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Seeing the light in Africa

Children at the Grace and Hope Orphanage attach themselves to Dennis Miller’s arms, hands, legs, before he can set foot in their quaint one-building compound on the outskirts of Kumasi, a city in southern central Ghana’s Ashanti region.

“I get out of the taxi and the kids see me and come running down a path screaming, ‘Uncle Bobo, Uncle Bobo,’ ” says Miller, a professor of music at Northeastern University. “Bobo” means, “Born on a Tuesday” in the Fante tradition. Fante are an ethnic group in the southwestern coastal region of Ghana.

“Six of them have my hands and six of them have my feet,” he says. “It’s amazing.”

Miller arrived in Kumasi, on the campus of Kwame Nkmurah University of Science and Technology, in late December, after being granted a semester-long sabbatical. He helps orphans between the ages of 5 and 15 with their reading and math skills.

He keeps smiles on their faces by taking them on field trips and recording their after-school play on video.

“I’ve seen the light and my path is clear,” Miller writes in a Feb. 4 blog entry. “The Grace and Hope Orphanage is the reason I’ve come to Ghana.”

The children live on a grassy patch of land just a few hundred yards from the school and they don’t have access to electricity. But they frequently erupt in spontaneous song. Miller captures that on video, too.

“My initial motivation for the trip was and remains community service,” Miller adds over the phone from the West African country. “Volunteering with kids is something I enjoy immensely.”

But he doesn’t restrict his passion for volunteer work to helping children.

Miller also teaches a course on digital media production to roughly 100 publishing and communications design students at the university. He outfitted classrooms with donated computers and digital audio programs and hopes to show his pupils a thing or two about scoring films and analyzing abstract art — a concept that many of his students could not comprehend.

“I showed them a five-minute abstract animation and they wanted to know what the artist wanted them to think,” he explains. “I said, ‘the artist doesn’t want you to think anything. It’s what you want to think.’ ”

He’s had a difficult time adjusting to the cultural nuances of Ghana — it’s frowned upon, for example, to show someone the bottom of your shoe — as well as to the living conditions. Water and electricity are scarce, says Miller, and getting around the city can be hazardous.

“It’s a struggle when it’s so hot that all you want to do is jump in the shower, but there’s no water,” he says, “or when you’re stuck in traffic behind an 18-wheeler spewing diesel fuel and you’re surrounded by grass fires.”

But the moment one of the orphanage’s youngsters lights up the room with a smile, or a stranger invites him into her home, or a crack of thunder sends shivers down his spine, Miller realizes that it’s worth the struggle.

“I’m glad to be here,” he says. “I’m here because I can’t experience this anywhere else. It’s Africa.”

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