I’m going “home” here with my friend Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang to “where my belly button is buried,” to the seat of his fondest memories and his first great love, his grandmother. And I’m concluding presumptuously, on a day’s visit, that there is much good living yet to be done in village Ghana.
The burdens on ten-thousand villagers in Kwabeng, in Ghana’s Eastern Region, begin with infectious diseases: malaria, typhus, HIV. They have no hospital, no resident doctor. Listen and you will hear a village leader tell me: “people over here are not feeling fine at all.” Another: “when someone falls ill, sometimes you lose the person on the way to finding help.” The gold digging company that skipped town two years ago left a contaminated water supply and no benefits. The leading farmers in Kwabeng fret openly about backward methods and bad markets. They should be planting more trees. They are not sustaining their own environment.
But it’s the robust strengths of the village that astonish and stick. Handsome men gather and gab in the breezy open air at their own self-started NGO, the Kwabeng Development Foundation. Some in work clothes, some in traditional robes, they all glow with calmly Emersonian self-reliance. “It is now generally understood,” one farmer explains, “that government by itself cannot solve the problems of life. We need to depend on ourselves.” Projects like the village hospital “have to start with us.”
“Our life is good,” says a man in the chief’s council of elders, and the supporting evidence is all around us in Kwabeng, whose name means literally “the forest that was cooked red.” A host of little children and teenagers play noisy games at the heart of town. The air is familiar, confident, safe without a second thought. Kwabeng seems delighted to meet a stray American. “It’s as if the government of America is here,” a woman marvels. She has heard I do radio, and when I ask “if we had our own radio station in Kwabeng, what would we talk about?” she says: “farming, and education!”
These are people of breathtaking physical beauty, and twinkling humor, too. The name Barack Obama brings out affection and a touch of mischef. “He is our brother,” says an elder. “He’s our friend. He’s our son. He’s everything to Ghanaians.” So why did they all laugh when I first mentioned our president? Because, they explain, Obama had handed Ghana a sweet victory with his first sub-Saharan visit, a score as delicious as Ghana’s futbol win against Nigeria just before I arrived. “If Obama can send some American doctors to this district, and help us build a hospital, we will be pleased.”
We’re all in on the irony that Ghana, in fact, exports medical doctors to England and the US. I was shocked to hear reliably that there are more Ghana-trained doctors working in London and New York than in Ghana. Can it be? Ghana’s home network of healthcare is held together, just barely, by a couple of hundred Cuban doctors. It is one of Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang’s assignments, as a local boy made good at the University of Cape Coast, to get a Cuban doctor assigned to Kwabeng for one day every weekend.
It comes clear, as teenagers drift up to Professor Opoku-Agyemang with their college applications and their test scores, that he is also the village’s higher education chief. All afternoon he is giving students discreet advice and encouragement, showing me how the village works, and aspires. Kwabeng, with an immemorial past, looks to the future, too. Of course, the fantasist in me is scheming: how do I get back here — to live?