Ghana native Alice Iddi-Gubbels has lived all over the world, but there’s a special warmth about Oklahoma City that keeps her coming back.
“Coming from northern Ghana to Oklahoma, I immediately felt at home here,” she said during a visit in the summer. “People are just so warm.”
Perhaps that’s why despite having called many places home throughout the years, it’s Oklahoma City where she sets up a the PAMBE Ghana global market each Christmas season to raise money for her non-profit.
Alice is the founder of the Partnership for Mother-Tongue Based Bilingual Education, or PAMBE Ghana. In partnership with Ghana-based communities and a board of directors in the U.S., PAMBE Ghana helped open the La’Angum Learning Center in 2008 in the same village where Alice grew up. The annual market in Oklahoma City helps support the Ghana school.
Alice’s 38-year-old daughter Jamila may be the only one who calls her “mom” but the more than 200 students in the school she helped start in Ghana may as well be her own. She has a deep connection with the students that’s strengthened by her own background in Ghana.
Alice was born in a rural part of northern Ghana and is the oldest of 17 children. Her father insisted she go to school and stay in school, which was unusual for a female child in their culture. Even today, most daughters are expected to stop school after a few years of elementary education and work in the home.
To stay in school beyond sixth grade, Alice had to live with an aunt while attending middle school in a neighboring village. Every weekend, she would walk the six miles home and then walk back to her aunt’s home when the weekend ended. For high school, Alice had to move to the regional capital city.
“It was very, very difficult,” Alice recalled. “Almost all my friends who were girls dropped out after third grade. But my father, for some reason, said I had to continue to go to school.”
After high school, she completed a year of mandatory national service working in community-based health care in an area of northern Ghana near her home region. Following the completion of her service, Alice took a full-time job in community-based health care in the same area, and it was there that she met her future husband, Peter Gubbels, while they were both working on similar projects.
After marrying, Alice and Peter spent four years in Togo working for World Neighbors. A new job moved the couple north of Ghana to Burkina Faso, then briefly to Great Britain where Alice earned her Master’s in Social Development Planning and Management before returning to Africa.
Alice lived in Oklahoma City from 2000 to 2007. While here, she earned a second Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Montessori Teaching from Oklahoma City University and went on to teach at Westminster School.
Looking back now on her father’s persistence and her own personal achievements, Alice believes there is nothing more valuable to invest in than education. That’s what led her to leave Oklahoma City in 2007 to return to her native village in Ghana.
She’s the executive director of La’Angum Learning Center, a school for students from preschool through sixth grade. The school is currently near capacity with 210 students through fifth grade (a new class has been added each year).
When Alice pursued her own early education, students were forced to learn in English. This led to a very high drop-out rate. PAMBE Ghana was founded to ensure students are taught first in their mother language, then introduced to English. Every original student admitted at La’Angum is still attending the school; no one has dropped out.
“My experience being forced to speak English really stayed with me,” she said.
Through research, Alice determined the PAMBE model would be more beneficial and successful for her young students.
“At La’Angum, we start with the local language and help the children to become literate in the local language first, then add English,” she said.
Because this concept and approach are not the norm in Ghana, books and materials needed to be created for the mother tongue in the beginning. There are nine official local languages in Ghana, but in truth there are about 40 different languages spoken there, Alice said.
The name of the school means teamwork and literally translates to “many hands make light work.” This concept is what built the school from the ground up, brick by brick, and keeps it running today.
The biggest challenge for the school is water. Children have to bring one gallon of water from home every day. There is a rainwater collection system using the roof at the school, and recently a well has been drilled, but those means do not provide enough water. One dream for the school is to create an outdoor recreation space that is covered to provide more rainwater collection.
Shopping at the holiday market between now and Christmas will support the school. Alice said support in the past from Oklahoma City has been overwhelming.
“It’s just amazing,” she said. “People are very generous with their resources and their time. The amount of work and support that comes from this community, especially Oklahoma City, is just amazing.”
PAMBE Ghana runs a global market during the holiday season. The PAMBE Ghana Global Market offers fair trade items from around the world and all of the profits go to support the La’Angum Learning Center. The market is in its eighth year of operation and is entirely run by volunteers and operates in donated space. Shop there and you’ll find one-of-a-kind handmade items like jewelry, clothing and home decor.