3tu Oburoni a, Ɔ Ka Twi

While the official language of Ghana is English, the predominately spoken language is Twi. I surprise a lot Ghanaians when I speak Twi. It usually goes something like this:

Oobrooni, 3t3 s3n? (White man, how are you?)
Bɔkkɔ. (Cool)
Eiii! wo t3 Twi? (Ah! You understand Twi?)
Aan3, 3tu Oburoni a, Ɔ Ka Twi. (Yes, when the challenge comes, the white man speaks Twi)

Twi is a beautiful language. It is poetic. It is tonal. There are many proverbs woven into daily conversations. It of course has no Latin roots, so the grammar is unique. Learning the language is the gateway to any culture. Speaking Twi is the main reason why I’m able to call Ghana my second home.

Visiting a traditional medicine shrine during my first trip to Ghana in 2010

This is my seventh trip to Ghana. I first came in 2010 as an undergrad for three months. I was 20 years old. I was on a research grant of a med school professor at University of Michigan. He was an OBGYN, and had a collaborator at Ghana’s Center for Plant Medicine (CPMR). Like China, Ghana has a strong tradition of plant based medicine and their healthcare system is a fusion of both herbal and orthodox clinics. Myself and another student came to study a particular plant, that had traditionally been used during childbirth. The CPMR also has a clinic where they prescribe herbal remedies for malaria, typhoid fever, hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments. They ran small clinical studies (e.g. with 15 patients) to try to provide evidence of the plant’s effectiveness, but struggled to produce convincing data. This motivated me to apply for a Fulbright, a year of research funding, when I graduated to help the CPMR clinic gather more patient data. I applied for a Fulbright twice, rejected before the interview stage at my first attempt, and accepted my second try. This brought me to Ghana for one year in 2013.

That year changed my life in many ways, but most of all it gave me a connection to Ghana that I know will be present for the rest of my life. I now have lifelong friends here, a god daughter, and a company. I learned a new language. Although I’m not fluent, many Ghanaians have told me I speak Twi better than any white person they’ve ever met. I was fortunate during that year, I was the only foreigner at my workplace and in my town. I had no choice but to integrate into the society. I went to the market to buy products to cook Ghanaian foods. I played on my company’s soccer team. I went to church — sometimes. I attended weddings of friends and naming ceremonies of their newborns. Sadly, I even attended a funeral of a colleague from work. I experienced a completely different culture which forced me to challenge my own. Most importantly, I rediscovered my humanity, which I sometimes feel my homeland attempts to strip away from me. In the US I often feel more like a tool for someone else’s production or a dollar sign than a human being. The Ghanaian culture restored my humanity in many ways.

Godwin Danso & myself working with the Electronic Medical Record system at CPMR in 2014

The purpose of my Fulbright was simple: Gather more data for the CPMR clinic to build a body of evidence for their herbal medicines. To do so, we set up an Electronic Medical Record system, digitizing all the paper forms currently used at the clinic. This was a surprisingly smooth process, and after 4 months the clinic went entirely digital. It was one of the first EMRs in the country. Ashort documentary was even made about my work. In the process, I trained a few of the staff in the clinic how to implement the software, write html code to digitize forms, and query the SQL database to pull data for reports. One day, they came to me and said, “Alex, we can do this for other hospitals”. Consequently, at the end of my trip, we filed the paperwork to incorporate and became a company in Ghana. Since then, I’ve come back to Ghana about once per year for new projects. I’m proud to say together we have implemented EMRs for four hospitals: an HIV clinic, a large outpatient clinic in Accra, and two herbal medicine clinics one of which is of course the CPMR.

We are now sitting on a pile of data, untapped for the most part. For this particular trip my goal is pull, clean, and analyze some of this data in order to answer questions that are relevant to the clinics. My trip is funded by a grant from Harvard to work with data from the HIV clinic, but my first stop was to visit my oldest collaboration, the CPMR.

Arriving at the CPMR last week

Luckily, when I arrived to visit to the CPMR, Dr. Appiah, the newly appointed Director of the centre, had arrived at the same time. He greeted me in Twi and we went to his office to chat. Politically, as an outsider it’s always important than when you enter an institution in Ghana that you visit the person at the top. I believe this tradition stems from the chiefdom days, where any ausländer must get approval from the chief before settling on land within their jurisdiction. We chatted a bit about our lives. He gave me his stump speech for herbal medicine “For thousands of years our ancestors have been using these plants, often through trial and error, they found which plants cure which ailments.” What the Centre does is try to provide the scientific backing to these herbal treatments. He spoke to how they work towards identifying the chemical compounds within the plants, proving the mechanism of action, and uncovering any side effects etc. Unfortunately, given the resources of the clinic this is a herculean task. Last summer I saw at Novartis a billion dollar multinational company with essentially unlimited resources trying to accomplish the exact same thing. Novartis has chemical compound databases, state of the art animal testing facilities, the means to conduct clinical trials, world class scientists, and still many drugs don’t make the cut to go to market.

My original goal of my Fulbright was to collect data on the outpatient clinic, and then try to see if there was any indication that the medicines were working. To be honest I never achieved the latter part of this goal; however, now we have accumulated over 5 years of data in the EMR. I’m also 5 years sharper as a statistician. I’m excited to see what I find.

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