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Hippo project inspires outreach in Ghana

By Alexis Bevan, Calgary Herald

Who knew hippos would inspire the construction of 550 solar lights, seven clean water wells, a medical clinic and two schools in the Wechiau region of Ghana.

Brian Keating, head of the Conservation Outreach Department at the Calgary Zoo, helped establish the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary in 1999.

He certainly didn't expect that 10 years later the project would have a mind of its own and would benefit locals not only environmentally, but also economically and socially.

"It's captured a lot of people's imaginations," he said.

Those people include the Northmount Kiwanis Club and Calgary artist Norman Nemeth.

On Wednesday, they will be presenting a $50,000 cheque to the Calgary Zoo Conservation Fund for the completion of Cynthia Phillips Primary School in the village of Domye.

"We said, 'Wow, now that's something Kiwanis would believe in,' " said Bob Fleming, who's heading up the funding on Kiwanis's end.

The money will also cover shipping costs for medical supplies to the Ghanaian clinic.

Ten years ago, a handful of children attended school beneath a tree in the village of Wechiau. Most of them were boys, since girls were gone collecting their families' drinking water from a dirty river three hours away.

Kerosene lamps were expensive to keep lit, so even students who did go to school couldn't study after dark.

Now, Keating said students fall asleep beneath their solar lights with textbooks in their laps and girls can attend school because wells are closer.

About 200 boys and girls showed up to study after the first school in Wechiau village opened. Its capacity was 65 students. Construction on the second school began a couple of months ago.

Keating hopes to take Fleming and a few others to visit the school for its grand opening this October.

Keating was named an honorary chief in Wechiau as a result of his work in the region.

He said he's "humbled" to have spent time with Ghana's "gracious" people.

"They've got this incredible sense of community."
"It's a true community effort," agreed Nemeth, who's donating all the profits from his African-inspired paintings to the project.

In honour of his $26,000 donation, the school is being named after his late wife.

Wednesday's event will be held at the zoo in the Safari Lodge. Advance tickets cost $40. Keating will be speaking and some of Nemeth's artwork will be up for sale.

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