Saturday, February 18, 2012

Eldred Atkinson's Essay about Working in Africa with Building Solid Foundations

Library dedication at ABC Methodist School
 In sending out announcements about the book launch party for Cold River, I included a distant cousin I hadn't contacted on eight or ten years. Bless his heart, he responded, read the book, and we've been corresponding ever since. I sent him a link to SWAN, the charitable foundation I work with, and he told me about the work he does in Africa with Building Solid Foundations. (www.buildingsolidfoundations.org  )
I asked him to write about his experiences as he traveled to africa to drill water wells for remote villages. This organization is a wonderful example of what can happen when just plain people get toether to try to make the world a better place.  The pictures are from the web site. I encourage you to check it out.

Here is Eldred's (aka Ackie) essay: 



MYSTERIOUS AFRICA, THE LAND WITH WHICH I FELL IN LOVE

           In the middle of the night in September 2006, twenty-two of us, all with different preconceptions but same goals, were 31,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean on our way to Africa. Eighteen of us were going to the hospital in Apam, Ghana, and four of us were going into villages to drill water wells.
            I turned to Dr. Bob and said, “If you want some special entertainment, stroll to the rear of the plane and look at the Africans. Some are sitting on seats with blankets pulled up around their heads like a bib, and are sound asleep; some are stretched out over two or three seats, and they sure are dressed strangely.” I said this because some of the women were wearing long multi-colored dresses with designs of brown, green, drab orange and red.
            Dr. Bob said, “Those people in the back are saying, ‘If you want some special entertainment, stroll to the front of the plane and look at those white folks. Some are sitting on seats with blankets pulled up around their heads like a bib, and are sound asleep; some are stretched out over two or three seats, and they sure are dressed strangely.’”
            Soon—a word that the Ghanaians use so that time frames take on different meanings—we could see the sun rising in the East. It was the most beautiful one that I had ever seen, not because of the red-orange-yellow coloration, but because I viewed it from 31,000 feet and I could see the entire curvature of the earth.
            We landed in Ban Jul, Gambia to refuel. Since it was raining, we did not disembark, but stayed on the plane and took pictures though the windows. I wandered to the cockpit and asked the pilot if I could take pictures of the panel. He said sure, allowed me to sit in the captain’s seat, and gave me his hat to wear for a photo session.  The pilots, the stewardesses, the stewards and the passengers were all fabulous. This is where my love for Africa and the Africans began.
            A stewardess said, “ I must leave for a few moments to take care of the UMs.”
            In my ignorance, I asked, “What is a UM?”
            “A UM is an Unaccompanied Minor.”
            “I think I am an UM. No, I am an AWD, an Accompanied Well Driller.”
            A couple of hours later we were back in the friendly skies, and five hours later, we landed at KOTOA International Airport in Accra, Ghana, Africa. By this time I think I was starting to get saddle sores. 
The stewardess announced, “The time here is “Zulu Time!” I didn’t know if she was jerking my chain or not, but I did find that the Ghanaians had a sense of humor, although we were not always on the same page.
            On the wall was a sign with these words, “AKWAABA”, which meant “WELCOME.” It is a warm greeting with which the Ghanaians welcome you to their country.
            After receiving our luggage and going through customs, we met Joseph Ntiamoah, the driver of the bus and Christina Maudie Pomary, our tour director. Christina was of a culture called Ashanti. She spoke Fanti, English, and later learned German.
I asked Christina,  “Will we have trouble with the language?”
She laughed and replied, “Oh, no, the national language is English, so you can always find someone to translate for you.”
            Outside of Accra, at the little seaport of Nungua, Joseph turned into the gated area of the beautiful Nshonaa Dutchotel. It gave me a strange feeling to be stopped at the gate by a security guard who had to check us to see if we were OK. We passed the test and everyone was wonderful to us, greeting us with open arms. One of the first things they did was give us bottled water, which is a custom of theirs.
            My roommate, Ken Wood, owned a well drilling outfit in Maryland. I actually believe that he could walk on water, as he has done so much for the people of Ghana. This was his first trip, but since then has made dozens.
 Sara, my wife, was to go to the hospital with sixteen others in the morning. The well drilling crew would stay in this village for a couple of days until we could get our equipment off the docks.
After a wonderful buffet of rice, fish, spaghetti, and vegetables, we went to a gazebo outside to relax. Pam, one of our nurses, said, “ Ackie, I have to show you the beach!”
She took me by the hand and we walked down the steps. What a beautiful setting: a calm, mild late-summer night, a full moon shinning over the waters of the Atlantic, the melodious sounds of the waves breaking over the beach, and a very good-looking blonde nurse walking hand-in hand with me onto the beach. Walking about 10-feet onto the sand, I was appalled. I had never seen anything like this.
No one, not even Christina, told me that over most of Ghana, and I assume much of Africa, is “open sewage.” I never got accustomed to it.  A beautiful hotel and a polluted beach! When it rained, the water cascaded through the dump, bringing down body waste, old tangled fish nets, and junk in general. High tide flushed the beach, much as we do when we flush our commodes. Periodically, the hotel cleaned the beach, but next high tide, or next rain, brought more waste material.
            The next day, the medical team departed for Apam, a fishing village of about 22,000 people. The hospital was to be our headquarters for many years to come. The well-drilling team stayed at the hotel so we could retrieve our equipment off the docks and start our own fantastic experiences.
