Professor rules village from another continent Towson University biologist leads town of 9,000 in Ghana

August 16, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

For most of the year, Daniel Wubah is a dedicated department chairman at Towson University, overseeing 700 biology students, 25 faculty members and cutting-edge research on fungi and cow stomachs.

But this week, the Ghanaian native will trade his academic hat for ceremonial kente robes and gold trinkets when he returns home to assume the role of opanyin, or ruler, of a farming village of 9,000.

It is a double life that Wubah -- who lives in Owings Mills with his wife, Judith, and two children -- has led since 1994, when his grandfather died and he inherited the top post in Gyinanadze, a medium-sized Ghanaian town whose rhythmic name means "resting under a big tree."

"I call myself a caretaker," says Wubah, 37, sitting in his tiny cinder-block campus office recently. "It is not different from a mayor who basically runs the town."

There are other Ghanaians in the United States who rule villages from afar, said a spokesman at the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington. It is not known how many of those leaders are among the 200,000 or more Ghanaians living in this country.

"We do have people here who are traditional rulers, or chiefs, at home," says Kingsley Karimu, head of the embassy's chancery. "In their absence, there is a council of elders who run the town on a day-to-day basis and inform the chiefs of projects and issues."

But an African tribal chief in Towson is unusual.

"He's one of our more unusual faculty," says David F. Brakke, dean of Towson's College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and Wubah's boss. "Sometimes he has to leave to do certain things in his village like negotiate a contract for a sewage-treatment plant. I find it fascinating."

Wubah is going home Wednesday for a quick visit to attend the annual three-day festival of Afahye, when villagers pay respect to their elders with feasting, music and gift exchanges. With his traditional garments, he will don gold headgear and will take a position of honor.

It is a post Wubah has been trained for since birth, when he and two cousins were chosen potential heirs apparent in their maternal family.

'Trust and humility'

Although he lived with his widowed mother and three siblings near Accra, the capital of Ghana, the young leader-in-training traveled 60 miles to Gyinanadze on holidays and vacations to be schooled by his grandfather, who founded the village in the early 1950s. Ghana, a former British colony on Africa's west coast, became independent in 1957.

"He would teach us about arrows, what they were used for, about history," says Wubah. "Trust and humility were part of our training."

By age 18, Wubah was named his grandfather's sole successor.

"It is a privilege. But it comes with responsibility," says Wubah, who greets visitors with a bow of his head. "When I get to my country, I'm representing a whole group of people. One thing that helps is that in this country I'm an average person. I don't consider myself different."

Though he knew he would rule a town, Wubah continued his science education, graduating from the University of Cape Coast in Ghana with a botany major. He traveled to the United States in 1984 to work on his master's degree in biology at the University of Akron in Ohio and his doctorate at the University of Georgia.

In Georgia, he became involved in research on anaerobic fungi HTC and its role in cow digestion. The interaction of fungi and other microorganisms in the rumen, or cow's stomach, has the potential of saving the agricultural industry $1 billion globally by increasing a cow's digestive efficiency, Wubah says.

This summer, several undergraduates from area colleges who were participating in hands-on biology research program at Towson joined Wubah in his lab, where a 6-foot-long box encased in plastic mimics a rumen.

"He's great," says Chelu Mfalila, 25, a Towson senior from Tanzania. "He really lets us do the work and makes us take responsibility. I'm learning so much."

Wubah came to Towson University in 1992 to share his enthusiasm for research with students. He says he would like to see more minorities in the field.

"One of the things I saw when I came to this country was that any minority who is bright and interested in science is snatched into medicine. It created a big gap," says Wubah, who formed a minority biology club at Towson. "There were no role models in research or academia. I'm now in a position to make a bigger contribution."

Passing on culture

His mother, Elizabeth Appoe, who is visiting from Ghana, has been a big influence on his life, he says. He says he often relies on her wise words: "You have two ears and one mouth. You should listen more than you speak," and "Never sleep while the sun rises."

Wubah and his wife, also a Ghanaian, hope to pass on their African culture to their daughters, Vera, 17, and Araba, 2. They shop for native foods such as kenkey at a Liberty Road shop, speak at least three Ghanaian languages at home and have artifacts from Ghana on display.

Perhaps most symbolic of Wubah's divergent lifestyle is a wooden sculpture of a hand holding a fragile egg, which sits prominently on a living room table.

In Ghana, an egg represents life, Wubah explains. Squeeze it too tight and it will break. Relax your fingers and it will drop. Hold it right and the egg will stay intact.

"I have to balance my professional life with my personal responsibilities," he says. "You need balance in your life."

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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