Musings of a Ghanaian doctor from the home of the Liberty Bell.

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Broad street in Philadelphia is this wide swathe of black, running through the middle of the city. A black big motoring vein with asphalt tributaries emptying cars, and people, milling restlessly with a tenacity that hardly ever changes. The City Hall punctuates it, splitting the broad street flow with its imposing gravity defying white columns hewn out of marble. Intricate sculpted masonry from another time, that remains beautiful in our  glass and steel world. The statue of William Penn looms gloriously above city hall, keeping perpetual watch over the city of brotherly love. The city that he, and his fellow freedom dreamers birthed.

William Penn
Aerial view of Philadelphia showing the statue of William Penn atop city hall

This week, by kind courtesy of the Eisenhower Fellowships, I have been walking up and down Broad street, for multiple meetings with this international group of people from all over the world, doing great things in different places. It is always a humbling experience to stand in the presence of people who have so distinguished themselves in service. To listen to their stories, experience their victories, learn from their disappointments is a privilege.

To do all that in the setting of the birthplace of freedom as we know it, surrounded by the hallmarks of self assertion, independence and self determination, is special. Philadelphia was the nerve centre of American Independence, and the evidence is everywhere… from the house where the initial declaration was drafted over 3 weeks by Jefferson, to the constitution centre which commemorates the signing of the declaration and the coming together of the various states into the Union that has led the world in so many ways. Those words ring all around the city, on billboards, on walls, giant neon letters in the arrival hall of the huge airport.

The words reflect in the business of the people I met along the Broad Street, as I moved from one meeting to the next. The business of the pursuit of happiness. And also the freedom, not to pursue. There were so many people along broad street who were just standing still, these people looked like they were really standing still in time. They usually asked for change… not for a change in their circumstances, but that from the pockets of those in pursuit of productiveness. It was striking that in the birthplace of self determined modern human industriousness, significant wealth and desperate poverty coexist, face to face. The reality of freedom, is empowerment for good, and for not so good. Sometimes, the deception of freedom is in the blind acceptance of the gulf between those who have achieved, and those who have not. Walking along the broad street, negotiating my way according to the blue line on google maps, I was deeply conscious of the gulf. And sometimes, in this bastion of freedom to achieve, I felt unsafe. Desperation and security are not easy bed mates.

In my own country Ghana; there is a gulf between what healthcare could be, and what it is. In that case also there is also that acceptance of the status quo. There is the deception in our government thinking that building modern hospitals bridges that gap. There is also deception in the average person thinking that we the people, who depend on the government to have a plan for our health, can continue to spend as much money as we do on funerals and freezing bodies, and have enough left to invest into health.

Ghanaian doctors
Ghanaian doctors and medical students study in a practical session at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology

I have read some of the comments that have been made by people after the statement by our health minister about government bearing the cost of training specialists. Some break my heart. That a country should come to the point where it wants doctors to pay for specialist training is unthinkable in the first place. It is a marker of the degree of acceptance of a status quo, that should not be a reality. If we are blessed with the freedom to change for the better, it is a disgrace if we do not. And we can never really have peace, and security, and development, with that gulf staring us in the face. And that truth is the same in Accra as it is in Philadelphia.

Freedom matters little, if freedom changes nothing.

By Dr. Teddy Totimeh a Fellow in Pediatric Neurosurgery at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool, England

Photo Credits

Aerial view of Philadelphia – Charles Smith

Ghanaian doctors in KNUST – GhanaNewsNow


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan