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Finding Home: Musa’s Journey
The story of how an ACC electrical systems technology student plans to bring power to a country largely in the dark starts on another continent.
Born in 1997 at the end of the first Liberian civil war, ACC junior Musa Kabbah took his first breath in the chaos of a refugee camp in Guinea, just over the border from his native Republic of Liberia. The Kabbahs had fled their home country to escape the fighting that was waged largely along ethnic lines. Because Musa’s mother is Catholic and a member of the Lorma tribe, while his father is Muslim and a member of the Mandingo tribe, his family was at heightened risk in the war. They could not safely return home, so life in a refugee camp, where he got used to hearing gunshots and rockets coming from across the border, became Musa’s “normal”. The Kabbahs would stay there for the next decade, making a shelter out of savannah grasses and palm fronds and always being ready to flee when the rebels crossed the border and raided the refugee camp.
“It was…some of it is indescribable,” Musa said. “Sometimes I try to suppress my memories (of the past). I don’t want to think about that anymore. I have a really good memory and I can still see (that time) really clearly, but I try not to think about it. But it was terrible—especially when it came to shelter and food. During the rainy season, food grows and there’s a lot of water, but in the dry season…it’s extra hot and crops don’t grow well. We had to go fetch water at the pump and it’s so far away. When it came to shelter, we would go get the leaf of palm and I know all the traditional ways to make a house. It was a life or death skill you needed to know...sometimes you’d wake up in the middle of the night and it would be raining and the roof had been torn off your house by the wind.”
Life as Musa knew it was difficult, but difficult was normal to him. When his family was able to finally move back home to Liberia, Musa never really fit in. He was a Muslim attending a private Catholic school, as it offered him the best education. His mixed ethnicity made making friends almost impossible, as he was viewed with suspicion by both his ancestral tribes.
“Because of my parents’ background, I didn’t have lots of friends and I thought it was normal to not be accepted because of differences. That’s all I knew,” he said of that time in his life. “I thought it was normal to be kicked around and kicked out.”
Musa learned to keep to himself and devoted his time to his studies, which paid off. In 2013, he was recruited to apply to become a Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study (YES) Abroad scholar. A U.S. State Department program, YES facilitates foreign students largely from Muslim countries to come to America and, according to the State Department website, participate “…to advance the U.S. foreign policy goals of promoting civil society, youth leadership development, and lasting ties between Americans and the people of participating countries.” Out of the thousands of students who applied in Liberia, about 500 were invited to take a series of tests that would help separate the great students from the good students. The testing process just happened to be in Musa’s hometown of Voinjama that year, so after he progressed through each round, the young man who was bullied and had few friends suddenly had a lot of fans. Eventually, Musa made his family and city proud by earning the distinction of being one of just eight students in Liberia to be chosen to participate in the exchange program.
Musa and the other YES scholars moved to Liberia’s capital of Monrovia and began training with the U.S. embassy there in preparation for a year abroad. He spent almost a year in Monrovia, away from his family for the first time, while he learned about America and prepared to represent his country.
With about a month to go before leaving for America, in late April of 2014, Liberia became the epicenter of an Ebola outbreak and everything changed. Infection by the Ebola virus causes fever, muscle aches, headache, rash, diarrhea, vomiting, and, in more serious cases, bleeding internally and externally. It has about a 50% average mortality rate and is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids. Countries weren’t allowing planes from Liberia to land in their airports and Musa and his fellow YES scholars didn’t leave their lodgings in Monrovia for fear of being exposed to the virus. There would be no exchange program—at least not as originally planned. Musa had spent almost a year away from his family, who was now terrified that he was in danger of contracting Ebola, and he couldn’t go home. He was stuck.
Finally, after another full year away from his family, the Ebola epidemic passed and Musa made his way to America, where he was to live with host father and Alpena Public Schools Board of Education President Gordon Snow in Alpena. Musa was prepared for the culture here to be vastly different from what he experienced in Liberia. What he didn’t expect, however, was how his differences would ultimately be accepted in Northern Michigan.
“When I came to the United States, it was so different—in terms of race, in terms of everything—but I felt more at home than when I was actually at home sometimes,” Musa said. “When I came to Alpena, I had lots of friends from high school…it changed my entire personality. Everything I had in mind had changed. All the kids growing up—we were all black, we were all the same race and everything, but still, they kicked me out. But here, everyone is a different race—different everything--but these guys from school were friends to me and accepted me…I loved living here.”
Musa gained a lot from his time in Northeast Michigan attending Alpena High School, not the least of which were friends and confidence. The young man who left Liberia as an introvert who kept to himself returned a confident extrovert who had a host of friends in America.
