Out of Alabama
And Into a New Life in Africa with the Baba Boys
by Tom Wofford, Wedding portrait by David Bley
There’s a blur of activity that surrounds almost every wedding, but Ben and Rachael Stanton’s January 7 nuptials took place amidst a particularly intense flurry. Ben didn’t arrive in Birmingham until Christmas Eve, and there was a lot of thoughtful packing to do for a post-wedding trip that might last an entire decade (And, of course, there were the holidays).
After the wedding on a Columbiana hilltop, followed by a reception in a nearby barn (the bride’s veil almost reached the top of her cowboy boots), the couple had time for only a couple of days of honeymoon in the North Carolina mountains, since they had a flight the morning of January 12 out of Birmingham.
It wasn’t a direct flight, of course, but then again, to reach the newlywed’s new home in the village of Soe (pronounced “Soh-Wee”), in the Bolgatanga District of the Upper East Region of the West Africa country of Ghana, one has to change not only planes, but also modes of transportation, hemispheres and a few basic ways of life.
“It’s not easy getting used to having no hot water,” said the former Rachael Eden, artist, interior designer and self-described “free spirit,” as she packed her last bags to leave behind the apartment where she had lived alone on Southside, Alabama’s most densely populated and amenity-filled neighborhood, in favor of a crowded house in the west African bush with no air conditioning or access to dairy products and where the water must be filtered.
As the new Mrs. Stanton described it, however, one might think she were on her way to DisneyWorld (or at least Six Flags). “There’s a good meat market,” Rachael said with an effusiveness some women can only muster for a Macy’s sale, “and access to good food. And the boys and the community are so awesome.”
It would be fair to expect a bride of five days to see the world through rose-colored, heart-shaped glasses, but Rachael had visited Ghana already to experience the life her then-boyfriend was leading, and she was thrilled to be returning to this life as his wife. And as foster mother to the six orphans Ben had been inspired to raise.
“I went to Ghana for a month, in October and November,” Rachael said, “and I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to help raise these boys.” She arrived October 18, and on November 17 Ben and Rachael became engaged.
The engagement and marriage happened relatively quickly because the relationship had been simmering for a long time. The two met at Mosaic, a young church congregation that meets in Lakeview’s Avon Theatre, only a week before Ben was to return to Ghana, and while they spent some time together, “nothing was really happening,” Rachael said with a laugh. “I mean, he was going to Africa, so I didn’t even flirt.” (Mosaic is been one of Baba Boys’ best supporters, both spiritually and financially. A benefit last June raised enough money to support Ben for a year.)
“I thought there was a little spark that week,” Ben suggested, and Rachael agreed; the seeds of the relationship were planted.
Their relationship matured on Ben’s visits back to Birmingham, and even while he was in Ghana, thanks to the miracles of 21st century media.
Early on they discovered a mutual literary and spiritual admiration. “I was in love with the fiction of C.S. Lewis,” Rachael said, “and Ben was in love with his non-fiction, and we really bonded over sharing our feelings about this really inspiring work.”
Ben has been involved in improving education in northeast Ghana for years. In 2009, he and fellow Mississippi native Ben McNeer co-founded the Desk Project, which is dedicated to providing basic educational needs in the Talensi District in the northeast corner of Ghana, a fifteen-hour bus ride from the coast and the capital, the more affluent areas of Ghana.
“When Ben first arrived in Ghana,” McNeer says in a promotional video, “there would be no blackboard, just black paint on a wall. No desks, just children sitting on a concrete floor…The situation was much worse than we thought.”
Although Ghana is not among Africa’s poorest nations, the country remains a developing nation, and the Talensi District is in the heart of the poorest and least literate part of Ghana. While nationwide, 65 percent of adults can read, in the northeast area, that figure is closer to 10 percent. Pay is so bad that teachers have to work a second job to make ends meet, when teachers can be attracted to the area at all.
The Desk Project provides every basic possible so that the small amount of government money that reaches the district can be spent on teachers’s salaries, housing and training, so that the children of the area can have a structured environment where they can focus and a place the parents are proud to send their children.
“Changing one school can change the lives of hundreds of children,” Ben Stanton said. “If we can show them they are not alone,” the YouTube video about the Desk Project explains, “If we can tell them they are not stuck in poverty then we can help the Talensi. One teacher, one school, one child, one desk at a time.”
About the size of Alabama and Tennessee combined, Ghana is like most other former European possessions on the continent, with deep scars of colonial exploitation remaining.
The vast abundance of gold brought Europeans to area in the 15th century and eventually the name “the Gold Coast.” The Portuguese arrived first, establishing a fort there in 1484, but the lucrative gold, ivory and pepper trade led almost every European power to attempt a foothold there, including the Dutch, the English, Swedes, Danes, Prussians and the Spanish, who built more than thirty forts and castles among them. By the late 1600s, however, human trafficking became the most lucrative trade in the area, as west Africa became the chief source of slaves sent to the Americas. The European powers fought with each other and with the native nation-states for control of the area for centuries, with Great Britain ultimately driving out its rivals during the 1800s, although the native Ashanti weren’t completely subdued until 1900. Independence came in 1957 when the Gold Coast colony was combined with two other British possessions to form the Republic of Ghana.
