I first heard this wonderful story of ‘neigbour to neighbor’ international development a decade ago. I wanted to retell it for several reasons – one, because it sums up for me some of the very best characteristics of North Americans; two, because as I get older, I am ever more inspired by Jeff Lohr, who was facing health challenges when this story began; and three, because it shows that development is a shared challenge born out of trust and respect. Or as Jeff once put it, “we’re just regular Joes trying to help other regular Joes in another country.”
In 2007, when a young Ghanaian carpenter named Abubakar Abdulai went into an internet cafe in West Africa and sent an email to Jeffry Lohr’s woodworking school in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, it was the start of a friendship that has brought immense opportunity for a better life for rural West Africans. Jeff ran a woodworking school that accepted 10 students eight times a year into his competitive six-day master class, attracting beginners and professionals from all over North America and as far away as India and Sweden, as well as many inquiries from the developing world.
Abu was volunteering at an orphanage near Cape Coast and trying to start a woodworking program to help children learn how to make a living – and to do that, he needed Jeff to teach him about woodworking machines, which would allow him to complete in 90 seconds what would take 90 minutes by hand.
When class registration opened up, Abu got one of the 40 slots within the first 30 seconds – but then Jeff realized, “I can’t take this guy’s money, because he’s trying to do this for his country, not just for himself.” The Lohrs, with the help of friends, family, former students and a local U.S. immigration attorney, raised money for travel expenses and obtained a visa for Abu to arrive in April 2008 on a three-month scholarship to train with Jeff and live in their farm home. The Lohrs had begun with a simple idea – they would train Abu on Western woodworking machinery, send him home and then ship whatever machinery they could afford to Ghana.
But, as they learned more about rural Ghana, they soon realized that this plan wouldn’t work. The sheer physical demands of manual woodworking meant Ghanaian carpenters had to stop working while they were relatively young, but the machine tools Jeff used in Pennsylvania were expensive, bulky, and wouldn’t work in rural Ghana’s power grid.
They made a trip to Home Depot, where Jeff asked Abu to point out materials and tools he could access in Ghana. That narrowed the scope considerably. Between Jeff, Abu and the production team at Jeff’s shop, they found a simple and elegant solution that Abu called ‘Mr. Jeffry’s Third World Machine Shop’ – a hand-held circular saw and router, mounted in a precision hardwood table. It could perform all the functions of a sophisticated table saw and planer, at 10% of the cost. It could run off a generator. And except for the saw and router and a few accessories, it could be built entirely of materials readily available in Ghana.
Abu took the parts of the first copy back with him to be used as a template for building others, along with a teaching plan and a vision of disseminating copies throughout Ghana’s Central region via graduates of a planned training center.The plan was that under Abu’s guidance, two teams of carpenters would build two machines each month, with the “most honorable” carpenter being rewarded with the machine his team produced. It was a loan until the carpenter was able to pay back the total cost per unit (about $600) in order to keep it.
The other thing the Lohrs had learned was that despite growing a lot of food, several million Ghanaians were malnourished, especially during the dry season, because they had no way to preserve the harvest. She had grown up learning how to preserve food – something which amazed Abu – and she wanted to pass on that knowledge.
With Abu translating, Linda created a video demonstration of basic home canning techniques for him to take back to Ghana, and they sent 20 cases of canning jars to start the pilot program. (I can’t find the story now, because it was a while ago, but I remember reading about how the village preserved food and invited a neighbouring village to come for lunch during the dry season. It was a powerfully convincing demonstration of the value of canning food.)
It was all part of a vision that had grown during the time Abu lived with the Lohrs – a vision that led to the creation of a US nonprofit organization, moringa community.org, whose symbol was the miraculous moringa tree.
As he boarded his plane home on July 19, 2008, carrying a laptop computer and Power Point projector so he could share the vision with villagers, Abu said to Jeff and Linda, “Now let me show you what I can do. You will be surprised.” But I don’t think they really were.
(Jeff said everyone who works on the project understands it is a cooperative effort between Americans and Africans. “We are a world community. We’ve gotta be friends with the world. And if you don’t give to others, you’ve missed the meaning of life,” he said.)
Back in Ghana, Abu visited many villages before he met chief Nana Kweku Adu-Twum, in the village of Breman Baako. In September 2008, its chiefs and elders provided nine acres of land and granted permission to harvest four trees to build the first training center.
By early October, Abu and his volunteers began clearing the land. When it became clear they needed a truck, several people in the US contributed $8,000. But hauling everything by hand over a small stream was time-consuming, so the Ghanaians engineered and built a cement bridge, entirely by hand, with women carrying bowls of cement on their heads, to bring materials right to the site. The blocks to build the training centre were handcrafted; local children had collected the stones to make up the blocks, and the children and their mothers hand-crushed them.
In January 2010, Abu installed the metal roof on the building, continued work on the interior and stuccoed the exterior walls, decorating them with adinkra symbols. The next month, Jeff boarded a plane bound for Ghana to help set up the machine shop at the new training center.
Jeff had drawn up the plans for the moringa shop using particleboard, which Abu could get in Ghana. But he did not know the process. ‘You go to the city of Takoradi and pick from particleboard that’s been salvaged from demolition projects. What the sellers have available is confusing for an outsider, to say the least. One has no idea what most of the material is or where it came from. It’s hard to know what shape it’s in, and how much it’s worth. l
For Americans, used to being able to pop down to the store to buy what they need, Africa is often a revelation, Jeff said. ‘Healthy food is hard to come by. There are no Western doctors or clinics within 100 square miles. Books are not to be had and the luxury of a piece of paper and a pencil is like a gift from the heavens. There is no post office in the entire district of 244 settlements. There are few wells for drinking water. Electricity, even when available, is unreliable. Phone lines are nonexistent. Shopping for consumer products is erratic and typically only second-hand goods are available. Paved roads were made by the British circa 1950, and have not been maintained since, except by local farmers who patch the holes.” But one thing crosses oceans and cultures, Jeff says – ‘one essential ingredient: TRUST.”
I love how Jeff described their motivation in an interview with The Mercury on May 10, 2009:
“The concept here is not charity,” Jeff said. “It’s just helping them help themselves. This is just regular Joes trying to help other regular Joes in another country is what it is. Education is really the tool for getting peace in the world in my mind.”
“If you have an ability to help someone, it’s wrong of you not to do it,” he said. “And what is discovered through that is a joy to give. It went from me just trying to help one African out to us trying to help a whole West African country. It just took a hold and kept on going.”
Global presence – Local residents strive to make an international difference. The Mercury, May 10, 2009
Moringa Community: An Improbable Project: Using an Innovative Woodworking Technology to Build Hope in Rural Ghana. Works and Conversations, Aug. 1, 2010
Moringa Community. Wikipedia.
Battling arthritis, famed Limerick woodworker hands over school and studio. Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 15, 2016