Ten-year-old Mohamed Fofana dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player. With his sizable earnings, he’d build a school in Guinea, his father’s home country, so that children could stop begging and fill their days instead with books and study and play.
This gracious Minnesota child’s dream will be realized far earlier than anticipated, but it’s a bittersweet victory.
Two years ago this month, Mohamed, a fourth-grader at Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park, was killed in a landslide at St. Paul’s Lilydale Regional Park. Another boy, Haysem Sani, 9, also died.
On May 11, Mohamed’s father, Lancine Fofana, witnessed the groundbreaking for the Mohamed Fofana Memorial School in Siguiri, a small gold-mining town in northern Guinea. The school will house 350 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
“He did not live to achieve this,” said Mohamed’s mother, Madosu Kanneh, an immigrant from Liberia who works as a hair braider. “So we, as his parents, decided to make his dream come true.”
Lancine Fofana moved to Minnesota in 1995 to study advanced mechanical electronics and works for Supervalu.
The school’s location would delight Mohamed. In 2009, he accompanied his mother to Guinea to meet relatives. His younger twin brothers, Hassant and Al-Seny, stayed at home with their father.
Mother and son spent two months in Guinea, every day an education for the boy being raised in affluent America.
He saw children playing soccer without shoes. He saw children sitting in the streets begging. “Mommy, can you please?” he implored. “They’re hungry.”
He wouldn’t let his mother dress him up.
“He didn’t want to look different,” Kanneh said.
When they returned to their relatives’ house where they were staying, Mohamed rounded up his clothes and shoes and donated all of them to the Guinean children who had become his friends.
He never forgot them.
On May 22, 2013, Mohamed was one of about 50 students on a field trip to St. Paul when a waterlogged cliff collapsed. Mohamed, who had been searching for fossils, wasn’t found until the next day.
His parents agree that their unfathomable grief has been lessened by the kindness of the Twin Cities community.
“Moral support,” Fofana said, when asked what helped the most. “Every day, someone showed up.”
During last week’s sad anniversary, the Brooklyn Center couple received hundreds of phone calls. “Everybody from everywhere called,” Kanneh said. “The school, family, friends.”
“It’s been two years,” Fofana added. “You cannot forget about this. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. But to be able to handle this, you have to have nice people around, a nice community. They helped a lot to make it easier for us.”
When Kanneh finally worked up the strength to go into Mohamed’s room to box up his possessions, she found a journal he had kept after his trip with her to Guinea.
“He wrote about when he grew up what he wanted to do in life,” she said. “He wanted to be a professional soccer player and go to Africa to help less privileged kids go to school.”
The Mohamed Fofana Memorial School has been designed by volunteer architects, designers and graphic artists from Architecture for Humanity Minneapolis St. Paul, with input from Mohamed’s parents. The nonprofit group often works with local immigrant groups with connections overseas.
These projects, said volunteer architect Tim Jordan, are driven by idealism and a desire to break down barriers.
“This lets you slow down and connect with one group in a way you otherwise never would,” he said.
The school will have a library, a basketball court and, of course, a soccer field.
A large proportion of the settlement Mohamed’s parents received from the city of St. Paul has been used to buy the land and bricks. Donations are being sought now to keep the school running.
Classrooms will hold up to 45 students, instead of the 90 or more in a typical classroom now.
Best of all, the school will allow children to live at home while attending school. Most children in rural Guinea must move to the city, away from their families, to pursue their education.
The school is set to open in 2016. Kanneh plans to return to Guinea in August to check on its progress.
The twins are now 10-year-old fifth-graders at Peter Hobart.
“The first year, they didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to mention his name,” Kanneh said. “Now, they talk about Mohamed all the time.”
The boys will be doing their homework and they’ll look up at their mother.
“Mohamed,” they’ll tell her, “taught us this.”
Maria Bell, a senior at Breck School interning at the Star Tribune, contributed to this column.