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The Development of Akim Ayirebi

This story first appeared in The Statesman on December 14, 2006:

Chris Benjamin, 14/12/2006

“We are fortunate to have so many distinguished alumni from Ayirebi,” said David Firang, himself a product of this small village outside of Akim Oda in Eastern Region. “There is Samuel, who became a Minister of Health, Edward, who is a Director with the Water Company, Dr Owusu who was Leader of the Opposition, The Captain and Patrick who have both been very successful in business.”

But in Ghana, where remittances from overseas ex-pats is one of the largest sources of national income, Mr Firang has himself become one of the most respected of the Ayirebi alumni.

He has recently returned from Canada, where he works full-time and is completing a PhD in Social Work, in order to organise, finance, and attend the funeral of his mother Mercy, a task that includes the building of two new homes for his sisters and in-laws. He has come a long way from humble beginnings, and has much to be grateful for, including five healthy children (all boys), yet his mind is filled with troubles.

“Ghana is changing so quickly I can hardly recognise it,” he says. “I feel like a stranger in my own country.” He made the move to Canada 15 years ago to begin his Master’s degree and, like so many Ghanaians, never moved back. His last visit was 1999 when his brother was killed in a car accident.

“Things were so bad then, a human catastrophe,” he said, because of drought. “Everyone was so skinny and I started giving people some money. Then they wouldn”t leave me alone.” He says that this time things are much better in the village, which has recently built a health clinic, developed programming in several schools, and added a school feeding programme that has substantially increased attendance at primary school.

Despite the improvements, much is still expected of Mr Firang, who is known locally as Dr Firang at the insistence of his Ghanaian peers. Having thrown one of the largest funerals this village has ever known, he found that prices were inflated when service providers learned of his Canadian connections, and relatives and community members at all levels of society still request their shares.

Ghana has changed

Indeed, much has changed across Ghana in the 15 years since Mr Firang moved away, in the cities and villages. In terms of development, just before Mr Firang’s departure the yet to be elected Rawlings government bowed to international pressure to decentralise Ghana’s polity and economy by creating District Assemblies. Government has since dedicated a significant amount of the development budget toward a District Assemblies Common Fund to support local initiatives. Further to rural development, numerous other agricultural development projects and policies have been implemented over those years.

Examples of these include the Medium Term Agricultural Growth Development Strategy in 1990 and the Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Development Strategy in 1998, the Agricultural Sub-sector Investment Project, the Rural Finance Services Project, the Village Infrastructure Project, the Fisheries Sub-sector Capacity Building Project, and National Livestock Services Project.

More recently, Government has launched a National Health Insurance Programme and a National School Feeding Programme, both designed to develop a healthy, educated population in rural and urban Ghana. These are new initiatives and as a nation we are just beginning to observe the results.

Educating farmers

In Ayirebi many people emphasise the importance of agriculture both locally and as the lifeblood of Ghana. Dr Adjekum, who has lived in Ayirebi for most of his life (excluding his education in the Soviet Republic and the UK), even went so far as to say that educating farmers poses a threat to Ghana’s economy.

“Teach them to read and write, fine,” he said, “but even a Junior Secondary School education makes people want to run off to the city to sleep in a kiosk or die crossing the Sahara” in illegal attempts to move abroad. “Children here need to be encouraged to work hard on a small farm and produce as much as possible.”

Most residents disagree with the doctor’s view that education and good farming practices are mutually exclusive. “Education is the most important thing for anyone,” says Justice Adusei, who is a teacher at Gyewani International JSS and District Assembly Member representing Half Assini in Ayirebi.

He explained that many youth in Ayirebi want to leave the farm anyway, and in some cases education provides the means to do so, but not the inspiration. Mr Adusei says that in order to get more agricultural output, farmers need access to more inputs, such as fertilizer, which they cannot afford.

Mr Adusei’s view is supported by numerous requests that Mr Firang and foreigners to the village receive to take them abroad, pay their fare to Accra, get them out of Ayirebi, where farming is a very labour-intensive, high-risk, and low-yield economic activity. They see his success as an example and a way past the slow grind of government-led economic development, but few of the ex-pat remittances ever provide more than meals, buildings, and funeral expenses for family.

The Chief of Ayirebi, Obrempong Gyapire Adjekum, echoes Mr Adusei’s support for education as a high priority. “People in rural areas are suffering,” he said, before offering a long list of needs to accommodate a growing population, including healthcare, upgraded sanitation and sewage systems, better use of groundwater, business development and financial support, and increased overall organisation and infrastructure.

With so many needs the Chief is faced with the necessity of constant prioritisation. “We want a community centre but we need to accommodate our schools first; the primary schools are not well equipped and we needed a secondary school,” he said. “So, the community centre has to wait.”

The new secondary school allows for 150 young women and 250 young men to gain educations in chemistry, business, or arts and literature, but for now it remains a “deprived school” without proper books or lab equipment, according to Headmaster Philip Danquah. With annual school fees of ¢350,000 per student, many locals remain excluded from Ghana’s formal education system, especially girls.

And the community centre remains to be built, meaning residents meet in the open dust, where they are exposed to dirt-borne illnesses that many cannot afford to have treated.

National Health Insurance Scheme

With the assistance of the United States NGO Adventists Relief Agency, Ayirebi recently established its own health clinic for minor ailments. In the case of more serious illnesses, the high cost of travel to city clinics and a lack of health insurance still prove to be insurmountable challenges for some.

