Born almost a hundred years apart, two little captive African girls had some extraordinary similarities in their lives.  Each was named for the ship that was to carry her away from her West African home across the Atlantic.  Each proved to be extremely intelligent and accomplished, and was to become famous in her day.

Phillis Wheatley, 18th century African-American poet

Phillis Wheatley

  Sailing On A Name

The slave ship Phillis came into Boston harbor in 1761 with a cargo of captured West Africans to sell.  The ship’s owner, Mr. Timothy Fitchof  Massachussetts, was an astute man of business who knew the sale value of young men aged between 14 and 20.  He was particular in his instructions to the captains of his ships:
“You are not to take any Children, and Especially Girls, if you Can Avoid it by any means”.

Portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Nevertheless, on board the Phillis was a sickly little girl of about seven or eight, quite likely from the region we know today as Senegal and Gambia, and possibly from the Wolof people.
Nearly a hundred years later, in 1850, the HMS Bonetta, under the command of Captain Frederick Forbes, lay at anchor off the coast of Dahomey, on the lookout for now illegal slave trading in the Gulf of Guinea.
Gezo, the powerful Dahomean king, with whom Forbes was negotiating the suppression of the slave trade, paraded his captives from wars and raids in a show of strength.  Amongst them was an orphaned girl, also about seven years of age. Gezo allowed Commander Forbes to take her on his ship as a “present” for Queen Victoria.

Phillis Wheatley, the “African Genius”

The little child on the auction block in Boston was purchased as a servant by John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston.  They called her Phillis after the name of the ship she had arrived on, treated her kindly and allowed her to learn how to read and write.
Very quickly and to everyone’s astonishment, Phillis began to speak, read and write in English and mastered classical Greek and Latin.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley via

Did Phillis have an ear for language, and a distant memory of stories and praise songs from her homeland?  Certainly she had a gift for writing poetry.  The Wheatleys showed her off  in the highest circles of colonial America, though many found it difficult to credit her with the poems she wrote, even after she had been subjected to an examination by learned men!
Phillis lived in Boston in a historic moment. The American colonies were breaking free from Britain, and she must have been a witness to the intrigue, excitement and action in the city.  Later, she counted amongst her supporters great men of the time who were prepared to vouch for her writings.  She even corresponded with General George Washington.
Phillis Wheatley was the first African American writer to publish a book of poetry, called Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Ironically, she could find no publisher for an African-authored work, but her reputation had preceded her in England.  She was able to travel there and publish her Poems with the help of English patrons of the arts.
Many decades later when the Bonetta completed its tour of the West Coast, she set sail for England. Forbes, who took a liking to the girl in his charge, had named her Sarah, and given her both his own last name, Forbes, as well as the name of his ship, Bonetta.  Sarah’s mother tongue was Yoruba, and she quickly began to learn to speak English on board the Bonetta.
“Sally” was presented to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.  Finding the child “sharp and intelligent”, the Queen invited Sarah to visit the royal family often.  As a ward of the Queen, the African child enjoyed a status that was very rare amongst black people in London at the time.
Painting of Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Painting of Sarah Bonetta, ca. 1851

Sarah was sent to the Female Institution in Sierra Leone to be educated, and returned to England to live with a scholarly family called the Schoens, under Queen Victoria’s watchful eye. Though she was aware of the plight of London’s poor, Sarah understood that she was very special indeed to be exchanging correspondence, confidences and gifts with the royal family.  She was often mentioned in the society pages of the day!
In Victorian England, names like Charles Dickens,  the Americans Frederick Douglass and  Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as many society reformers, were becoming well-known. Sarah doesn’t seem to have campaigned actively against slavery, but she did return to work in West Africa as an educator.

