Seniors & Aging

Retired WCC art teacher helps Africans attend high school

For Kathryn Roe of Bellingham, travel by motorcycle is often the best way to get around in West Africa. She is the founder of Anansi, a nonprofit that helps students in Ghana finish high school.
For Kathryn Roe of Bellingham, travel by motorcycle is often the best way to get around in West Africa. She is the founder of Anansi, a nonprofit that helps students in Ghana finish high school. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

For the past 11 years, Kathryn Roe has split her time between Bellingham and the small village of Mpeasem in Ghana, typically spending six to eight months a year in the West African country where she helps children access education.

Roe, 81, is a retired Whatcom Community College art instructor. She’s also the founder and director of Anansi Education, a secular, nonprofit organization that funds the cost of high school education for young people in Ghana. Roe says students there take a high school eligibility test, but then must pay about $800 in annual tuition to attend.

“Most village children can’t afford what it costs to go to high school,” she says. “No matter how brilliant a student, it’s really hard for them to go past age 15 in school, and that seemed a big waste to me.”

Roe’s first trip to Africa was in 1997 on sabbatical from Whatcom Community College. She traveled to Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to study art and experienced how the aesthetics of African art connect to people and society.

“In Africa, art is integrated in the culture more so than it is here,” she says.

By 2005, Roe was traveling to Ghana regularly and had taken up residence in Mpeasem. Roe wanted to give back to her neighbors for welcoming her as the only obruni – or non-African – in the village, and decided sponsoring high school education for students was the best way to do that.

“I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to the people of the village for my being able to be there,” Roe says. “Initially, my family and I funded six students in 2005, and I still have close contact with all six of those students.”

Anansi developed from those initial sponsorships, and the organization has since funded education for 204 students. Currently, 64 students at seven high schools in Ghana benefit from the nonprofit.

Anansi relies on sponsors from the United States and elsewhere to fund its scholarships. Sponsors, who often travel to Ghana to meet the students, range from middle- and college-age adults to senior citizens and children.

“We had an 11-year-old girl who was the granddaughter of a friend of mine, and after I’d shown her some methods of making earrings and such out of African beads, she looked at me and she said, ‘If you send me some African beads, I’ll make jewelry and I’ll sell it and sponsor one of the students,’” Roe says. “And she did. It was with the first money she ever made in her life.”

Another funding source for scholarships is an African art auction that Anansi hosts every May in Seattle, and possibly in Bellingham next year.

With the auctions, Roe connects the nonprofit to her background in art. In addition to teaching art classes at WCC from 1971-2007, she also had a pottery studio at Boulevard Park in the building now used by The Woods Coffee.

Anansi has a few paid employees, but mostly works with volunteers.

Roe says Ghana students sponsored by Anansi have gone on to achievements that would have been impossible without a high school education, such as attend graduate school and become teachers.

“We have lots of success stories,” she says. “Maybe the most impressive is that one of those (initial) six students is now just finishing up medical school. A girl who graduated two years ago now has a full scholarship to law school, and we have many students who have gone on to nursing.”

Roe considers education key to changing the future for young people in countries such as Ghana.

“Our world is very lopsided, and the opportunities that young people have here are very different from the opportunities that young people have in West Africa, or don’t have, I should say,” she says. “The only thing that is going to change the balance in the world, I think, is education.”

Stephanie Villiers is a Bellingham writer.

More details

▪ To learn more Anansi, and to support a student, go to anansieducation.org or call 503-286-7562 or 360-305-8342.

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