Recalling a Volunteer Trip to Ghana


A big thanks to Ted Cox for contributing this blog post.

There’s never a good time for a power generator to give out, especially in a rural village like Nyariga, Ghana. But when Joe Rogoff, Whole Foods Market Pacific Northwest region president and board member of the Whole Planet Foundation, saw the power fail during his recent trip to complete and commission the village’s brand new girls’ school computer lab, at least it happened during the best possible moment: a local government photo op.

Joe had traveled to Ghana with 12 Whole Foods team members to assist in the completion of a new girls school in a part of the country where poverty and high costs made it impossible to educate children past elementary school.

“There’s no running water,” recalled Joe. “Most of the village has no dirt roads. Very few people have any motorized transportation; those who do generally have a motorbike. But bicycles and donkeys and foot are the major modes of transportation.”

Once Nyariga children complete elementary school, their parents must pay tuition and buy school uniforms, costs most families can’t afford. So from ages 12 to 14, explained Joe, kids were by and large moving to the big cities of Ghana to try and make their own way.

“And I heard stories about their experiences, although they’re very reluctant to tell those stories,” says Joe. Boys would band together in abandoned buildings or tenements. Some girls worked, but many ended up in the sex trade.

But the situation in Nyariga began to change partly with the formation of the Blessing Basket Project. Villagers in Nyariga had long weaved beautiful baskets as a way to make some money. In 2002, Theresa Carrington founded Blessing Basket, which pays Prosperity Wages directly to the basket weavers. Many of the 100-plus Whole Foods stores that buy and sell Blessing Baskets participate in a give back program where any money made on basket sales is sent directly back to Nyariga. Those give-back funds helped build a craft center with a roof and a cement floor, a dyeing center, and finally, a girls junior high that teaches some 130 girls ages 11-18. Children are returning home to their parents.

For Joe and the other Whole Foods team members during this trip, their work focused on completing a new computer lab for the school. They fetched water and materials to plaster the walls, mixed mortar, and painted the building, while others there helped with the masonry and roofing.

“Mostly we did the grunt work since we’re unskilled masons,” Joe said with a smile.

Besides completing the building, the team worked with local officials to commission it. One official, who had at first bristled at the project, eventually warmed to the visitors and asked for a photo op in front of the computers.

“One of the great things that happened is we’re all in this little building, camera people, and all the government officials, and all the elders and all the Whole Foods folks, and the students,” said Joe. With no power in most of the village, the computers were running off a generator, “and while he’s sitting there playing with the computer, it failed.”

Joe and the other volunteers had asked the officials to help get electricity to the new school. Government efforts to get power lines to Nyariga was taking some time, and Joe said officials at first were reluctant to make any commitments.

“But once he sat at the computer and the power went out,” Joe remembered, “He said, ‘You need electricity here! I’m going to get that.'”

Joe will always remember the work he did together with the people of Nyariga.

“For all of these people, this is a source of tremendous pride,” says Joe. “This is something they did. And it’s true, they facilitate our ability to be there and to get these things done. It is truly a partnership, which was one of the lessons for me of this trip.