What of the
帰還宣教師よりーFrom Returned Missionaries
By Kaisja Clark
As a former vice president of engineering for oil giant Exxon Mobil, it would have been easy for Ben Markham to spend his retirement doing whatever he chooses—most likely in relative ease.
But it’s what Markham chose to do that is interesting—and making a difference in the lives of thousands of children in the western African country of Ghana.
Sporting an olive baseball cap with white wisps of hair poking out underneath, silver eyeglasses and lightly sunburned skin, Markham, the founder of the Utah-based non-profit Empower Playgrounds looks oddly comfortable surrounded by the masses of village kids he just may have brought a new way of life to.
Markham, the now-retired Utah grandfather is spending his golden years engineering a new kind of playground equipment—toys that create electricity for lighting lamps literally from child’s play. Markham’s Empower Playgrounds uses his merry-go-round playsystem to generate electricity for lamplight to benefit children in impoverished Ghana.
But, how—and why—did he get here?
Sarah Hall, the non-profit manager for Empower Playgrounds, explained that on some level Markham felt a sense of deprivation while he was growing up, but after he traveled to Ghana she said he saw what deprived actually was and “he just loved the kids in Ghana and he wanted to give something to those who truly don’t have anything.
“He just wants to give back.”
In 2004-05, Markham lived in Africa as part of a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where he worked training local church leadership. He explained that inside the darkness of the buildings he couldn’t help but wonder how the kids managed to see well enough to learn anything in such poorly lighted schools. How could the kids study in homes without any electric light—particularly since sunset in Ghana is right at dinnertime?
Once Markham was back at home surrounded by modern conveniences, the notion of those kids trying to read or learn in the dark weighed on him. Kids go to school and work during the only daylight available and Markham wanted to give them the option of light to study by in the evening or light enough for the kids to read themselves to sleep.
“There’s such a disparity between educational opportunities in Africa compared to what we have here,” he said.
At this point he could have just let the idea go. There were obvious roadblocks. Ghana, with its villages that lack running water or electricity and an average household income of $1 a day, was challenge enough. Currently, public schooling is paid for by the government, but there is never enough money, so by government estimates, Ghana has roughly 7,000 schools they consider deprived, Markham said.
Hall pointed out that the children have never had any kind of hands-on science before and they read the same books over and over and the teachers will write on the board and the children will read and repeat it over and over. “There are a lack of materials and a lack of educational resources,” Hall said.
Add to that, Ghana’s obvious dilemma: its geography means it only receives about 12 hours of sunlight a day. Plus, there was another strike. In the states, Markham’s initial idea of engineering a way for kids to generate their own electricity was met with derision and outright prescriptions for failure from some collegiate engineering departments he consulted.
Despite this, or maybe because of this, he didn’t stop. In 2007, Empower Playgrounds was born and with it a generation of West African children are being given an increase in the educational opportunities available to them.
Markham is the first to admit that innovations of the last 10 years in science and technology made the new playground generator possible. With help from professors and students at Brigham Young University (BYU), Markham developed an ingenious little device that generates kid-powered electricity for their lanterns. Based in part on pictures of merry-go-rounds that some South African villages use to pump well water, Markham created the first prototype merry-go-round from scratch. With a hub axle off of an old Land Rover, a drive train and a three-phase AC generator from a windmill that hooked up to a golf cart battery, his first energy-producing piece of play equipment was born.
With critics muted and the first working installation at use in a Ghanaian village, Markham had lots of momentum and success appears to be in the cards. He’s also in discussion with some large playground manufacturers in the hopes to create an in-the-box system that can be ordered and then shipped to schools that need it around the globe.
There has been international interest from southern Mexico, Kenya, Thailand, Uganda and others which would like to see the equipment installed for kids in their respective countries.
In early March Energizer Battery, Inc. announced the donation of its development of a longer lasting LED lantern designed specifically for Empower Playgrounds. According to Energizer, the new design features rechargeable battery packs plus custom charging and power management circuitry, all inside the lantern. The Energizer lantern design allows for “improved lighting, easy recharging, longer battery life and lower total system cost. ”
Energizer has already shipped 1,000 of these units to Ghana, with more lantern purchases planned by EPI.
With a little slick engineering, some trial and error installations, three more prototypes and some specially modified lanterns from Energizer, mere child’s play is changing the way these kids experience learning. An afternoon of kids playing on the merry-go-round generates enough power to keep the LED lanterns illuminated for about 45 hours.
