Jay and Nii Quartey found music, then their calling – helping street children

JayNii Streetwise Foundation is an orphanage, primary school, and arts center that thrives in a struggling neighborhood of Accra, Ghana’s capital city.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jay Quartey (l.) and her husband, Nii (seen here with Manny, one of their two children), run a home for street children in Accra, Ghana.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the ocean in front of Accra’s iconic Jamestown lighthouse heaves and coughs up another wad of trash onto the grimy beach. The new offering quickly mingles with the old – plastic bottles and hunks of plastic foam, candy wrappers and sea-battered pieces of glass – forming a layer of trash so thick that in places it is impossible to see there is sand underneath.

But halfway up the beach, the informal trash dump abruptly ends. There’s a chain-link fence and then beyond it, sand soft and clean enough to sink your bare feet into. Which is exactly what a small group of children are busy doing, chasing a soccer ball across the small open beach, giddy with the energy of the coming weekend.

This oddly placed oasis is the JayNii Streetwise Foundation, an orphanage, primary school, and arts center in the center of Jamestown, a neighborhood of Accra, Ghana’s capital city.

Jamestown has the complicated distinction of being both one of the most historical neighborhoods, dating to the 17th century, and one of the poorest – its tiny houses are packed together like pieces in a Tetris game and are largely without toilets, running water, or electricity.

For Streetwise founders Naa “Jay” Borkor Quartey and Emmanuel “Nii” Quartey, though, there’s a far more basic reason they work here.

It’s home.

For Nii, Jamestown is the ramshackle but warm community where he grew up sharing a one-room shack with his parents and six siblings. Each evening they unfurled thin wooden mats over the dirt floor, and each morning they rolled and packed them away again to turn their communal bedroom into a cramped living room.

His father was a policeman; his mother sold trinkets on the streets. There was rarely enough money to go around.

For Jay, however, Jamestown is the place where she lost both of her parents – first her father when she was age 7, then her mother at age 12. It’s where, during her teenage years, she and her older sister shared the burden of raising their four younger siblings alone.

In those days, she says, she did whatever she could to keep them afloat, spending long hours before and after her school classes weaving through traffic with heavy trays of oranges and chocolate bars balanced on her head to hawk to hungry commuters.

“The moments I felt best were when I was dancing,” she says. “It was the only way I could relieve my stress.”

So when she finished high school, Jay joined a local dance and drumming group where she met its handsome leader, a sharp-featured drummer with an infectious, toothy smile. His name was Nii.

Over the next few years, the two became close friends, traveling the city and across this West African country playing music. Then, in 2006, they decided to buy a small sliver of Jamestown’s clogged beach and convert it into an oceanside bar and concert venue.

“At the time we were both really focused on getting gigs, getting an audience for our music,” Jay says. Meanwhile, their troupe was training some of the local children in dancing and drumming – along with providing them with meals and school fees on the side.

But as Jay and Nii cleaned up their beach, they began to notice that the oceanfront was packed with kids wandering listlessly throughout the school day.

That, Jay says, is when they had a thought: What if, instead of just a performance space, they also made their beach a children’s shelter and taught art there? Dance had helped her – surely it could do the same for children in similar circumstances. And why not add a school, too?

So in 2007, JayNii Streetwise Foundation officially opened its doors and welcomed its first young charges, 10 in all.

“For money we decided we would rely on God and our talents,” Nii says. “We cannot give what we don’t have. What we have is what we can give people.”

That means that when money gets tight – and money has nearly always been tight – the two get creative. They cater weddings and parties, hustle trinkets at local markets, and sell colorful fabric bags to tourists. Jay sometimes gives manicures from a roadside stand.

“Africa is a DIY kind of place,” Nii says, laughing.

Over the years, the Quarteys have taken donations from Western nonprofit aid groups. But they’ve learned that these organizations can rarely be relied on to stick with a project like a small Ghanaian orphanage over the long term.

Meanwhile, they’ve also enlisted the help of a rotating cast of volunteers from the United States and Europe.

It was one of Streetwise’s first guest teachers, a young American named Meghan, who noticed that Jay and Nii, with their boundless energy and love for music and children, seemed too well suited for each other to just be friends.

“She was always teasing us about that,” Jay says. And she wasn’t wrong. The couple began dating in 2008. Three years later, when their first child was born, they named her Meghan.

Today, Streetwise’s orphanage houses about 25 children between the ages of 4 and 18, with another 25 or so youths filtering in and out each afternoon for meals, drumming lessons, and help with homework. No Western volunteers are around these days – Nii says they’ve been scared off by West Africa’s Ebola epidemic (which, ironically, never reached Ghana).

The children share two simple, bright green dorm rooms. After they finish their homework, they’re given free rein of the Quarteys’ living room, where they crowd onto slumping couches to watch Bollywood action movies and Mexican telenovelas dubbed into English.

It was from one of these dramas that Nii Sackey Okine – better known here as Sanchez – got his nickname. Sanchez, a natural comedian with a booming belly laugh and a flirtatious air, was one of the first 10 children to live at Streetwise, after Jay and Nii found the 12-year-old working at a slaughterhouse for 1.5 cedis (39 cents) a day to help support his family.

Today, he’s in his 20s and owns his own motorcycle, which he uses to deliver SIM cards and airtime vouchers for a local cellphone company. Earlier this year, the consulate of Colombia invited him to that South American country to teach drumming for a month at a local university.

“Jay and Nii have been like my parents,” he says. “They’re the ones who really raised me.” Nii says the couple always joke that they have 52 children – two of them biological (Meghan and Manny) and 50 adopted.

Jay’s phone is full of photos of the children busy with art projects and soccer games. In one shot, a gaggle of boys splash and giggle in the glossy turquoise pool of a ritzy Accra hotel where she took them on a field trip “to see the world.”

“This place is the one doing everything for me,” says Richard Tackie, a soft-spoken 10-year-old who has lived at Streetwise for nearly two years. “It’s nice. It’s home.”

• Learn more about the work of the JayNii Streetwise Foundation at www.jaynii.com.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help children in Ghana:

Globe Aware seeks out projects and solutions that help others live happy, healthy, and independent lives. Take action: Help build a school in Ghana.

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to help achieve higher levels of literacy in rural communities in Ghana. Take action: Empower an adolescent girl through education, including learning practical skills.

Made In A Free World seeks to abolish modern slavery. Take action: An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 children are enslaved right now working in Ghana’s fishing industry on Lake Volta. Help to free these child slaves.

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