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Lighting the way: Virginia team takes solar power to Ghana

The “Road to Africa,” a project initiated by Farmville physician Dr. Kwabena Donkor to build a medical clinic in Ghana, is an ongoing journey. Now, literally, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

In September, Engineers without Borders (EWB-USA) will send a team from Virginia to install solar power in Donkor’s clinic.

The solar power project came about following a conversation between Donkor and a mission team member who had worked at the clinic in Ghana.

“Teresa Carneal works for Dominion Power. I told her that the clinic’s biggest need right now is power,” Donkor said. “She said she knew someone at work who could help.”

Phillip Powell, of Dominion Resources Services Inc. in Richmond and a member of EWB-USA, responded.

“She put me in touch with Dr. Donkor,” Powell said.

MARGE SWAYNE | HERALD Worlds apart, Farmville, Va., and Ghana, Africa, have a common bond in the “Road to Africa” project and its creator, Dr. Kwabena Donkor.

MARGE SWAYNE | HERALD
Worlds apart, Farmville, Va., and Ghana, Africa, have a common bond in the “Road to Africa” project and its creator, Dr. Kwabena Donkor.

Powell, director of Dominion’s grid innovation and alternative energy solutions, is well acquainted with the power challenges in Ghana.

“EWB-USA has installed solar systems in African schools, orphanages and hospitals,” Powell said.

Donkor knows first hand the limitations of a world without power.

“When it gets dark in Ghana, people go to sleep,” he said. “They have no electricity in the village — only candles and hurricane lamps. These things are not cheap for people that are poor.”

In a medical clinic, a reliable source of power in not merely a convenience — it’s a necessity.

“The clinic has an operating room with a surgical table, anesthesia machine and a wall-mounted air conditioner,” Donkor said. “The surgeon has to have air conditioning — to do surgery you have to close all the windows.”

Conditions are quite different as Centra Southside Community Hospital where Donkor runs the sleep clinic, oversees the intensive care unit and serves as president of the medical staff.

Concern for people in rural Ghana, where witch doctors and healers remain the primary source of medical care, led Donkor to initiate his “Road to Africa” project.

MARGE SWAYNE | HERALD The initial benefit gala for the “Road to Africa” project was held at Longwood University in 2006. Over $10,000 was raised during that event.

MARGE SWAYNE | HERALD
The initial benefit gala for the “Road to Africa” project was held at Longwood University in 2006. Over $10,000 was raised during that event.

“I have witnessed the human misery that disease inflicts on individuals in developing countries,” he said.

Donkor described a typical medical case in Ghana — a man falls out of a tree and breaks a leg.

“Without medical care this man is unable to farm, fish or hunt — a family of five is left to struggle,” he said.

The first “Road to Africa” fundraiser was held at Longwood University in the fall of 2006; $10,000 was collected that night.

“That’s one thing I will never forget — how the people of Farmville came through to help,” he said.

Over the years, the Farmville community has continued their support. One example of many was a patient in Donkor’s Farmville office who arranged to buy a retired ambulance from the Prince Edward Volunteer Rescue Squad and paid for shipping it to Ghana. The ambulance now serves as a mobile unit, bringing needed medical care to the more remote regions of the village.

Currently, the clinic campus includes a surgical building, OB/GYN surgical suite and medical/pediatric building.

Nothing goes to waste in Africa — even shipping containers are repurposed.

“We cut windows in the containers and use them for residential spaces for the staff,” Donkor said.

The medical team includes Dr. LaDonna Regier, chief of staff who left a medical practice in Kansas to come to Ghana; a physician’s assistant; six nurses; and a lab technician.

The staff handles around 10 patients a day.

“These are primarily walk-ins,” Donkor said.  “It’s almost like an urgent care center. With only one physician, 10 patients are quite a few. It takes a long time to get things done here.”

A reliable source of power, Donkor believes, will allow the clinic to operate more efficiently.

“There are also secondary benefits apart from taking care of patients,” Donkor said. “Schoolchildren have no way of reading at night now. Once we have power, the children can come to the clinic to read a book or do some math. It will really make a big difference in their lives.”

Making a difference is the goal of EWB-USA, a group which partners with communities around the world with the aim of meeting basic human needs.

For Donkor’s project, EWB-USA raised $15,000 for solar panels.

“That’s one of the things we do,” Powell said. “We also mentor in schools. I work with Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech. We’ll take four to six students along when we do these projects.”

EWB-USA has completed similar projects in Uganda.

“In Africa, power costs a lot more there than it does in the U.S.,” Powell said. “A lot of times power is lost every other day.”

Donkor foresees a new day for Ghana once the clinic is fully operational.

“As long as we have the sun, we’ll be all right,” he said.

The EWB-USA mission statement says it well: “We bring light where it’s dark.”

For more information on the Ama Nyame Memorial Medical Clinic or to make a donation contact Dr. Donkor in Farmville at (434) 392-7859.