By Chris Johnson,
Director of Communications
Africa is a vast land of colorful cultures and rich history tinged by an equally vast legacy of poverty and broken promises.
As the Director of Communications for The Fuller Center for Housing, I’ve been dispatched to Africa for my very first overseas trip. An inexperienced traveler, I’m thankful my ticket is punched for the country of Ghana — widely regarded as the friendliest nation on the continent and very stable despite its entrenched poverty.
This is where my professional past and present will collide. I began my journalism career as a sportswriter in the newspaper business, spending countless hours sitting in press boxes and bleachers, prowling sidelines and locker rooms. Now, I tell the stories of the volunteers, supporters and homeowners who make The Fuller Center’s work possible. And, in Ghana, I am to tell the story of the Mercer University women’s basketball team, which has become the first sports team to make such a Global Builders trip with us. Sports and volunteerism unite. The only way I could be happier is if I did not have to spend 10 hours on a plane to get here.
I land in Accra, the capital city of more than 1.5 million people. I am met at Kotola International Airport by Jones Akoto-Lartey, Director of The Fuller Center for Housing of Ghana, one of five Fuller Center covenant partners in Africa — the others being in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the affordable housing movement was launched by our founders 40 years ago.
We step into a taxi and plunge into the chaotic, hectic streets of Accra. It’s loud. It’s hectic. It’s bustling. And Jones is perfectly relaxed as our taxi driver navigates no-holds-barred traffic as calmly as I might back out of the driveway at my house. I, however, am white-knuckled as I cling to the backseat and door. Horns blare. Everyone tailgates. Vehicles miss each other by centimeters. To everyone but me, this is perfectly normal. To me, my fear is justified. To Jones and our driver, it provides for a laugh.
As we head northward on our way to the Dodowa-Agomeda region where The Fuller Center works, the road itself becomes a metaphor for all I am about to learn about this land. The smooth pavement begins to narrow and become rougher. Our driver swerves constantly to avoid increasing numbers of potholes, careful to avoid going off the crumbling edge of the road. But while this road may be dilapidated, it’s better than the many dusty dirt roads heading to the shacks where so many people live. I may have grown up in rural Georgia, but I wouldn’t dare take my pickup truck down such ramshackle paths.
One of these dirt paths washed out during the rainy season leads to the Royal Sikafutu Hotel. This is where I and the volunteers will stay for the remainder of the trip. When I arrive, trainer Meagan McKinnon is running the players — and coaches — through stretching routines after a tough day on the job site.
After my belly is replenished by chicken and fried rice from the hotel’s kitchen, I go outside to mingle with the residents of the area for the first time. I quickly realize it’s not the first time for the Mercer crowd. It’s easy to spot Mercer head coach Susie Gardner on the road outside the hotel as children are running toward her yelling, “Mama Susie! Mama Susie!”
“It’s been incredible,” says the coach, bearing a camera much nicer than mine that practically smolders from the sheer quantity of photographs she takes. “We’ve met all types of people. … What’s awesome is that our hotel is right in the middle of a little community, so we get to see people drawing water from the well every day and working in their gardens. We go out and about, walk up and down the street, and they learn our names. For some reason, my name is Mama no matter what.”
When other children in the neighborhood see my camera, they aren’t shy—just the opposite. They run to me and beg to have their photograph taken. More importantly to them, they ask to be my friend. Of course I will, I say. I see this as no big deal. But the title of friend, I will come to find, is cherished here. Maybe that’s why happiness abounds amid all this poverty — and trash and goats and chickens.
“They’re just so happy,” junior guard Precious Bridges says of the locals. “I didn’t think they were going to be so happy, knowing their situation. They love each other. There’s unity. We can try to bring some of this back to America.”
“They found something that we like to call happiness,” junior center Teanna Robinson adds. “Everybody in America is in pursuit of it, and we complain about things. And they don’t have anything, but it seems like they’ve found it. Hopefully I can take that back with me to America.”
“These guys are always happy,” Coach Gardner says. “You don’t see much sadness or depression. They don’t need material things; they just need each other. They work hard and they laugh and they sing and they dance. And they’re so appreciative of us being here. I think we’ve learned a lot from watching them being so happy all the time.”
My room is comfortable, and after a long day of travel I drift off to sleep quickly in this poor land rich with happiness. But in the pitch-black darkness of 3 a.m., the roosters begin to crow throughout the neighborhood (as they will each early morning). These roosters are crazy, and they will not be my friends. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
The work site: Agomeda
We all board a bus the next morning to head farther north, about 15 miles to Agomeda township. From there, a small dirt road leads us to the work site, where local construction workers are already at work on five Fuller Center houses varying from the beginning stages of construction to nearly complete.
