In 1991 I traveled to Ghana to document the Carter Center’s nascent efforts to eradicate guinea worm disease, a scourge that affected millions across Africa and Asia.
The only disease ever eradicated by human effort was small pox and documenting an attempt to double that number seemed like a meaningful way to use a grant that I had received from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Southern Foundation for the Arts.
Guinea worm is a parasite that is ingested by drinking water from contaminated sources. It is invisible until it begins to grow inside its host, becoming several feet long. It eventually needs to emerge through the skin and the process is debilitating and does great harm to the economy of small agrarian villages. It interferes with all functioning; men cannot harvest crops, kids can’t attend schools, and women can’t cook.
I traveled alone but had been given contacts throughout the country that would help me if I could get to them. Travel throughout Ghana was not easy, but never so difficult that it dissuaded me from going to the most remote areas. I hired a driver to take me along the coast from Accra to Elmina. As we started on our journey he turned to me and told me his name was Jimmy Carter! He said he loved the man so much that everyone called him that. Sure enough, when we reached our destination he got out of his car and a man recognized him and called out: HALLLO Jimmy Carter! When I told him of my mission we agreed that it was fate that brought us together. He celebrated with several beers and the ride back was harrowing. Ever since I have referred to it as the day that Jimmy Carter almost killed me.
I flew in a Ghana military plane from Accra to Tamale in northern Ghana, along with passengers, pigs and chickens. From there I traveled to several small villages, some hours away by jeep. The phrase “it takes a village” resonated in each place, where a strong feeling of community amid alarming poverty gave a sense of hope. In Changeshu Village, the chief had been particularly successful at adopting some of the techniques and educational teachings of the Carter Center. While other villages were decimated by guinea worm, the one room school in Changeshu was full of inquisitive children and the village was vibrant with activity. In honor of the occasion I took a portrait of the chief, surrounded by villagers.
I had never traveled to a developing country before and what I found was a people rich in spirit and generosity. When deciding which country to document I had repeatedly heard that Ghanaians were known for their smiles. That seemed a good sign and I was treated with both their generosity and their warmth throughout the trip.
There are many languages in Ghana and I tried to learn a few words of welcome that I could use wherever I went. In one village the accepted greeting was to say the word “naa” and to slightly bow. It was a sign of respect if the person you were greeting were the last person to say “naa.” I stood for a minute with the chief, each of us saying naaa and slightly bowing one after another until we both started laughing. I believe we ended in a tie.
Today there are only a few cases of the disease left and Jimmy Carter has proclaimed his desire that the last guinea worm die before he does. That may have seemed unthinkable when I traveled 25 years ago, but today, it looks like the former President and current global humanitarian will get his wish.