We first heard about the shooting and death of John F. Kennedy sitting around a small table in Adidome, the Volta Region, in Ghana in West Africa. We had been told by our Ghanaian friends that our President had been shot – their friend and our President, President Kennedy. Sitting around that table was my former wife and my two then young daughters, Jennifer and Amy, who were three and four at the time. The date was November 1963, the sixth year of independence of Ghana.
I was over there as the manager of a 70-bed hospital which employed about a hundred people, located out in the boondocks of Ghana in West Africa. I had left my position with The Bullard Company as an engineer and was appointed as a mission associate by the United Church Board for World Ministries, which was my church.
I knew nothing about how to manage a hospital. I soon learned what “WAWA” meant, W-A-W-A. Many of you know that that means “West Africa wins again,” because the phones don’t work and the water doesn’t work, and there’s no petrol, and there are no tires, and there’s no so forth and so forth and so forth and so forth. It’s WAWA. But I pitched in and gave anesthesia for C-sections, tried to balance the books in pounds, shillings and pence, and I’ll challenge anyone of you to keep books in pounds, shillings and pence without any kind of an adding machine or anything. I could not get that trial balance to balance to save my neck, and I would add a column of figures and take the percentages and this and that – never get the same answer, never. We cleaned latrines, built buildings, dealt with the union, hired and fired people – even fired the union head there and still got a letter of commendation from the TUC, the Trade Union Council there in Ghana, of which I was proud.
We lived in a tin house up on stilts, made out of roofing sheets. It was a nice little house, but it sure was in the bush; and often there was only one other expatriate family within about thirty miles, and that was the doctor and his family. We became a part of the village of Adidome. We enjoyed being a part of that. Our favorite Sunday activity was to take the kids and go up into other villages and to visit and to greet people. It was very enjoyable, very enjoyable. We enjoyed the social life of Adidome. They’d have parties every now and then, which consisted of drinking, drumming, and dancing. They’d start about midnight and they’d go on till five or six o’clock in the morning. The beverage was usually akpoteshi, which was a colorless fire water which could be used as an alternative for paint remover. It was fairly potent stuff…
We came to love Ghana; we came to love Ghanaians and admire them. I never felt before or since that my little children were safer than they were out there in that village in Adidome.
We came to love Ghana; we came to love Ghanaians and admire them. I never felt before or since that my little children were safer than they were out there in that village in Adidome. There was no way that they could have been harmed by any human being. It was impossible. It was an extraordinary place and an extraordinary group of people that we had the privilege of living amongst as a family. But as you might imagine, it was a shock to a 28-year-old kid from Fairfield County, which was I. Life there in Adidome was short and it was hard. And I was working at a hospital. You know, any hospital is grim, whether it’s Greenwich Hospital or wherever it is; but, I tell you, a bush hospital in West Africa is really grim. We had patients laying all over the floor, kids dying all the time. It was grim. We dealt with kwashiorkor, which is a protein deficiency disease – you know, the red hair where people did not have enough protein to eat; snake bite; TB; leprosy; intestinal parasites; measles; malaria – all the kinds of things you’d imagine.
And we didn’t have much to do the job with, either. I remember a boy came in. I think he had broken a leg – a limb or something like that – a young kid, four years old…and we weren’t able to give him the right care, and he got bedsores, bad bedsores. And we just couldn’t care for him; so he was trundled back out to his village and laid down on a little piece of cloth… And he died in his little hut, because we couldn’t care for him in the hospital.
The folks around Adidome were all farmers. They grew maize; they grew cassava; they grew yams. They were very industrious people; they were hardworking people. They were people of great dignity and great poise, people that I enjoyed meeting. The only cash job in the area – there were two of them – one was to work for the hospital, the hospital I worked for, the EP church hospital in Adidome, and the other was to work for the Russian state farm, which was up the road a couple of miles, which has obviously long since gone bust…That’s where I learned about a dollar a day – that’s how much you got paid for agricultural labor; and I also learned there the consequences of poverty, that a dollar a day translated into the fact that we couldn’t take care of the boy with the bedsores.
You know, they say that a thousand deaths or a million deaths is a statistic; one death is a tragedy. I do remember holding the hand of a little girl who was at the time the same age as my daughter, who was in bed in our hospital, who had been brought in severely malnourished. We were not able to save her, and she died while I was holding her hand. And that memory stays with me to this day.
I came home, and The Bridgeport Post came around and wanted to do an interview, and the thing was headed up something about “an angry man” or “young man who has an ax to grind.” I went around, and I gave sermons and talked and preached and shouted. I never felt I had done the job right unless I had made at least half the congregation cry as a result of what I was doing. I don’t think I was necessarily a very pleasant person…
I did want to try to start an organization, a charitable organization, that was not so much committed to charity, but that was committed to enabling poor people to transform their own lives through their own efforts.
I looked around and tried to figure out what others were doing for the people that I had seen in Ghana and was not satisfied with what the approaches were that others had taken. So one day I up and quit – and started TechnoServe. I would not say that I quit necessarily at all for 100 percent selfless reasons; I quit for many reasons. But I did want to try to start an organization, a charitable organization, that was not so much committed to charity but that was committed to enabling poor people to transform their own lives through their own efforts. And I hope that is what TechnoServe has become.
I believe we have helped assist about 500 businesses and perhaps benefited a million or more poor people…As I look at this 1963 retrospective…[I’m struck by] how little textbook knowledge I had of what development was all about. I’ll never tell anybody how little I knew about the theory of development when I started this…
But from 1963 in Ghana I did gain a real sense of kinship, “oneship,” relationship to our friends in Ghana, and by extension, to our friends in El Salvador, and Kenya, and wherever; and that sense of relationship stays with me today.