Building a lot of hope

Clemson students have worked on a model of a new campus of teaching and medical buildings for the people of Okurase, a village in Ghana.

The journey between Charleston and Okurase, a small village in Ghana, is as long and as winding as the improbable series of events now binding them together.

It began more than a decade ago, when the Medical University of South Carolina tried to help the crime-ridden neighborhood of Union Heights.

It moved forward when that led to the creation of Djole, a West African dance and drum company aimed at giving youths in that North Charleston community something constructive to do.

It took a fateful turn when Dr. Cynthia Cupit Swenson of MUSC helped Djole buy authentic African drums and met Samuel Nkrumah Yeboah, a drummaker from the village Okurase who goes by the name "Powerful."

It broadened into something reaching deeper into the soul of the Ghana village as more Charlestonians reached out to the village to bring it better medical care and clean water.

And it reached a major milestone this month, as Swenson, Yeboah and 16 Clemson University architecture students and professors gathered next to the College of Charleston's Cistern to sip peppermint schnapps in preparation for their work to come.

The journey will be complete when the people of Okurase build a new campus of teaching, medical and training buildings designed to give them new hope in their fight against poverty and AIDS.

Work could begin this summer.

'They need just about everything'

Swenson and Yeboah had brainstormed for years about ways to help Okurase after their meeting over the drums, and they began to form the idea of building a new village center that would provide skills training, education and homes for orphans who lost their parents to AIDS.

They decided this center also should provide space for medical and humanitarian international internships as well as a recording studio, anything to help the village develop and prosper in the modern world.

"They have no clean water, no toilets, barely enough food, no schooling and no medical care," Swenson said. "They need just about everything to save their lives."

But the idea of the center was all conceptual until they got in touch with the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, which often takes on studies for nonprofit groups as a way to give its students real world design experience.

About nine men and nine women from the village have begun to make bricks by hand out of laterite, a mineral rich dirt that can be combined with cement and sand, then compressed and dried for a month. And the village had a 5-acre site on which to build the center.

"The architecture plan was highly needed before we can start building," Yeboah said.

Clemson architecture professor Robert Miller talked over the project with professor Ray Huff, and they agreed that it only made sense to take on the project if they could send a student over there.

The school had money for only one to make the trip, but two graduate students decided to split that and pay the other half out of their own pockets.

Lindsey Waters, a graduate student in Clemson's architectural program, made the trip over to Okurase with fellow student Kyle Keaffaber.

They walked the site and got a sense of the villagers' customs and way of life. They inspected the work of Ghana architects and the Ashanti building tradition. They felt the climate, saw the lack of clean water and studied available building materials. They also got hooked on wanting to help.

"It's extreme poverty like we can't even understand it in the United States," Waters said. "They have so little, and they know they have so little, but they're so joyful."

"It's hard to feel too bad"

Miller said the necessary simplicity of the project was perfect for the 14 graduate and undergraduate students who took it on.

"These buildings are pretty close to raw shelter. There's no air conditioning, little glass in windows, minimal plumbing," he said. "This was a perfect thing to tackle with students because the building systems were simple enough that they could comprehend. All of it was very basic."

The students created several different versions of designs and showed their progress to Swenson and Yeboah every few weeks for their feedback.

The students settled on a simple architecture that used the bricks being made by villagers and a frame of concrete, a material familiar to Ghana builders. The sides would be louvered to promote cross ventilation, and the corrugated metal roofs would channel as much rainwater as possible into cisterns for future use.

The notion of one center eventually grew to a campus of 16 buildings separated by courtyards designed for performances and quieter gatherings.

"In the end, it's not about the buildings. It's about the spaces between the buildings and what kind of environment that creates for people to gather and celebrate and live and play and foster an environment that's supportive," Waters said. "That's a place of their own and not something that's transplanted there by American architecture students."

Miller said the project provided important perspective for students, given the recent economic downtown and the uncertainties over the job market they will enter.

"We're all feeling sorry for ourselves," he said. "But taking on this project for people who don't have toilets, who don't have fresh water, who eat, drink, bathe and clean their dishes all out of one stream, it's hard to feel too bad about yourself."

Completing the circle

With 1,100 adults and 1,400 children, Okurase is about the same size as the Union Heights neighborhood, where this unlikely journey began.

Ida Taylor is president of Gethsemani Circle of Friends, a nonprofit based in the neighborhood. She said she sometimes thinks about how the effort in Union Heights has evolved into this international outreach and wonders if it's all a dream.

But she also knows this is not a one-way street.

She took more than 20 youths in the Djole company to Okurase three years ago, and she sees the current work as an extension of that trip, continuing to educate local people about the plight of others.

"It has helped our children see things in a different light," she said. "They have a newfound appreciation. Kids are going to be kids regardless, but they now realize how blessed they are, and they realize the little things they take for granted, like hot water."

It also has given Union Heights' youths a sense of their roots.

"We all know the slaves came from Africa, but that was about the extent of it. We didn't know a lot of people who had actually been there, who had actually seen the motherland," Taylor said. "Now instead of seeing something on television, we have people amongst us who have actually been."

While the architectural class has finished and the grades have been given out, Waters said she plans to continue working on it about one day a week over the summer. She ultimately wants to return to Okurase once construction starts.

She remembers those who woke up late at night and went to the village well, waiting for a trickle that might not come.

"It's not something I can just wash my hands of and say, 'I'm done,' especially after having visited there," she said. "It just weighs heavily on me to do something."

Construction is expected to start this summer, and Swenson and others are working to raise the $4 million needed to build the campus, although that number is still a moving target.

"I think we will raise the money pretty rapidly now that we have the design," Swenson said. "Sometimes people don't really believe things are going to happen until they see the design. I'm so pleased with it and so pleased that the time was taken to make it world class."

Swenson said more is at stake than the well-being of Okurase. If this model works there, maybe it will help other impoverished villages.

"Our vision was to have the design of this center be one that can replicated elsewhere in Ghana and other developing countries. We talk about solutions for HIV-AIDS, and so often we go into developing countries and we bring American solutions, and they don't work," she said. "But when people of a country have their own solutions, then they take care of themselves."