African Engineers: Great Americans in Ghana

Recent articles by this author have recorded the best and the worst of American involvement in the work of the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana. In the case of the black Texan sailor, Frank Robertson, it would be impossible to exaggerate his enormous contribution to the installation and start-up of the Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) in Tamale, capital of the Northern Region. Frank Robertson will be long remembered by the community he served so well, whereas his successor, Jim Connell (not his real name), could live to regret the tarnish he caused to the hard-won reputation of American development aid. On balance though, it must be said that the majority of Americans involved in this work made essential contributions to the projects of the TCC and the ITTUs, and many Ghanaian engineers and artisans benefitted greatly from their technical skills and wise counsel.

Most of the Americans who helped the TCC were members of the United States Peace Corps. The pioneer was Sydney Cunningham who joined the programme in the early 1970s when all was in its infancy. This was a time when the TCC was struggling to gain recognition and win overseas support for its work, and the early support of the Peace Corps was greatly appreciated and helped to encourage everyone involved. Sydney joined a small team of engineers which established a workshop on the KNUST campus to demonstrate new manufacturing technologies to the informal-sector artisans of Suame Magazine. The work involved building small-scale plants for producing palm oil, caustic soda, soap and paper glue. This was a time of experimentation, both in terms of technology and technology transfer, when mistakes were made and lessons learned. For the engineers on the shop floor, like Sydney, there must have been many frustrations that even an after-hours swim in the university’s beautiful Olympic-size pool could only partially abate.

The next great American to help the TCC was Kevin Davis, a technical adviser of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Kevin was sent to help with the establishment of the first ITTU in Suame Magazine, Ghana’s largest informal industrial area or kokompe. A muscular man with a bushy beard, who habitually rode to work bare-armed astride a big BMW motorcycle, Kevin inspired confidence in all who knew him. At a time when the ITTU concept was still on paper, Kevin took hold with strong and skilful hands and made it a reality. Even before he joined the TCC Kevin had been helping the artisans of the Magazine, so he was able to play a major role in persuading the artisans to take full advantage of the new services on offer. Like Frank Robertson in Tamale, Kevin Davis made many friends in Suame Magazine who were sorry to see him go when his task was completed. The ITTU was up and running and Kevin could hand-over with confidence to the first Ghanaian manager, Sosthenes Buatsi.

One American left and another American joined. The Suame ITTU was fortunate to enjoy continuing support from across the Atlantic Ocean. Once again the US Peace Corps came to the aid of the TCC when the young mechanical engineer, Ralph Moshage, joined the team to establish an iron foundry at the Suame ITTU. Not quite as big as Kevin Davis, but generously endowed with a ginger beard that challenged Kevin’s darker facial decoration, Ralph shared the confidence that comes with mastery of a craft. Working alongside Chief Technician Edward Opare, Ralph led a team of engineers which succeeded in demonstrating iron casting for the first time in Suame Magazine, early in 1982. The team went on to train artisans and build furnaces to establish a new sector of grassroots industry. The success of the work can be gauged from the report that in the year 2009, when the population of Suame Magazine had grown to exceed 100,000, the iron foundries were said to be the largest employers. Wherever he is today, Ralph can look back on his time in Kumasi with much satisfaction.

Ralph did not come alone; his wife Marlene also served with the US Peace Corps at KNUST. By the early 1980s, an important aspect of the work of the TCC was to promote women’s industries and women entrepreneurs. In this programme it worked closely with the National Council on Women and Development (NCWD). One major aim of the work was to keep traditional women’s industries in the hands of women when the means of production were mechanised. Another aim was to provide income earning opportunities for poor women tied to child care and the family farm. It was this second aim that was seized upon by Marlene who saw in the TCC’s beekeeping project an opportunity to provide poor women with a hobby that provided nutritious food for their babies as well as additional income. She succeeded in this role to the extent that the Beekeeping Association of Ghana enstooled Marlene Moshage as ‘Ghana Bee Queen the First.’ One hopes that no hint of rivalry disturbed the peace of the Moshage home because both Ralph and Marlene left a legacy that touched the lives of thousands of Ghanaians.

Source by John Powell

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