Meet the African American missionary who pioneered deaf education in West Africa

Daniel Abugah December 12, 2017
Andrew Jackson Foster with wife Berta, dressed in traditional Nigerian wedding clothes (top left) Photo Credit: Gallaudet University

At a time when many sub-Saharan African nations were still struggling to wrench themselves from colonial rule, the issue of special education was not a matter of priority. But it was during this period that African American missionary and educator Andrew Jackson Foster took the bold step to travel to West Africa to become the pioneer deaf missionary and educator. He arrived in Ghana, as the first country to begin his mission, on June 10, 1957, barely three months after the country had gained its political independence.

He started by obtaining the needed information, through meetings with officials of relevant government agencies, including the Ministry of Education and the Department of Social Welfare. He also met one-on-one with chiefs and other community leaders, to discuss his mission and to seek their support.

Being deaf and the first black missionary, Andrew initially had difficulty being accepted by sections of the public.

As one of his first students, Emmanuel Ilabor, put it, “to Africans their concept of a missionary was a white man. The color of Andrew, therefore, disqualified him to get their acceptance.” But they eventually accorded him the respect, upon discovering that he was an educated deaf man with a string of university degrees. And to some of the chiefs, through their interaction with him, the African American missionary was simply amazing, as they noted his passion and perseverance to chart the uncharted territory.

Besides providing education and preaching the gospel to the deaf, Foster had to positively dispose the public mindset towards the deaf in society, as most Africans at that time associated deafness with a curse, for which reason deaf children and their parents were stigmatized.

He launched the first deaf school in West Africa, the Ghana Mission School for the Deaf, on September 10, 1957. He went on to train Sign Language teachers and deaf missionaries, as he expanded his mission work to other West African countries, including notably, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. He travelled around the sub-region, identifying potential deaf leaders, bringing them to train at the mission school, after which he sent them back to their respective countries to manage other schools that he went on to establish.

There are some 70 million deaf people worldwide who use Sign Language as their first language or mother tongue. And Foster deserves a thumbs up for his contribution to this phenomenal growth.

When Foster arrived in Africa, there were 12 schools for the deaf in Northern Africa and South Africa. Over the period of his mission, he established 32 schools for the deaf in 13 African countries. He opened Bible schools and trained deaf missionaries who went on to train several others and are still training more. He educated the public about the needs of deaf Africans and advised government officials about the need for more schools for the deaf.

Before taking his mission to West Africa, Andrew Foster established what was to later become the Christian Mission for the Deaf, in Detroit in 1956.

Foster is celebrated, not only for his impact as an educator, spiritual leader, and civil rights advocate but also for overcoming his own handicap of deafness and setting the record of becoming the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Gallaudet University.

Much as there are still challenges facing deaf persons in the West African sub-region, and indeed Africa, civil society groups and succeeding governments have gone on to build on the vision of Foster, through policy advocacy and infrastructural development. One significant area of progress has been the training of nurses in the Sign Language, aimed at making them able to communicate with deaf persons who attend health facilities to access health care.

Andrew Foster was born on June 27, 1925, in Ensley, Alabama.  It was whilst at age 11 that he and his brother Edward contracted spinal meningitis and became deaf.

“Since first I walked from the hospital into this silent world, I had wondered what a deaf person could do. How could one get ahead in life? With childhood ambitions swept away and education for the deaf being what it was in the south then,” Foster reencountered what bothered his little mind most then, as quoted by Ilabor.

Foster was born at a time when education for African Americans was limited only up to the sixth grade. He attended the Alabama School for the Colored Deaf in Talladega, where racial segregation was still a phenomenon.

In order to continue with his education, he moved in with his aunt in Flint, Michigan, when he was 17 years old, and went as far as the eighth grade at the Michigan School for the Deaf. He enrolled in night classes and correspondence courses while working in auto factories and restaurants in Chicago and Detroit. By hard work and perseverance, in 1950, he obtained a diploma in accountancy and business administration from the Detroit Institute of Commerce, and his high school diploma through a correspondence course in 1951 at the age of 26.

After being rejected several times because he was African American, Foster was finally accepted to study at Gallaudet with a full scholarship in 1951. He excelled and graduated with a degree in education and went on to earn two master’s degrees, one in education in 1955 from Eastern Michigan University and the other in Christian Mission in 1956 from Seattle Pacific College in Washington State.

He earned an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Gallaudet in 1970. He also received the 1962 Man of the Year award from Alpha Sigma Pi and the Edward Miner Gallaudet Award from Gallaudet College Alumni Association (GCAA) in 1975.

Foster met his German wife, Berta, at the Third World Congress of the Deaf in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1959, and they got married in 1961. They had four sons and a daughter – Andrew, John, Tim, Dan, and Faith.

Foster died in a plane crash in Rwanda while en route to Kenya in December 1987. The Christian Mission for the Deaf still carries on his vision of creating more schools and centers for deaf people in Africa. Gallaudet University named an auditorium after Foster in October 2004 in recognition of his role as the “Father of Deaf Education in Africa.”

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Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: December 12, 2017


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