Upon his return home, Musa took the confidence he gained in Alpena and enrolled at a Catholic university in Monrovia to study electrical engineering and founded a youth-led nonprofit organization called Better Understanding for a Better Liberia (BUBL), which seeks to promote peace and development in Liberia. It was this nonprofit that brought Musa back to America and, in a roundabout way, back to Northeast Michigan. He received an invitation as BUBL’s founder and executive director to come to Washington D.C. for a week of training on nonprofit management. He wanted to visit Alpena while he was in the country, so his former host father here in Northeast Michigan, Gordon Snow, arranged for Musa’s flight to and from Alpena following the conference.
For some time, Musa had wanted to come back to Michigan and go to college, but he discovered the cost of getting a degree at someplace like Michigan State was far beyond what he and his family could afford. Once in Alpena, Musa learned from Gordon Snow that Alpena Community College had recently developed a bachelor’s degree program in electrical systems technology, which Musa says combines electrical engineering with computer technology—two of his passions. The cost of the program was far less than what a traditional four-year university would charge to get the degree Musa would need to reach his life’s goal: to bring affordable, reliable electricity to all parts of Liberia, where the power grid is centralized in Monrovia and doesn’t reach the whole country. After meeting with ACC Director of Admissions Mike Kollien, Musa knew where he needed to be.
“Alpena is my home. I have a lot of good friends here—a lot of people here. I feel like this is someplace that’s special to me, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go back to Alpena.’”
And back to Alpena he went—after a year in Liberia cutting through the necessary red tape. When Musa began to take classes at ACC, he realized he had truly found the perfect program for himself and the goals he has for his degree.
“It’s a mixture of computers and electrical engineering. It’s not 100% either of those, but I have to take a lot of computer programming and networking classes and then I’m taking power generation and distribution classes. So, I feel like these things (the classes that comprise this degree) are something I’ve got that I didn’t know I needed. (This degree) is just perfect. It gives me the full spectrum of everything that I want to do.”
And what Musa wants to do is nothing short of lighting up Liberia, a country in which the U. S. Agency on International Development estimates only about 12% of the population has access to electricity. Imagine living less than 500 miles from the equator, with the average temperature about 80 degrees year-round, and not even having the ability to quench your thirst with a cold drink. Imagine the dangers and expense of living life by candlelight, gas generator, or battery. Imagine what access to safe, affordable electricity could do for a country, a town, a family, a young man.
Musa knows firsthand what that’s like and he’s teaching others about the transformative nature of something most of us take for granted by sharing his family’s story. Musa’s Alpena host family during his college journey, Steve and Denelle Shultz, got to know Musa’s mother through weekly phone calls to update her on her son’s progress in America and heard from Musa about his mom’s efforts to earn extra money for the family by buying ice from people with gas generators so she could chill water she then sold to others at a profit. Impressed by her entrepreneurial nature and hard work running the Kabbah family’s retail shop, the Shultzes decided to invest in the Kabbahs to honor Musa at Christmas and for his birthday.
“They asked me, ‘You know, you’ve talked about your mom and about how she’s doing all these things. How helpful would it be if she got a solar generator so she could produce cold water and didn’t have to pay money to do that.”
“Helpful” turned out to be an understatement when describing the impact access to affordable energy had on the Kabbahs’ capacity to run a business and earn a living.
With Musa’s connections gained apprenticing for a solar energy company between his two American educational residencies, he and the Shultzes arranged for a solar energy panel, generator, and refrigeration unit to be delivered and installed at the Kabbahs’ home. With this investment in their future, not only have the Kabbahs been able to power their home, enabling them the simple “luxury” of being able to turn on a light when they hear a noise at night, but they’ve also been able to power their small textile and clothing store nearby. But that’s not all. The Kabbahs began to produce, store, and sell cold water, with sales so good that they could afford to plant and harvest a palm crop on their ancestral land, which resulted in them being able to employ over 30 people. The family has now expanded into growing ginger and producing ginger juice, which they sell alongside their cold water.
Musa wants other families in Liberia to have access to affordable, reliable energy, too. He believes that hydroelectric power plants could be the answer to bringing power to Liberia on a large scale. On a micro level, however, Musa would like others to benefit from solar energy like his family has. Deeply invested in the development of his country, as evidenced by his continued day-to-day leadership of BUBL remotely through the power of technology, Musa wants to be a part of the solution to Liberia’s energy inequality problem, using his degree in electrical systems technology from ACC to help accomplish that goal. He knows that change won’t happen overnight, though, which is why Musa would like to stay in America after graduation and gain knowledge and experience by working in the power industry until he has the expertise needed to effect real change in his home country.
Musa’s pursuit of the knowledge he needs to realize his dream of building the massive infrastructure needed for affordable, accessible power in his home country of Liberia brought him back to Alpena. Whether he can now gain the experience he needs to realize his dream by working in his adopted hometown in America remains to be seen. But if his career takes him away from Northeast Michigan, however, one thing is for certain: he will always have a home in Alpena, and Alpena will always have a home in his heart.
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