The Toyota pick-up truck edged carefully forwards as it bumped along the dirt road, intermittently throwing up clouds of red dust. We were travelling through a remote area of the Ashanti Region in Ghana and dense bush lay all around.
I was with a group of volunteers from Ashanti Development, a small Camden-based charity that’s been working locally for the past 15 years. We were on our way to visit a series of villages that have arisen because of climate change, not the apocalyptic floods and droughts that occupy the TV news, but the insidious shift in weather patterns over the decades that has turned savannah into desert in the north of the country, forcing people to migrate south in search of greener pastures.
Their settlements are clearings in the bush, lacking the most basic of amenities and often cut off from health and education services. “Our main aim is to manage health and reduce poverty, and we start off by installing latrines and a borehole [to extract groundwater],” explains our driver Nicholas Aboagye, the charity’s genial project manager by way of development studies in the UK and sound on-the-ground knowledge.
“If people drink contaminated water from streams they get sick and have to buy medicines they can’t afford, or they just lack the energy to farm and make money.”
We arrive at the hamlet of Esereso, coming across a group of women standing around a borehole set a few metres away from thatched dwellings made of mud. The water they pump up tastes cold and sweet, far better than the plastic bottled water that has gone warm in our bags. Further up, a kindergarten is under construction, while over the way Kwasi Yeboah, one of Ashanti Development’s network of resident health assistants, prepares to greet us. The nearest clinic is six kilometres away along a road that can be impassable during the rains, so he plays a vital role in his neighbours’ well being.
Rewind to 2005 when Ashanti Development started out in just one village. It now runs projects across 70 communities as well as several programmes like the small business loan scheme. One of its patrons is Holborn and St Pancras MP Keir Starmer but, having secured a sizeable footprint locally, it also hopes to win the support of traditional ruler, the Asantehene, arguably the most powerful figure in Ghana.
The inspiration behind it all is Martha Boadu – or “Mame Martha” as she is affectionately known here – a nursery worker who grew up in one of the villages and came to London in 1982 worrying about those she left behind. When she returned to Ghana in 2000 she was shocked at the levels of poverty she witnessed. Here, the advent of unpredictable weather had crippled cocoa cultivation, once a mainstay of the Ashanti economy.
“Without cocoa people had nothing,” she tells me with characteristic passion. “They had to collect water from a stream two kilometres away but it was often polluted and added to the health problems they were already suffering from due to lack of food. I was determined to do something about it.”
Together with her friend Penny David, a retired management consultant who lives around the corner from her in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, she set up Ashanti Development, with the initial aim of raising money to install a borehole in her village, Gyetiase. Household latrines, a health clinic and community centre swiftly followed as well as a kindergarten.
“Other villages saw what we had done and the difference it made, and of course, they wanted the same,” adds Martha. “For me, it’s all a dream come true.”
The charity’s most recent initiative, a health centre and maternity clinic, its fourth to date, was unveiled in January and Nana Osei Kwame, the chief of Nyinampong, the the biggest of the six communities the clinic will serve – around 3,000 people – joined government officials for the grand opening, a traditional durbar ceremony involving drumming, dancing and much speechifying. With most women having an average of six children and the nearest hospital some distance away, the new facility is much appreciated.
“We aim to provide people with the very basics, beginning with clean water and sanitation,” says Penny, who visits Ashanti regularly and seems to have fallen in love with the place . “If you pull people up by their shoe strings and give them the basics they will run with it.”
But is it sustainable? I ask, uusing that trendy development buzzword. “They [the Ashanti] are terrific, there’s no stopping them once they are given the opportunity,” she replies earnestly. “If we left tomorrow, they would be OK.”
It cannot escape one’s notice that the charity is carrying out work the government should be doing. While Ghana is classified by the World Bank as a middle income nation and boasts shiny shopping malls, Uber and advanced mobile technology, 20 per cent of the population, officially at least, lives in poverty and there is widespread inequality.
“The government has more problems than it has got money to deal with,” says Nicholas with a sigh. “We are just trying to improve things in our own small way. ”
Back in settler territory, we’re sitting beneath the welcome shade of a mango tree in Dagati, a village named after the Dagati tribe of northern Ghana that most of the villagers belong to. Shaba Tinkani came here 15 years ago and today is a prosperous farmer thanks largely due to Ashanti Development’s farm support programme, which has helped him double his yield and win him the municipality’s Best Farmer of the Year award.
The programme is part of a wider scheme involving more than 240 farmers to boost the production of new cash crops like yam, cassava and rice in a region that can no longer sustain cocoa. It is a way of tackling the two ends of the climate change debacle. The hope is that villages like Dagati and Esereso stay put and prosper and that long established communities finally get back on their feet.
This article first appeared in The Review, February 20 2020