The Sense of Ashesi
March 29, 2012, 4:34 pm
Filed under: 10th Anniversary

By Kentaro Toyama

I remember a brief exchange with co-founders Patrick Awuah and Nina Marini, soon after I left Ashesi University as its first calculus lecturer in 2002. They thanked me for taking on the role, as I had taken a leave of absence from Microsoft to teach. I replied to the effect that whatever I might have contributed to Ashesi, Ashesi had given me something far greater in return. Nina asked me what it was specifically that I had gained, and I told her, “It’s hard for me to articulate, but I sense that it will manifest in ways I can’t imagine. You’ll have to ask me in a few years.”
Ten years later, I see that if anything, I understated the case.

Least expected, if purely practical, were the ways in which Ashesi has contributed to my professional life, both as a line on my resume and as a salient influence on my thinking as a scholar. Two years after my time in Ghana, I was asked if I would be interested in helping to start a new research lab in India. Somewhere in the calculations of my US-based managers was the idea that I had previously gone off to some distant land and seemed to have enjoyed the experience, never mind that Accra and Bangalore are as different from each other as Seattle is from either. In any case, I pounced on the opportunity, and it led to exactly the change in career I was seeking at the time.

When I moved to India, I dropped my previous area of research in computer science, and started an effort to explore how information technologies could contribute to the socio-economic development of poorer communities. Over the years, I oversaw 50-odd projects where we tried to use electronic gadgets to support agriculture, education, healthcare, and so forth, but few had the meaningful impact that I had felt at Ashesi. At the research lab, we were focused on fixing problems with technology; Ashesi demonstrated an alternative approach – the value of teaching and mentoring so that people could address the challenges of their own communities. I’ve come to believe that that difference is everything in international development. So much so that I quit Microsoft in 2009 to write a book along these lines (still in the works!). Ashesi, of course, will feature as a key example.

I’m even more grateful for the intangible impacts of Ashesi. For one thing, teaching at Ashesi was an experience for which words like “fulfilling” and “rewarding” are insufficient. The students were so hungry to learn and so earnest in their growth, that at the time I feared it would spoil me as a teacher. Where else would I encounter students like the woman whose forehead seemed to furrow into a question mark during class, but who would come back confidently the next day to triumph on the quiz? She and her friends seemed to live in the library. Or, how about the man who  struggled to keep pace with the other students and came to my office hours everyday? I never saw a man smile so wide as when he earned a B on the final. The students took so much joy in new knowledge, it was like witnessing birds extending their wings for the first time. And instead of spoiling me, the experience has proved a resonant memory that echoes each time I teach.

Most of all, I’m glad to find myself part of a global family united by Ashesi’s mission. I once ran into Patrick at a conference on education – we met for lunch, and as always happens when I see him, I walked away stimulated and inspired. Sometimes, I meet an Ashesi donor or board member for the first time, and it feels like getting to know a long-lost cousin. Last August, I attended the inauguration of the Berekuso campus and saw most of the faculty and staff I worked with in 2002, some of whom I count among my closest friends  – we spoke as if not a year had passed.

And of course, there were the students whom I had taught. On the day after inauguration, we went out for a reunion dinner at a spot I remembered as where traffic jammed on my way to Labone, on Tettey Quarshie Circle. The circle is now a zooming overpass, and a shiny new mall stands where there once were street vendors. Though ten years older, my ex-students kidded one another like they used to, and kept calling me “Mr. Toyama” like they used to. As I listened to stories about their lives as bankers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, bachelors, spouses, and parents, a sense of warmth overwhelmed me – a sense I will forever feel as Ashesi.

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