Two summers ago, I found myself sweating under the hot Ghanian sun as I followed a t-shirt clad doctor around his clinic’s grounds where he delivers health care to his clients, often free of charge. Dr. David Abdulai, the founder of Shekhinah Clinic, has an unusual approach to healthcare: in addition to medicine, he treats his patients with unconditional acceptance. A year later, I returned to Shekhinah Clinic to film Under the Mango Tree, a documentary about their food program, which delivers meals to over 150 of the city’s mentally ill homeless each day on very few resources.
As a graduate student studying Food Systems at New York University, I was in Ghana taking a class on the root causes of global hunger and food security. After five weeks traveling the country gathering stories and data, I came home gushing about Dr. Abdulai and his incredible work. His personal story is itself inspiring; growing up in Tamale, Ghana, he lost both parents and all ten siblings to poverty-related diseases before he was ten years old. After completing medical school, he quit his job in public health to open Shekhinah Clinic, where he performed the clinic’s first surgery under a mango tree that now shades a cluster of residential wards, a laboratory, and a surgery theater. He offers free healthcare to anyone who needs it, no questions asked.
Such services are desperately needed in Ghana where, according to Human Rights Watch, there is one psychiatrist for every two million people. Psychiatric hospitals often lack the resources to provide adequate food and medicine and face challenges with overcrowding. The widespread belief that mental illness is caused by evil spirits, demons, or witchcraft has led to the development of spiritual healing centers called “prayer camps,” where, according to a UN report, people with mental disabilities are chained to trees and denied food and water for days at a time. The same UN report expresses disappointment with the newly formed Mental Health Authority, which has not yet begun monitoring mental health facilities as required by Ghana’s 2012 Mental Health Act.
Shekhinah Clinic is one of the few healthcare facilities that welcomes those suffering from mental illness without judgment, mistreatment, or force, and it has what may be the only ‘meals on wheels’ program in Tamale, making it a vital source of emergency food..
The food program began 20 years ago in response to complaints from market stall owners that the mentally ill homeless were stealing food, harassing women, and causing public disturbances. Having grown up on the streets himself, Dr. Abdulai understood that many of these behaviors were driven by hunger. He and his wife decided to deliver meals directly to the mentally ill living in the streets; they found that once their clients were fed, they were calmer, caused fewer disturbances, and stopped stealing food in the markets. The program is still going strong today, delivering one nutritionally balanced hot meal per day, seven days a week.
In addition to providing hot meals, the food program maintains a small farm with chickens, fruit trees, and vegetable plants, which they use to make the program’s meals. Shekhinah also provides microloans to women who run small businesses in the area, which eases the impact of local poverty.
However, the clinic struggles to provide these incredible social services on a shoestring budget; the program relies almost entirely on spontaneous donations from inspired visitors, which have become few and far between since the global financial crisis. Inspired by the doctor’s selfless humility and incredible story, I decided to bring this story to the screen to raise awareness of and funds for the clinic’s critical work. I hope that Under the Mango Tree will be used by the clinic, nonprofits, and student activists to show the world what compassion can really achieve, especially for those who live under the weight of poverty and discrimination.
You can help bring this story to the screen by contributing to our Indiegogo campaign! Learn more about this project and contribute to the campaign here.