She’s known as a queen in West Africa, but the title bestowed on Lyn Burr Brignoli ’62 doesn’t translate well in the United States. Brignoli says it is akin to being called a godmother — it’s a title of respect, an honor with spiritual implications. More than anything, her title has allowed her to belong to the Nanumba people in Bimbilla, in remote, predominantly Muslim northern Ghana. It’s a region of extreme poverty where generations of girls have been denied schooling. When Brignoli returned in 2008 on her second trip, the local paramount chief Azindow Nantogmah Naa installed her as “Queen of Development” in gratitude for her help, so moved was he by how his sister Sibri and their community had been transformed by her education. It’s a remarkable story that Brignoli told with grace in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel upon receiving the 2017 Joan Shaw Herman Distinguished Service Award on June 10, during reunion weekend.
“Positive change flows from a human connection.”
–Lyn Burr Brignoli ’62
Ghana wasn’t a likely destination for Brignoli. She was a volunteer teacher at the time for children with Down syndrome and other special needs in a church in Greenwich, Conn. She loves the work. “I feel like a gardener with a watering can,” she said. “I watch my children grow and even blossom.” In 2000, a cousin who had returned from Ghana mentioned an opening with a Fulbright group of teachers. Brignoli had always wanted to travel to Africa, and she threw herself into applying. In short order, she embarked on a six-week tour of Ghana with 12 grade school, high school, and university teachers.
In a Muslim school in Tamale, she spoke plainly about the population she teaches. After dinner that evening, their translator, Abdullai, waited until the dining room cleared, then leaned over to tell her about his mentally handicapped son. “Bring him to me,” Brignoli said. The next day, she met Sibri, Abdullai’s wife, and Tahiru, their 13-year-old boy. Sibri had become a pariah on account of his disability. When she shared her despair about his life, Brignoli told her, “Let’s not worry about what he can’t do. Instead let’s think about what he can do. These children are gifts. They will teach us, if we let them. At least, this is my experience.” But her heart was heavy, knowing there was no support for Sibri in her community. Brignoli knew firsthand that a major part of teaching children with special needs is supporting their mothers.
When she arrived home from that trip, she found a letter from Sibri, thanking her and imploring her for more advice. They struck up a correspondence, and Brignoli realized quickly how intelligent this mother was, fluent in several languages, with many leadership qualities. With Brignoli’s encouragement, Sibri was accepted to the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, where she received her bachelor’s degree.
Eight years after her first trip, Brignoli returned to Ghana and went to Tamale. No longer the depressed woman she had met, Sibri looked radiant. Brignoli was surprised to learn that she came from a royal family; she was one of 42 children of a tribal king with seven wives. And the was the first female in her family to learn to read and write. She had become a hero to the local women. And her elder brother wanted to honor Brignoli with a ceremony dubbing her “Queen” in Bimbilla.
Wearing the royal robe that was presented to her that day, at Concord Brignoli enlisted the help of her 7-year-old granddaughter Sarah in displaying the vestments she had received: sandals, a walking stick with horsehair tail, a royal stool made from sacred animal skins. Most remarkable, though, was a speech the king made. “Don’t keep the girls at home or only working on the farmlands. Let them go to school,” he said. “The future of our village depends on the education of girls.” It was a dramatic change of heart, all because of Sibri.
In 2011, King Azindow Nantogmah Naa wrote to ask if Brignoli would help them build a school. The biggest impediment to girls’ education is extreme poverty, which further compounds the strong cultural bias against educating girls. She returned, and over several days she met with local government officials, tribal leaders, heads of various NGOs, teacher, parents, and the girls themselves. They concluded that scholarships would be the best way to begin. Now 47 scholarships have been awarded, four girls have graduated; three of them are working as teachers, and one is a nurse.
Building on that success, they began plans to construct a nursery school building, scheduled to open this September. It will accommodate 80 pupils, from 2 to 6 years old, most of them girls. Tuition will be free. They plan to gradually add grades through secondary school. If they can keep the school running for three years, they will receive assistance from the Ghanaian government.
The cost for all this is miniscule by American standards: $50 for a year’s primary school fee for one student, $500 for a three-year nursing program, $16,000 so far to build the school. That’s because these ideas come from, and are supported by, the local community. It was Sibri who proposed that graduates return to teach for free. The community contributed free manual labor so that everyone would be invested in the school.
The efforts have been successful so far, Brignoli said, because they began with the community addressing its own priorities. She has seen on her visits how the work of foreign aid agencies can be disorganized and uncoordinated. In an area with no roads and no water — “dimensions of disadvantage unimaginable to most of us here,” Brignoli said — the community’s choice to prioritize a school represents a stunning commitment to education.
At Concord, Brignoli’s 7-year-old granddaughter Sarah displayed the vestments Brignoli received — including “the tail,” a ritual item made of horsehair used by fetish priests and royalty to bless the crowd and ward off juju (evil spirits) — in a ceremony honoring her as “Queen of Development” in Bimbilla in Ghana.
Asked how others could contribute to the cause, Brignoli explained that she had never solicited funds, but she would be glad to speak to anyone interested in helping.
She pointed to former Concord Academy headmistress Elizabeth B. Hall as the individual who had motivated her to improve the lives of others. “She was highly intelligent, wonderfully creative, committed to high ideals and goals, both for herself and for us,” she says. “It was Mrs. Hall who challenged me by her example to move out from a place of privilege into the wider world and to ask, ‘How on earth can I help?”
“Positive change flows from a human connection,” Brignoli said. “I know mothers of disabled children in Greenwich, Conn., where I live, and then I met a mother in Ghana. While they come from different cultures and live in very different world, I realized they understood each other. It was a spiritual experience. It shows that the human spirit goes beyond any religion, culture, or nation.”
The Joan Shaw Herman Distinguished Service Award is awarded annually to a Concord Academy alumna or alumnus in recognition of service to others. It is the single award bestowed at Concord Academy, in keeping with the school’s commitment to common trust, which challenges students to balance individual freedom with responsibility and service to a larger community. The first award was bestowed posthumously in 1976 to Joan Shaw Herman ’46, who though paralyzed after contracting polio worked tirelessly to improve the lives of disabled individuals. Over the years, Concord Academy’s Alumnae/i Association has selected many outstanding recipients. Learn more about them and about Herman, an abiding inspiration to the CA community.