Visionary Leader - May 2014

Andrew Foster


Andrew FosterAndrew Foster, ’54 the Visionary Leader being honored for the month of May, was the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Gallaudet. Many regard Foster as the “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet” of Africa because he went on to establish 32 schools for the deaf in 13 African nations.

Andrew Foster, year unknown
Foster, year unknown.

Foster was born on June 27, 1925, in Ensley, Ala. At the age of 11, both he and his brother contracted spinal meningitis and became deaf. During Foster’s time as a child, education for African Americans was limited only up to the sixth grade. Foster attended the Alabama School for the Colored Deaf in Talladega, as racial segregation was still in effect. In order to continue with his education, he moved in with his aunt in Flint, Mich., at the age of 17 and went as far as the eighth grade at the Michigan School for the Deaf. Foster then took night classes and correspondence courses while working in auto factories and restaurants in Chicago and Detroit. At last, in 1950, he received a diploma in accountancy and business administration from the Detroit Institute of Commerce, and then his high school diploma through a correspondence course in 1951 at the age of 26.

Foster teaching two students
Foster teaching students at the Kendall School in 1953.
Foster teaching geography at a blackboard in front of class of students
Foster teaching a geography class in Ibadan, Nigeria in 1960.

After being rejected several times because he was African American, Foster was finally accepted to Gallaudet with a full scholarship in 1951. Foster graduated with a degree in education and then went on to earn two master’s degrees—one in education in 1955 from Eastern Michigan University and the other in Christian Mission in 1956 from Seattle Pacific College in Washington State.

Foster poses with students
Foster with the first set of students at the Ibadan Mission School for the Deaf. They are all making the sign for "Jesus". (Ibadan, Nigeria, 1960)
Foster at the church podium with others behind him
Foster behind a church podium during the 1980s.
Foster posing with students
Foster with students and teachers at his mission school in Goma, Congo, in 1985. Without Foster, there would not have been any opportunity for these fortunate young children to attend school.

Foster had long felt a calling to be a missionary after meeting a missionary from Jamaica who visited his Sunday school when he was a teenager. With then-Gallaudet President Leonard Elstad’s encouragement, Foster established the Christian Mission for Deaf Africans (today known as the Christian Mission for the Deaf) in 1956 in Detroit and started going on speaking tours throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Western Europe, and then 25 African nations to raise funds to establish schools for the deaf in Africa.

Foster first arrived in Africa in 1957. At the time, on the entire continent there were just 12 schools for the deaf in countries within the Maghreb region in North Africa and in the apartheid Union of South Africa. Foster set up the first deaf school in West Africa in Osu, a suburb of Accra, Ghana. Named the Ghana Mission School for the Deaf, Foster used a borrowed classroom from a Presbyterian Church. He then moved the school 30 miles away to Mampong-Akwapim after receiving a donation of land and building in which to establish a permanent residential school. The school served 80 children and some adults. He served as the school’s director until 1965. Foster also established Nigeria’s first deaf school, the Ibadan Mission School for the Deaf in 1960 in Ibadan and shortly after two other schools in the cities of Enugu and Kaduna, as well as Liberia’s first deaf school. He also served on the Ghana Government Cabinet Committee in 1960 which resulted into the establishment of eight more schools for the deaf in Ghana.

Foster with wife Berta, dressed in traditional Nigerian wedding clothes
Andrew and Berta Foster dressed in traditional Nigerian wedding fashion.
Family photo inserted in a frame shaped as the African continent
Foster family photo while they were living in Nigeria on a mission for the Christian Mission for Deaf Africans. Front row from left: Jackie, Freddy, and Tim. Back row from left: Berta, Faith, and Andrew.

Foster met his German wife, Berta, at the Third World Congress of the Deaf in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1959. They were married in 1961 and had four sons and a daughter – Andrew, John, Tim, Dan, and Faith. With Berta’s help, Foster went on to establish another 29 schools, including a school for the deaf in the French speaking area of Africa, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Ecole Chretienne Ivoirienne pour les Sourds (Christian School for the Deaf Ivorians) in 1972.

Foster taught students, trained teachers, educated the public about the needs of deaf Africans, and advised government officials about the need for more schools for the deaf. As a result of Foster’s unwavering efforts, Gallaudet began welcoming the first generation of students from Foster schools in Africa. Seth Tetteh-Ocloo, ’64 & G-’65 came to Gallaudet from the Ghana Mission School for the Deaf. Seth followed Foster’s footsteps to Gallaudet after completing his high school education through the same correspondence course that Foster used to complete his own high school education. Seth went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Gallaudet and doctorates in both educational psychology and rehabilitation from Southern Illinois University. Seth returned to Ghana to become a rehabilitation officer with the country’s Department of Social Welfare and Community Development under the Ministry of Social Welfare. Seth also founded the Ghana’s second school for the deaf.

Foster with two other men, signing Jesus on a lawn
Foster with his two most successful proteges: Seth Tetteh-Ocloo (left) and Gabriel Adepoju (right). Both became national deaf leaders in Ghana and Nigeria, respectively.

Ezekiel Sambo, ’70, from Nigeria, met Foster during elementary school and returned to Ghana after graduating from Gallaudet to set up more schools for the deaf. Sambo established the Pleateau State School for the Deaf in Pleateau, Nigeria. Pleateau alumni Mary Dakim, ’07 & G-’11 and Dr. Simon Guteng, ’89 & G-’92, currently an associate professor at Gallaudet, have been successful in their careers because of Sambo’s efforts and Foster’s influence.

Gallaudet’s Interim Dean of the School of Education, Business, and Human Services, Isaac Agboola, ’81 & G-’83, also attended one of Foster’s schools, Ibadan Mission School for the Deaf. “Before Gallaudet, I had a dream that I would go to college,” said Agboola. “After I received my degree at Gallaudet, I felt inspired and a sense of achievement to finish college, and I am the first in my family with a college degree.”

Foster earned an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Gallaudet in 1970. He also received the 1962 Man of the Year award from Alpha Sigma Pi and the Edward Miner Gallaudet Award from Gallaudet College Alumni Association (GCAA) in 1975.

Foster died in a plane crash in Rwanda while en route to Kenya in December 1987. The Christian Mission for the Deaf still carries on his vision of creating more schools and centers for deaf people in Africa. Gallaudet University named an auditorium after Foster in October 2004 in recognition of his role as the “Father of Deaf Education in Africa.” The Gallaudet University Museum has an exhibit about Foster’s life as well.

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*Photos courtesy Gallaudet Archives and the Andrew Foster family.


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