Ghana Speaking (III): Kofi Sam’s Model of African Self-Sufficiency

We are making the full village rounds here in Aburanza, near Cape Coast, with a strong-minded, strong-willed modern chief. From furniture works to dress-making class to palm-nut oil pots, Dr. Kofi Sam is barking out variations on his evangelical theme: West Africa can provide the essentials for itself (food, clothing, shelter and healthcare) if only it first licks a second AIDS crisis — the Acquired Import Dependency Syndrome.

Kofi Sam, who graduated from high school in the 1950s with Kofi Annan of the UN, is a cheerful misfit in the Ghanaian elite. He is an engineer with English training and now a compelling Ghanaian vision, however eccentric. He ran steel works in Ghana back in the day, and held the Housing ministry in Jerry Rawlings’ military government in the 1980s. But he was all the while getting more focused on “appropriate technology” for tropical Africa — on finding modern designs and materials, that is, for the climate and culture of a hot, poor place. Tight denim blue jeans make an interesting Western fashion statement, as he might say, but what is their place in Africa? And what is all that Scandinavian concrete doing in new Ghanaian housing?

How is it, Kofi Sam asks, that “for 50 years we haven’t been able to design a building that doesn’t use air conditioners?” Kofi Sam laughs a lot through what can sound like a stand-up routine getting heavy and deep:

Why is Africa waiting for Germany and Japan to go solar? Because we are copy cats.

Whatever the master in England does, we copy it. Our buildings should have big open windows. That’s how the imperialists, the white men, built their bungalows. We knocked them down and replaced them with glass houses, sealed glass.

Africans wear suits with neckties! With socks! With underwear! We cover ourselves so we feel the heat, then we go to the office and call our secretaries to bring us hot coffee, not cool cocoa, using an air conditioner that could light forty homes…

We only wear what we make on Fridays — Friday wear! That’s the problem…

There is a tunnel called ‘Western education.’ We enter it and learn how to forget. We go to Accra and forget about the village…

The African intellectual is like a bee who has forgotten how to make honey.

The governmental system in Africa only caters to Western-educated people, even though they’re less than 15 percent of the population. From the president right down to the teacher, they get paid at the end of every month.

No villager gets paid for anything. They get up in the morning, they go to their farms, they produce their cassava or yam or plaintain. Nobody guarantees them a market. Nobody gives them loans. All the taxes raised in the country are for Western-educated people, like Kofi Sam.

The villagers don’t get anything.

Dr. Kofi Sam with Chris Lydon, in Aburanza on the Atlantic coast of Ghana, January 28, 2010.

We spend the day surveying some good old alternatives. At one smoky, blistering-hot open-air work site, a dozen women are time-sharing a machine that cracks palm nuts, and in their individual vats they’re slowly cooking the cherished red oil that Africa uses for soap and cooking. No corn oil here, thank you. In his home village of Aburanza, Kofi Sam has sponsored a cane furniture works, hand-weaving of kente cloth, and machine-assisted grinding of cassava flour. His sister’s henhouse looks spotless and contented. “You asked what should aid agencies do,” Kofi Sam remarks. “How about a little capital so that my sister and her kind can each construct 100 henhouses and start with ten layers apiece. Whole villages improve that way.”

At a hilltop prayer meeting at mid-day in Aburanza, families answer my greeting (“He’s real! He’s alive! He’s on time!”) with “Hallelujah!” A pastor is offering pint-sized bottles of an herbal remedy. As for those basic necessities that Africa can provide itself, I challenge my host on one big point: “Native medicine isn’t going to cure malaria, Dr. Sam,” I say. “You’re wrong,” he fires back. “I made the same mistake you’re making.” What he learned eventually is that malaria wiped out mainly white newcomers; West Africans had developed an immunity and boosted it with natural medicines. Malaria was a weapon, he said, that forced the British to adopt “indirect rule” in West Africa, rather than settle as they did in Kenya and Southern Africa.

