For Tometi Gbedema, it all started with a shed of unused soccer equipment and an idea: to find a way to give back to his hometown 7,000 miles and a world away.
Gbedema, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at UC Davis, is the president and director of the Otwetiri Project – a Davis-based non-profit organization. Their “A Taste of Ghana” kicks off this Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Davis Art Center.
The organization hopes to raise $30,000 to build a schoolhouse in the rural Ghanean village of Otwetiri (pronounced Oh-ch-tree) where Gbedema spent much of his childhood.
“You have this building which is broken, but you still have students underneath. Because we have a very big number of students, there are classes outside, under trees,” Gbedema said. “If you see a storm coming then you have to pack your things and you have to run. So my aim is to help rebuild that school.”
Gbedema did not always plan on rebuilding the school. As a child, he frequently moved among the villages of Ghana and Togo to live with relatives. After earning a master’s degree in translation from the University of Lomé in Togo, he moved to Davis to pursue his Ph.D.
Gbedema soon connected with the soccer community and earned a coaching position with the Davis High School girls’ soccer team. It was here that he noticed the piles of soccer uniforms and balls sitting unused in a shed, and asked if he could send them to Otwetiri.
“I packed everything and sent it to my village,” he said. “They used the uniforms, and took pictures with [them]. They wrote a letter thanking me, and asked me if I could help raise money to rebuild the school.”
Word of Gbedema’s philanthropy quickly spread and attracted the attention of Dorie Mellon, the mother of one of the girls on the soccer team and currently vice president of the Otwetiri Project.
“I got to know him over the years, and he started telling me about this village that he had grown up in, where his family is, and how they needed to build a schoolhouse. He told me the old one had literally disintegrated,” Mellon said. “After talking with several other people that knew him we said we could probably make this happen.”
In 2007, after a few years of small-scale fundraising, the group decided to turn the project into a non-profit organization.
In addition to raising money for the schoolhouse, the project also created the Davis California Challenge Cup, a multi-village soccer tournament in Ghana.
“In order for the kids to play soccer, they have to be in good standing in school. So it’s really an incentive for the kids to stay in school,” Mellon said.
A Taste of Ghana is the Otwetiri Project’s first major fundraiser, and promises to be an exciting night of African food, music, and dancing. There will also be a silent auction, where guests can bid on a selection of items ranging from African dresses and jewelry to catered dinner parties.
Davis residents are eager to show their support for the project. Kelly Nelson, longtime Otwetiri enthusiast, is looking forward to continuing the tradition set by his stepfather, who spent years in Ghana doing missionary work.
“It really appealed to us, the idea of building a school and being able to make an immediate impact and then a lasting change,” Nelson said.
To the people of Otwetiri, even the smallest of the project’s efforts is cause for a celebration.
“They basically put on a party just to receive some soccer balls and whatever we have to send over there,” Mellon said. “They give it great respect. Everybody’s there, including all the village elders. They seem very grateful.”
But for Gbedema, the ultimate goal is to build a relationship between Davis and Ghana.
“My goal is to send students to the village and come back and tell how other people live,” he said. “You can learn something from anyone, and there are positive things you can get from [Ghana].”
At least half of this exchange is already complete.
“Word is out that there is this community in California called Davis that wants to help this village in Otwetiri,” Mellon said. “And we haven’t even done that much yet!”
The Otwetiri Project will host “A Taste of Ghana,” 7 p.m. on November 7 at the Davis Art Center (1919 F St.) Tickets are $40, $25 for students. For more information e-mail Toni Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or, visit otwetiri.org.
ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at email@example.com.