by Melissa Steffan August 12th, 2011
Editor’s note: Public Data Ferret’s “mother blog” site Social Capital Review periodically profiles noteworthy nonprofits or community initiatives with ties to our base coverage area of Western Washington.
One Seattle-based nonprofit with a big heart and a Christian mission is making a difference in one of Africa’s smallest countries.
Headed by Shoreline native and former Fresno Bee reporter Chris Collins, West African Vocational Schools reaches out to young people in Guinea Bissau, a poor country rife with political violence and drug cartels.
WAVS is founded on the belief that outside aid alone will not overcome the widespread poverty and instability; instead, the organization believes that educated leaders must transform Guinea-Bissau from within, Collins said in a phone interview.
“WAVS … is really encouraging ethical practices, people who are dedicated to investing in their country,” he said. “The people who are graduating are instilled with skills to be successful, but also ideals to make them strong leaders in the country.”
WAVS runs a school in Canchungo, a city that serves as a regional hub for many other villages, where over 100 students learn important employability skills such as sewing, computer basics, English and auto mechanics.
WAVS recently launched a new promotional video titled “Hope: A World Away.” It describes the government and military as in league with the drug cartels, and how students in Canchungo determined to lift themselves out of poverty are learning different skills and trades at the WAVS school. The organization recently began a program that allows donors to sponsor one of the organization’s ten teachers in Guinea-Bissau.
The teachers’ salaries range from $135 to $330 per month, Collins said. The sponsorship program allows individuals to pay a portion of a teacher’s salary as part of a sponsorship team of donors.
“People are coming on board and are excited about what we’re doing,” Collins said.
“It’s not the Westerners who will change the country, but we can be involved in training the people who will change the country.”
Drug cartels, cocaine and corruption
Once a Portuguese colony, Guinea-Bissau is now one of the world’s smallest countries – with one of its biggest drug trafficking problems. Guinea-Bissau currently ranks fifth on the list of the world’s poorest countries, but is well on its way to becoming Africa’s first narcotics state.
“There are a lot of drug cartels shipping cocaine to West Africa, using Guinea Bissau as a warehouse for storing drugs, then shipping them to Europe,” Collins said. “They’re bribing off officials and creating an entire illegitimate economy that’s destroying the country.”
The value of illegal drugs traveling through Guinea-Bissau surpasses the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product, he said.
A forgotten country
Yet, because of its size, Guinea-Bissau remains “off the map” for larger aid organizations. Due to poor infrastructure, and language and other cultural barriers, many non-governmental organizations are not present in the country, in spite of its great need.
But that is exactly what struck Collins about Guinea-Bissau when he first visited the country in 2008. Collins said he connected with the people he met at the WAVS school in Canchungo, inspired by their commitment to education.
“Students face challenges because of (local) corruption,” he said. “They have no electricity, no clean water, no decent health – but they’re still committed to pursuing education and job skills to provide for their family.”
After his initial trip to Africa, Collins continued volunteering with WAVS in whatever ways he could, but eventually took over as director of WAVS in December 2010.
Career change for journalist
This is not the career he had planned to pursue. Collins, a Shoreline native and 2002 alumnus of Shorewood High School and Shoreline Community College, intended to become a journalist. He even graduated with degrees in journalism and political science from Whitworth University (Spokane, Wash.) in 2005. While at Whitworth he was part of the Seattle Times’ NEXT team of student op-ed columnists. After college Collins spent six years as a reporter at daily newspapers in California, including the Fresno Bee, where he covered courts, government and tribes, and was sent to Iraq as an embedded reporter.
Though it represents a significant detour from the career he had planned to pursue in journalism, the new position allows him to use the same reporting and writing skills in new ways, he said.
Still, the job offers challenges. Collins said his new job essentially requires him to be in three places at once: in Seattle, where WAVS is based; in Fresno, Calif., where Collins himself is based; and at the WAVS school in Canchungo.
“The cool part about this job is that instead of just reporting the story, you kind of become part of it,” he said. “The things that are happening in the country, you can be affecting from the inside.”
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