Iowans lead efforts to bring clean water to Ghanaians

Bill Tague, left, and Peter Whitman, members of Ss. Philip & James Parish in Grand Mound, participate in a well ribbon cutting in Fante Nyankumasi, Ghana, earlier this year.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Fr. Odoom

Father Francis Odoom was 6 years old when drought devastated his native Ghana. “I would follow my family with a gallon (vessel) on my head and walk long distances, 10 miles and over, looking for the next source of water.”

He shared this testimony in a homily while serving parishes in Grand Mound and Lost Nation, hoping to help his flock better understand the Gospel story of the woman at the well. He never imagined his words would spark the construction of 34 wells in his native country. “It spoke to the very nature of the American people,” he said of Iowans’ desire to help those who are struggling in Ghana. “They are very kind and generous.”

The idea to raise funds for wells came up during a conversation between the priest and Michele Traver, a member of Ss. Philip & James Parish in Grand Mound. “I’m a big water drinker, and I thought, ‘I can’t imagine not drinking water,’” she told The Catholic Messenger. A flow of local support soon followed, resulting in creation of Project of Hope — Wells for Ghana. A core group of Iowans leads fundraising efforts for the nonprofit organization, while a group in Ghana handles planning and infrastructure. The Iowa group has raised about $170,000 for the wells since its formation in 2018, said Diana Scott, the Iowa group’s treasurer. A majority of the funds are collected through word of mouth and an annual fundraising event.


A closer look

Pictured is the well.

UNICEF reports that clean water access in Ghana has improved significantly since the 1983 drought but one in every 10 people has to spend more than 30 minutes accessing it. This leaves less time for school and other pursuits, Father Francis said. Another 11% of the population regularly drinks from surface and other unsafe water sources.

Earlier this year, Grand Mound parishioners Bill Tague and Peter Whitman traveled to Ghana to help build a new well, monitor previously built wells and observe how communities cope with limited access to clean water. Donor Monica Forret, a St. Ambrose University-Davenport professor and a friend of Father Francis, visited Ghana last year and offered guidance for Bill and Peter’s trip.

Although the men had seen photos of people using muddy and possibly contaminated water, it was jarring to witness in person. “Access to water is a novelty to a point; clean water is almost unheard of” in some areas, Bill said. Cobras near water sources can also pose a threat, Peter explained.

Bill and Peter’s host family had access to public water but the delivery was intermittent.   “People have containers to fill when (public) water doesn’t run,” Bill explained. “For three days we didn’t have running water and we were literally scraping the bottom of the barrel.” Bill and Peter were encouraged by their hosts’ generosity and ability to adapt to the circumstances. “We became more resourceful,” Bill said.

Construction of the well

A team in Ghana processes the selection of communities most in need and gauges the potential for community engagement, Bill said. This team relies on local partners to find ideal underground water sources, drill down 70-plus meters and install electric well pumps. Community members perform less precise tasks on a volunteer basis. Construction costs averaged $5,500 per well in 2023.

Bill and Peter helped with the construction of a well in Fante Nyankumasi, a community 20 miles north of Cape Coast. A nearby stream had dried up and community water had been nonfunctional for about six months, Bill explained. Local partners and volunteers made a platform using concrete and stones for the 1,500-gallon tank. “The kids brought in rocks from home,” Peter recalled. The well location is next to a school and the children were excited about having clean water access, the men said.

Father Francis Odoom speaks during a well ribbon cutting in Fante Nyankumasi, Ghana, earlier this year.

Reuniting with Father Odoom

Father Francis returned to his home diocese of Cape Coast, Ghana in 2022. Clean water access has transformed family life in some areas and he is inspired by Ghanaians’ willingness to donate time and labor to construct wells. He is realistic about the challenges that remain, especially the cost of providing energy to the pumps. Partners in Iowa and Ghana are learning and working toward solutions, Father Francis said.

Bill and Peter met with Father Francis during their stay, delivering rosaries made by Bill’s children and members of his extended family. Father Francis will return to Iowa in mid-March for a brief visit to offer a presentation at the annual Project of Hope — Wells for Ghana fundraiser in Welton.

Father Francis was hesitant to get involved in well building at first. “I thought my platform as a priest did not necessarily call for this kind of social intervention.” Michele refers to him as a catalyst for change, a role the priest now embraces. “I have learned deeply that intervention — performing works of mercy — is intrinsically part of ministry. I can be a priest and still be involved in the needs of the community.”

He is grateful for the sacrifices made by people on both sides of the Atlantic to improve lives in Ghana. “People have real needs everywhere you go and some of the needs can be as fundamental as the need for water. When all of us put little efforts together, we can alleviate the needs of others and reach out.”

If you go
Bill Tague, Peter Whitman and Father Francis Odoom will speak during the annual Project of Hope — Water for Ghana fundraiser March 15 at Buzzy’s in Welton. Fellowship begins at 6 p.m. with the presentation and a complimentary meal beginning at 7 p.m. RSVP to Lindsey Tague at (563) 343-0497.

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