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10.07.2004 General News

A quest to do good in Ghana goes bad

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Bill Reid stepped from a plane onto the hot tarmac in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, tired but eager to return to the country where he had been a Peace Corps volunteer almost 30 years earlier.
Widowed, financially secure and restless, the 66-year-old retired Maine poultry farmer from Bangor had spent months organizing a new project and was looking forward to resuming his humanitarian work.
With some seed money from his savings, he would build a poultry house to help the tiny village of Ofoase (population 240), become self-sufficient and buy medicine to treat 40 or so villagers who were afflicted with leprosy.
But Reid's idealistic plan was scuttled by a stubborn Ghanaian culture. In the end, the man affectionately dubbed "Mr. Bill" a generation earlier would see a bullet with his name on it and would be lucky to escape Ghana with his life.
"Our quest was honorable. (The Ghanaians) are the losers," an embittered Reid said soon after his return home in March, a short three months after he left for Ghana.
Those familiar with Ghana's culture say Reid's story echoes the complaints of others who go unprepared to work in the former British colony. Despite tremendous potential for economic growth and development, the country is easily immobilized by red tape and a pecking order of civil servants who find abundant opportunities for personal gain.
"After my first two years I was ready to come home," said Nate Bowditch of Bath, who went to Ghana in 1990 and ended up staying seven years, part of the time working on a United Nations mission to restore historic sites. "When you're doing business, you're going to have to do business the way they do business in Ghana."
The Ghanaian style is deeply rooted in the bureaucracy the country inherited when it gained independence from the British in 1957, said Inder Khera, a professor of international marketing at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
Efficient under British colonial rule, the bureaucracy has devolved into one in which the attitude is, as Khera puts it, "It's my turn now, so I'm getting mine."
Reid's story begins in 1976 as he was wrapping up a two-year Peace Corps commitment in Kumasi, a city of 1.3 million people about 100 miles north of Accra .
A man with leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, begged Reid to help his tiny village halfway between the capital and Kumasi.
Back in Maine, Reid recalled the man's pleas even as his own fortune changed with some successful investments.
Left with no family after his wife died, he felt the tug back to Ghana. He researched Hansen's disease and decided to use his own money to help the Ofoase villagers. He would buy dapsone, a medicine to treat the chronic infectious illness, which can cause severe damage to nerves, skin and eyes.
His plan was to raise poultry that would gradually provide work, food and income for the village. Once the farm was operating, he hoped to do the same for other villages around the country.
It was an ambitious plan. But with a favorable exchange rate - roughly 9,300 cedis to the dollar - Reid was confident the Ghanaian government would match his donations once he proved his project could be a success. (Ten-thousand cedis will buy two-thirds of a gallon of gasoline or about 30 bananas.)
When Reid returned to Kumasi that day in December, things started to go wrong almost immediately.
A dispute arising from regional political interests developed over where to locate the project.
He spent weeks trying to claim the pickup truck he had shipped from Maine. For the truck to clear customs, he paid what he considered an exorbitant $4,000 fee - a quarter of its value and, according to Khera, "not much" by Ghanaian standards. Even after his check cleared, the truck was held in customs for three weeks.
It was delivered only after a Ghanaian regional minister intervened on Reid's behalf.
The customs "agent," Reid would learn, was a cousin of the port director.
Banking was another nightmare. A $9,000 check he deposited for the poultry project didn't clear for four weeks - not until he threatened to report the delay to a Ghanaian finance official. Smarting from that experience, he ordered his other check, this one for $20,000, re-deposited into his account in the Unites States.
A leader of an organization that promotes better understanding of African issues was not familiar with Reid's case, but said many foreigners who do business in Africa end up frustrated.
They find the telecommunications system undependable, appointments that are not always kept, and people who take financial advantage of a situation if given the chance, said Kofi Boateng, chief operating officer of the Africa-America Institute in New York.
"When you're dealing with the Third World, you can't expect things to go one to two, then two to three," said Boateng. "You have to make the time to understand the culture and the way things work."
Reid's experience, however, was soured by more than red tape.
In Ofoase, Reid said, a man showed him a round in the chamber of a rifle. "Reid" was written on it in felt pen.
He took the threat seriously.
"I have value for my life and fears like everyone," he said.
He fled Ghana Feb. 17 for what turned into a two-week journey through seven countries, including Mali, where, he said, bandits stole about $300 he had stashed in his pockets. They didn't find the $700 he had taped to his feet.
Reid returned to Maine filled with bitterness and disappointment, 40 pounds lost from his 185-pound frame.
But in the last three months, sore feelings have been muted by time spent among friends and familiar things.
And, with the purchase of a new home in Bangor, restlessness is setting in once again. Reid is considering another humanitarian effort closer to home, maybe in Mexico or South America.
"I'm 66 going on 50," he said excitedly. "Everything in my life is falling right into place where I want it."