Local Delegates Return From Ghana

September 14, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Eighteen local delegates, including Mayor George Heartwell, visited Ga Distict, Ghana, last month to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Ga District’s sister city relationship with Grand Rapids.

The SisterCity delegation took with them 10 suitcases full of medical supplies donated by the Grand Rapids medical community to distribute among Ga District’s medical clinics.

Laura Moody, a nurse and Grand RapidsCommunity College instructor, said one of the main medical supply needs continues to be for gauze and bandages to handle outbreaks of skin ulcers that tend to be prevalent in the community. Antibiotics and pain medications are in short supply, as well, she said.

On a visit last November, Moody and Mary Edmond, a retired Grand Rapids Public Schools educator, put together an AIDS awareness and prevention education program to Ga District. This time around, the SisterCity delegation brought teaching materials for the Ga District school, which sorely lacks basic educational materials, including textbooks.

One member of the delegation, Robert Heys, spent his time working with the District toward its goal of establishing a community radio station. Heys, treasurer of Sister Cities of Grand Rapids and a volunteer with the Grand Rapids Community Media Center (CMC), said representatives of the Ga District approached CMC 18 months ago about the possibility of starting a community radio station.

The Ga District has a number of commercial radio stations, but no noncommercial stations that “give a voice to people who want to speak out about something,” he said. The community would also like to build a media center. The content of radio programming would be up to Ga District residents, but a significant portion would likely focus on health issues and AIDS prevention, Heys noted.

CMC has promised to help the Ga District develop and deploy a community radio station, as well as assist in securing the necessary funds to do so. Heys said funding would most likely be in the form of a grant from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). CMC is submitting a grant proposal to UNESCO on Ga District’s behalf. CMC has further offered to support the fledgling station for the first six months with volunteer staff.

“It’s an evolving thing,” Heys said. “We’re looking at what they want and what kind of support they want.”

Also during the 10-day visit, Heartwell spoke with a few business owners there about potential business ventures and partnership opportunities between Ga District and Grand Rapids entrepreneurs. Opportunities exist, Heartwell said, but there are challenges to overcome before opportunities can be realized.

Located in the southern part of Ghana, Ga District has both rural and urban areas, an agricultural economy and a population of 176,000. The state of the country’s infrastructure is dismal, Heartwell said. The roads are so bad that it would be difficult to transport raw materials or parts to be assembled and transport a finished product, he said.

The other infrastructure challenge is the country’s “episodic” electrical power, which “comes and goes,” he said.

“They run on generators, and I don’t know if that’s the kind of environment that is going to attract our manufacturers.”

On the plus side of the ledger, Ga District has a significant pool of semi-skilled labor that is eager to be employed and has a good work ethic, he said, adding there is a real entrepreneurial spirit in the country and a great interest in doing some joint ventures. He likened the wages to those of Mexico

Heartwell met with a few agricultural producers, one of whom owns 1,000 acres of cotton in the north part of the country and another who owns a pineapple plantation in Ga District, near the capital city of Accra. He also talked with the owner of a trucking firm that hauls products all over Ghana

The pineapple farmer, in fact, has been to Grand Rapids and met with officials at both D&W and Meijer, but he’s unable to provide the kind of volume either store needs on a consistent basis, Heartwell noted.

Heartwell was thinking of sending a delegation of business leaders there to look at the partnership possibilities, but after experiencing Ghana’s infrastructure first hand, he’s had second thoughts.

“I’m a little disappointed. I thought I’d come back with some real live possibilities. It would almost take some kind of community-spirited purchasing on the part of one of our markets to make it work.”

Heartwell also met with representatives of the University of Cape Coast, which has a partnership with GrandValleyStateUniversity that focuses on African studies, as well as with representatives of the University of Ghana, which has an active relationship with CalvinCollege

In addition, he discussed with members of the National Commission on Civic Education a joint venture with AquinasCollege involving leadership development.    

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