As villages in this part of Ghana go, Gyetiase seems fairly typical as you arrive via its red dust road, with its modest dwellings, lush vegetation and wandering goats and chickens.
But for a place that up until recently was struggling due to the demise of local cocoa production some 30 years ago, its smart new health clinic, piped water system and general air of purposefulness mark it out.
That it is now on the road to recovery and more is due in no small part to Bloomsbury childminder Martha Boadu who grew up in Gyetiase and was determined to make a difference to the lives of the people she left behind.
The vehicle of change has been Ashanti Development, the charity she helped set up almost a decade ago from the front room of her flat in Marchmont St with her neighbour Penny David.
In a country where the state is small and not always efficient, the charity has now become a major institution in this remote part of Ashanti Region in its provision of better health and education facilities, basic amenities and small business support, not only for Gyietiase and its 2,000 or so residents but surrounding villages as well.
And today Martha was commissioning yet another new project during one of her twice yearly visits to Ghana. Armed with a pick axe and battling the 35 degree heat she gamely broke the turf in a sod turning ceremony for a community museum amid much cheering and clapping.
A museum may not fit everyone’s view of what constitutes development, but as Martha explained to the assembled villagers, it would go a long way to enhancing people’s pride in their history and culture.
“We don’t value what we once had,” she said. “But it is important that we don’t forget our culture and it is important that our children know of it. It’s a part of our education as well and education is a key to progress.”
Indeed, much of the day long celebration was a rolling showcase of local customs like the ‘outdooring’ or baby naming ceremony, the adowa dance and traditional hunting methods.
Days earlier the mother of six, addressed here as ‘Maame Martha’, also opened the latest stage in Gyetiase’s piped water provision, representing a marked improvement in the supply.
In January during a previous visit, Martha was featured in Ghana’s national newspaper, the Daily Graphic, donating £23,000 of specialist eye surgery equipment to “development partner” Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in the regional capital Kumasi. It had been given to Ashanti Development by German firm Heidelberg Engineering.
Little wonder that Martha is regarded like a visiting dignitary, and that medawase papaapa – ‘thank you very much’ – are the words one most frequently hears in her presence.
Although Ghana is now among Africa’s fastest growing economies thanks in part to the discovery of oil in 2007, rural areas like Gyetiase have little to show for it, as good as indication as any that wealth doesn’t necessarily trickle down.
But even in the good old days of bumper cocoa and coffee harvests, Martha remembers life being hard. One of the biggest problems was that water had to be collected each day from a stream about 2km away, a five hour round trip.
“As children we had to help the women fetch water and the journey left everyone exhausted for the rest of the day as it was very hilly. We used this water for everything and people often fell sick because it wasn’t clean.”
When Martha returned to Gyetiase in 2000 for the first time since leaving for England in 1984, she was shocked at how impoverished it had become. Local farmers had never recovered from a drought that wiped out cocoa production in the early 1990s. “I knew I had to do something to help. I’d be watching Blue Peter with my children and see the sort of development projects they were supporting overseas and this gave me an idea of what I could do.”
Her collaboration with co directors Penny David, a retired management consultant, and David Williamson, a water engineer, led to Ashanti Development’s pioneer project connecting the village to the mains water supply following a fund raising appeal.
Since then, with the help of volunteers and the villagers themselves, the charity has built a health clinic, installed a toilet in every home and helped expand the government school. It has also introduced a small loans scheme, giving people the chance to generate income through shops, smallholdings and cottage manufacturing.
Such interventions are simple but transformative. “Before we started people just sat there and went blind because of cataracts. Now these can be easily removed for free at the clinic.”
Now back in the UK and pushing one of her charges to a playgroup, Martha enthuses once again about the museum and the type of displays she wants on show, including the recreation of a traditional Ashanti house. Money for the project, which has already received preliminary advice from the British Museum’s Africa section, has yet to be raised. But, given Ashanti Development’s track record so far, that should only be a matter of time.
First published Camden New Journal June 27 2013