“I am a diabetic person myself,” said Nana Adjekum, who has purchased his health insurance card for ¢100,000 and uses a much higher value of prescription drugs due to his condition. “I try to educate people about the national health insurance programme,” he said. “And they then educate others.”

The Chief noted that while some in his village have embraced the idea of health insurance, for many even the marginal cost is prohibitive. Assembly Member Adusei suggested a reduced rate for those with financial barriers to allow more complete access to the programme.

Nana Adjekum countered that Government development initiatives tend to ignore the needs of the rural poor in favour of cities. “The shift to District Assemblies has placed a lot of responsibility on local officials who cannot meet all of them,” he said, adding that chiefs generally feel cheated by “certain people of the government.”

If the District Assemblies are overloaded with challenging tasks, the national government faces equal if not greater challenges. In terms of healthcare, the UK has 37 times more doctors per capita than Ghana, and with its industrialised counterparts continues to recruit the best medical minds of this country despite increasing pay-scales here.

The Chief does not place all blame for his village’s woes on Government. He further laments the lack of NGOs in villages like Ayirebi, noting that they tend to locate in cities or the north of Ghana, leaving the bulk of the nation’s geography under-serviced.

Despite their physical absence, NGOs have made Ayirebi’s groundwater access and health clinic possible, and the village would welcome more of an NGO presence to assist in their development of new schools, sanitation, and the community centre.

School Feeding Programme

Government assistance, especially in the form of budgeted financial assistance, is also welcome. Ayirebi’s government-funded one-month old school feeding programme has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community thus far.

“Government gave us a chance to build the dining area and gave us money,” said Daniel Wilberforce Anarfi, Head Teacher at Ayirebi Local Authority Primary B School, where meals are prepared for six Ayirebi primary schools under the watchful eye and busy hands of Matron Milicent Danso. As a result of the feeding programme, primary school attendance in the village has skyrocketed in a period of weeks.

With ¢15.5 million from Government every two weeks, 1,470 Ayirebi pupils, attending six separate primary schools, aged six to 12 years old, are fed five lunches a week off of clean new dishes, have been de-wormed, and are weighed monthly to monitor healthy growth. According to teacher Martha Appiah, for some children the feeding programme provides their only meal of the day, and many of them are learning to use spoons for the first time.

The children at Ayirebi eat meals larger than their heads and sometimes bring leftovers home to share with siblings, so none of the government money is wasted. In fact, the wood and labour used to build a dining hall, tables and chairs, was locally donated.

Due to its initial success and popularity, there are bigger plans in the works for Ayirebi’s school feeding programme. “We are going to decentralise it,” said the Chief. “Every school will have a kitchen and dining hall.”

But he also warned that the programme has yet to be formally assessed, and any problems that arise will need to be dealt with by he and the 26-member implementation committee, which consists of teachers, parents, and District Assembly members.

Ms Appiah, a supporter of the programme, already sees further needs such as more furniture, tablecloths and napkins, none of which are covered by Government. According to Mr Anarfi, “the children are enjoying it and are going to school more, so Government should continue this programme.”

However, no new programme is without its detractors. Dr Adjekum feels that children come to school just for the meal and then leave again, learning nothing. “I am not in favour of this programme,” he said bluntly. He feels that development dollars from government and NGOs should focus on job creation and agriculture over education.

One might also wonder what happens when a child reaches secondary school and there is not only no longer a free meal, there are school fees. Furthermore, out of town students pay ¢7,500 a day for lunch at Ayirebi Senior Secondary School.

Even students who beat the odds and graduate SSS will often have difficulty competing with their urban counterparts for admission to post-secondary school. A minister posted in Ayirebi quipped of the decreased quality of his children’s education since his rural posting began.

Self Help

The people of Ayirebi are making tremendous efforts to implement development projects from District Assembly and Government and to advocate for their needs. Nana Adjekum occasionally travels to Accra to make media appearances and share the struggle of his people “to improve the living standard,” in the hopes that Government and international NGOs will listen.

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Akim Oda, Frank Marcellus Busumtwi, Chief Executive of Birim South District Assembly, which includes Ayirebi, offers another potential source of development dollars. He has worked with Community Design, Planning, and Preservation students from the University of Georgia, USA, to create cultural tourism plans for Old Town in Akim Oda.

“We want to attract tourist dollars here,” he said. “But what tourist wants to come to Akim Oda? The white people we know like to stay in big hotels.”

As he and the students soon learned, there is a brand of tourist who prefers to live as much like a ‘real Ghanaian’ as possible during his or her stay, and learn what life is really like in this country. “They come and stay with a family, eat fufu and banku, attend a funeral, and adopt local names.” These tourists seek truly immersed learning experience.

The American students visited Ghana last summer to develop plans to improve the attractiveness of Akim Oda as a potential tourist attraction. These plans serve as a potential model for any small town or village willing to innovate in order to attract foreign income directly.

Unlike aid and government grants, communities can use tourist dollars however they see fit. At the same time, cultural tourism comes with the risk of a reverse transfer of culture, where everything that makes Ayirebi unique is lost to foreign influences.

The development efforts of the intelligent and hard-working people of Ayirebi have been fruitful thus far, as attested by the groundwater system, health clinic, school feeding programme, and increasing popularity of health insurance. Yet as the nation develops, many here tire of waiting for the fruits to trickle their way, and long to work abroad like Mr Firang, so they can take care of their families and live the good life themselves.

And as Mr Firang points out, “People here ask for money without understanding that what seems like a large Canadian income comes with large Canadian expenses. And I feel like I don’t know my own culture anymore. Things change so fast in a developing country.”

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