A gentle hand: Boulderite Jan Mitchell makes a difference in Africa

Jan Mitchell and others listen to a student read.
Photo courtesy of Jan Mitchell

Jan Mitchell is going to have to buy a donkey for a family in Ghana. It’s good news. Two years ago, she gave the family a bull to replace one that died after rocks were thrown at it to chase it out of a garden. She promised that if, when she returned, the bull was healthy and looked like it had been gently cared for, she would buy them a donkey.


In late October, she stood in the family’s yard, watching the bull eat nuts from the dirt in front of the family home, three of the family’s 25 children gathered around petting him and yes, she conceded she would buy a donkey.

Because that bull is one of the biggest in the village and she’s asked its owner to talk to his neighbors about caring for a bull and not throwing rocks at animals; the hope is that it’s spreading the message she’s been taking to Africa for 15 years — take better care of your animals, and they’re better able to help provide for your family.

The bull she bought was surrounded by pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and dogs, all comfortable with strangers, relaxed at the touch of humans — calm, she says, as if they’re used to loving human hands. The bull is named “Wene-etebe,” meaning, “God is doing wonderful things.”

It might be God’s doing, but Mitchell has a hand in the delivery.

“I just started doing what needed to be done,” she says. “It’s usually the way I do stuff. If there’s a need and I can fill it, then I’m usually the one doing it.”

Her work in Africa began in 1997 when she was personally invited to Debre Zeit, Ethiopia, to photograph the work of the International League for the Protection of Horses, a non-governmental organization. They were taking buckets of clean water to horses on the streets, teaching people to let the horses stop for a drink, to coax instead of whipping them and to clean their sores with something other than gasoline, which had been in use to cauterize wounds.

“We were working with horses because they use horses like cars, so horses carry passengers, horses carry cargo, horses do everything and the horses were in horrible shape,” Mitchell says. “They had sores all over their bodies and the veterinary school — I ran out of the veterinary school crying it was so unbelievable. I ran out because they stuck a cow catheter up a cat. And I was screaming and I ran out and this guy [with the NGO] said, ‘Look you better get your act together or you need to leave.’ So I thought about it, I thought about leaving, and I said I didn’t know if I was cut out for this.”

Mitchell traveled around Africa for a while, thinking she would enjoy it on her only trip there.

“When I climbed Kilimanjaro, I said, I want to go back. I want to work,” she says. She went back to Ethiopia only to find that the NGO she had been working with had quit. She kept going anyway. “I just went out and did what we started, which was selling water to horse owners in the streets. And as long as they bought water, we fixed the horses’ wounds.”

Together with her high school friend Mindy Sterling Houser, she founded The Animal Assistance & Education League, which had 501(c)3 status for a while. An early brainstorming session saw them in a Boulder café writing their plans out with the only writing utensil on hand: a crayon.

“We didn’t want this to get too fancy because we used to call ourselves ‘Two girls and a crayon’ because — seriously, we would laugh — because that’s really what we were doing,” Sterling says. “We were all heart and no results.”

But the program did go on to show results, including increasing revenue for taxi drivers and horse owners changing from asking why they’d want water for their horses when drinking would only slow the horse down to actually paying for the water.

“One of the mistakes that we found for nonprofits was that they would facilitate programs that were not self-sustaining,” Sterling says. “Throwing money at remote villages is not going to solve the problem long term. So incorporating local solutions, one of them being teaching a select group of Ethiopian villagers how to give injections, how to do better wound management, how to build a better garry, was empowering to them and really exciting for us.”

Photo courtesy of Jan Mitchell

Word of their work in Ethiopia traveled to Dr. Anthony Akunzule, who invited her to his village in Ghana in 2000. As violence escalated in Ethiopia, her work transitioned to focus on Ghana. She has traveled to Ghana 10 times in 12 years, undertaking an evolving string of projects and work there. She now takes condoms and sex-ed videos to show in schools, coaches teachers on different teaching methods and promotes veterinary care and compassionate management of animals.

“I wanted her to work in my community, Yua,” Akunzule said in an email interview. “Yua people use animals for work, but do not treat them very well. They needed some one to teach them on how to be kind to the animals so that the animals can work for them, but without stress.”

Mitchell has bought oxen to work on farms, donkeys for hauling carts and carrying water, hospital equipment, bicycles and school materials including a computer, Akunzule reports. She’s taught people how to handle bulls without nose rings, or how to cradle a chicken like a baby while it’s being vaccinated.

“Every year something else happened, and three years ago somebody handed me 1,000 condoms and he said, ‘I bought these from Planned Parenthood, just take them and see what happens, just give them away,’” she says. “I said, ‘I’m not bringing condoms without teaching how to use them,’ so I made a DVD with a couple of friends and a banana. It took us like two hours for a five-minute video because we’re laughing so hard. So I took the DVD and I asked how many teenage pregnancies there had been in the last year and they said, ‘Too many.’ That’s their number. … When I came back the following year after the DVD and I brought more condoms, they said there were none, so it had gone from too many to zero.”

