From Sofa-Spud to Queen Mother in Five Weeks

One night in June of 2007, shortly after turning 55, Melody MacDuffee was dining with an old friend. They were having one of those retrospective conversations about what they regretted not having done with their lives. Mel immediately said she wished she had done a stint in the Peace Corps.

The next morning, she woke up to an email from a complete stranger inviting her to come to Ghana, West Africa, to teach her jewelry-making skills to a group of traditional bead artisans there. Somehow they had a Bead & Button Magazine which had one of her designs in it, along with her email address. Seeing what the western world was doing with beads, they wanted to learn these fancier techniques. 

Six
months later, Mel was on her way to the little rain forest town of Somanya and a whole new life.

Originally from Chicago and raised in Mobile, Alabama, Mel had a B.A. plus three years towards her Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago. An artist by preference and nature, she’ was always uncomfortable with the structure and regiment of most corporate jobs, and had wandered from one fun-but-dead-end position to another for most of her adult life. She waited tables, wrote travel brochures, tended bar---she even drove a cab for awhile. In the last ten years, however, determined to somehow make a living doing only things she enjoyed, she settled into a patchwork of income-producing activities that included freelance writing, custom jewelry designing, working part-time at a bead store, and teaching classes in crochet and jewelry-making. She published close to 200 of her designs, as well as two books on various jewelry-making techniques. That was about to change.

Mel’s first trip to Africa lasted  five weeks. She and her niece Megan lived with a West African family in a small compound that also housed a dozen goats, six roosters, numerous chickens, two cats and two very ferocious dogs. In a place where most people live on $2.00 or less per day, she bathed out of a bucket of cold well-water each morning, ate fou-fou and huache with her fingers from the communal pot, taught under the trees in 100-degree weather, prepped for the next day’s classes in the faint glow of a tiny clip-on reading light, and roamed at night through unlit back alleys to visit various beadmakers' homes, accompanied only by her niece and the three muscular young male strangers who had orchestrated her trip. Along the way, she was made a member of the Banahene family (her African name is Manye Dede Adanki Banahene III). By the time she returned home with an ongoing non-profit business model in her head, she had been made an honorary Krobo Queen Mother in recognition of her determination to help raise the standard of living in the Somanya community by creating living-wage jobs for members of the Krobo tribe.

Five-and-a-half years later, Soul of Somanya, Inc. provides steady, creative, fulfilling, living-wage employment for anywhere from five-to-ten young at-risk adults at a time. Using the beads that are made locally, these young artisans employ the skills that Mel has taught them, creating beautiful jewelry and other beaded products. Mel’s surrogate son and co-founder, a young Ghanaian man named Arkuh Bernard Tettey, handles operations on the ground in Ghana. He makes sure that the goods are transported safely across the ocean to the U.S., where Mel stays very busy promoting the project and selling the products in order to keep the weekly wages and operating expenses flowing back to Ghana.

Meanwhile, many of the Soul of Somanya artisans have saved enough money to attend high school (which is not subsidized by Ghana’s government). Others are supporting families, that often include older relatives and siblings. All of them now have the dignity that comes from making a sufficient and dependable living through honest work.

As for Manye (Queen Mother) Mel, she has found her niche. Not that many of the skills she has had to learn have come easily. As a confirmed right-brainer, the accounting and marketing parts of her job have been a real challenge for her. And doing business in West Africa, where nothing ever, ever happens quickly or even on any kind of dependable schedule, has made the experience even more challenging. But for the first time in her life, she knows the satisfaction of doing a job that regularly changes lives for the better. She wouldn’t trade that for anything else she’s experienced in her entire life.

To learn more about Soul of Somanya or to support the project by purchasing their colorful handmade goods, visit their website at: www.soulofsomanya.net.

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