Once upon a time (in 1998) there was a gap year student from Newcastle upon Tyne called John. Wearing a tweed-jacket (John wanted to teach) and with a rucksack on his back John flew to Ghana, West Africa.
Barely had he stepped off the plane than John fell into a storm drain in Accra and broke his ankle! John’s first night of his gap year was spent in an African hospital. But rather than run home to his Mum, John bravely stuck it out and soon found himself in a small Ghanaian village called Shia helping set-up a secondary school.
So impressed were the people of Shia with the Englishman on crutches that they decided to make him a Chief! John was enstooled as Chief Torgbui Mottey I (Pioneering pathfinder through the forest) and was given golden sandals to wear!
The new Chief returned home where he decided he would like more people to have experiences like his in Ghana and to help rural communities with their development work. So John set-up the Mottey African Development Society (MAD) at Newcastle University. A year later he returned to Shia in Ghana to finish the school project with a team of student volunteers. After the project John’s little tribe waved goodbye to their new friends and headed off on an adventure of a lifetime across West Africa.
Interview with John Lawler
Age: Ahem, very very early 40's...
Occupation: Tribal Chief
Hi John – or should we say Chief Torgbui Mottey I? Which do you prefer?
You would have to pay a fine of a couple of goats if you called me John in Shia, but most people call me Toggers as ‘Togbe Mottey the First’ a bit of a mouthful!
Tell us about your own gap year in Ghana. What did you do there?
I took a Gap Year between my second and third year at Newcastle Uni from January 1998 and spent 8 months of this time in West Africa. Unfortunately, with a couple of hours of first arriving in Africa, I fell into a storm drain and broke my ankle. This meant I had to spend the first couple of months in a cast and on crutches so the hustle and bustle of Accra soon got to me and I decided to help teach in a village to get away from it all. Some volunteer friends passed through a village called Shia and told me of their desire for someone, anyone, to help establish their Secondary School. The opportunity seemed too good to miss!
Did you enjoy the experience? How did it affect you?
Ghana was fantastic and still is my favourite place on Earth. The reason I took this Gap Year from Uni was that my grades were down and I was sure what I wanted to do after Uni – I needed time to breath! Living in Ghana in a village for 4 months made me appreciate everything I had in the UK and blew my cobwebs away! I saw how my degree was applicable in the ‘real world’ which meant I went back to Uni to finish my final year refreshed and excited! A 2.2 in Environmental Engineering was very commendable given they had kicked me out and I had to fight my way back on to finish the course!
Would you recommend that other gappers visit Ghana? What’s special about the country?
Ghana is probably one of the best countries to study or serve abroad in because it offers so much in terms of adventure, volunteering opportunities, culture, scenery, safety, and the people are just amazing. After the 4 months teaching in the village, I went backpacking around Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin for 2 months. There is just so much to see from mind-blowing waterfalls to herds of elephants. When I returned to Ghana, I persuaded other volunteers to go to Shia from Accra and help out the school, and I also helped some volunteers from a gap year company get out of Accra and head to other rural teaching placements so the scope is huge for working in Ghana too.
So how did you come to be enstooled as a chief?
The question I am always asked but the most difficult to answer! There seemed to be 2 things said when I asked the elders of the village the same question – one was that they say me continuing to visit the village and bring more help to assist their development after my initial visit, the second was that they could not believe someone on crutches and injured would even contemplate doing what I did during my time there. They inaugurated the position of ‘Chief of Development’ as they saw me an elder of the village, taking a genuine interest in its development, and wanted to know if I wanted the job for life! It took my two seconds to breath before saying ‘go on then!’
What did the ceremony involve?
It took 8 hours altogether, starting with a slow walk under a parasol with an escort of the 4 other village chiefs in full toga, to the durbar ground where 2000 villagers had gathered, along with my mum and two of my sisters. After several speeches I was given a stool I had to sit on, golden flip flops to wear, a crown, and my right arm was smeared in talcum powder to signify victory and honour. From there I had to make the oath of allegiance to Togbe Dadzawa III, the Paramount Chief of the area with the traditional sword. I was renamed Togbe (meaning chief / grandfather) Mottey (meaning Pioneering Pathfinder of the Forest) I (the First)!
You continue to visit the village – how are you received there? Do you still perform chiefly duties? What do these consist of?
The village would like me to visit once a year to do what I can as when I was I enstooled I was still a student, well before the idea of Madventurer ever took shape. They make no demands and are very appreciative of any help that they receive. Whenever there is something to celebrate, the biggest festival being the annual ‘Yam Festival’ then I would wear my toga and full regalia. If any madventurers have been doing a development project then I would also wear my regalia, along with the other chiefs, for the opening ceremony. Sometimes I wear a cloth for church (the village is 95% Christian) if I’m there on a weekend.
What does your status as a chief mean to you personally?
I still feel very honoured that the village has given me this role and it now feels as much as a home as Newcastle does, and certainly as tribal!
Tell us about your Land Rover trip down West Africa – why did you do this?
I needed another Gap Year! In Madventurer it is equally important to find time to relax, refresh and regroup your ideas, which I try to do every year by giving myself a challenge. The Sahara trip was in 2003, and in 2004 I tried to learn how to skydive which left me with a broken vertebrae, that thankfully led to a full recovery. I then took is easy for a few years but then undertook a trip to Antarctica with Robert Swan OBE to help build his first Education Base on one of his expeditions.
What were the most memorable moments from this trip?
Missing a coup attempt in Mauritania by a day, going through a minefield using GPS instead of guides, and driving solo from Mali to Ghana, without any lights and windows (including windscreen) after the Land Rover rolled several times down a bank near to Timbuktu. My friend was flown back to the UK and as I stood looking at ‘the beast’, which had all the body work hammered out so the wheels could move, I knew I had a challenge on my hands. I drove the remaining part of the expedition at 20mph which I found exhilarating. I had to wing my way past 30 odd police and customs check points, including 2 border crossings, with some x-rays I got taken in Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital city, saying that I was in a hurry to get to Accra for an operation. The dozen plasters on my head and arms also meant that a lot of red tape could be cut through so I could get the Land Rover to Accra to a place I knew could replace the body of it and to get it ready for mad crew to take over. I still have the video footage but have never been brave enough to play it back...
Your experiences of teaching in Ghana led directly to you setting up Madventurer. Why do you think serving in the developing world is a good thing to do?
Volunteering, or serving, is great way to take time out to find out where you are heading in life and to put something back in places that genuinely need the assistance. Volunteering at home in the UK is an amazing way of giving something back to your local community, but helping a community that you have no previous ties with is the height of altruism.
Finally, past and present Madventurers all become members of the Mottey's MAD Tribe. Tell us about the culture and rituals of this mysterious tribe…
I would love to but unless you are part of the tribe there is very little I can say. The Tribe is the social part of Madventurer that each person going out on a project automatically becomes a part of when they complete a project (we have not had to make anybody do a walk of shame as yet!). Jobs in Madventurer also are reflected by this tribe, for instance, my official job title is ‘Chief’ and every so often senior or long serving Project Leaders become made 'MAD Elders'. Sometimes we hold a MAD World Ball where dedicated members of the tribe may be made elders, and is by invitation only, where rituals take place that involve a lot of dancing, drumming, togas and the occasional Scot in a kilt....