“It’s just a miracle. But it all happened. And that community will remember this forever.”
The miracle that Calvin College communication arts and sciences professor Stephanie Sandberg was referring to involved two students who were 5,700 miles from campus on a semester abroad in Ghana.
Maggie Ferntheil, a theater major, and BeAnka Mushenkye, an interdisciplinary major, said they used theater as a unique way to ask people to donate funds to build a health clinic in the small village of Adenkrebi.
Working with middle school students, they put on a performance of short, real-life plays on Friday, November 22, 2013. And that is when the miracle, which included a downpour, happened.
Outside of the theater production, Ferntheil and Mushenkye’s experience was quite similar to the other 15 students on their semester abroad.
The two spent the majority of their time in Ghana learning about the history and culture of the country and taking classes at the University of Ghana. Like the other students, Ferntheil and Mushenkye spent the final three weeks in Ghana participating in a period of intense service learning.
“We set up these situations for students where they could go in for an extended period of time and work with a community group or an NGO or a service organization or a clinic,” said Sandberg.
“Wherever they had vocational gifts, we tried to match them or find them a place where they could work.”
Students worked in various villages surrounding Ga East, which is a sister city to Grand Rapids, Mich. A few students worked on documentary films, a few more helped with publicity efforts for special projects, and another student worked in a speech pathology clinic, which in Ghana, Sandberg said, is “a rare opportunity.”
Ferntheil and Mushenkye were assigned a project up in the hills in Adenkrebi, which is situated on a ridge overlooking the sprawling metropolis of Accra.
The students’ project came out of a previous visit to Ghana, where Sandberg and Roland Hoksbergen, Calvin’s director of international development studies, had joined with representatives from MAP International—a global Christian health organization—to meet with the chief and others in the village of Adenkrebi to ask them, “What are your biggest needs?”
The theme that emerged from those conversations was knowledge about and access to better healthcare.
The people in the village determined that building a health clinic and living facilities for the workers would most effectively address these issues. The price tag would be about $50,000.
With this in mind, Sandberg asked her students to work with the people of Adenkrebi to make the case to donors for this need. And she asked them to do it through theater.
“Anyone can go up to a podium and speak about how we should raise money to help out this charity or this village,” said Ferntheil.
“But in theater, you are shown what the story is and why it would be great to help out.”
So Ferntheil and Mushenkye set out to tell the stories of the villagers in a handful of five- to seven-minute plays.
The two started the project by listening to the stories of people in the village, hearing about the health issues that had affected their loved ones. While malaria, broken bones, tropical diseases, and a host of other issues were brought up, it was access to healthcare that seemed to be the biggest problem.
“They were having people seriously injured. They were having people die unnecessarily. There was a high infant mortality rate; it was problematic across the board,” said Sandberg.
“The people were registered with the national health insurance in Ghana, but they had no access to that healthcare.”
A major factor playing into that access was the dangerous path to the nearest clinic.
“The roads are atrocious; people die on those roads because of how dangerous they are,” said Sandberg.
The two-mile dirt road is ungraded, full of potholes, and hasn’t been repaired for years. There’s a steep, dangerous hill to get up to the village, and many cars have toppled backwards down the hill.
The students realized that a story about the road and its impact on healthcare was necessary. So they included a story about a woman in the village who got sick and needed urgent care.
In the story, another person in the village bypasses the road and carries the woman down the other side of the mountain. But before they reach the clinic, the woman dies.
The other plays told stories of people’s experiences with a broken leg, a pregnancy, and a tropical disease. Ferntheil and Mushenkye wrote and produced the stories and worked with middle school students in the village who acted the stories out on stage.
“I saw the joy in the children’s faces when we were telling them about our project,” said Ferntheil. “I think if whoever is performing, writing, directing, or producing is passionate about their work, it can bring social change.”
The two Calvin students’ connection to their subject matter became very real during the project when BeAnka Mushenkye lost her appetite and spiked a high fever. She was taken to the clinic and diagnosed with malaria, eventually ending up in the hospital for a day.
“If I had not gotten access to a clinic in a certain amount of time and [received] decent healthcare, my results could have turned out differently,” said Mushenkye.
“It made everything that was distant, the stories we heard and collected during our production, real. I was in it. I went through it. And it created in me even greater humility, remorse, and desire to work hard on this project.”
“It was ironic because here we were dealing with healthcare issues, and in a lot of ways BeAnka’s situation, getting her up and down that mountain, for example, gave us a true empathy
for what the people were going through,” said Sandberg.
“So I believe that even the illness, the suffering BeAnka was going through, played into the success of the project. That’s just the way God works—all of these things converging at the same moment. And then, of course, the performance itself. . . .”
On Friday, November 22, the project Ferntheil and Mushenkye had been working on for the past three weeks had reached its pinnacle. The actors were ready. The stage was set.
But the audience would determine the success of the project. Would they come? Would they be moved to help out? The two had invited the entire village, including the chief and the municipal authorities, and they also invited those who had showed interest in donating to the project.
“We needed a way to convince the donors that the community was invested in this, that these are real stories about needs in healthcare,” said Sandberg. “We needed them to come to say, ‘Yes, we are going to give you money.’”
After waiting and waiting, Sandberg said the donors arrived in a big van. “It took them forever to get up that hill,” she said.
That van full of people was just the start.
“The entire village came,” said Sandberg. “The chief rarely goes to things like this. He came. He was there in his full regalia.” His entourage accompanied him.
The middle school students performed their hearts out, acting out stories of people in their village.
Even a short downpour couldn’t stop them from performing. In fact, rain was included in the script.
“During a part of the play, it says it starts to rain—and it started to rain,” said Sandberg. “The students stayed out there and kept performing while it was getting worse and worse.
“Then, as a sign from heaven, as that part of the play ended, when it ceased raining in the play, it ceased raining in Adenkrebi!”
“I was pretty speechless after the whole thing happened,” said Ferntheil.
The donors agreed to fund the clinic that day. And the chief agreed to give eight acres of land to the project. The clinic will serve more than 5,000 people, including the communities surrounding Adenkrebi.
Sandberg said most people would probably consider different approaches when seeking to raise $50,000 for a health clinic. But those who took part in the project said the plays, arising from the life of the village itself, had the greatest impact.
“You know, theater is a great catalyst for human action. A performance can bring people together in a way that other types of events can’t,” said Sandberg.
“Yeah, you can have a dinner or a party, but a performance that people have invested their time and their energy into really works as a catalyst for action, and it also helps us on this journey that we are all on together,” she added.