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African kids get a lesson in street smarts

Moby's bassist teaches children how to stay safe on Africa's dangerous roads.

By Tristan McConnellCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 2008

Be safe! A schoolgirl shows the class how to wear a reflective band during a recent training session by a road safety charity.

Tugela Ridley – Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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Accra, Ghana

Bad driving, poor pedestrian awareness, crumbling roads, and old vehicles help conspire to make Africa the most dangerous place on earth for road safety.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) calls road traffic crashes "the biggest killer worldwide of people aged 10-24 years" and predicts that fatalities will increase by 80 percent in Africa by 2020. In rich countries such as the US, that figure is forecast to decline by 30 percent.

These statistics bothered Manhattan-based musician and Web designer Jeffery Witte so much that he decided to start Amend, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting children from traffic accidents. The group is now teaching children in the West African nation of Ghana a range of road safety techniques.

Road accidents are "a huge and growing problem in developing countries where it comes as a consequence of a good thing, economic growth," says Mr. Witte, who is emphatic that he does not want to be seen as "a charity do-gooder." "My motivation is to build a business that is sustainable and has an impact on the ground."

Witte announced the arrival of Amend by using the fundraising acumen he honed working for John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign and his music industry ties to attract New York's high society to a launch party in the West Village. Guests included board member and bestselling musician Moby (an accomplished bass guitarist, Witte plays in Moby's band).

"I don't want to be fundraising by pimping out pictures of fly-covered babies," he says, taking a swipe at the sympathy methods that charities often resort to.

Despite the glitzy parties – the 2008 fundraiser will be at the Cannes Film Festival – Amend's activities in Ghana are leaner than many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with their plush offices, vast international staff, and gas-guzzling SUVs. There are currently only three staff – Witte and his two Ghanaian colleagues Muhsin Barko and Kingsley Amoako – no office, and no 4x4. As Witte puts it, he wants Amend to avoid becoming "a self-serving beast."

Arriving at a school in a taxi on a recent morning, Messrs. Barko and Amoako carried a wall chart, a folder of colorful posters, and a plastic bag full of reflective armbands. They gathered the children together and Amoako took the stage to give a 45-minute lesson in road safety: how to check for traffic before crossing, not to run, and not to play in the street.

At the end of the presentation each child received a reflective band and the teachers were given a pile of posters to put up around the school.

In 12 months Amend's campaign has reached over 20,000 pupils in Ghana's capital, Accra, and here in the seaside neighborhood of Korlegonno the need is clear. At 7 every morning, Hijaz Primary School's 350 pupils dodge traffic crossing the road to their school squeezed between a filthy beach and a busy road.

"I fear for my students," says headmistress Fatima Bawa Abdulai as kids run around the playground showing off the new 40-cent reflective armbands that might save their lives. "I fear for my own children too," she adds. "Even me I fear walking around Accra."

Last year over 1,700 people were killed in road crashes in Ghana, and 10 times that number were injured. "Children are very vulnerable," says Noble Appiah, executive director of the National Road Safety Commission (NRSC). Mr. Appiah welcomes Amend's work, saying that it fills a gap where state funding cannot stretch. "It is just not sustainable for the NRSC to run teaching programs at our schools," he says.

"I don't see any of this as a sacrifice," says Witte. "I wake up every morning and love what I'm doing."

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