Their Later Years

In spite of their astonishing privileges for the times in which they lived, and their personal accomplishments, neither Phillis nor Sarah could hope to continue to thrive without the direct support of their patrons.
It must have been difficult for both these remarkable women to learn to live in reduced circumstances as married women, after each had been received in the highest circles of society in their earlier lives.  Both had married educated men who aspired to succeed in life, but who also suffered the limitations of living in an age which did not favor their advancement as black men.
Is it possible that the traumas suffered in captivity affected the health of both women later in their lives, leading to their early deaths?  They had been separated from their families, and had probably witnessed great brutality in the process.  Phillis endured the horrors of the middle passage, arriving in the New World as a “poor naked child” shivering on a Boston dock.  Sarah was more lucky in the benefactors who took her to the “Old World”, but she had very likely faced a horrible fate, and her future amongst strangers must have seemed very uncertain.

Phillis Wheatley statue, Boston

Phillis Wheatley, via Ladybug's Leaf

Phillis struggled to keep up her art and was for a while able to live off her writing, but she died poor at just 31 years of age or so, and her grave has not been identified.
Sarah too, died young in her late 30’s on the island of Madeira where she lived with her family.  Sarah’s daughter Victoria Davies became Queen Victoria’s god-daughter and, like her mother, kept up a close friendship with British royalty.
In this video, a guide at the National Portrait Gallery in London tells Sarah’s story.

Books about Phillis and Sarah

The beloved children’s book author Walter Dean Myers came across some letters written by Sarah in a shop in London, and was so intrigued by them that he set out to discover exactly who she was. The result was a marvelous account of Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s life titled At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England. The book includes historic pictures as well as actual letters, notes and diary extracts which bring Sarah’s mid-19th century world alive.
At Her Majesty's Request, by Walter Dean Myers
There are many more books about Phillis Wheatley.  This one is by Canadian-Ghanaian writer Afua Cooper.
The Life of Phillis Wheatley by Afua Cooper

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (the “Tube”). It is the world’s oldest subway system!
It’s also 27 years since a small group of people came up with the clever idea of asking the London Transport authorities to put poems on the Tube for the public to enjoy.  Fortunately for us all, they agreed.
This year’s poems all relate to London, but the organisers hope their selection “will also reflect the city in its diversity, a refuge for exiles and immigrants and a beacon for visitors from all over the world.
One of the selected pieces is by the Ghanaian writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes, and he has kindly agreed to let us publish it here.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Ghanaian-British writer


That first winter, the true meaning
of all the classroom rhymes that juggled snow
and go, old and cold, acquired new leanings.
With reluctance I accepted the faux
deafness and odd looks my Accra greetings
attracted, but I couldn’t quell my deep
yearning for contact, warmth, recognition,
the shape of my renown on someone’s lips.
Always the canny youth whose history
entailed life on skeletal meal rations
during the Sahel drought of eighty-three,
I lingered in London gares to carry
cases for crocked and senior citizens;
barters for a smile’s costless revelry.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes is from Ghana.  He writes novels, poems, short stories, articles and songs.  On his website, under-16’s will be directed to the Schools Site, where there is information about his poetry workshops with schools.
Poem source: Free Word

Leovi Nutakor tests his Mmofra Maths game at a language club session

Leovi Nutakor (far left) tests his Mmofra Maths game at a language club session

If you struggle with math, we know someone who can to help. Don’t expect to book a lesson, though: Leovi Nutakor is still at school himself. He’s a fifteen-year-old amateur game-maker from Dzorwulu, our neighbourhood in Accra.
A regular at Mmofra’s language club sessions, Leovi has been creating his own games and animations for five years, using the Adobe Flash platform.
When he was asked to come up with a ‘Personal Project’ at school, he devised and built Mmofra Math, a simple, addictive game that helps players practise their mental arithmetic.
It is quick-fire stuff. Sums appear in bubbles, and your job is to shoot them down before they reach you. To destroy them you select the correct number from your keyboard, then aim and fire it with your mouse or trackpad.
Players can choose any combination of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and three difficulty levels determine how tough the sums are and how quickly they come.
Click on the images below for a closer look.

