Eden Katz, College of CharlestonWe all dream of making a difference, of changing the world in a positive way. For one student, that dream became a reality when she went to Ghana, where she discovered she had an opportunity to make a real impact on real peoples’ lives.

by Eden Katz

The idiom move mountains took on a very literal meaning for me in the summer of 2013. What started out as a misunderstanding over a scholarship turned into a project to figure out a plausible and realistic plan for removing piled-up garbage from a rural village in Ghana. I remember standing in front of the looming mountain of trash, watching goats pick at it and children scramble barefoot over it. The task in front of me was intimidating, but I knew that – with the helpful guidance from experts, the wonderful tool that is the Internet and the incredible teamwork from the people of the village and the nonprofit Project OKURASE – we would be able to literally and figuratively move mountains.

It all started when I was awarded a scholarship that I could only accept if I was getting college credit. I was trying to raise funds to participate in a trip to Ghana with Project OKURASE, where I would volunteer with their Village Health Outreach, an annual clinic held in the village of Okurase. I wanted the scholarship, so I figured I would see if I could turn my trip into an independent study. I needed one for the Honors College anyway, so, why not?

I met with Cindy Swenson, one of the directors of Project OKURASE and a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, to discuss my options. Little did I know that I would walk out of that meeting with a project that had the potential
to dramatically improve living conditions for the people of Okurase – I was just expecting to conduct some sort of research that would culminate in a paper that I assumed would only benefit myself. But then Cindy told me about an enormous problem that the nonprofit and leaders of the village have not yet begun to address.

Okurase has little to no waste management. Their garbage is disposed of either on the side of the road or on one of the several “waste mountains” found throughout the village. These waste mountains are exactly what they sound like: enormous piles of trash and dirt that have accumulated over the years. Dealing with waste in this way has many detrimental health and environmental effects. It is an issue that absolutely must be dealt with, but the leaders of the village and the nonprofit have so many other projects on their plate that they have simply not had the time to begin to tackle this problem.

I walked out of the meeting with an assignment to research waste management in rural areas and write a proposal for the nonprofit and leaders of the village. This proposal would contain my research and advice on how to tackle the growing problem. I was incredibly intimidated by the task, but also so excited. I’d just been handed not just an independent study (and therefore a scholarship), but the opportunity to work on something that actually had the potential to make a difference. I was in complete shock and over the moon.

The Village Health Outreach wasn’t until July, so I spent the first two months of my summer scouring online journal databases looking for papers regarding rural waste management. The Internet is a beautiful thing; I found countless articles on recycling, various forms of composting, controlled dumping and education and community involvement in waste management projects. I also found several websites of nonprofits involved in similar projects. By the time I left for Ghana, I had a 2-inch binder full of articles and notes. While all this research made me more knowledgeable about the subject, it also made me realize what a huge endeavor this was going to be.

Our arrival in Ghana was delayed by two days, thanks to Delta Airlines. We also lost our bags for another two days, but none of this dampened our spirits! We were met at the airport by Samuel Nkrumah Yeboah, also known as “Powerful,” the co-director of Project OKURASE, and, the next morning, we all loaded ourselves onto a bus and drove to the village. We received the warmest possible welcome: There were people all around playing drums as we got off the bus at the guest house. Okurase is a drum-making village with an excellent drum troupe, and, that night, we were introduced to it at a lively drumming and dancing performance. Everyone was up out of their seats and dancing. It was an absolute blast.

The Village Health Outreach began the next day. Throughout the five days of the clinic, I worked at the registration table, data-entry station, eyeglass station, wound-care station and checkout station. It was incredibly busy and I was worried I wasn’t going to have time to investigate the waste management situation. Fortunately, the clinic presented a great place to do more digging about waste management.

The day I worked at the checkout station, for example, I had contact with patients as they left the clinic. I wrote up a list of questions and interviewed them with the help of a translator before they left the clinic. The questions were all regarding their opinions about the way waste is handled in the village, whether or not they think it’s a problem and what they think should be done to solve it. I was surprised by the amount of people that did not view it as a problem. But this does make sense: If, for their whole lives, they haven’t used garbage cans, and for their parents’ and grandparents’ lives, generations back, it has never been done – why should they think it is necessary?

The people that did have a problem with it were those who lived in close proximity to the waste mountains. These interviews showed me that a large part of the project would be about education, because community involvement is so important with projects like this. The people have to want it and think it is important; if not, they will go right back to throwing trash onto the waste mountains. I know this because there were several waste receptacles around the village, with trash scattered around them. This was not going to be a small, simple task.

I was even more acutely aware of how significant a project this was when I actually paid a visit to the waste mountains. The largest one can be seen over the roofs of the houses. They were all enormous, and some people lived only a few yards away from the perimeters of the piles. The worst feeling for me was seeing the children play on the waste mountains. Especially in their bare feet. I think what bothered me the most was that they didn’t really see a problem with it. We hope to build playgrounds on the sites of the waste mountains once they are removed. To motivate myself throughout the experience, I tried to envision those children playing on a jungle gym instead of a mountain of trash.

My summer ended with a 23-page proposal containing my suggestions for the waste management project in Okurase. Project OKURASE was incredibly appreciative and excited about my research. While I am proud of my work and its potential to make a difference if implemented, I am also so grateful for this experience and what it taught me. I learned the value of collaboration and teamwork. I would not have been able to write a successful proposal without the help I received from the people of Okurase and Project OKURASE.

I know that no one person can change the world, or even the waste management situation of a small, rural village. But a good team, I believe, can accomplish anything. I have high hopes for the future of this project, and will continue to work with Project OKURASE until we have actually moved mountains.

– Eden Katz is an international studies major in the Honors College.
Illustration by Nick Sadek