The coaches and student-athletes hop off the bus ready for action, while I’m still shaking the cobwebs and crowing out of my head. Even after a week and a half of building homes, they are ready to hit the ground running.
Because the homes are mostly cinder block, the women spend a great deal of time and effort carrying blocks and sand, mixing mortar, toting heavy buckets of water, shoveling rock, spreading the mortar and laying block. There is not an easy job to choose from, so each grabs a shovel, trowel or bucket and gets to work immediately. Whether it is the fortune of Coach Gardner’s recruiting the right players or an atmosphere that she and her staff have deliberately cultivated, there are no prima donnas on this team. However Mercer wound up with such a cohesive, hard-working unit, it bodes well for both this work site and the upcoming basketball season.
Yells of “mortar!” with the emphasis on the second syllable will echo in everyone’s heads as the local construction workers take joy in yelling it as loudly as possible when they need more. They relish the fun back-and-forth banter with these 18- to 22-year-old women, who cut up and trade barbs with the guys.
“It’s hard work, but there’s something about the hard work that makes it even more rewarding in the end,” junior guard Alicia Williams says. “The bricks are heavy and it’s hard to make the mortar by hand, but it’s very rewarding to see the progress that we’ve made. … We’ve gotten better each day.”
Even happier to see the women working so hard are the soon-to-be homeowners like Gififty, a mother of four.
“I feel very happy,” she says. “It’s very, very wonderful to help me to get somewhere to lay my head. We don’t have any place to lay down our heads.”
Midway through the workday, more than a dozen children from the local village come to the work site, and a few members of the team take a break from the difficult manual labor for the equally difficult but lighter task of helping the children with their math and English skills. Though English is the official language in Ghana, everyone speaks a native language first. Here, it is Twi. Children are instructed in their native tongue through their first three years of school, then all instruction is given in English. Communication with the children is difficult, but the players enjoy the challenge because the children are so enthusiastic about interacting with these new friends from America. And they are eager to learn.
Over the next two days, it will be more mortar, more shoveling, more tutoring. Fortunately, this is the coolest month of the year in Ghana, and it is the dry season. Agomeda is in a valley, and each day sees high temperatures reach only the low 80s with a constant breeze flowing between the mountains. It is much more comfortable than the weather back home at the Mercer University campus in Macon, Georgia.
On the final day, a huge house dedication is held for one completed home, although the celebration sort of covers the entire project. Girls come from the village in colorful traditional clothes and dance to drums. Speeches are given by officials, thanking the team for coming. And Coach Gardner is presented with a large painting marking the occasion. The Bears players join the dancers for a final dance, and many hugs are shared and photos taken before the team boards the bus for their final ride back to the hotel.
On the streets of Dodowa
Of course, you can’t mix mortar, teach a kid English and wait for the roosters to crow all day. You’ve got to make use of your free time. For the Mercer team, a lot of their free time is spent together. On their final Thursday night, they divide into teams for an impromptu talent show, where they prove to be even better performers than builders. The final Friday night, they spend reflecting on what the trip has meant to them.
While the team is having bonding sessions, I stroll the streets of Dodowa, every dozen feet or so hopping over uncovered gutters in the sidewalks that allow the water to pass through during the rainy season. If you fail to pay attention, you could fall a few feet.
For a while, I’ve been looking for insect repellent and finally find a pharmacy. Of course, it’s about as big as an average-sized master bathroom. And, of course, they don’t carry insect repellant — which means I’ll have to deal another day or two with my fear of getting malaria.
As I’m leaving, the proprietor stops me. She is sitting next to a man who I assume is her husband.
“What is your name?” she asks.
“No, your Ghanaian name.”
I explain that I don’t believe I have one, so they set to giving me one. For this, they want to know what day I was born.
“June 20,” I say.
“No, what day of the week, like Monday, Tuesday …”
“OK,” she says. “You’re Kofi.”
“Kofi must mean stupid,” I say, which garners a laugh from both of them, either because I’m a hilarious guy or they recognize the statement’s accuracy.
Food is plentiful in town. Bananas. Mangoes. Rice. Chicken. And meat on a stick. I find the meat on a stick outside a bar, where a boy of about 12 is manning a grill. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a Georgia boy going to various fairs, meat on a stick has got to be good. I ask what the meat is, and he says it’s sausage. Because it tastes great and only costs 1 cedi (about 50 cents) per sausage on a stick, I get two and don’t bother to ask what the sausage is made from.
