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Peace Corps Vet Returns to Ghana to Fulfill Pledge

Bill Reid hopes to get medicine for leprosy victims and to teach them to raise poultry. The aim is to foster more independence.

September 14, 2003|Glenn Adams | Associated Press Writer

AUGUSTA, Maine — Bill Reid remembers the scene vividly: A man from a nearby lepers' village emerged from the jungle and begged in the street of the African city where Reid worked as a Peace Corps advisor.

Taking pity, Reid flipped a paper cedi, then worth about $15 in Ghana. Overcome with tears of thanks, the afflicted man then begged, "Help my village."

Now, 27 years after completing his two-year Peace Corps stint, the 65-year-old retiree from Maine plans to return to the western African country to fulfill the begging leper's request. And he has other items on his agenda.

With his own money, Reid plans to build a poultry house in the village near where he was based as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1975-76. The village is occupied by people with Hansen's disease, or leprosy, and sits three miles outside of Kumasi, a city of about 1 million.

Reid will buy the villagers' first flock, teach them how to care for the birds and help them manage their farm as a business. He would like to see the village raise more of its own food and become more self sufficient.

Working with the Hansen's disease center in the Ghanaian capital, Reid is trying to make available a medicine called dapsone which prevents the disease from becoming contagious. He said he will provide the seed money.

If charity or foundation money becomes available, Reid would like to build more poultry houses and see that more dapsone is delivered, possibly through international relief organizations, to other lepers' villages in Ghana, a nation slightly smaller than Oregon.

"My original idea was one poultry house, one village," said Reid. "I've begun to expand my horizons."

He hopes his Hansen's Disease Poultry Project can someday spread to villages all over Africa. He has dreams of a Hansen's disease laboratory.

"And maybe someday, somebody will use the word cure," he said.

Hansen's disease permanently disables 1 million to 2 million people worldwide, but it is especially troublesome in the tropics. It is a chronic infectious disease usually affecting the skin and nerves near the skin. It can manifest itself with skin nodules and rashes. Those affected have long been shunned and in many places restricted to villages.

Such is the case in Africa, Reid said.

Reid has been organizing his plans since last November, when his wife died. He plans to leave in October for Africa, where his connections go back a generation and have roots in his lifelong knowledge of poultry.

Reid started in the poultry business at the bottom, working in his youth as an egg picker. He rose to Pittsfield farm manager for Maplewood Poultry in 1970, overseeing two buildings each housing 60,000 birds.

At the time, the poultry industry was vibrant in Maine. Belfast, with four plants, had the capacity to process 1 million birds a day and proclaimed itself the "Broiler Capital of the U.S."

But Maine's poultry industry went South, and by 1974 Maplewood was in bankruptcy and Reid was out of a job.

Reid's first interest in Peace Corps work was sparked by an article in a Maine newspaper, which reported that beef cattle being fed to people in Ghana had become infected by tsetse flies. He decided the time was right to export to Ghana his knowledge about raising poultry.

Few people came in for help when Reid first set up shop in Kumasi as the Peace Corps' technical advisor. One of his first clients was a lawyer in the city who raised poultry. The lawyer's flock improved, and soon Reid got busier.

"The lawyer put the word out on the street that the American knows what he's talking about and he won't take a dish," the local word for payment, said Reid.

As more farmers switched from beef to poultry, Reid became well-respected and was often invited into Ghanaians' homes.

His acceptance into the Ashanti Regional Poultry Farmers' Assn. was an extraordinary honor because the group's bylaws limit membership to natives of the region who own at least 500 birds. Some farmers traveled up to 40 miles to speak in support of Reid's membership.

The article in the daily Waterville Sentinel described how Reid made an average of four visits a day to farms that housed anywhere from 10 to 40,000 birds. He documented and cataloged his visits so he could measure each farmer's progress.

The Peace Corps promoted his work, and he received a letter of thanks from then-U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine.

"May I offer my congratulations and my personal thanks for the work you are doing," Muskie wrote in the letter, dated Aug. 31, 1976. "I am sure the work is its own reward, but I thought I would let you know that your work is appreciated both in Washington and in Maine."

After his stint was completed, Reid returned to Maine. He became financially secure through real estate and the stock market, remarried and spent a lot of time traveling.

But the memory of the Kumasi beggar stuck. So in 1993, he traveled to Carville, La., where he completed the U.S. Public Health Service's training course on Hansen's disease to learn how those affected can be treated.

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