Many decades ago, in those days when Africa’s deaf populace wasted away in the darkness of ignorance and illiteracy, Providence began the work of grooming a deaf young boy in far away Birmingham, Alabama, USA. He was to take the light of dawn to deaf Africa in a manner which reminds of the great epics.
The young man was Andrew J. Foster of blessed memory. Foster is regarded as the father of Deaf Education in Africa. Born in 1925, Andrew grew up in Birmingham, Alabama – from where the immortal Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham jail”.
Growing up as a black kid in the segregated south, Foster knew the hurts of discrimination and prejudice long before he became deaf. When he lost his hearing to complications of meningitis at age 11, he was further pushed to society’s margins. It was in such hostile environment that the young Andrew’s education began at the Alabama school for the Negro Deaf. Pressing through was tough. Fortunately, the traits of a champion saw him overcome.
Limited opportunities forced Foster to move to Detroit, Michigan at age 17 – in search of greener pastures. There, he was denied enrollment at The Michigan school for the Deaf – ostensibly for racial reasons.
NEVER GIVE UP!
Not one for easily giving up, Andrew took up a string of low paid jobs and enrolled for night classes and correspondence courses. Through these, he acquired a couple diplomas in accounting and business administration. An unquenchable thirst for education was to hand the resilient, young man a scholarship place in Gallaudet. But first, he had to bounce back from at least three rejections. For the reader, this bears a message. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote:
“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you till it seems you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that’s just the place and time that the tide would turn”
Two quick success nuggets from Foster: resilience and persistence, these got Andrew into Gallaudet. It is on record that Foster was the first black deaf student to graduate from Gallaudet.
After Gallaudet, Foster would go on to acquire a Masters degree at Michigan State Normal College. Then a second Bachelor degree from Seattle Pacific Christian College. The later was in preparation for what he has come to sense as his life’s work in the field of missions. Right after his spiritual conversion at 17, Foster has steadily grown into a man deeply rooted in the Christian tradition.
AFRICA: THE MACEDONIAN CALL
“There’s a call come ringing o’er the dreary waves… Send the light, send the light…”
One imagines how strongly these lyrics of the great old hymns must have moved young Foster’s heart at the Bethany Pembroke church where the missionary call first began to take shape.
Foster recalls: “I felt called to take the light of education and the gospel to the deaf in Africa. At first though, it was a vague feeling.”
With time however, this burden and God’s will for Foster was to crystalize into a set conviction. Like Paul in the Acts of the apostles Foster wasn’t going to be disobedient to the heavenly vision despite obstacles and criticisms.
In “Roots out of dry ground”, Foster narrates three unforgettable instances that sealed beyond doubts, the Divine call to Africa. First, soon after his conversion at the Bethany Pembroke church in Detroit, Foster met Missionary Authur Hart who stirred his heart with stories of neglected deaf persons in Jamaica and Africa. Secondly, during his college days, young Foster had stumbled on an address book of deaf schools from which he discovered that in all of Africa there were just 12 schools for the deaf, and probably no churches! In his words: “I was deeply moved by this vast educational and spiritual void among my people”! The last instance was his attendance at an Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship Missionary Convention in Urbanna, Illinois. The year was 1956. Now, Andrew was fully primed for his calling. The next year he left for West Africa with the light of the gospel and education under near fortuitous circumstances.
Champions Nugget 2: In the pursuit of your destiny, follow your heart and not popular opinion. Follow what moves you from within and not the noise from without. Dare to have the courage of your convictions.
It bears reiterating that Foster faced opposition and criticisms about the validity of his vision for Deaf Africa – enough to derail a person of lesser courage and conviction from continuing in his/her calling. Undaunted, Foster saw a need and set out to fill it. Surely, the resolve of this young man who chose to take the less traveled path offers a timeless lesson on the place of “following what moves you from within” in achieving true success. And what’s more, it teaches that Disability shouldn’t stop you!
LABORING IN AFRICA
32 schools for the Deaf across 13 African countries in the space of some 30 years is by all standards no mean feat. That was Foster’s legacy.
And this, apart from training of teachers for the deaf, setting up Deaf churches, grooming of protégés to carry on the vision, etc. How did Foster achieve this?
USE WHAT YOU HAVE (Champions Nugget #3)
A big mistake of having a Disability is rueing too long what is lost instead of making the most of what remains. Of course, there’s always something left. Foster understood this. And he used it.
One of the biggest bane of missionary work is funding. Faced with this challenge, Foster’s response epitomizes the virtue of using what one has to pursue ones dreams. Leveraging on the assets of a charismatic personality, an imposing physique, a natural passion for teaching, and a strong work ethic, Foster engaged on series of successful fund-raising, speaking tours across America. And it was these same qualities that he heavily drew upon to make a success of the missions to Deaf Africa. Close associates corroborated this. On his personable demeanor and strong work ethic, I had the privilege of spending time with an elderly deaf couple who’d been close to Foster at some point. One could almost catch the charisma as Mrs. Esther Odusanya who grew up under Andrew’s tutelage demonstrated the hunky built and guylish swagger of the man. His unassuming leadership style that saw him eat from same pot with his students. His easy-going disposition and of course, a hard driving work ethic. Mr Tola Odusanya on the other hand recalls a brief conversation with Dr. Foster many years ago at Gallaudet’s library reading room. The young Tola, at the time new to America and still learning to sign immediately recognized the deaf missionary from an earlier encounter at the Deaf church in Somolu, Lagos, Nigeria. Approaching Foster, he struggled to sign: “I know you”. In response, Foster stood up, drew himself to full height, and in an exaggerated, drawled manner signed “I—I—I dooonn’t knooow yooou”. Andrew had a distinct way with humor.
From 1957 when he first landed in Africa – crisscrossing Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, and a host other sub-saharan African countries with the liberating light of education and the Gospel, Foster planted the seeds which catalyzed the progress so far made by Deaf Africa. Testimonies abound.
Although a couple or so Western missionary endeavors for the deaf in Africa had preceded Foster, their impact were little felt because they took the wrong approach. Their tendency to oralism in educating the deaf is a good example. Andrew’s method however emphasized more on sign language – adapting it to local needs. He promoted greater autonomy and sustainability among the local deaf communities he worked with. The impact of Foster’s unique approach resonated across individual and institutional levels. Andrew’s diplomacy saw a number of his black students go on to study at Gallaudet – rising to senior academic staff positions in that institution and carrying on the legacy.
Foster died in an airplane crash on December 3, 1987 but his legacy as the father of Deaf Education in Africa lives on.
The Disability Champions Series is a Collaborative Project of Jibore Foundation and Inclusive News Network.