I also walk more than a mile to an internet cafe at the Forest Hotel. For 1 cedi an hour, I get to sit at a computer that I’m pretty sure Ferris Bueller once used to play war games, but it has a fast enough connection to email and chat. Ghana is poor, but it is not cut off from the world. I’m almost as thankful for this as I am for meat on a stick.
Team-building on a whole new level
Before spending two weeks building homes, the Mercer Bears spent their first week in Accra on basketball-related activities, including teaching skills to under-privileged kids at a camp. In fact, their basketball connections in Accra were so impressed with the players that they joined them on the work site the final week.
Now, they are home. Back to air-conditioning, cold sodas, high-speed wireless everywhere, cheeseburgers, school and basketball. Soon, they will be back on the court and preparing to build upon their successful 2012-13 season with a drive for the Atlantic Sun conference championship and a berth in the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The players and coaches believe this three-week trip to Ghana will pay dividends throughout the season — and forever more.
“While we’ve been here, it’s been nothing but constant 24/7 team-building,” Coach Gardner says. “I’m hoping that we’ll have some pictures in our locker room and maybe having them put a picture in each of their lockers so this memory doesn’t fade. It’s one thing to be here in the moment, but what’s going to happen when we get back to Macon and start doing our normal routine? I don’t want us to lose this. Not just for a month or two, I want this to be ingrained in our souls for the rest of our lives. This will be hopefully part of our daily walk.”
“A trip like this brings you closer together,” Robinson says. “We’ve been through so many things and shared so many experiences. We’ve gotten to know each other on a more personal and deeper level. I think that’ll translate on the court and give us the upper hand against teams that maybe haven’t been together as long and in a more personal setting.”
“We’ve always been a close team, but with three weeks together, we’ve learned even more about each other, and I think that will relay onto the court,” Alicia Williams says.
“Just being away from home and everyone kinda being homesick this last week, we’ve all had to be there for each other,” incoming freshman Ana Anderson adds. “That kind of stuff will transfer onto the court when someone’s down at one time and they know the whole team has their back.”
Another incoming freshman, Taylor McClintock, says that such a bonding experience well before the season begins is something few freshman student-athletes get to experience.
“Just going in as a freshman, you’re scared, you’re nervous and you don’t know that many people,” she says. “I think this experience has helped me and the other two freshmen kind of get to know each of the teammates and each of the players. … I think we’re a lot farther along than the other freshmen in our conference and all the Division I schools. As a team, it will help us grow together, and we will always have this experience as a team. We’ll never forget it.”
“A lot of times back home, we were just in a basketball setting, but now we’ve actually been around each other 24/7,” senior Kendra Grant says. “We’ve gotten a lot closer. I just feel like the connections and the relationships are a lot closer and more genuine with this team than any other team I’ve been on.”
“It’s pretty cool that we’ve had no issues at all between us,” says Kate Aleman, a senior from Aukland, New Zealand. “We’ve been using teamwork here to move the bricks and to move the dirt, so I don’t see why that wouldn’t translate to the court.”
But the team-building associated with this trip is not limited to the Mercer Bears. The Fuller Center of Ghana has gotten a boost, as well.
“I must say that their coming to Ghana has actually put such life into the program,” Akoto-Lartey says. “And we are expecting more teams to come to Ghana to help provide shelter for the people in need. Ghana is in need of shelter.”
Progress is possible
There is much more to tell about Ghana, its people and the work The Fuller Center for Housing is doing with the help of volunteers like those from Mercer — including the many other teams Mercer On Mission has sent to work on Fuller Center projects in other corners of the word. I could fill a book with tales of encounters with strangers who saw me as a friend and all the sights, sounds and smells of the streets and markets. But this story is not at its end.
The smiles on all these faces belie the fact that they have been promised much through the decades. African leaders and businessmen are big on promises. They lay out visions for 1,000-house projects, high-tech hospitals, superhighways and more. It seems that even though these visions are rarely realized, no one listens unless the scheme is grandiose. It’s sad that in order to get noticed, you have to promise the impossible.
That’s one reason The Fuller Center’s work is so important here. At the root of the work is building homes for people who desperately need decent shelter. But the people here need to see these houses completed — one at a time. Instead of grandiose schemes, they need to see progress. Be it gradual or rapid, they need to see that good-hearted people have avenues to help that actually work. So much of the well-intentioned American dollars poured into Africa has been wasted, misused or lost in the shuffle. But every dollar The Fuller Center delivers to Africa helps families get a decent home.
The Fuller Center slogan “Building a Better World, One House at a Time” is not just a catch phrase; it’s the way things get done. The Fuller Center for Housing’s supporters and volunteers are proving that even in the poorest regions of Africa, progress is possible — and success is not a pipe dream.