            The four of us, Ken, Steve, Jim, and myself, took in the local culture and learned some of African customs, such as never take pictures of police while you are riding in the back seat of a troe troe (Taxi). That was one of several police stories we added to our memoirs.  
We saw people cooking meals over open fires. We saw vendors carrying pans on their heads, scurrying about selling very salty hard-boiled eggs in the shell, bread and small baggies of water. Some of the kids and young adults sat along the road, breaking stones into gravel that they would put into bags and sell. A couple of sows were rooting through the trash, with goats and chickens roaming everywhere.
 I asked Joseph, our official guide for the day, “Do you have hogs running loose in your village?”
”Oh, yes, and chickens, goats and sheep, too. We, also, have alligators.”
“Do you eat the alligators?”
He was appalled that I would ask a question like that. He stood erect, rocked back on his heels, and very sternly answered, ”Oh, no, we worship them. We feed them dead chickens and put our hands in the mouths of the alligators, for they will not hurt you.”
Was he jerking my chain? I never knew, but I imagine they have a lot if one-armed people in their culture.
            I asked Joseph, “Have you ever had Malaria?”
            “Oh, yes, everyone gets malaria. I have had it three times.”
            “Do you know anyone that has had the Guinea Worm Disease?”
            “I know lot of people that have had it, including myself.” With that he pulled up his trouser legs, and showed me the scars. He continued, ”That is where the Guinea worms were. It is very painful and feels like a red-hot knife. You have to ease out the worm very slowly. ”
            I told him, “That is one reason we are in Ghana, to drill for clean water to help eradicate the Guinea Worm and other water borne carriers.”
            We went to the outback village of Dalikorpe and met the rest of our well-drilling team, six Ghanaians. It was a fantastic bonding, even though everything went wrong. The drive shaft on our water support truck twisted, we missed two wells before we hit the third, an idol was set up for us, it rained and flooded the village, the truck became stuck in the sand, and we had trouble with two of the locals who had been drinking swamp water. Eventually, all worked out better than could be expected.
This was my favorite village. Ye Ye wanted to be my wife. She offered me a goat and a cow. The chief offered to give me a plot of land if I would drill water on the land, and he wanted to make Sara, my wife, his queen. It is difficult to pass up offers like that, but I did. It was there I met my first young red-headed African girl. She was treated differently because she was a gift from God. 
When many of the Ghanaians are born, the name that is given to them is the name of the day of the week upon which they were born. It seems strange, because one set of names applies to females, while another applies to males. Eight days later, you are given a first name of someone that is well respected, thus many have biblical names. My Ghanaian name became Eldred Kwasi Atkinson, because I was born on Sunday. Later, because I am so old, my African co-workers named me “Papa Ackie”, because they are my sons and daughters.
I loved roaming through the villages, mingling with people of all ages, working, dancing, singing and even playing the Talking Drums, (I did not make them talk, only a lot of BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.) We mingled with the school children, and one I time led them to school like the pied piper, doing the goose-step and playing a pretend kazoo. “Soon” the kids were doing the same, but we did manage to get to school. As they entered their classroom, we gave them a pencil. When you have nothing, a pencil is a big deal.
The stories here, all true, were indelibly written in my memory
            Over a period of time, Ken separated from our group and formed his own Non Government Organization and has drilled close to 800 water wells. He now drills in Ghana and in Tanzania. He has asked me to go to Tanzania with him, but I haven’t done that, yet 
Our group formed Building Solid Foundations and we are doing projects that are amazing. Our aim is to make the fishing village of Apam into a model city.  We return to the hospital for two weeks every year in September. This September 2012 will be our seventh trip.
            Each year we plant a vegetable garden consisting of six 100-foot rows of vegetables at the Apam High School, and we plan to form an Ag Ed course at the school. We dedicated libraries at the ABC Methodist School, at St. Jude’s Catholic School, and at The Salvation Army School, and we will go to at least two other schools in the area. All the schools are now increasing their education scores. We have enough equipment to help other schools in the outlying villages, but for many reasons, we cannot ship them all at once.
Eldred (kneeling in front) and well drilling crew.
            We installed 2300 foot of pipe and four sludge tanks at the hospital, and it has the capabilities of being monitored in Williamsport, PA. We are bringing water and electricity into Apam. We have a large building in Apam that will be made into a fast-freeze plant and cold storage plant, and will make ice for the fishing boats. We are bringing in a small water filtration pod.
In six 9-day periods, our surgeons have completed more than 1,100 surgeries, and the hospital has grown from a small, very poor hospital into a very nice, highly-rated one. We have trained nurses and teachers in the community. We are trying to get one of our local colleges to allow some of their students do half of their student-teaching in Apam, and the other half near their college.
Our construction team has been there to help in all areas, but our agreement says “We will do it with you, but not for you.”
            Why did I fall in love with Africa? Love is a feeling like you have never felt before. Walk hand-in-hand or in the footsteps of the Africans and you, too, will fall in love with the people in this mysterious land.
~~~~~~~~~~
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