How and why did you start your charity?
So it’s Ekua Haizel, as Ekua is my Ghanaian name. In Ghana, whatever day of the week you’re born, you’re assigned a name. It means I was born on a Wednesday. Haizel is my grandmother’s surname, so I took it and blended it together. The main project we focus on right now is called Sankofa. Most of it is quite heavily based on the Akan language, so Sankofa literally means ‘go back and get it’, going back to your roots and giving back. I started it in 2014, when I was going into my first year of uni. I did first year twice because the first course I started on I really didn’t like. I happened to do an event – my shameful secret – which is why I started the charity. It was a beauty pageant for Miss Ghana UK, and I came top five, won best personality and best dressed, but I didn’t win. What’s worse is if you’re top five, they call for second runner up, then first runner up, so then there’s only three people left, and it’s obviously one of you is going to be the winner. They called the winner and me and the other girl – who’s actually now my very good friend – were just standing there like, “So… not today.” It just motivated me, because I thought, ‘I’m just gonna show you that I don’t even need a crown to make sure that the things I want to achieve I can achieve.’
What sort of things do you do with the Ekua Haizel?
The first event I did was in December 2014 and that was called Challenge Accepted. It was to raise money for The Sickle Cell Society UK. Sickle cell is a debilitating blood disorder which just means that your red blood cells are sickle-shaped rather than circles, so the issue is that one might get stuck in your artery or your vein somewhere and the blood cannot continue to go through. The area will be deoxygenated, so you’ll feel a lot of pain - it’s like if you sit on your hand and you get pins and needles. Imagine that happening involuntary and it lasting for like an hour, or even a month. The other problem is that if that happened in a major artery like one in your neck or one in your heart, you could effectively die. It’s an issue that majorly affects people of African-Caribbean descent. Back then Ekua Haizel wasn’t actually a charity. The aim was literally just to promote other charities. That’s how I started off and we had a blog, so I would make stories on the blog for about a year. I only got my website in February, and I paid someone to create it. We had a thing called Charity of the Month, looking for those that were doing a good thing. Small ones, as well, just to give the little man a voice.
The first Sankofa Tour happened last year. We went to Ghana, where we did a sports day in an orphanage, which was just amazing. We collected a lot of donations, we shipped it over and then went to another orphanage in another region and just gave them the donations. This year, we’re doing a week-long scheme. We’ll teach from Monday to Wednesday; On Thursday, they’ll do their final presentation; Friday will be a sports day. And after that, we’ll give them the donations we’ve collected. They therefore learn to make plans, work as a team, and after they’ve worked hard, they reap the benefits at the end of it. I grew up in a Christian home - on our website you’ll see Galatians 6:7 which says, ‘Don't be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, he will also reap.’ It’s literally just trying to push that message out to the kids. That input equals output and it doesn’t really matter about your situation or your circumstances. Sometimes if you put yourself in the mindset that you’re a victim, then you’re never going to work hard enough.
What would you like to do with the charity in the future?
In a few years to come, I hope to move to other countries. I wouldn’t be the project manager or the event manager. I’m doing such a great job in Ghana because that’s where my family is from. I understand and speak the language so I’m fine there. I couldn't go to Kenya and try to do what I’m doing in Ghana because I don’t speak Swahili, so if someone else wanted to do it from Kenya then I would support them. Next year, I’m going to try and push for sponsorships.
Are you planning to do your charity work full time?
I don’t know, and I hate that I don’t know. In an ideal world, I would run my charity full time and I know that obviously if we get a sponsorship and stuff then we can register as a charity. We can buy bonds and make money and I can pay myself through the charity, but all of that is a big risk. In five years it might blow, but until then I might be stuck.
What do you do outside of your charity work?
