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Ghana Speaking (III): Kofi Sam's Model of African Self-Sufficiency

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We are making the full village rounds here in Aburanza, near Cape Coast, with a strong-minded, strong-willed modern chief. From furniture works to dress-making class to palm-nut oil pots, Dr. Kofi Sam is barking out variations on his evangelical theme: West Africa can provide the essentials for itself (food, clothing, shelter and healthcare) if only it first licks a second AIDS crisis -- the Acquired Import Dependency Syndrome.

Kofi Sam, who graduated from high school in the 1950s with Kofi Annan of the UN, is a cheerful misfit in the Ghanaian elite. He is an engineer with English training and now a compelling Ghanaian vision, however eccentric. He ran steel works in Ghana back in the day, and held the Housing ministry in Jerry Rawlings' military government in the 1980s. But he was all the while getting more focused on "appropriate technology" for tropical Africa -- finding modern designs and materials, that is, for the climate and culture of a hot, poor place. Tight denim blue jeans make an interesting Western fashion statement, as he might say, but what is their place in Africa? And what is all that Scandinavian concrete doing in new Ghanaian housing?

Click to listen (28 minutes):

How is it, Kofi Sam asks, that "for 50 years we haven't been able to design a building that doesn't use air conditioners?" Kofi Sam laughs a lot through what can sound like a stand-up routine getting heavy and deep:

Why is Africa waiting for Germany and Japan to go solar? Because we are copy cats.

Whatever the master in England does, we copy it. Our buildings should have big open windows. That's how the imperialists, the white men, built their bungalows. We knocked them down and replaced them with glass houses, sealed glass.

Africans wear suits with neckties! With socks! With underwear! We cover ourselves so we feel the heat, then we go to the office and call our secretaries to bring us hot coffee, not cool cocoa, using an air conditioner that could light forty homes ...

We only wear what we make on Fridays -- Friday wear! That's the problem ...

There is a tunnel called 'Western education.' We enter it and learn how to forget. We go to Accra and forget about the village ...

The African intellectual is like a bee who has forgotten how to make honey.

The governmental system in Africa only caters to Western-educated people, even though they're less than 15 percent of the population. From the president right down to the teacher, they get paid at the end of every month.

No villager gets paid for anything. They get up in the morning, they go to their farms, they produce their cassava or yam or plaintain. Nobody guarantees them a market. Nobody gives them loans. All the taxes raised in the country are for Western-educated people, like Kofi Sam.

The villagers don't get anything.
Dr. Kofi Sam with Chris Lydon, in Aburanza on the Atlantic coast of Ghana, January 28, 2010.

We spend the day surveying some good old alternatives. At one smoky, blistering-hot open-air work site, a dozen women are time-sharing a machine that cracks palm nuts, and in their individual vats they're slowly cooking the cherished red oil that Africa uses for soap and cooking. No corn oil here, thank you. In his home village of Aburanza, Kofi Sam has sponsored a cane furniture works, hand-weaving of kente cloth, and machine-assisted grinding of cassava flour. His sister's henhouse looks spotless and contented.

"You asked what should aid agencies do," Kofi Sam remarks. "How about a little capital so that my sister and her kind can each construct 100 henhouses and start with ten layers apiece. Whole villages improve that way."

At a hilltop prayer meeting at mid-day in Aburanza, families answer my greeting ("He's real! He's alive! He's on time!") with "Hallelujah!" A pastor is offering pint-sized bottles of an herbal remedy. As for those basic necessities that Africa can provide itself, I challenge my host on one big point: "Native medicine isn't going to cure malaria, Dr. Sam," I say.

"You're wrong," he fires back. "I made the same mistake you're making." What he learned eventually is that malaria wiped out mainly white newcomers; West Africans had developed an immunity and boosted it with natural medicines. Malaria was a weapon, he said, that forced the British to adopt "indirect rule" in West Africa, rather than settle as they did in Kenya and Southern Africa.

You'll hear Kofi Sam inviting me back to Aburanza -- and me promising to return before Christmas. "I want people like you here," he says, "to let the world know that the aid they give doesn't get to us. It's in Accra -- in the swimming pools of Accra, in the golf courses of Accra, in the lawn tennis courts of Accra, in the restaurants of Accra ..."

And then, for $20, he sells me that striking handmade blue shirt off his beautiful brown back. Thank you, Kofi Sam. We will meet again.