For the first time, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Global Brigades traveled to Ghana over spring break to participate in public health projects. This brigade has traditionally operated in Nicaragua, but political unrest has prevented many campuses from traveling there for brigades this year. This unfortunate circumstance provided UMBC with an opportunity to send its first brigade to Ghana, which reopened for students in 2016 after being shut down for five years due to concerns relating to Ebola. Here is my personal account of this astonishing trip.
I will be the first to admit that I was wary of service trips. My biggest fear about this trip was that the program would be centered around making us feel good about supposedly volunteering without making a true impact on the community; however, I quickly found out there was no reason to worry. Global Brigades ensures that their projects involve local artisans and communities, and their mission is to empower communities instead of “helping” them. They place a large focus on giving them the materials needed to lift themselves from poverty and make progress long after the organization is gone.
This was certainly the case in Ekumfi Ekumpoano, the town we were working in. Medical and business brigades had arrived to provide proper medical care to the members of the community and to help establish profitable businesses; water brigades will arrive in May to build water spouts to provide safe drinking water and connect underground water pipes to toilets.
The town of Ekumfi Ekumpoano looks like this: there are goats and chickens everywhere; they roam freely, occupying any cool area under a tree or in the shadow of a home, but they all know where their home is, supposedly. There are 505 homes in the community, all of which are made from cinder blocks and metal roofs. Some boast colors of bright green, blue and coral. An average of eight to nine people live in each home and the total population is about 3,300 residents. The children were at school for most of our work days, and while they were away, the women cooked outside their homes or sold goods in metal pans balanced on their heads. Since the town is on the coast, most of the men are fishermen, and they spend their days in large wooden boats on the water. Others are artisans specializing in masonry or carpentry. Above all, the most memorable characteristic of the community is the glaring sun that beat down on the entirety of the town and the relief of the occasional breeze that came with being by the ocean.
But another aspect of Ekumfi Ekumpoano is that the district it is in has one of the lowest access to sanitation facilities. Because of this, the objective of our trip was to construct three biogas digesters in the community. These underground chambers work to treat organic waste in a sustainable way: bacteria inside the chambers will turn the waste into biogas, which filters from the newly cleaned water so it can enter the groundwater again. This model was chosen for the community based on its potential to operate indefinitely without being pumped out like a septic tank.
To be clear, Ekumfi Ekumpoano does have pre-existing toilet facilities. There is an old, cement building with seven holes in the ground for men and seven for women. The problem is that a service group built this facility years ago without involving the members of the community; they built the structure and left without sharing instructions for use and upkeep. For this reason, we were told that most people currently defecate in the bushes on the outskirts of the town or by the ocean.
Our first visit to Ekumfi Ekumpoano was on Sunday to conduct interviews with the households receiving the biogas digesters and to take a tour of the community to learn more about where most residents currently defecate. Our group of 14 split into three; we would be working as small teams to build biogas digesters for multiple households. We were welcomed to the community by Mr. Peter, an old, smiling man who serves as one of the three chiefs of the town and the community liaison for Global Brigades. He guided us to the three homes with which we would be working.
My group stopped at a home painted bright green on the outskirts of the town. We interviewed Kwame, the head of the household. He told us about how he heard of the program, why he decided to sign up, and his expectations for the final product. Throughout the week, I grew to love working with Kwame on the biogas digester each day. We did not speak the same language, but his goofy smile and nicknames for our team helped us communicate.
For the next three days, we worked with Kwame, Mr. Peter and a local mason named Patrick (a cousin of Mr. Peter) to build the biogas digester. Patrick is a 33-year old man who grew up in the town; he had known Kwame for years, which showed in their constant bickering. He lives with his two children in one room in his uncle’s home, which he gave us a tour of on our last day together. Patrick shared with us that he does not want to stay in the community forever and he desperately wants to play soccer, but it is difficult to be scouted in towns like this one. Despite his ambitions to move to a larger city, Patrick learned how to make the biogas digesters from Global Brigades so he can continue to help his community build more digesters and maintain the current ones once Global Brigades leaves Ekumfi Ekumpoano. He is strong, goal-oriented and determined, beginning every instruction with, “if you want to be strong like me, do this.” Patrick puts on a tough facade, but the love he has for his community and the effort he puts into everything he does naturally drew my group to adore him.
By lunchtime of the third day of construction, all the groups had finished their biogas digesters. Admittedly, my group finished last, but only because Kwame and Patrick gave us coconuts fresh from the tree and invited us to their homes to celebrate our shared success. Although we only had the pleasure of working with them for three days, the impact that these men made on my group is immeasurable. Our last task of the brigade was to plan and share a lesson about hand washing methods with the junior high school students of Ekumpoano Catholic Basic School. The children were aged 12 to 14 and were as rowdy as any typical middle school students in America, but we enjoyed discussing the benefits of hand washing and when to do so with the students. The fact that the students at the school lived in the community we were working with made us confident that what they learned about hand washing would be implemented along with the use of the toilet facilities we built.
Our last day of the trip before returning to America was spent immersing ourselves in the rich culture of the country. We visited Cape Coast Castle, one of about forty castles that held captive Africans before they were sent to the Americas or Europe as slaves. We had the opportunity to stand in the hot, dark dungeons that were packed tight with African bodies and compare those living situations to the stark contrast of the lofty rooms of the Europeans above. We also watched a performance by the African Foundation Dance Theater, a local theater in Cape Coast that provides bountiful opportunities to young adults and children in the area, including deaf and mute children who are often not provided with many resources. After the performance, the artists invited us to learn a traditional dance and play the drums.
The cultural immersion and interactions with local community members allowed our brigade to truly experience life in Ghana for a week. It was incredibly hard to leave the country after developing relationships with people like Patrick, Kwame and Mr. Peter, who are still working hard in Ekumfi Ekumpoano even as you are reading this article. However, there is comfort in knowing that in just one week, our brigade was able to truly make a difference through Global Brigades and make strides in the process of lifting this community out of poverty. Global Brigades is an organization with pure intentions to empower others and provide them with opportunities they deserve, and this new partnership between UMBC and the community has opened the door for both parties to gain something new.