The two set up a charity to bring piped water to a village in the Ashanti region of Ghana. Since then, Ashanti Development has gone from strength to strength, improving basic amenities and spreading its work to surrounding villages.
It all started with the troubled mind of Martha Boadu, who grew up in Gyetiase, a village that lay in the heart of Ghana’s lucrative gold and cocoa producing region but saw little of its wealth.
People eked out a hand-to-mouth existence, their lives revolving around the need to collect water each day for all their cooking and washing needs.
“Women used to have to get their water from a stream about two kilometres away from the village,” she recalls from her flat in O’Donnell Court, Marchmont St.
“It would take around five hours, longer in the dry season because you would have to queue up. Villagers were always tired and also suffered from a variety of health problems because of the water. I pitied them so much.”
The solution was clean piped water, which Martha had worked out would cost around £32,000 to install. But how to go about it? The answer came from Penny David, partner of the late Brunswick ward councillor Brian Weekes, whom Martha approached for advice.
“My husband was a member of the local labour party, so I knew Brian and Penny and I thought they might be able to help,” explains Martha with an expansive smile.
Penny, who lived over the road in Grenville St, was immediately interested. “Martha did not beg. She just wanted to know whether her idea was sensible,” says Penny. “And I thought it was.”
A former top management consultant for industry and government, she had a wealth of contacts, one of them water engineer David Williamson.
David, a volunteer with Water Aid, flew out to Ghana and found that by getting the villagers to help out with the construction, it could be done for much less.
A year later, in 2005, Penny accompanied Martha to Gyetiase. “It was an amazing experience,” she exclaims. “I had travelled in Africa quite extensively but I had never stayed in a traditional African village. I was taken around by Martha, who proved to be a wonderful bridge between two cultures. I was blown away by it. When we came back we set up Ashanti Development.”
Both possessed the drive to propel the scheme forward, which first of all meant raising money. The UK High Commission in Accra and Swiss charity BasAid covered the costs, and the taps – six of them at strategic points in the village –were turned on that same year.
But Martha and Penny knew that there was so much more work to do. Six years down the line, Gyetiase’s 1,800 or so residents enjoy a dramatically transformed quality of life, with proper toilets and improved health and education facilities as well as opportunities for skills training and setting up small businesses via microcredit schemes. Similar initiatives are being extended to around 36 other settlements.
The nerve centre of Ashanti Development, whose patrons include R&B crooner Lemar, former Camden councillor John Mills and local MP Frank Dobson, is a small backroom in Penny’s flat in Downing Court. From here a network of volunteer doctors, nurses, teachers and technicians is organised to carry out the work in partnership with the villagers and local experts.
Development is a tricky issue, she admits, but the buzzword is sustainability – projects develop in such a way that, in time, they are able to operate independently of the charity.
Events like a recent sponsored walk and a performance last September by members of the Royal Ballet help raise vital funds, while local firms like Leigh St Chemists and SpecSavers have provided vital cash injections.
SpecSavers has been involved from the beginning, sending out a team of opticians to Gyetiase to treat the high prevalence of eye disease and donating money and equipment towards its new two-storey health centre.
“It has completely taken over my life,” Penny, who travelled to Gyetiase in November to monitor the progress of various projects, declares happily.
For Martha, who came to the UK in 1984, it is wish fulfilled. “It feels as if I am dreaming,’ she says. ‘I never believed it would happen but by the grace of God it has. We thank everyone who has helped to make it all possible.”