You’ll hear Kofi Sam inviting me back to Aburanza — and me promising to return before Christmas. “I want people like you here,” he says, “to let the world know that the aid they give doesn’t get to us. It’s in Accra — in the swimming pools of Accra, in the golf courses of Accra, in the lawn tennis courts of Accra, in the restaurants of Accra…”

And then, for $20, he sells me that striking handmade blue shirt off his beautiful brown back. Thank you, Kofi Sam. We will meet again.

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  • How did you find Dr. Sam? He said there are people like you all over the world. As someone who hopes to be one of those people, I’d love to find more people like him.

    I’m really enjoying this series, but I’m so restless now. I’ve worked at both a library and a radio station, with my experience and connections I could help Kwabeng set up a library and radio station. I’m sure I could find some way to be of use to someone like Dr. Sam in Aburanza too.

  • Dear Kento:

    Well, I guess you’ll just have to come back with me to Ghana later this year — you from Japan, me from an Irish spur of the species that got transplanted to North America. All of us approaching another starting point. There is so much to learn and do there, it’s quite overwhelmingly inviting. But you picked up on two useful contributions you could make, with books and radio.

    I found Dr. Kofi Sam, and he found me, at the University of Cape Coast. We knew immediately we had to talk…

    Looking forward, XL

  • Domenic

    So how do we help these villages? How about microfinancing. I’m a huge Kiva supporter and can’t see why it couldn’t help these small villages. I have no doubt that Oxfam (etc) money is lining the pockets of wealthy Accra citizens. Going to the in-ground pools as Dr. Sam said himself. BUT, why can’t the microfinancing get there. It appears that many people being helped with small loans are in small villages. I can’t see why an Aburanzan can’t get a tractor loan through this method. Just a thought. Continue the conversation Chris. Nice piece from Ghana.

  • Alright Chris, I’ll meet up with you in Ghana!

  • Potter

    Again I am enjoying this tremendously… the background sounds, the music in the scene change included. This is parachute “radio” redux… I am getting it. Why shouldn’t village life be preferable to city life?– everywhere– living close to nature– healthy air and food. But they need hospitals, medicine and tractors too. What a disappointment to know that our gifts to Oxfam are or may be or probably are going to keep Accra’s men in business suits.

    Dr. Kofi Sam makes such sense. That he went all the way to his PhD and then came back gives me some hope hearing his connectedness to what is “real” in this world. Of course it’s all real (even the corruption) but maybe I mean what is a good way to live. They need a little bit of a helping hand- not much. Otherwise seemingly the villagers are happy contented people who have almost everything they need at hand.

    I don’t blame you for being smitten Chris. We will miss you. Maybe you can continue from Ghana. Maybe we too will come to visit.

  • Gigi

    What thrilling, inspiring insight and common sense. Thank you, Chris and all for sharing wisdom. May we all catch some.

  • Brent

    Chris, this is inspiring and frustrating in a familiar way. As you observed, the problem is by no means limited to Africa. Two glimpses into other continents:

    J.C. Kumarappa, economic advisor to Mahatma Gandhi and mentor to E.F. Schumacher (“Small Is Beautiful”), was also trained in the West and then returned to his homeland in an apparently quixotic attempt to reinvigorate rural life. His “Economy of Permanence” is worth reading. He tells of scolding master weavers who were so indoctrinated with the shame of being rural and “backward” that they would put out imported, mass-produced mats for their visiting guests of honor rather than showing off their own beautiful creations. He also has a brilliant passage about climate- and lifestyle-appropriate clothes and utensils and furnishings that turns familiar understandings of “high” and a “low” standards of living completely on their head. (This passage can be found excerpted in “Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology.”)

    I spent some time in Eastern Europe, and observed much the same thing there (described in an article in News From Below–Chris, I’d be happy to send a copy). If there is to be any hope of retaining a distinctive local culture in Hungary and other countries in the region, there must be some way of inducing young people to stay in the countryside and make careers and lives there rather than joining the great urban exodus. That is a matter of economic incentives and institutional reform (e.g., to make the family farm a viable way of life again), but it is also cultural–counterbalancing pervasive media messages that glamorize the city (and the West) and ignore, dismiss, or stigmatize old lifeways.

