June 15, 2020
PhD student sparks mask-making project in Ghana, saving vocational school and helping thousands
When news of the COVID-19 lockdown in Ghana reached Nurudeen Musah, it felt like a punch in the gut. He was terrified that hunger would quickly become a bigger danger than the virus, for the children and youth who live on the streets of Ghana’s urban centres.
“If there is nobody on the streets,” he says, “there’s no way for them to make a living.”
Musah is a University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work PhD student, based at the school’s Edmonton campus. He has first-hand knowledge about what it takes to survive on the streets in Ghana, because for many years he was one of those kids.
For the last five years as a researcher and volunteer, he has collaborated with street-involved children and youth and the agencies who work to help them. One of the agencies he volunteers with operates St. Vincent Vocational Centre, a training school in Ghana that supports about 50 girls.
When COVID-19 hit, it looked like the school would have to be closed, so Musah knew he needed to find a way to help. He created a GoFundMe page and also donated his own money. He suggested to the agency’s board of directors that they consider using the money to buy material and supplies so the girls could make masks — which were desperately needed in Ghana, and around the world.
The St. Vincent board of directors agreed and the little vocational school became one of the first mask production centres in Ghana. Musah’s idea took off and orders began flowing in from around the country and around the world, with Germany putting in orders for the girls’ masks.
A rare win-win-win-win moment
“I'm very excited because it has exceeded my expectations,” he says with obvious delight. “My initial expectation was just to save these 50 young women and make sure that they stayed in the agency. But now, we are talking about thousands. Our last count was around 5,000 people they've actually been able to reach, and they are producing these masks.”
The project is one of those rare win-win-win-win moments in life. With the extra revenue they’re making from external sales, they are reaching about 5,000 people in Ghana’s more marginalized populations (including the elderly, persons with mental health issues who depend on the daily benevolence of people in public spaces, etc.) with a variety of supports including food, toiletries, face masks, as well as income support for some children and families involved in street situations.
In addition, they’ve been able to produce low-cost or free masks for communities across Ghana who otherwise couldn’t afford to purchase them. Musah also points out that keeping the vocational centre open means the girls aren’t being forced to return to their homes — many of which are in the countryside — where they could bring the virus to places with no medical infrastructure or supports.
Finally, being at the centre of helping during the pandemic crisis helps build the girls' self-esteem, which is a primary goal of Musah’s research program.
“I have directly been working with them (the youth) for five years now,” he says. “And they always have a tendency to look down upon themselves, because this is what society does to them. So, they've internalized some of these things.”
There’s obvious poetry in this story. Musah grew up just like many of the youth he’s now collaborating with in his research program and supporting through the school. As he reflects on what he describes as the “adventurous journey” that took him from Ghana to Canada, to New Jersey (where he did his Master of Social Work) and back to Edmonton for his PhD, he doesn’t attribute his success on an incredible hard work ethic or brilliance.
Instead, he views it more philosophically, saying he was motivated, and while he did work hard, he was also lucky and took advantage of opportunities that arose.
“I grew up with hundreds of other young people in my community,” he says, “most of whom work as hard and some harder than me. So if it was just hard work, they should have made it farther than I did. I took the opportunities that came my way. I've had these little supports from individuals – most of whom I don't have any relation with. But by buying me, say, an exercise book, or encouraging me to stay in school, they helped shape me.
"So I recognize that the very little I can do, can also change the direction of someone else's life. And that has been my motivation.”
If you’re interested in helping to grow Musah’s incredibly successful initiative, you can visit the project’s GoFundMe page, or donate directly to the agency. Musah says all funds will be used to grow the program which will help even more street-involved youth, and, in turn, benefit more marginalized communities in Ghana.
UCalgary resources on COVID-19
For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.