Let me start by telling you a story about two children in a canoe.
One evening in 2008, a storm set in over the district of Weija, which is a coastal area in the Greater Accra region.
Somewhere along the shores of the dam – past the brightly painted shops, market tables and shacks – two young children jumped into their rickety, wooden canoe, so that they could paddle back home after a long day at school.
If you have ever ridden a canoe in tumultuous waters, you might know the feeling.
The canoe rocks back and forth, water spilling in, dampening your feet. You have to use the strength of your upper body to dig into the waters and propel your vessel forward with the paddle. It’s no easy feat.
It’s a task that is much more difficult to navigate when the night is dark, harder still, when the rain is beating down on you.
Without life jackets, without adult accompaniment, without anyone patrolling the waters in case of emergency – somewhere on their hour-long journey home – the canoe holding these two young children capsized, and they drowned in the deep, gray waters of the dam.
It was a devastating tragedy for those who heard about it. And then came a discovery. They were headed to Tomefa.
The island of Tomefa
The name “Tomefa” means “piece of mind”.
With a population of 1,500 men, women and children, Tomefa is something of an island. It’s surrounded by water for the most part, but still accessible by road.
If you know where Tomefa is and if you have an hour to spare, you could potentially drive through the Weija district, follow a thin dirt road indented by enormous pot-holes and eventually end up in this small, isolated farming village.
If you live in Tomefa, however, and you need to – let’s say – give birth in a hospital, treat your sick child, sell your tomatoes at the market, go to school or access the city of Accra, travel by canoe is the only feasible option.
Arriving in Tomefa
Like many villages in Ghana, when you arrive in an area you have never visited, you must introduce yourself to the Chief.
Juliet Degadzor and Vann Hokey are students from The University College of Management Studies (UCOMS) – a business school located in the Ga region of Accra. They accompanied my colleague and me on our expedition to Tomefa.
We passed curious onlookers, an empty schoolhouse, excited children running along side our vehicle and, eventually, arrived at the small hut belonging to Chief Oposika Tetteh.
He greeted us and invited us into his village: “You are Welcome.”
Tetteh’s English is poor, but his face is warm and smiling as we perched ourselves on wooden logs and plastic chairs, beneath a set of large, overarching trees.
Phillip Lomotey, Mr. Tetteh’s linguist, sat by his side and we heared the story of Tomefa.
The ironies of development
Generations ago, ancestors of those in the Tomefa community migrated south from Ada and other areas in the Volta region of Ghana.
In 1979, the Weija dam was constructed.
The dam began harnessing tons of water from the Densu River, which continues to be treated by the Weija Water Works plant 15 kms west of Accra. The plant itself serves millions of Ghanaians who would otherwise have little or no access to clean water in the city.
What this construction also did was leave the farming village of Tomefa almost completely submerged under water, isolating it from the Greater Accra region.
Four decades later, the people of Tomefa continue to live, farm and fish in this hidden community not far from a bustling metropolis. They survive off the land with minimal support from the government and have no access to the clean water being pumped out just near by.
Year after year, they have lived and laboured – birthing their own children, drinking polluted water from the dam and trying their best to ward off disease without medication.
Around election time, local candidates will visit the area, making promises and urging their constituents to vote.
“If they can give us a net to fish, a school, a road, then doctor, maybe life jackets…” says Chief Tetteh. “We are happy.”
The people of Tomefa have grown frustrated and claim that their government officials have not delivered on any of their promises.
Current MP for Weija, Shirley Ayorkor Botchway, says she continues to advocate for the people of Tomefa, but ultimately it is not up to her to approve and implement developmental projects in the area.
“I can promise the people of Tomefa that I have not shirked my responsibilities,” she says.
According to Botchway, the projects can only be approved at the level of the Municipal Assembly.
Ga South Municipal Assembly person, Mr. Sheriff Dodoo believes,“Tomefa has a peculiar problem. They are on government land. The whole place has been acquired for the Ghana Water Company and the place is not supposed to be inhabited. They are squatting on Government property.”
The real issue, according to Dodoo, is not about extending services such as health care and education to Tomefa. The problem is that they are “illegal squatters” and this problem needs to be acknowledged.
“Finding resources to extend services to them. That is not a big deal. We can always do that.”
No time line was made available for any plans to extend resources to the people of Tomefa.
What a difference some ingenuity makes
Juliet Degadzor and Vann Hokey of UCOMS have a plan.
Their plan was inspired after hearing the story of two children who drowned in the Weija dam. Started in 2008 their development work will extend until 2015.
At UCOMS, “We identify social, economic and environmental problems in our communities and apply economic and social concepts through the theoretical knowledge we have from class to solve those complex problems we have seen in our society,” says Hokey.
Their ultimate goal: to turn the Island of Tomefa into the first agro-tourism site in Ghana.
According to SIFE – an international, not-for-profit, business organization that brings together young entrepreneurs from countries all over the world – the plan is a good one.
It’s so good, in fact that it won them a spot at the SIFE World Cup being hosted in Malaysia.
What this means for the people of Tomefa is that 900 of them have been registered for National Health Insurance, they have business students working with them and teaching them how to garner money and support themselves, and they also have piece of mind.
Personal contributions and funds garnered through the private sector to the tune of GHC 9,050 (approx. 6,000 CAD) and some ingenuity. Some of this money comes from fundraising, while a fair portion of it came out of the students themselves.
To date, no government support has been contributed.
For the students and for the people of Tomefa, the next step is awareness.
They will present their project, along with its initial successes, to business leaders present at the SIFE World cup – an international competition for young entrepreneurs implementing development projects and initiatives in underdeveloped communities in their own country.
According to Hokey: “Tomefa has now been identified as one of the villages with the highest poverty rates in Ghana. Now the Government of Ghana is aware of the plight of the people.
Files from Isaac Kaledzi, CITI-FM reporter