“Mooriah, are you ready? The elders will be waiting…”

Shoot. Just give me five minutes. I’ll meet you at your house. I just poured water over some oats and was about to light the stove. No go. I threw on some clothes and brushed my teeth, and told the oats I would be back for them. I have got to start waking up earlier. The elders meet at the chief’s palace every Friday morning, and I had been meaning to meet with them to start discussing the needs of the community. Abukari said we needed to be there at 8, but suddenly 7:20 was a better time. I would have been ready, but as I literally rolled out of bed, Seidu was waiting at my door hoping for some tea. Just as he left, Abukari calls. As I reach his home, it is apparent he isn’t there.

I sat with his kids and thought about the soggy oatmeal on my stove as I waited. “Ok,” he says from behind me. “We can go.” As we make our way to the chief’s palace, we make a pit stop at the Assemblyman’s house. He tells us he we should wait for him, he just needs to bath. Really? Weren’t we in a rush? Abukari decided to take the opportunity to greet half of Sankapala. Let’s just visit this Red Cross mother. Let’s greet this elder. I grudgingly follow him around like a stubborn child who would rather be home watching TV. Or eating breakfast. Ghana is a whole lot of rushing just to wait.

I stare at the ground and follow Abukari’s feet from compound to compound. At one point I look up and realize he is bringing me to a large half-built hut, surrounded by a couple dozen men, ages ranging from 3 to 60, all knee deep in mud, throwing slabs of clay one on top of the other. I could cut the testosterone with a knife. Oooooh, no. no no no... Why does Abukari insist on thrusting me into these uncomfortable situations? All eyes stop and look at me. One man babbles to me in Dagbani, and the rest erupt in laughter. “They want to know if you will help them.” Nope, I say to the wind, because Abuakri is no longer behind me. I turn a full 360, and look across the way to see that he has rolled up his sleeves and has begun helping them build.

Oh, for the love of all that is holy. Abukari! I thought the elders were waiting! I breathe heavily out of my nose, shake my head and find some shade. After 15 minutes, we go back to assembly’s home and wait another 10 minutes before he is ready. We finally reach the chiefs palace - not a single elder is in sight. It’s now 9. Assembly looks at me and tells me that they will come, as if reading my mind. We sit for another 15 minutes, and slowly they all come wobbling over and find a seat on furry goatskin mats. The final elder is blind, he is clutching a stick that is being pulled by two small children. He almost sits on another elder. I smile. We finally begin.

The assemblyman is my translator - he reminds them that I am here to assess the needs of the community. All the men talk at once, until the chief starts to speak. Then all is quite, he gives his two piece and the assembly summaries the chaos. “Well. First and foremost, our number one priority is the accommodation for strangers.” I knew this was coming. This is a project that the past three volunteers have worked on, I respond. Why do the elders believe that it still isn’t built? Assembly’s smile is uneasy. He tells me the first volunteer raised the money and it was misspent. I ask why I shouldn’t be led to believe that it will be misspent again. He doesn’t dare translate this. The chief curiously looks at me. “We won’t misspend it this time,” he assures me. I start writing in my notebook. Numero uno. Accommodation for strangers. The community didn’t put a dime towards accommodating me as were the regulations for receiving a volunteer, I think to myself. I came to an empty room with a broken door. And yet, they wouldn’t mind if I raised the funds to house future ‘strangers’. I don’t bring this up, not now. What other needs does Sankpala have?

Another round of chaos ensues and when it settles Assembly turns to me again. “Sankpala is growing more and more everyday. We need more water.” I nod. That’s what I’m talking about. Needs. I’m a health volunteer. They are starting to get it. “We would like it very much if you could build another dam.” My eyes almost fall out of their sockets. I look at Abuakri in shock, and he isn’t fazed. You want me to build Sankpala another dam? “Yes.” Do the elders realize that it is the dams that are the source of many, many diseases and parasites, including Guinea Worm, you know, the reason why I am HERE. Don’t you think I should invest in bringing another borehole, a source of clean portable water? “We would rather have another dam. For the cattle.” Oh. Ok. As long as there is enough water for the cattle. I jot down Sankpala’s second most pressing need, water for the cattle. And more Guinea Worm.

Anything else? I ask. Another rumble of Dagbani. “We would like a community center.” What would this look like? “A stage. We have nowhere for people to perform.” So this is for entertainment purposes? “Mmmm. Yes.” I look up from my notebook. The faces are kind and now familiar. These people may drive me crazy, but they are my family. I’ll do my best to meet the needs of this community. Thank you very much for talking with me. The chief nods. The elders smile. I take a breath and make my way home.

Before I came to Ghana, I told my self this - people of Africa are not stupid. Everything that I see, hear and experience is packed with hundreds of years of cultural implications that I don’t understand or am aware of. The elders of Sankpala sure aren’t idiots. They may be textbook uneducated, but they are smart and thoughtful. It took me some time and a few talks with other Ghanaians to realize that all projects that the elders deemed priority are all status symbols: Cattle, white strangers, a place for people to gather and socialize. They may not be health related, but they would rake in cash one way or another. Maybe they are getting to the root of health problems better than I can. The wealthier the village the chubbier the kids.

I won’t be bringing in another dam to this community and I will definitely not be building an accommodation for strangers. While a community center sounds like a good time, I don’t think I will be investing in that either. It’s not what I am here for. I’m sorting through what all of Sankpala perceives as important, the women, the students, the soccer players (so what do you guys think are the needs of this community? A football. No, not for the team, for the community. There are many health needs in this community. But we really need a new football), and I am getting there. The process has been one hell of a ride.


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