“Wow, so this is Africa.” Those are the words I thought to myself as I looked out the window and saw our plane finally break through the clouds. Having been on a substantial amount of flights before, I was accustomed to this moment of the trip being accompanied with a view or gridlocked streets, cars scurrying everywhere, and modern buildings lined up perfectly into various neighborhoods. However, this time was different. This time, I saw dirt roads, buildings scattered here and there, and land, lots of seemingly unoccupied land.
I had been preparing myself for a trip back to Ghana like this for some time (I have not been back since the age of 2), however the shocks just kept coming. It was great moment to walk out of the airport and see many of my family members assembled for a welcoming. Apparently, I was a little bigger from the last time I was in the country so everyone got a big laugh out of that. After getting my luggage into the Project truck, it was time to see the city.
Seeing Accra was a huge shock. I had prepared myself to see the village of Ekumdipe eventually, but perhaps I overestimated what the capital city would be like. All the family members that I had met overtime in the U.S. used to preach to me about how advanced and westernized Accra was. It was supposedly the most urbanized area of the entire country and possibly in the entire continent. And being a guy raised in the small town of Buford, Georgia, I felt like I had low expectations for urbanization.
Right off the bat, I saw perhaps the expectations were not low enough. Immediately outside the airport, I saw two kids squatting around the bushes nearby.
(In many places, Accra shows signs of being a modern, westernized city)
I asked my uncle what they were doing, and he laughed and informed me that the nearest bathroom must not be near enough. Much of Accra definitely seemed like bustling a western city (especially considering Ghana has been independent for barely 50 years),but it didn’t take long to get to the dirt roads on the outskirts of the city.
Also, at every stop sign there was a group of young men and women actively trying to sell off goods that ranged from snacks to ties to Barack Obama’s autobiography. Along with these culture shocks, I was also quickly hit with some of the major things that I felt are holding Ghana back.
Naturally, after getting to the dirt roads and seeing some of the levels of poverty in the area, I was shocked to see a Mercedes roll by. I thought it must have been an anomaly, but it didn't stop there. Luxury vehicles from all over the world continued to pass by. That kind of contrast bugged me, and the feeling was elevated later.
As we moved further through the area, I saw a more prominent version of the inequality around.
We started to drive by some mansions, houses so nice that they could probably hold their own in many U.S towns, however, right across the street from some of these houses, I saw some of the most run down communities I have seen in person in my entire life.
The disparity between the two left an uneasiness in my stomach.It seemed wrong.
Being in New York City all summer, I was used to seeing varying scales of wealth in close vicinities, but this was a level I was not used to.
I was struck by another problem later. My father and uncle bought me a coconut to drink from and I joked that I wanted to see the receipt to the purchase first and we all laughed. However, I pondered over this later. We had just made a purchase to a final good and service, however the government would never know about it. By definition, this transaction should add to the nation’s GDP, but it never will officially. It will also never be taxed to contribute to the government’s revenue. As I looked around and saw the abundance of men and women side-selling items all over the area, I realized that there were a lot of similar transactions that must occur in Ghana that fall into this same category.
(A picture of a man selling hubcaps on the corner. These purchases would most likely be untaxed and are probably tricky to account for in GDP)
If these transactions are not accounted for, then it must be extremely difficult to try to calculate the country’s GDP. I told my uncle and he agreed that it was a large problem. I then replied by saying there must be a solution and asked him what it was. He quickly agreed that there was a solution, and after pausing and smiling to himself, he told me that I should think about it more because it was my responsibility to find it. The comment stopped me in my tracks and sent me into thought. If we would all look at the problems we see in the world and take them as our personal responsibility to solve, the world would be a much better place.
That is whole idea behind RISE. Although, the problems of Accra bugged me and I felt that they eventually would need to be dealt with, they are not the reason I took off on this trip to Africa. In the north, there is a village called Ekumdipe that experiences less wealth disparity than Accra because the entire community is impoverished. All of the roads are dirt and none of the buildings have electricity. With the way things are now, there is not much of a timeline for things to get better. The cycle will just continue and continue unless there is some stroke of luck and someone decides to personally donate/invest in the community or the government decides that Ekumdipe’s development will be somewhat vital to Ghana’s prosperity in the short term. However, all of these events are out of the control of the citizens of the township. Project Rural Irrigation System for Ekumdipe aims to put that control in their hands. I wish I could say that after these next couple of weeks I can eliminate the poverty in Ekumdipe or any of the areas surrounding it, but that is far from the truth. The truth of the matter is that doing so will probably take years. Also, Ekumdipe is realistically just one of the many many communities in Ghana and Africa experiencing similar levels of poverty. Even if I could solve the problem in this one place by the end of August (which I can’t), it would still exist in hundreds of places all of over the country. So why bother? Why even try to make a dent in a problem that is so vast and daunting?
It all goes back to what my uncle said in the truck earlier this afternoon. It is up to all of us to be the solutions to the problems that we see in the world. I can’t beat this one by myself, but if I can permanently improve the lives of even 100 people in Ekumdipe, if I can inspire one boy to work his way out of his village through determination and education just as my father did from his, if I can inspire even 5 more people back home in the US to get up from reading this blog and to attempt to tackle the problems that bug them the most in this world themselves, or if I can establish a precedent for a village nearby to attempt to create a similar irrigation system, then this has all been a success and the work put into this project was all worth it. And of course, this project is way bigger than me. I am forever grateful to all of the friends and family who donated and supported this project and for the support of the institutions back at Harvard that have made it even possible for the it to even make it to this point (Professor Higginbotham and Professor Charles Owu-Ewie and the rest of the Department of African and African American Studies, Professor Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the our team in the African Development Initiative).
Tomorrow, we leave Accra and take a 10-hour drive north to Tamale. I’m sure that I will probably be even more shocked by the journey tomorrow than I was by the one today and I will be sure to keep you updated about it on the next post. I promise to keep the rest of posts shorter!