I’m a dancer. I’ve been dancing since I was 7. I feel like sports really does make you a different person. It brings out your inner sense of competition. You know how to work in a team. It gives you determination and drive, and you know how to cope with loss. It’s just one of those things, sometimes you lose but you just keep training and you hope that next time you’ll do better. I also did netball and athletics in secondary school, but the only thing I continued into sixth form was dancing. I started a dance society whilst at uni, which is fun. In sixth form, I was also Head Girl - because it was a boy’s sixth form, I was actually the first ever Head Girl.
What made you change your degree in your first year?
Biology was actually my victory story. When I finished Year 12, I got a ‘D’ in Biology. It was very painful, but I thought, ‘I’m actually good at science. I will not be held back by this.’ So I just made a timetable. I literally planned my day to a t – when I was going to eat, when I was going to need the library. My friends were like, ‘Do you want to come out?’ and I would say, ‘You haven’t booked two weeks in advance, I don’t have time for you. Do not talk to me’. I just studied and studied and studied, and went from a ‘D’ to a ‘B’.
I got into Southampton University via clearing and I started on a Cardiovascular Physiology (aka Healthcare Science) degree. I’m a very optimistic person. The glass is always, always, always half full. So, even when I was doing Cardiovascular Physiology, I didn’t enjoy it, but I was thinking, ‘No, it’s fine! I know I can do the degree and then go into research after’. Because I’m a very proactive person, I emailed UCL asking to go into their research labs and spend the week with them during the Easter holidays. I went to their labs, and I hated it. And I thought, how can I hate my plan B? I originally wanted to do Biomed, but because I didn’t do Chemistry I couldn’t, but they said I could do Biology. I finished with a 2:1 in second year. Changing degrees was honestly one of the best decisions I have ever made, especially because I definitely wouldn’t have the charity if I hadn’t have done it.
What is the one piece of advice that you would give to…
...someone who is thinking of starting a charity?
For people who want to start their own charity, think about the cause. Make it pure the whole time. Don’t have an objective and then lose it. You can’t have an objective and try and corrupt your objective before you’ve even fulfilled it. Just know your objective, firmly know what you are trying to achieve, and then if you do an event and it goes badly, keep going, because eventually you’re going to have a good event. It’s as simple as that. Input equals output.
...someone who doesn’t like their degree?
Take the risk. Don’t just get into a strop and say you don’t like it. I think the worst thing would be to think to yourself, “I could do something else after I graduate”. You’ve wasted three years, especially when Student Finance funds you for four, so if you want to make that decision you need to make it in year one, just so your course can continue to be free. Don’t be afraid to make that decision and be proactive. If you think there’s something else that you want to do, do it. Because you might not like it and then at least you know. Uni is a massive safety blanket: your parents are still looking after you, you have student accommodation, you have student finance. So everything you want to do, definitely do it within that time.
...young women with dreams?
For young girls with a dream, never victimise yourself. When I got a ‘D’ in Biology, I could have just been like, ‘That’s it. That’s the end of the story. I can drop out of college. I don’t even need to go to uni.’ But I didn’t victimise myself; I did the exams, I got my summer results. I did my retakes again in January, and still did badly. But I didn’t make myself a victim. I thought I was working hard when I obviously wasn’t working hard enough. Work as hard as you possibly can. So, if you have a dream, don’t ever think someone else could do it, someone else could do it better. You can be the boss, it’s not that hard. Someone could have more money, someone could code your website better, but it’s about what I gain as a person from doing what I’m doing. It’s about the invaluable skills that you’ve learnt through talking to the people that you’ve talked to.
Interview by Isabella Ford
University student and founder of incredible charity Ekua Haizel, Gillian Adjaye is definitely someone you want to learn from - she talks changing degrees, Ghanaian heritage and giving back below...
Gillian Adjaye Founder of NGO Ekua Haizel
Loreto College, Saint Albans:
Biology, Chemistry, Drama and Theatre Studies, and Economics.
University of Southampton
Founder of NGO Ekua Haizel
School and Employment History
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