Going home

A UC Davis grad student lives with the weight of wanting to do more to help his impoverished village in Africa

“People think America is a place where you just go there and become rich,” said Tometi. “That’s not the way it is.”

“People think America is a place where you just go there and become rich,” said Tometi. “That’s not the way it is.”

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Tometi Gbedema is gathering school supplies and money to aid the school in the Ghanaian farming village where he was born. To contribute, e-mail him at tkgbedema@ucdavis.edu.

This month, Tometi Gbedema will return home to Ghana for the first time in seven years. The 39-year-old UC Davis grad student will be greeted by villagers proud of his success. He brings with him two master’s degrees: The first in translation, at University of Benin in Lome, Togo; the second in community development from UC Davis, where he’s working on a doctorate in geography.

But he also will carry the weight of responsibility.

“I am happy to go home, but I am also not happy because I have a lot to do and it is a very difficult time for me,” Tometi says. “I’m very happy to see my mom. But I have a lot of responsibilities.

“I haven’t done enough.”

The statement shows the level of responsibility that Tometi feels to help the people of his impoverished homeland.

A photograph arrived last summer with a handwritten letter from Fred Akuffo, the headmaster of the school in Otwetiri, the village where Tometi was born. In the picture, concrete blocks and one skinny palm tree stand in a clearing of dirt and grass. Someday the walls will hold classrooms.

The headmaster also enclosed a picture of wiry boys smiling in soccer uniforms once worn by the Davis High School junior-varsity girl’s team, for which Tometi works as an assistant coach.

The photograph and letter are the headmaster’s way of soliciting assistance from Tometi in the effort to build the new classroom building.

Tometi reads aloud, his fingertips underlining the words: “If help could be sourced … it will be such a big relief and welcome news to all of us and I believe that your name would forever remain on the lips of everybody in the Otwetiri neighborhood.”

Tometi holds the picture of the concrete blocks up again.

It’s been months since it was taken, but he knows from phone calls home that the new school building still does not have a roof.

When Tometi lived in the little village of perhaps 50 homes, the school had mud walls and a thatched roof kept out the rain.

Tometi’s father, Thomas, died when he was 4 years old. Unable to afford her son’s care, his mother, Vinolia, sent Tometi to live with his uncle Moses, a truck driver and a strict disciplinarian.

From there, Tometi lived with another uncle, two aunts, his maternal grandfather and a family friend, moving back and forth between Ghana and Togo.

He studied hard. But his weakness then, as now, was soccer. He and his friends played barefoot, kicking lemons or makeshift balls made of rubber bands.

Tometi managed success in the classroom and on the field. A knee injury, which left him with a limp, ended his chance of playing in the Olympics for Togo and any prospect of a professional career.

In 1990, while a student in Togo, he met his future wife, Marie, a hairdresser. Ten years later, they moved to Davis.

But his responsibilities to his family and his village were never far from his mind.

In the fall of 2005, his half-brother Christopher died from an illness. He left behind two sons: Edem, now 8, and Senyo, 10, whom Tometi and Marie help support.

The couple stretches a teaching assistant’s salary, Marie’s paychecks as a hairdresser and what Tometi earns from coaching, sometimes with private lessons.

Bob Smith is the Davis High School JV and youth coach Tometi has worked under for five years. Tometi got his start coaching in Davis in this way: One day, he looked out through a public-library window and saw a soccer tournament going on. He hustled outside to watch. At halftime, stranger though he was, he pulled aside boys playing in the midfield, his longtime position, and began dishing out advice.

So began his Davis coaching career.

Smith has donated four sets of old jerseys to his coach’s home village, but it took Tometi time to save the money so he could ship them. Later, a former player helped him send soccer balls.

“He’s struggling to make a difference,” Smith says.

Just saving the $1,500 for the plane ticket home was difficult. Tometi justifies it, in part, because he plans to spend part of his 18 days in Ghana making contacts for his thesis.

He intends to study travel philanthropy, in which vacationers volunteer in poor communities. He thinks that idea could benefit Otwetiri, where most families get by growing corn, cassava and yams.

This year Ghana is celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule. While it remains one of Africa’s foremost success stories, life there isn’t easy. Ghanaians earn, on average, about $2,600 per year.

Tometi feels certain he will be seen there not just as a success, but also as a wealthy American.

“People there think that America is a place where you just go there and become rich. That’s not the way it is. I have to explain that.

“People will be expecting a lot.”

Tometi does have big dreams for Otwetiri, which is now home to about 50 families. The school draws about 200 students from the surrounding area.

He imagines that if he could raise $20,000, he could complete the school, build housing to attract teachers, plus help construct a community center and a church.

He’d like to have a house there, too, where Davis soccer coaches would stay on visits to run clinics. And he’d hold tournaments, the lure of soccer keeping kids in school.

“You can’t satisfy everyone,” Tometi says, but it’s clear he wishes otherwise. “I am thinking of them always, but I can’t do it all immediately.”

The school is especially important to him as he heads home in the next weeks. Its new building doesn’t look like much yet, its block walls pieced together by volunteers.

But it represents plenty.

“Without my extended family, I never would have made it to this level. I want to show the community education is important and that they can do it.”

A version of this article first appeared in the Davis Enterprise.