some people to give us money for these kids to go to school,’ and the idea just grew.”
When Kofi and Megan came back to New York, they decided they’d start saving money to help pay school fees for children in his home village of Lavié. A year later, Kofi returned. They had raised enough money to pay the school fees for 45 children. They decided to get some friends involved, and before long, an official non-profit, The Children of Lavié (www.thechildrenoflavie.org), had been established.
In the six years since, Kofi and Megan have worked to figure out the logistics of their mission. One vital decision was how to deliver aid to Africa. “How do we get the money to them? I grew up there, and I know what the situation is. I know it’s not a lack of aid – money from other countries. It’s how the money is managed. We, the people who are doing it, don’t really know if those kids are getting the money,” he explains of his rationale to deliver the school fees to Africa himself. “I was comfortable with that idea because those people will actually get the money.”
The funding is a compromise between Kofi, Megan and their donors. Donors pay for children to go to school. The couple pays to fund Kofi’s trip, two to three weeks each October during which time Kofi pays another year’s school fees for those he’s already helped and finds new children to send to school. “The money that is given to us by somebody is 100-percent school fee. We buy the ticket out of our own pocket. We have somebody who’s working on the Web site for free. We take our own pictures,” Kofi says. “It’s important to me that the donors know and that we can say that their money is going where we say it’s going.”
From the beginning, the Children of Lavié has held the Masa Memorial Essay Contest providing cash prizes for twenty-some students. “I’m thinking it will be a motivation for people to learn to write,” Kofi said of the contest named for his and his six siblings’ mother. “She died in 2003. In her memory, we decided to do that. I was very amazed at how she raised us. She sent us to school and did anything to pay our school fees. She was someone without whom I may not be where I am today. I say to people, ‘it’s more than something close to my heart, something I discovered. It is my story.’”
Kofi said through helping children receive an education, he is making a small step toward bringing stability to an area historically plagued by conflict and political unrest. “I think education will be a solution for every single thing that is bad in the world,” he explained. “It helps you think. It helps you manage. It helps you think twice about things before you do them.”
As the funding grows, little by little, the operation grows too. What began as an effort to help children in Kofi’s native village has expanded – first to surrounding villages and then to four different countries throughout West Africa. “We did not have a plan to go from village to village,” Kofi recalls. “Now, our plan is to cover the whole of West Africa. We’re not able to do that yet, but that’s where we’re trying to go.”
To date, Kofi’s charitable ventures have taken him to villages in Togo, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Benin – four countries lagging in education. A comparison of literacy rates of 205 countries ranks Togo 173rd at 60.9 percent; Senegal 197th at 40.2 percent; and Benin 201st at 34.7 percent. Burkina Faso comes in last with a literacy rate of 21.8 percent.
The meager educational setting, “an open space with some straw for a roof,” is next on Kofi and Megan’s list of problems to be resolved. They’ve established a library fund to add library facilities to accompany village schools. Their $100,000 fund-raising goal seems high, but Kofi and Megan remain optimistic. “The problem is, and one of the reasons we’re doing this is, to break something that’s existed for too long,” he said. “When I went to school, no libraries whatsoever, and I don’t think it should be like that today.”
As they look to the future, Kofi and Megan think in terms of individual students, hoping to add slowly to the list of more than 3,000 they’ve helped so far. They envision libraries – learning resources seldom found in rural West Africa. They act in small strides but think and plan in big dreams. “It’s not a big operation where people give thousands of dollars, but we want to be like that. Because I’m there, I know we can do a lot for a little money. We’ve been surprised about how small amounts of money can do things as great as we’ve done,” Kofi said. “Any place education becomes a luxury instead of a necessity, there is a problem there someone must fix.”