By Warren Alan Tidwell
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
The road to Bolni is as bad a road as I’ve been on in Ghana. It takes thirty minutes to reach the village once you leave Bimbilla Town. When the Humanist Service Corps team went to the Bolni durbur, a village gathering that can be held for a variety of reasons, the entire group followed each other along the way so no one would get lost or stranded. The poor quality of the road, with large holes and rocks protruding from the ground, caused a couple of us to almost lay our motorcycles over a couple of times. The road narrowed at times to what was a little better than a walking path that crisscrossed the rolling hills that were scarred with ruts from the rain runoff. It feels like a road to nowhere.
Leaving Bolni is hard and not just physically hard. Just going to school requires navigating this road everyday or finding the money to board. Electricity lines do not yet reach Bolni, so doing homework is not always straight forward when there are chores to be done during daylight hours. There are language barriers, cultural barriers, and money barriers. It take someone of with real courage and stamina to not just overcome these obstacles, but topple them. It takes a hero.
In Ghana I have met many extraordinary people with the most interesting stories. Some would even consider their actions heroic. I encountered Matthew Mabefam at his village of Bolni northeast of Bimbilla for a durbur that he had a part in organizing. The particular durbur was to show appreciation to the local governmental organization as well as a couple of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have helped them. The help Bonli has received for its children to have access to education, which is a quite recent development, was particularly highlighted. Traditional dances and songs are performed as entertainment. All the local politicians were in attendance along with representatives of the presidential candidates of the NPP party (both parties were invited, but only the NPP came). In the campaign season, this year was a presidential election year, every event is a photo opportunity and campaign stop for the politicos in the area. Bolni representatives had an ulterior motive to having them visit. They wanted to petition them for a better road and electricity.
There is one last hill you have to cross before you enter the village of Bolni. As you cross the peak Bolni comes into view and the entire ride is immediately made worth it. Situated among the rolling hills and large trees the picturesque quality cannot be denied. A massive baobab tree sits in the center of the village and large trees cover the central area where we gathered for the durbur.
As soon as we arrived in Bolni, Matthew took us to the chief’s palace to be introduced to the chief, his elders, and the village priest. Ghanaians have an impeccable sense of style. Despite the red dust all around us, Matthew was dressed in an all white form fitting outfit that complemented his tall frame. Like most men I’ve met in Ghana, Matthew bore his Konkomba tribal marks on his face. The area I am working in is majority Dagomba tribe but it borders Konkomba tribal land. Though Bolni, is not far from Bimbilla, it is a Konkomba village where they speak a different language and have somewhat different practices.
Matthew accompanied us around Bolni and explained the specifics of a Konkomba village. The baobab tree in the village is considered sacred. Though the baobab fruit is delicious and nutritious, Bolni residents are forbidden from eating from the tree. The graves, unlike the graves in Dagomba villages, are covered in cement. Matthew told us that Konkomba are majority Christian and cover their graves in a different manner than the majority Muslims of the Northern Region of Ghana. Konkomba Muslims are rare and most of the rest practice the traditional religion. Adding to the physical obstacles, clearly, Bolni is as culturally separated from its neighbors as it is geographically separated.
Matthew has gone from the a life in the village to pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He has returned home to gather data on witchcraft in the Northern Region of Ghana. Matthew’s story is one of the most unlikely I have encountered in my time in Ghana. It’s one thing to go abroad and study if you come from a family of means in West Africa. It’s quite another to come from one of the isolated villages and it’s even more unlikely if you do not come from the line of royalty in the village. The odds of Matthew making it to the level of doctorate were close to zero.
In the early days of the 1990s the Dagomba-Konkomba tribal wars were raging. Land ownership was the basis of the dispute. As a result the primary school in Bolni was shuttered. Matthew’s parents, who had very little means, made arrangements to send him away to the west to a primary school in Chamba. Matthew found assistance from others there–people who weren’t related to him in any way–and he vowed one day to assist others in the same manner. When the opportunity came about, Matthew went to the Upper West region to attend senior high school. As a result of getting high marks he was able to attend University of Ghana in Accra. Matthew worked as a tutorial assistant and then pursued his Master’s degree. Matthew decided to apply for a PhD at Melbourne University and received a scholarship. At this time Matthew has partnered with a friend to start their own scholarship endowment for Ghanaian students.
Throughout my travels I have managed to encounter special stories of individuals who have gone far beyond the hand life has dealt them. Matthew is one of these individuals. I consider myself fortunate to meet people like him. They inspire me far more than any famous actor or athlete. Their toils occur far away from the spotlight. I am reminded of the a quote from the recently deceased American hero, John Glenn:
“We tend to think of heroes as being those who are well known but America is made up of a whole nation of heroes who face problems that are difficult, and their courage remains largely unsung. Millions of individuals are heroes in their own right.”
I would, of course, add to that that the world is filled with heroes. I’ve encountered countless numbers in Ghana. Their efforts that are heroic are those where they’ve overcome insurmountable odds to achieve that once thought impossible. Matthew has worked himself to a level that is inspirational to any young child in the villages that he will encounter. He looked at the obstacles and didn’t ask, “How will I do this?” He just went to work and pursued the opportunities he could. The example he has created for the youth in Ghana is one that makes him a hero to those who will follow. Matthew’s plans to assist others will lift many out of poverty and put them on the path he has already tread. After being here for months, and experiencing the grit and determination of many Ghanaians, I have no doubt he will achieve that and then some.