The Talensi-Nabdam District, where Ben and Rachael will operate their ministry, has not enjoyed the rising standard of living taking place in many of Ghana’s urban areas. The people there have a word for “poor,” but not one for “rich” The people of this area are considered by their countryman as good for little more than migrant work.
About 25 percent of Ghana lives on less than $500 a year, a situation that describes about 80 percent of the Talensi-Nabdam District. Farming and herding are among the few ways to earn a living, but frequent droughts have decreased crop yields while the local population continues to increase. Most families barely grow enough food for to survive, much less have a surplus to sell to buy other things like health care, or schooling.
While the poverty rate is declining elsewhere in Ghana, in Talensi it is on the rise. Many people of the area are described by a phrase that has arisen in the past 20 years: “too poor to farm.” A relatively affluent person in the area is described as “able to solve his problems.”
There are thousands of orphans in the area, their parents the victims of malnutrition and no access to health care, as well as HIV rates that continue to increase.
“Education is the solution,” Ben Stanton said with conviction, which means he and the other local volunteers have their work cut out for them. There are barely 100 schools in an area with 100,000 people. A typical school has 100 students, but only two trained teachers and a single volunteer.
There is little money for books or supplies. Not one of the schools even has a toilet. The teachers often speak a different language and come from a different culture. It’s a hardship for most children to attend school, since most walk more than three miles to the school and also are needed at home to help earn the household’s meager living. A lucky few children are sponsored to attend a boarding school, but for most, they will depend on Ben’s group and its partners.
“We want to help them realize their potential,” Ben said of the African community he now calls home.
For all his hard work over three years in Ghana, last year Ben made a much larger and personal commitment to the people of the Talensi District, when he became foster father to six boys, orphans aged 10-15, at the urging of the founder of Beacon House Ghana, an organization dedicated to child welfare that operates a refuge for orphans in the capital, Accra.
Ben nicknamed his foster sons the “Baba Boys,” after the baba tree, a symbol of life and nourishment in Ghana. Although the species is known to grow 100 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter—and to live for literally thousands of years—the baba survives on the edge of the Sahara for nine months of the year with virtually no rain. Not only does the massive, water-filled trunk of the baba (often spelled “boaboa” and “baobab”) serve as a well during the long dry season, the tree’s fruit is highly nutritious, high in antioxidants and with three times the vitamin C of an orange and 50 percent more calcium than spinach.
Ben’s hope is that his foster sons can become human symbols of the baba, young men who can become leaders who nourish their communities.
It’s also a fitting coincidence that in dozens of languages from Africa to the Far East, “baba” means “father,” including in the local FraFra tongue.
The backgrounds of the six Baba Boys are heart-rending, but their blooming as young men is equally inspiring.
The eldest of the Baba Boys, Bismark, lived with his sister after AIDS destroyed his family, and the youngest, Godwin, was at first taken in by an uncle, but neither family was able to support an additional family member for long. Twelve-year-old Joe lived with his grandmother, but, suffering from elephantiasis, her ability to care for him was limited, and they often went without anything to eat.
Through a sponsor, Bismark now attends boarding school when he is not at the Baba Boys House with Ben and Rachael. (It can cost as little as $42 a month to pay a child’s tuition in Ghana, which sounds like a great Valentine’s Day gift.) Godwin, the most affectionate of the boys, is also enrolled in school, but will soon need a new sponsor to pay the $500 annual tuition at his school. Beacon House is currently paying the schooling costs for Joe, who wants to become a lawyer, but he also needs a sponsor to cover his $500 tuition. Before the Baba Boys House, Joe, who Ben has described as the most expressive and persuasive of the boys, had to stay at the school during vacations and weekends because of his precarious home life.
While the father of Asadakwesi, 14, is still living, local cultural superstition drove the family out of their village, and has made it impossible for him to support his family. Before she died, Kwesi’s mother was accused of being a witch, a stigma that spreads to the entire family and has made it impossible for Kwesi’s father to find work.
Bens writes that Kwesi (also sometimes called “Asaada”) is reserved and somewhat behind scholastically, but that he’s a natural-born artist. For the moment, Asaada, a soccer fan, is in school, but he also will soon need a sponsor.
Kwesi’s roommate is Atule, also 14, who Ben calls “the house pantomime,” telling stories that begin “Please, Baba Ben,” and end with knee-slapping, finger-snapping and a number of other gesticulations.
Incredibly bright, 12-year-old Wilfred is the smallest of the boys, the most scholastically advanced, and also the funniest and most diplomatic. Wilfred is living in a real home, rather than a group home, for the first time in years.
“Now I’m planted,” Ben said, “here to help bring these young men to a place where they are bold enough to serve others.”
“We’re committed to raising Godwin until he’s 18,” Rachael said, “so we’ll be in Ghana at least eight years.
“But I have a feeling we’ll be there longer.”