Cheery faces of sunflowers dance in the breeze at the Urban Farm at the Medical University of South Carolina, a magical spot on an autumn afternoon amid blooming herbs and vegetables.
That magic soon will take root in January some 5,380 miles across the Atlantic on the west coast of Africa in the small village of Okurase in Ghana. Researcher Cynthia Swenson, Ph.D., enjoys a gentle breeze flowing through the garden, explaining that a sister garden, a replica of what’s here at MUSC, will soon be planted in Africa.
This is the latest expansion of several plans that are part of Project Okurase, a nonprofit group in the U.S. that sprang initially from a research project that MUSC’s Division of Global and Community Health in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences did in the Union Heights neighborhood of North Charleston. Since then, the project has grown and expanded in ways Swenson could never have imagined.
Anyone who knows Swenson’s amazing ability to draw people and communities together for sustainable change, a goal of her research, would expect no less. That she is working with ever-expanding and interlocking circles she’s famous for creating can be seen by the communities that have become involved.
- Take the kids from Union Heights in North Charleston, who despite an economically-challenged background, decided they wanted to go to Ghana to help. In the process, it helped them discover their heritage and their ability to empower themselves for positive change.
- Or the architectural students at Clemson University drawing up plans for a community center in Ghana.
- Or the elementary kids at Sundrops Montessori school in Mount Pleasant who “ran laps for a friend” to help a Ghanaian boy continue his education and ensure he had food when he returned to his village. This boy, who’d had no formal education in Ghana, was granted a yearlong scholarship at their school while he was in the United States getting health care for his eyes.
- Then there’s the school in La Jolla, Calif., that helped build an electronic classroom in the village in Ghana and the group of students from the Miami Valley School of Dayton, Ohio that is taking new computers to the school in Okurase when they travel there in January to help plant the garden and put in a little playground.
And the list goes on.
Let Swenson get close to you, and she draws you in. Part of her magical appeal comes from the type of research she does. She doesn’t go in to fix. She goes in to listen. She opens her mind wide and draws from the wisdom of the community she’s researching to see what they need and how they can help themselves. It’s a style of participatory research she and other colleagues are doing that is earning an impressive track record.
It’s a style she used with the Union Heights neighborhood back in 1997 when she received a grant as part of a Healthy South Carolina Initiative to find a high-crime neighborhood with at-risk youth. The objective: Join with the community to find out their chief concerns to address what could be done, primarily focusing on youth. “We did what the community wanted to do, not what we thought was best to do.”
One of the community requests was that the children have healthy activities to draw them away from the streets, ones perhaps that could help them appreciate their heritage. The origin of the Gullah people is connected to the transatlantic slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is estimated by several historians that anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade entered through Lowcountry ports.
“Slave ships landed on Sullivans Island back when, and they came from West Africa. They came from Ghana,” Swenson said. “The Union Heights community told us, ‘We want our kids to understand the arts around that heritage, so we want our kids to learn West African dance and drumming.’”
So that’s what Swenson and community members did.
With the aid of a grant, the community was able to hire someone to teach dance and drumming. Swenson said they all were amazed at the interest and talent of the kids, who formed a performance group called Djole that would go on to perform in Charleston’s prestigious art festival of Piccolo Spoleto and at the United Nations in New York City.
In the meantime, an important connection was made with a Ghanaian musician and drum maker, Samuel Nkrumah Yeboah, known by most as Powerful. He grew up impoverished but was known for his tender heart in helping others. From that bond, the idea formed that a group from Union Heights should go to Ghana to learn about their heritage firsthand.
In 2006, Swenson, MUSC researcher Eve Spratt, M.D., and leaders from the Union Heights community took 20 kids and 19 adults on a trip to Ghana. None of the kids had ever been to an airport before. The group ended up performing all over Ghana and was filmed by national television, a video that is still shown annually in Ghana. One village they visited with a vibrant arts community was Okurase.
Swenson said there were no toilets, no safe water (people were drinking from the river), no medical care, very little food and limited educational opportunities. “We saw a pretty desperate situation among people who were amazingly joyful. That was the biggest lesson that our kids learned is that you can have very little – no playground equipment, no toys, not the latest tennis shoes, but you are happy.”
Years later, that’s the lesson the now-grown Union Heights volunteers say has stuck with them. They remember how these villagers had few material things, and they still were happy, Swenson said. “They had to find their happiness another way. We need to look at that. We have all these things – the latest shoes, and it’s still not enough - no matter how much we get.”
Another seed was planted on that visit – one by Powerful, who suggested they return to Okurase to research how the community could engage in sustainable change. The idea took root in Swenson’s mind and eventually she and others did return. Project Okurase(Opportunity, Knowledge, Understanding, Renewed health, Arts, Skills training and Education) was born.
It has five objectives:
- Safe and clean water and sanitation
- Economic self-sufficiency through training and small business programs for women
- Better access to quality health care and nutrition
- Establishment of a community (Nkabom) center built by the people to be used to teach job skills and use renewable energy sources
- Education and technology
The project has made several advances in the last decade under the guidance of Executive Director Linda Norton, who helped establish a local nonprofit infrastructure. The urban farm is the next logical step for the group, given concerns about poor nutrition, said Swenson. “It’s rampant, it’s kids, adults, it’s everybody.”
Spratt, a psychiatrist and pediatrician at MUSC who specializes in developmental pediatrics and has been to Ghana seven times, did a pilot feasibility study on nutrition there. The study found in rural Okurase that 28 percent of children have stunted growth. Researchers identified 25 children with malnutrition in four rural villages within a 10-kilometer radius of Okurase.
The nine-month nurse home visitation nutrition study assessed the impact of nutritional supplementation and health education. During the study, the proportion of underweight children decreased by almost 60 percent, showing that collaborative, targeted family interventions do work, she said.
