First Person

My encounter with a real-life hero

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Emelia Amoateng in 2007, speaking to a delegation from Oxfam America in the church in her village, Teberebie. Photo: Neil Brander/Oxfam America

I only spent a few minutes with Emelia Amoateng. But her struggle for justice made a lasting impression.

They say sometimes you meet people that stay with you forever. Who knew that a five-minute meeting could be powerful enough to make that kind of impression?

I remember squinting my eyes from the sun’s brightness as it beat down on the bumpy roads of the western region of Ghana. I spent a month there in March 2013, doing field visits for Oxfam and meeting with staff members and our local partner organizations. In the community of Teberebie, the fields are not only full of oil palms, cocoa, and pineapples, but are also home to gold. Instead of receiving proper profits from these minerals, however, farmers were forced off their lands and were fighting for fair compensation from the AngloGold Ashanti Iduapriem Mine.

As our car pulled into a simple one-story concrete home, Richard Hato-Kuevor, an Oxfam America program officer, filled me in on the woman who lived there.

“Emelia Amoateng is one of our strongest advocates,” Richard said. He briefed me on her work with two Oxfam partner organizations: the Center for Public Interest Law, and Wassa Communities Affected by Mines, a human rights and environmental group. As an activist, Emelia represented her community against human rights violations from mining companies and police. She documented chemical spills and defended the rights of her neighbors. She led protests and called attention to the issues by working with the media.

“She’s very sick, but insisted we meet,” Richard explained. I remembered from my time living in West Africa that, rather than shy away when people were sick, it was proper to visit them in person and wish them well. I love that.

We gave a slight knock and were led into the living room by a next-door neighbor. As I sat down, I could hear coughing coming from the bedroom due to Emelia’s chronic asthma. She stepped out slowly, setting one foot gently in front of the other. She was so exhausted that she only made it to the hallway’s doorframe before sitting down.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” I stated. “Thank you for all you’re doing.”

Emelia slowly reached out for my hand and we simultaneously gave each other a simple head nod. Her fragile face showed someone who had been through too much, but yet there was a sharp fire to her eyes. Her deep, strong gaze captured your full attention. I knew I was in the presence of someone who exuded strength and could easily see her influencing others so much that she was lovingly nicknamed the “Great Warrior of Teberebie.” We exchanged a few more words, but soon left to give her much-needed rest.

Richard and I were the last Oxfam staff members to see Emelia alive. It was a few weeks later while back at headquarters in Boston that I received that Skype message from Richard announcing that she had passed away as a result of her illness.

I’m currently on my way back to West Africa and can’t help but think of Emelia and her long struggle for justice. While recently speaking about the one-year anniversary of Emelia’s death, a co-worker asked if I knew her.

“I didn’t know her, but I met her,” I said. But I was wrong. When you meet an inspirational activist as great as Emelia, you absolutely know her. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+