She’s since upgraded the DVD, using a wooden penis provided by someone in Ghana, and that DVD has been handed all over the country. It’s not the first project she’s worked on that’s taken off on its own. The water stations she helped create in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia, have caught on in other towns and even been the subject of a graduate student’s thesis. The vaccinations Mitchell brings to Ghana draw people from as far away as neighboring Burkina Faso, and they’re now vaccinating thousands of animals each year.

The bull Wene-etebe | Photo courtesy of Jan Mitchell

She’s not a trained veterinarian, so she works closely with one in Ghana. Ayamdooh Evans Nsoh went once as her proxy to Ethiopia — despite having a wife who was about to deliver — and the two become a mobile vet clinic for the three weeks she’s in Ghana, teaching about gentle handling as they treat animals. Though he’d studied animal welfare in school, Nsoh said he never really practiced it until he was sent to Ethiopia in Mitchell’s place.

“It was at that moment that everything changed,” Nsoh said in an email interview. “I saw the watering stations for the donkeys and horses established by Jan and Mindy in Ethiopia and many more things for the poor animal owners. I learned the practical aspects of animal welfare and it gave me a different picture all together.”

The first time he worked with Mitchell, he says, she was trying to tame a bull that had never been petted before.

“She did it wonderfully and in a simple manner by talking to them and showing them love,” he wrote. “It was heart touching and I told myself this is somebody I can learn a lot from. Since then I have never looked back.”

Though animals are still her priority, Nsoh convinced her that teaching gentle handling begins with educating children in schools, and that created yet another list of things that she realized needed to be done and so decided to do.

“I started teaching gentle handling in the schools and I realized there was such an incredible lack of understanding by the students of all subjects that I just took it upon myself to say OK, I can do basics,” she says.

Students at the Yua school | Photo courtesy of Jan Mitchell

This year, the head teacher at the Yua school signed off on teachers taking her suggestions for revising curriculum. In previous trips, Mitchell taught the students. In her October trip, she taught the teachers.

Mitchell wrote about teaching the teachers in her blog:

I was watching NuHu tell the students he would teach them Internet next week. He says, “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir, we understand.”

He says, “Good, then you will learn to use a mouse. Do you understand?.”

“Yes, Sir, we understand.”

I said, “Excuse me, may I speak?”

“Yes, Madame.”

“Someone please tell me what you just understood.” No one raised their hand. “You all said you understood, please tell us what he said.”


NuHu’s face was dropping and he clicked his teeth in disbelief.

“How many of you know what a file is?” No hands.

“How many of you know what a Word document is?” No hands.

“How many of you know how to type?” Only three hands went up, and they were students who were in my class two years ago when they drew keyboards on paper.

More clicking.

After some more questions, I asked, “What did you understand?”

“We understood that when Madame is here, we must not say we understand if we don’t understand.”

NuHu stood with his jaw dropped. I said, “Don’t be disappointed, otherwise, you will be disappointed every day here.” We stood outside the classroom when he said the students should have learned all of this in Primary 3.

I said, “Well, they didn’t. This is where they are and this is where you must begin.” …

I informed them that it is clear that the Primary School teachers are not even teaching the students English, let alone the other subjects. The students are, “Yes sirring and We Understanding” all day long and the teachers are accepting it.

The struggle is to get a student from Yua to score high enough on Ghana’s standardized tests to qualify for senior high. One student from Yua is currently enrolled in senior high only because Akunzule fought for her to get a place in the school, but it’s not a very good one and the hope is her scores will improve and she’ll move to a better school.

The goal for the Yua school is to improve students’ test performance so more students from Yua can go on to senior high.

Students have to score a 75 or higher to go on to senior high and study a subject of their choice. Most students from Yua score 50 or below.

“My theory and the way I taught them is that if they change the way they teach, the children will be able to figure out some of the answers. As it is the way they teach now, if you don’t teach them the right answer, they don’t know how to do it on the test, they can’t figure it out because they didn’t memorize it. So I’m trying to teach them to teach the students how to think,” Mitchell says. “Conceptual thinking is not even taught because how do you teach conceptual thinking? By example. You ask questions. You get them to think. You can’t just talk about conceptual thinking and then expect they’re going to be able to do it. But it’s not taught that way. It’s very rote. It’s very this is this and this is this and this is this, do you understand? Yes, we understand.”

The deal she struck with the schools is that she’ll teach the basics if they make sure gentle handling and sex education are also taught, though she’s still helping to teach some of the sex ed classes, and, this year, brought “funeral pockets.” Unwanted pregnancies often start at funerals because boys and girls sneak away to have sex while their parents’ attention is occupied elsewhere. The “funeral pockets,” which are made to hold condoms, pin under the girls’ dresses.

She’s also helped to start reading programs where older students mentor younger students, and encouraged students to make use of the one solar-powered street light in the town to study after dark. Currently, she’s collecting educational DVDs to add to the library. And there will always be other projects appearing on the horizon.

For updates, visit Jan Mitchell’s blog at http://kindness-international.org/blog for additional information.

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