Since a health clinic to support a nurse visitation program isn’t yet open in this village, Swenson said the urban farm will help fill a need. The idea itself, though, came from a visit by an 11-year-old boy with poor eyesight from Ghana. Francis, came to the United States to have his eyes evaluated and his guardian, Owu, came with him.
A private school in Mount Pleasant, Sundrops Montessori, volunteered to educate him for a year under scholarship. “Francis had never attended school, so I wanted him to be able to attend school for the first time in his life. He’s 11. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he couldn’t read. He’s an amazing child and a master drummer who just needed an opportunity,” Swenson said.
As Francis learned English, he no longer needed Owu, a farmer and wood carver, to translate for him, so Swenson said they needed to find something for Owu to do when he was not helping with medical appointments. It occurred to her to have him work with MUSC’s Urban Farm to learn organic farming methods that he could take back to the village. He volunteered for six months.
“Then it hit us over the head that this is what we need to be doing in Okurase about nutrition. He would come home with all these vegetables and would cook them and eat them and learn new ways. I thought, ‘I’m really seeing them eat some healthy things other than carbohydrates and salt.’”
It didn’t take long for the idea of a sister garden to sprout. Owu will lead the project in Okurase. Carmen Ketron, MUSC’s Urban Farm educator, will travel to Okurase with the group in January as MUSC’s Ambassador. She’ll oversee the building of the garden and playground. A school from Dayton, Ohio, is sponsoring 15 juniors and two teachers to help get the garden set up in January. Ketron is already working with the Ohio students on food education and organic farming methods. Fundraising efforts for the estimated $10,000 it will take to set it up, including the playground, are underway.
“The one thing I love about this garden is that it’s a magnet for the children,” Swenson said, explaining plans for simple playground equipment and vegetables that can be grown with organic methods. In the end, particularly when a planned community and health care center are built, the village of 3,500 people will be a teaching village, a model for other impoverished areas to see how they can help themselves. None of the work is government funded, she said.
“It’s really important to this village and to all of us that this be grassroots - that it’s not a government project. It’s something that the people are doing for themselves. They want to leave a legacy for their children, so that’s why they have been toiling day and night to build a school that will be at the site of the sister garden.”
In the village, there are seven subcommunities organized by tribe that will participate in the development of the garden. “We want everyone to fall in love with the organic method, growing vegetables that they can eat and stop eating just cassava roots all the time and salted water, sugar water – things people have to eat when they have absolutely no resources.”
Swenson said they will look at the feasibility of building smaller versions of the garden throughout the community, particularly to benefit handicapped and disabled villagers, such as a child recently diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Overall, Ghana’s sister Urban Farm will be more than a food garden. It will be a community and vocational garden, as well, she said.
But it’s not just the people of Ghana who benefit. Swenson said the youth who come to Okurase to help with community-based projects report it’s changing their lives. The Ohio kids who will head to Ghana in January came two years ago to MUSC as freshmen to do a “Gullah-Geechee Immersion” tour. They learned from Union Heights residents about their efforts to effect positive change and got hooked.
“It’s doing community-based projects and learning about people and the issues in the world and different viewpoints. You hear about the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s good to hear about and talk about it, but it’s different seeing it,” she said, describing a young man who came to talk to the group to describe how, when he was 16, he was caught in the hallway of his high school after the bell rang. He was arrested, kept overnight and charged with disturbing school.
“I went to court with him, and I know it happened. Why are we wasting our money doing this kind of ineffective and damaging stuff? You don’t believe that really happens until you meet someone who has been through this. Now here is that guy now – he’s an adult. He has a great job and a wife and a family, but he had to come out of that with a history of legal charges. You might not believe in a school-to-prison pipeline until you walk in the shoes of people facing it, and it’s primarily people of African descent that deal with this kind of treatment.”
The kids and teachers from Ohio were so impressed with what they learned, they decided to send their freshman class every year for this immersion tour that involves Union Heights and other local communities and then send their junior class to Ghana every other year to do community-based projects with Project Okurase. They are not the only ones. A Los Angeles school that caters to celebrities and an elite clientele wants to come in June to do an immersion tour as well.
As Project Okurase draws people from across the nation and world, Swenson sees how it’s all interconnected. Sometimes she is asked why go to Ghana instead of helping more people here.
“I don’t think we realize how much it costs for people in low income countries to suffer. It costs us a lot. I think we need to do both. The most economically disadvantaged person in America is extraordinarily wealthy when you look at anyone in this village. If I’m hungry in America, at least I know I can go to a shelter or a church and get food. If I’m hungry in Okurase, there are 3,500 people who are also hungry. You have to do what you can to survive.”
Research shows what they are doing in Okurase is working. She’s a big proponent of doing evidenced-based interventions that do no harm. “We can’t do all this stuff unless we know it works. We’ve made incredible strides at MUSC towards contributing evidence-based practice to the world and now to other low-income countries.”
And, it helps at home, as well. “What is Union Heights doing? Union Heights is helping Ghana. Why can’t we pull people together and empower them to solve their own problems and then empower them to reach out to less fortunate people and empower them to solve their problems? We can. We’re doing it.”
Swenson said she believes there is so much horror, sadness and anger in the world today because there is such a division of wealth and too many people who are barely hanging on and surviving.
“I want a peaceful world. If we can reach out to people in the world who are in dire straits and help them pull themselves up in a sustainable way, they can do the same with the next person and the next person and the next person. It keeps a peaceful world.”
Want to Help Fund Ghana's Garden?
A SeedMoney campaign has been set up to fund $5,000 of the estimated $10,000 it will take to build the garden. Donations are tax deductible and being taken through Dec. 15.