Mmofra Maths title screen Mmofra Maths sum selection screen


Mmofra Maths game screenshot: ready to fire Mmofra Maths screenshot: 'hard' setting

Leovi was introduced to Flash by his father, and went on to teach himself more advanced skills with help from the internet. But he isn’t just a whizz with the software. He also recognised the importance of feedback from players.
“I tested the game on some of the children attending Mmofra Foundation,” Leovi told us by email.
“It provided me with some useful feedback, such as graphics improvement suggestions and glitch finding. It was also useful for me to adjust the difficulty settings.”
Professional developers call this playtesting, and consider it a crucial part of the design process.
Leovi is currently at work on a third version of the game. He likes the idea of studying software and games in later life, but it is early days. “I’ve only recently been putting more thought into my future career options,” he says.
Mmofra Math isn’t ready for the public yet, but we’ll be helping Leovi perfect it and looking at ways to make it available. It’s a great example of what happens when young people are given the opportunity to experiment with new tools, techniques and ideas. Watch this space.

We set up a once-a-month outdoor library 15 years ago, and haven’t stopped since!
When you donate to Mmofra, you’ll be putting our books and the children who read them under a shelter – we promise it will be wonderfully designed by our Playtime in Africa team!

Dela at Mmofra Foundation

Dela at Mmofra Foundation

Little Girl Reading

Reader! Via: General Media Solutions

Kodjo browsing Bell Catalogue

Kodjo browsing a photo catalogue

Children illustrating concepts of play

Imagining their own library. via B. Afful


Mmofrasem newsletter screenshot
With the new year in full swing, here’s a quick post to highlight some of our recent activity.
First and foremost, we want to introduce you to the email newsletter we launched at the end of 2012.
For non-Twi speakers, the -sem means ‘stories’. Stories about us, and stories about what’s happening in the wider world of children, culture and play. As well as our news, Mmofrasem includes the regular ‘Child-friendly World’ feature, highlighting interesting projects and articles from Africa and across the globe.
Our first edition – which you can view online – focuses on Iduol Beny’s fascinating ‘Children’s Pavilion‘ initiative in Juba, South Sudan. You’ll also find a checklist of what to expect from us in 2013.
If you want to receive Mmofrasem, you can sign up right here or request it through the contact form on our site (on the right hand side of this page).
Florence Benson profile
Elsewhere, we’ve published a profile of Florence Benson, a crucial supporter of our Playtime in Africa project, on the Urban Photo blog:
“…the yard of Florence Benson is more than just green. It also boasts a constellation of oranges, purples, reds, yellows and brilliant whites. They are orchids, the work of a former civil servant who has turned her passion into an unlikely, word-of-mouth-driven home business, and who now counts a university campus and an innovative children’s park among her public projects.”
Mrs Benson also oversees planting at the campus of Ashesi university, and like us she is passionate about creating a greener Accra. We’re grateful for her expert advice on what to plant and when at our Dzorwulu site.
For gardening fans and Mmofra supporters alike, it’s a treat to get a glimpse inside her thriving urban garden.

boys at Mmofra end of year party

Photo: Jessica Longdon

The Blessing

Let your days ahead be sprinkled with laughter
and with laughter, peace.
May all you touch spring forth with freshness.
Find time to giggle and dance and jump,
and watch the setting of the sun.
When you wake up, wonder out loud
about the sun’s rays, about the darkening
of the morning, about the fog over the hills,
about your babies down the hall,
about the neighbor and her dog. Wonder
at the stars; wonder and wonder why
you are so blessed and why is it you are
among those of the earth who have
more than their allotted air for breathing.
Wonder why the cat meows and why
the dog wags its tail.
Wonder and wonder why dew falls
at night and about the squirrel’s fleeting stare.
Make laughter come alive in your home.
And when you touch someone, let that touch
be real, and I mean, real, my friend.
Walk gently on soft ground, and when
you walk on a bare rock, step hard, this
life is precious. May your year follow only
through a clear path, and please, when you walk,
let it be with God, my love, let it be with God.