  • Brent, you’re profoundly right. It’s not a specially African dilemma. I heard an exactly parallel view from a great Singapore architect, Tai Kheng Soon, who rightly ranted that the design theme in his city was Kitsch all the way: not just bad art but a pseudo-aesthetic that worshipped celebrity, internationalism, “foreign” and Western looks for all the wrong emotional, cultural and historical reasons. Your testimony from Eastern Europe nails the point. I’d be grateful for the piece from “News from Below.” Thanks, XL

  • All this while in America, politicians tell Americans not to look at all at the healthcare systems of other countries because America needs an “American solution.”

  • Potter

    Bravo Brent,Chris. If it would only be a mass movement caused somehow by a miraculous change in values- this a way (maybe THE way) to save the planet: save our environment, save indigenous cultures.

  • Potter

    I think this article is relevant and may be what Brent was speaking of- the name Satish Kumar sounds similar to Kumaratta- don’t know if they are the same.

    Gandhi’s Swadeshi – The Economics of Permanence

  • Potter

    I found the above link through this short post on a blog which actually I should have linked first because it brings this (call it) philosophy- that is, the need- up to date:

    Principles of swadeshi:Towards an economy of permanence

  • OK to all contributing to this thread: recommend strongly Yaw DK Osseo-Asare’s Blog Especially Notes from BARCAMP Ghana youth initiatives. Fighting Fire with Fire – pragmatic strategies – how to transform educational institutions. Thoughtful creative empowering – the change agents are active and its facilitated by the IT. Kento Ikeda you can find your ‘niche’. Am available as a teacher/guide. Lovely exchanges. Explore the infinite possibilities. Its a great awakening.

  • this addressed to Potter – is an engineer/architect in Tema Ghana with interesting analysis re urbanization – the dynamism in shanty towns – check it out and share your insights.

  • Potter

    Thank you Aba Cecile. I am reading, following the links you provide and other trails I find myself on that seem all too familiar… ideas that have been around for years- only now we are desperate for them. I am fascinated by your daughter’s (Alero Olympio) work, her energy and vision.

    Perhaps we should post more links here.

    By the way- re my post above- Kumar is not Kumarappa ( not mispelled as “Kumaratta” either). Shows you I am learning. Ghandian economics is new to me.

  • add this: Interactive, watch the movie – don’t just visit the Gallery.

    Crucial in this endeavour the leadership role of Women. Practical. They CAN DO. Beyond

    vision is ‘accomplishment’. Show, not just tell.

  • Chris: this is the highlight of your Ghana series. Kofi Sam is exactly the kind of voice I want to hear on this program — well-informed, covering a broad range of topics, and willing to speak with authority, even when you disagreed. Dialogue is best when both speakers are strong — nice work.

  • Kwabena

    I think it is service like this that gives one a sense of purpose and make life worth living.How do I get in touch

    with Kofi Sam?Is there an email address,postal address or phone number I can have.I will really like to support this.

  • Anas Seidou

    I am surprised Dr. Kofi Sam is complaining the aid that the West gives us does not get to those in the rural areas. Well, that is by design. Our elites are the agents of the controlling forces of the world. In that end, the aid is fashioned so that our elites benefit to a greater degree. He probably enjoyed some of the largesse when he was a minister. Anyone who would like to address self-sufficiency as the necessary ingredient to development should definitely not be talking about aid. Most of the aid are supposed to reinforce dependency.

  • Louis

    thank god that he has blessed us with big thinker. i will be happy to meet this man i will be Ghana in a few months time.

  • wow! thank goodness for a man so wise. I’m going back to Ghana next year and I shall go and shake his hand. He’s saying what I always say and I shall help in any little way I can. I’m a filmmaker and last year I travelled round Ghana and we screened some of our positive African films and I would love to go to his village and screen some films for his village.

    We’re also working hard to open a library in Kumasi that only stocks pan African books. Dr Kofi Sam you are not the only mad dreamer. There are many of us and the number is growing.



  • Nanabayin

    Dr. Sam, This message is very inspiring and realistic. I think the earlier we as a country come of the vicious circle of AIDS the better. I will do my best to visit the village on a wekend you happen to be around so we can share ideas and discuss a common ground on how i can contribute my quota in my village as i share and have the same mentality for sustainable development and innovation.