“Where is the nutrition in fried white rice?” lamented Ekua (pronounced e-qui-a) Bannerman-Richter.
Ghanaians enjoy their rice. Restaurants such as Koffee Lounge in East Legon regularly serve 2-3 cups of rice in each serving. While the Chinese have several main dishes and a bowl of rice on the side, Ghanaians seem to make the starch the main and the sauces their accompaniments. For instance, Adwoa told me Country Kitchen in Osu had the best fufu in the area. Only when I asked her to elaborate did she realized that it was the sauces that made the fufu good — the sauces were an afterthought.
Ekua blames “epidemics of diabetes and hypertension” on Ghanaians’ increasingly sedentary lifestyle, greater access to private vehicles, and a diet involving more Western foods, e.g. French fries and fried rice.
Ekua is a Ghanaian returnee who has been living in her home country for the last 17 years. A corporate lawyer by training, she leads several for-profit and non-profit activities centered on improving the “life experience and quality of life of Ghanaians.”
“A Lifetime Ago”
Raised in Ghana until she was 10 years old, Ekua left Ghana with her family to Sacramento, CA. She graduated from high school at the age of 16 years then spent a year travelling in Europe. After a stint at community college, she joined the Air Force because it required the highest test scores, offered the best non-combat opportunities, and provided a means to pay for college via the GI Bill.
Over her four years in the Air Force, she lived all over the US including San Antonio, TX, Chenutte, IL, Rome, NY, Colorado Springs, CO, and Biloxi, MS. She met her husband while in the Air Force. She served as a mechanic on a fighter squadron and in computer operations monitoring air defense at NORAD. While stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, she began a Bachelors in Business through a program with the University of Maryland. After the Air Force, she attended the University of California at Berkeley for her JD then earned her MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
She specialized in public finance, specifically municipal debt issuance, and tax while working as an Associate for global law firm, Orrick, Herrington, in Northern California.
Returning to Ghana
In 1997, Ekua had divorced her husband and returned to Ghana with her two daughters. Though she felt Europe offered the best balance between America’s “turbocharged” lifestyle and Ghana’s “going nowhere slowly,” Ekua ultimately came to Ghana because she wanted her daughters to feel connected to Africa for both their identity and so they would contribute to the development of the country. Savings from her time at Orrick enabled her to buy a house and car.
Initially Ekua planned to work for a big local firm but found that interviewers frequently did not show up on time or at all. She felt their behavior suggested they “did not have a sense of my value.” She said she was blown away by how the concept of conflict of interest and client confidentiality did not exist here.
She decided to start her own practice. At one point, she employed a couple of local lawyers. Today she provides general counsel services to Ashesi University and two high schools.
“I don’t know if anyone would tell you your too fat.”
Last September, Ekua’s mother passed after being bedridden for the last 8 years. She had developed arthritis and diabetes. Her weight had required her to replace her knee.
“Women should be big,” Ekua said. In both her mother’s generation and her own, being shapely indicates wealth, beauty, and “good living.” How big? Size 18 is considered lovely.
Her last years contrast starkly with her youth. Ekua’s mother had been a fast sprinter. After she married and had children, however, she was “encouraged to gain weight until she became very overweight.”
“[Women in Ghana] live for their parents, their husband, their children — but not for themselves,” Ekua said. “They can’t imagine having a productive life in their 50s.”
Ekua explained that whenever her mother received gifts of cloth or clothes, she would pack them away unused in suitcases. Her mother was worried “more concerned about after she died” — her legacy — than enjoying the present.
“God decides whether you are going to live or die,” is how many Ghanaians view life, Ekua explains. This fatalistic view of life can be attributed to Ghanaians’ strong Christian faith.
“God helps those who help themselves,” she rebuts. “You can’t do God’s will if you’re not healthy… It’s your religious and moral duty to keep fit.”
A New Mission
In 2003, Ekua was considering introducing a fitness product to Ghana. While doing her research she discovered that life expectancy in Ghana is appallingly short. When she arrived in 1997, the life expectancy in Ghana for men and women was 56 years and 58 years, respectively. (Today the life expectancy for men and women has improved to 62 and 64, respectively.)
Recognizing that health and fitness were not priorities, Ekua launched the Longevity Project “to increase the life expectancy and quality of life of Ghanaians… by encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own health and well-being and by supporting their efforts to do so.”
With the help of volunteer doctors, the Longevity Project enters deprived communities throughout Accra to check the blood sugar and blood pressure of residents as well as eye exams and dental check-ups for the indigent. This donation-supported visits occur six times a year.
In addition to the Longevity Project, Ekua also organizes the Accra International Marathon. This year’s race in September will be the eighth one. The race starts in the seaside town of Prampram, passes through the port city of Tema, and finishes at the Labadi Beach Hotel in Accra.
The race has grown to include a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and full marathon (26.2 miles). Last year, there were over 500 participants and was supported by 30-40 volunteers. Sponsors include the Labadi Beach Hotel, Vita Milk, GE, and Global Media Alliance. Proceeds from the Accra International Marathon help fund the Longevity Project.
Besides these non-profit efforts, Ekua also heads up a for-profit venture to promote fitness called Fit For Life. Companies pay a monthly fee for a fitness trainer to lead weekly classes at their offices. Classes are scheduled at the end of the work day. They involve 30-40 minutes of aerobics, 10-15 minutes of isometric and plyometric strength training, and 10-15 minutes of stretching. The fee is 500 cedis per month for two sessions per week and 625 cedis per month for three sessions per week; companies must register for a minimum of 3 months.
“Be aware we are in flux”
“You can blame my generation for many of the problems today,” Ekua offered. For those considering coming to Ghana, she offers that the actions you take now will help “write the story” for the generation to come. The country is in a state of flux as it moves from an agrarian society to an urbanized one.
“The opportunities are greater to make a decent living and an impact,” she said. Nonetheless, Ekua said you need to maintain a long term view. According to her, it takes 3-5 years to adjust living here. She advises that you pick your battles because “you can’t be bothered by everything.”
Ekua was one of my first customers. I’m thankful that she spent a couple of hours on a Saturday morning with me. Our conversation revealed a richness in her life experience that I had not expected. I was shocked when she told me she was a veteran and was reminded that she had gone to one of the best law schools in the US. More importantly, she is a kind and thoughtful person who has taken the mantle to help her people become healthier and longer lives.