Almost anyone who’s traveled to Africa will tell you that the experience draws you in, perhaps by a combination of things that are quite familiar and others that are unique and unmistakably African.  The beaches of the gold coast remind you of Hawaii.  The bougainvillea at the Volta dam would be the same in Southern California; radios played the rhythms that I knew that are at the heart of much of American music.

In Ghana, the women wear dresses and walk with a certain grace, even while carrying heavy burdens on their heads.  No one smokes cigarettes; gospel hymns fill the air on Sunday.  Street vendors work so, so hard and when I asked for a dark chocolate bar, the young vendor ran around to all the others to find one for me. I felt instantly welcome.

When I walked by a primary school, the children greeted me very sweetly with the phrase, “Good morning, Brofwe!”  Which means “Good morning, white person.” They are so dear and polite! But, when I looked inside there were only desks, no books or paper, no computers or the learning aids that my children had.  Teaching was done on a lone black board, which was an area painted in black on the concrete wall.  Yet, these are the fortunate children because one out of ten babies born in sub-Saharan Africa won’t even make it to their fifth birthday.

At Enchi Hospital, I saw parents receive lab reports showing that child after child had malaria.  I saw children whose reddish hair indicated malnourishment, whose distended bellies are likely to be filled with worms, not food.   And these, too, are the lucky ones, the children who could actually reach a hospital.  The roads are poor in rural Ghana and many simply can’t make the trip, or afford the fare to a distant clinic. Children die of preventable or treatable diseases; of wounds, typhoid, pneumonia, and parasites.  Studies have shown that 76% of pregnant women are anemic.  They may die in childbirth from a relatively small loss of blood because there’s no way to have a transfusion.  Ghana has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Dr. Frank, the only physician at the Government Hospital in Enchi, works 7 days a week.  Many patients have the government health insurance card, but the hospital has not been reimbursed for care in over 9 months.   Some lab equipment is in a closet because they can’t get reagents. Other equipment, such as the neonatal incubators, are in need of repairs but there is no technical support. 

When Dr. Nanci and I arrived, people in the village came up to greet her, to ask for help or show her their wounds, now healing. She knew them all by their first names. They love her as she loves them.

I wish you could all meet the new friends that I made in Ghana:  Dr. Frank, or head nurse Didi, or Mbort the lab tech—all wonderful, intelligent, dedicated people.  I wish you could meet Okutu, the school teacher who also helps The Yonkofa Project with the iris scan medical records system. When the electricity is down, which is often, Okutu and his friends all chip in to buy diesel for the hospital generator.  I wish you could meet Monsignor Simon, who encouraged Dr. Nanci to build the Yonkofa Clinic. When finished, it will serve villages that are currently hours away from the nearest hospital or clinic.

But the person I really wish you could meet is named Nunoo.  Nobody knows what happened to Nunoo’s refugee mother, but two years ago, Peace Corps workers found the abandoned three year old, profoundly malnourished and weighing only 12 pounds.  They reached out to The Yonkofa Project for help.  The villagers called the abandoned child Wuwu, which means "dying baby" because they assumed he would die.   The child had pneumonia, malaria, and spoke no words at all.  He was renamed Nunoo, which is a Ghanaian name, because it sounded similar.  Dr. Frank treated Nunoo and, thankfully, The Yonkofa Project had provided antibiotics to the hospital just a week before, so he was appropriately treated with medicine that would have otherwise been unavailable.

A gentleman who works closely with The Yonkofa Project adopted Nunoo and gave him his surname. Today, little Nunoo is 5 years old; he is healthy, he is loved, he speaks Twi and English, and he has a future.  The villagers thought Nunoo could not be saved, but he could be saved, thanks to the presence of The Yonkofa Project, and to all of you who came here to support their work.

There is a saying that we are all angels with only one wing…..we can only fly by embracing each other.

By coming here tonight, you are embracing little Nunoo and saving the lives of countless others. 

To all of the doctors and nurses here, if you travel to Ghana I assure you that the people will make you feel welcome and right at home.  It will be more familiar than you expect, and more uplifting than you can imagine.  It will remind you of what life is all about and what Yonkofa means—friendship.

Linda Wuest MT/ASCP

Member, The Yonkofa Project Advisory Board

Executive Director, World Affairs Council of Houston, 1994-2014