                                                           Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Poem in this post by kind permission of the author.

No part of the poems should be changed, restructured, rearranged, and all web posting should conform to line breaks and stanzas as in the original arrangement of the poems here. Any changes will be deemed illegal. Unless for educational purposes, no part of the poems should be reproduced in print for resale or republishing.

Fida Finds are random goodies on different subjects which we find online and turn  into child-friendly Friday posts.
Since this is the last Friday of 2012, we’re seeing the year out with something memorable for older children.
Ever wondered what you might do with a collection of old bottle caps, used evaporated milk tins, aluminum wrappers, bits of wire and Milo chocolate drink containers?

Artist El Anatsui

El Anatsui via CBC

El Anatsui is an artist who was born in Anyako in the Volta Region of Ghana, and lives in Nigeria.  Many years ago, he began to collect what most of us would think of as throw-away items, and to change them into beautiful new forms, quite unrecognizable from their humble beginnings unless you look very closely.
Art by El Anatsui

via textileartcenter

Some of El Anatsui’s pieces are huge, and must be made of thousands of  bits of discarded metal, all carefully linked with copper wire. You could be forgiven, at first sight, for mistaking one of his installations for an enormous kente cloth because that’s exactly what some of them look like!
Art by El Anatsui 3

via textileartcenter

Here’s another wonderful piece called New World Map (you can see why).  Measuring 350 x 500 cm or 11ft x 16 ft, it was recently sold for a lot of money – proving that, with a “little” added imagination and work, garbage can be very valuable!
El Anatsui installation titled New World Map


Apparently, El Anatsui doesn’t mind having his installations rearranged in an exhibition – he believes we’re all artists at heart, and he encourages curators to use their own instincts in draping and folding.
Sometimes, though, he does give directions. Here’s an installation below entitled Open(ing) Market, which consists of lots of metal boxes with commercial labels visible on the insides.  You’ll also notice the red crescent moon shapes on a black background on the outside of the boxes, a pattern painted on the metal trunks used some years ago by West African students to carry their clothes and provisions for the term.
Perhaps El Anatsui was thinking back to his own schooldays! The boxes are arranged facing one direction, so that from behind, all you see are the black and red patterns.  When you walk round to the front however, you are met with a burst of color and some recognizable brands!
Boxes in installation by El Anatsui

via Juli Leonard /

What sort of art exactly is this?  Well we’ve seen descriptions ranging from “metal textile” and “metal art” to “sculpture”.  El Anatsui is a university professor of art in Nigeria, when he isn’t traveling to present his work around the world.
Teachers and parents can find a good, adaptable lesson plan online for introducing children to El Anatsui.

Greetings to all our friends!  We wish you all a productive and successful 2013.
We bring you pictures from children’s end of year creations and celebrations in past years.

Mmofra greeting card 1

Photo: Jessica Longdon

child making cards, Mmofra Foundation December 19 2011

Volunteer helps with card making. Photo Credit: Jessica Longdon

Photo: Jessica Longdon

Institute of Planners to promote waste management - Ghanaian Times
We found this on a trawl through the Ghanaian press. It’s good to see planners pushing a sanitation agenda, and linking it to Ghana’s increasing prosperity. More wealth often means more waste.
Boring? Well, perhaps. But better waste management means cleaner streets and public spaces. That means more opportunities for outdoor play, and safer environments in which to do it. And that’s what we’re about.

“Institute of Planners president Dr Stephen Yirenkyi … said Ghana is about to become a full middle-income country … which naturally would lead to the generation of more waste – domestic, commercial and industrial.”
“Mr Alfred Kwasi Opoku, a member of the institute … said sanitary reform made more sense than economic reform because the most important developmental indicator was not the height of the skyscrapers but the extent of the wellbeing of the people.”

Credit: The article comes from the Ghanaian Times, but isn’t archived online.