Educating these kids is the central epithet of Empower Playgrounds, as Markham said, it is their “real motivation” and even Ghana’s Minister of Education has ridden on an EPI merry-go-round. Markham has effectively taken the core need of every child—play—and harnessed the expression of that need into a tangible solution that provides an extra learning option for scores of kids. The system has specially written lesson plans that center around the science involved when a child plays on a merry-go-round. Empower Playgrounds developed books with 11 lessons and is providing equipment for the kids to do simple experiments that go along with the lessons. There are two experienced U.S. teachers who have volunteered to spend their summers teaching the Ghanaian teachers and kids how to use the lesson manuals and hands-on desktop experiments--something most Ghanaian students have never experienced.
“We are developing kits that have equipment in them that correlate with Ghana’s educational services,” Markham said. For instance, the kids have, “Read about magnets, but never really played with a real magnet.” Empower is in the process of writing a protocol to formalize this type of merry-go-round inspired education.
The encouragement for education isn’t just limited to West African children. The fortunate few chosen for teaching internships in Ghana also are left with a lasting experience to learn from. “It’s been pretty incredible for me, especially the science modules,” explained Hall, who also said that it’s fun to watching the kids play on the merry-go-round. “But when I see kids playing with hands-on science demonstrations, I think the science lab makes the biggest impact.”
Another interesting tenet to the EPI system is simple, but no less important than play and the resulting light. In each village with a play structure installed, Empower works to advocate a system of ownership into each community he visits. School PTAs, teachers and families are involved and they actively try to create a sense of possession, which includes the kids selected as “Lantern Leaders,” who are responsible for charging their lamp and for sharing its light with groups of youngsters to study with. “We are developing kits that have equipment in them that correlate with Ghana’s educational services,” he said.
A striking feature of the EPI system and what Markham says is what it is all about is that these are “intelligent, inquisitive kids who want to learn.” For one junior high boy, the lantern was the first time he had ever encountered an on/off switch. “Not all of the children were like that, but this boy was,” he said.
That is not to say that the foundation is bound on a course to export western thinking or ideals, as Markham said he has a deep respect for African culture and while he may hope to “plant the seeds of ideas” for ways the kids may use the lanterns, he doesn’t give prescriptions on how they should utilize the light. The group actively works to use local materials and ideas as part of the education, following the Ghanaian model of teaching within the parameters of the culture.
In terms of impact, it’s impossible to calculate what Empower Playgrounds has accomplished. You might be interested to know that so far, the merry-go-rounds have been manufactured and installed in 10 villages in Ghana, impacting about 1,500 children and there are plans for 20 more for select schools deep in the jungle. Or, you may find it intriguing that each system installed provides about one lantern for every five children in a given village.
But the entire notion of success takes on a different meaning in a remote area where children carry machetes and workers don’t go to work if it is raining. The drive for productivity is more subtle. In deference to the culture, the numbers don’t mean as much to Markham. He has adjusted his expectations to match the pace of the societies he encounters. His hope for women in particular has not played out in ways he had anticipated. Culturally, they have not had access to light in the evenings, so adult women using the lights to sew with in the evenings, for instance, hasn’t happened. Likewise, Hall hopes that the science curriculum offered to the children may go beyond the borders of the educational materials they present.
“With the extra light to read science background information,” Hall said, “We hope to help empower the girls more than they would otherwise be empowered. That’s what really is going to make the most impact in my mind.”
Not every child likes to use the lanterns, but the kids that do embrace the lanterns to learn and read with are the reason Empower Playgrounds is so dedicated. Markham eagerly recounts an experience with a beautiful 15-year-old 5th grader named Mary he spoke with during a maintenance check.
Mary speaks very good English and carried her lantern in a rare pink backpack, which may seem at odds with the tribal markings on her face. (Scarring, Markham said, from the practice of scarification which is usually done by grandmothers who cut the faces of their infant grandchildren, then rub the wounds with ash in the hopes of creating larger marks. The practice has a number of purposes associated with it, including beauty or healing childhood ailments.) Mary explained that each night after the other children are finally done studying she keeps the lantern for herself, saying, “I read.”
“She reads a paperback novel every night … this is so wonderful,” he said. “It got my battery charged. Her kids will learn to read; in two generations it will have a huge impact.”
Markham explained that EPI is there to try and provide a little opportunity and a take home light for their villages. “I know it’s making a difference,” he said. “Not everyone embraces it like Mary, but some do. It’s a worthwhile thing.”
From the Northern Far East Mission website