As the first CGH Scholar from the Architecture School, I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to apply what I am learning as a design student to the field of global health. I recently completed my first year in the graduate Landscape Architecture program and have been attempting to find ways to incorporate my interests and past experiences into my studies. The Center for Global Health’s call for proposals drew my attention and has allowed me to pursue a project that I’ve long known I wanted to be a part of.
After completing my undergraduate degree in International Studies and Studio Art, I spent several years working as a writer and photographer. I discovered many innovative projects and met inspiring people who are taking risks to pursue their passions while also making a difference in the world. One of these people is Mary Hark. I first encountered Mary as a student at Macalester College where she was teaching Fibers. Unfortunately, she left in the middle of my studies when she received a Fulbright fellowship to study Ghanaian textiles. Five years later, we coincidentally ran into each other again at A Better World by Design conference. Mary was presenting the papermaking project she had initiated during her Fulbright fellowship and I was there to write about selected projects being presented. I ended up publishing a story regarding her efforts and would periodically check in for updates.
Now as a budding landscape architecture student, I am finally joining Mary and her team of collaborators in Ghana to think about the future of the papermaking project. I am particularly focused on the social and environmental aspects of what remains principally an artistic endeavor. In a country where fine arts paper is imported from Europe and Asia, the project has the potential to allow people to source paper nationally and also engages local stakeholders in the process, empowering them with the skills necessary to produce it on their own.
Moreover, the paper is made from the fibers of the Paper Mulberry tree, an invasive species which has become a growing problem over the years. In 1969, 14 trees were introduced from China as part of a pilot project to test out the potential for developing a paper industry in Ghana. Due to political instability and other complications, the project was pushed aside and the trees were forgotten about. Because both male and female species were introduced, the tree rapidly spread. Now it takes advantage of any opportunity it is granted and thrives in large forest gaps, on abandoned farmland and on roadsides. It causes problems for farmers and is out-competing many native species, threatening ecological diversity when not controlled.
As of now, the papermaking happens on a workshop basis, usually taking place about two times per year. Mary works with artists in Ghana, local farmers who gather and sell the Paper Mulberry fibers, and members of the university. The workshops take place in a beautiful garden setting and are open to anyone interested.
This week we focused our efforts on setting up for the workshop which included taking equipment out of storage, meeting with the farmers who help with the harvesting of the Paper Mulberry fibers, collecting cotton textile scraps (of which there are plenty!) and picking up other necessary supplies around town. I got to see quite a bit of Kumasi and learned how to navigate my way around town using tro tros, the most basic means of public transport.
To get a better sense for the environmental aspect of my project, I met with several people from the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana who had conducted research related to the Paper Mulberry. They were very welcoming and were excited to find someone else interested in the subject with the potential for future collaboration. I also found my way to Kumasi National University of Science and Technology (KNUST) to meet with Dr. Hannah Adzraku, a horticulturalist who gave me a better sense of how landscape design unfolds in Ghana. Some of the most interesting projects she told me about involve research related to how phytoremediation is being investigated to as a means to help alleviate the negative effects of illegal mining efforts in the region.
In general, planning anything in advance has been the biggest challenge. I’ve found that knowing someone who knows someone or just showing up and being ready to wait to be the most effective approaches to getting in touch with the people I hope to meet. Through Mary, I have also been introduced an amazing community of people who have chosen to live life differently. Many of them are artists who take a critical stance on life and project alternative visions for the future. I’ve found that many of the issues they address through their work to be quite similar to those people are faced with globally- issues of security, inter-connectedness, identity, meeting basic needs, etc.
Though my approach as a landscape architecture student is distinct from those who might come from fields more traditionally associated with global health, I believe it has a lot to offer. Health in its most holistic sense requires us to dream of alternative futures in which we are cognizant of both social and environmental issues and find ways to make them realities. Sometimes doing so involves grand plans and other times it means simply offering an example which inspires others to make changes in their daily lives. I have already met a wealth of people who are working towards these goals in ways both big and small. This week the papermaking workshop begins and I will undoubtedly continue to expand upon my understanding of its relation to global health and how it is impacting the lives of those involved.