It’s not often that a group of eight women college students visits rural farming areas of Ghana.
A simple act by a village queen the students met soon after their arrival helped erase any potentially awkward situations. Her gesture not only put the visiting Americans more at ease, but also provided an entrée for the students as they met with villagers to discuss ways of reducing the contamination of drinking water by nitrates due to excessive application of fertilizers on their farms.
Following a custom of the country in visiting the chief and the queen of village receiving visitors, the queen of Aburi "renamed" each member of the group with a Ghanaian name. The person’s new first name is the day of their birth, followed by the name of a famous Ghanaian.
"My name was Afua Asantewaa," said Christine Wang, Danville, Calif., native and a senior in civil and environmental engineering. "Afua is the name given to a female born on Friday, and Asantewaa is the last name of a much beloved and powerful queen of the Ashanti people. In many of the places we visited we were introduced by our Ghanaian names, which would get them laughing and help break the ice."
Once the ice was broken, the group wanted to raise the awareness of a serious issue facing the villagers. Their goal was also to help provide solutions to the problem of nitrates in the fertilizers used by farmers. The chemicals are leaching through the soil and have seriously contaminated the groundwater. All the villages use groundwater for drinking and other domestic purposes
The Duke group – sponsored by DukeEngage - spent almost two months in the Nsawam district, part of the Greater Accra Region, located roughly 17 miles north of the capital of Ghana, Accra. The students went to more than 30 villages, talked with farmers about the use of fertilizers and groundwater contamination, visited hospitals to experience first-hand the health issues caused by water contamination, and went to schools to help educate young Ghanaians on protecting themselves and the environment.
"The main income for inhabitants in the region is the growing of pineapples," said Fred Boadu, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and organizer of the trip. Boadu, a native of Ghana, was assisted by his graduate student Frederick Owusu-Nimo.
"Biologically, this is a good place to grow pineapples because the plants have short roots and the soil layer is thin," Boadu continued. "To enrich the soil for higher yield, farmers apply fertilizer. However, because the soil can only utilize so much, it often leaches down into the water table.
"The main problem is that most villagers use water from boreholes for their drinking and cooking needs," Boadu continued. "The World Health Organization has established an eight parts per million (ppm) safety limit for nitrates in water. Many of the water samples from the boreholes were tested and were at least four times this limit, with one as high as 45 ppm."
Visits to villages typically began with a meeting with the chief and elders. District and municipal officials sometimes accompanied the group as well as interpreters to provide much of the translation. Government agricultural officials on a few occasions also attended the meetings at the villages.
"The reactions to our presence and message varied from village to village," Wang said. "In some of the villages, the people saw us as NGO (non-governmental organization) representatives and were disappointed when we didn’t give them money. In many ways, we were asking them to think about the future when their main concerns were in the present.
"In other villages, you could tell that we really connected and the message was well received," Wang continued. "You could see it in their eyes. We could also tell they were really interested because they were asking all the right questions."
When talking to farmers, Wang observed clear difference between generations. The older farmers tended to cling to the ways of the past, while the younger farmers were more receptive to learning new, and safer, approaches to farming. This was especially evident, Wong said, when they visited schools.
"Many of the kids were interested in what could be done right away," Wang continued. "Things like using less fertilizer, or washing your hands after using fertilizer, we hope they will go back home and talk to their parents about what they learned.
For Boadu, the visits to hospitals and clinics allowed the student group to observe the impacts of farming practices on infants, children and pregnant women. He would like to include a medical component to any future trips to Ghana.
"At the hospitals, we learned that a lot of newborns suffered from convulsions," Boadu said. "Initially, doctors assumed that the convulsions were the result of malaria, but when they tested the babies, they found no malaria parasites. So it has to be something else. There is good evidence that nitrates could be to blame, since they are known to interfere with the absorption of oxygen by cells."
On the final day in Ghana, the group visited a well-known, progressive high chief nearby.
"It was quite an inspiring experience," Wang said. "He sincerely felt that he was a guardian of the earth for future generations. He could have used his position to promote and aggrandize himself, but instead he chose to pursue a greater cause. While we may be unsure about the impact of one visit from a group of American students, meeting with him and seeing his dedication was inspiring for the future."