ACCRA, Ghana — When he first left Ghana for the United States at age 20, Spc. Dennis Duku had no idea that his life would come full circle. Or that he would find himself giving back to his elementary school, a place which helped him become who he is today: a Soldier in the North Dakota National Guard.
The story began in 2008 when Duku and his family left Ghana to join his father in the United States. His father was living in Virginia to finish his education. When the family later moved to Moorhead, Minnesota, Duku decided to join the National Guard.
"I always knew I wanted to join the military," Duku said. "I joined the North Dakota National Guard after I found out I could serve my country, my state and still work full time."
Duku would join the 188th Engineer Company, out of Wahpeton, as a heavy equipment operator and plumber.
He later learned about the State Partnership Program (SPP) between Ghana, Togo and Benin and North Dakota. He was asked to participate in an SPP event in Ghana in 2017. It was then he determined there was more he wanted to do for his home country.
The opportunity came when his unit, the 188th Engineer Company, was chosen to participate in United Accord. The multinational joint exercise was developed to have the U.S. and its African partners train together and build readiness across 22 different countries.
"When I found out it was my team that was going, I wondered if I could do something for my people," Duku said.
He spoke to his wife (also from Ghana) and they decided to purchase backpacks and crayons for the students at his old school — 400 backpacks to be exact. When packed, the items filled 12 suitcases.
"I learned that when I travel on official capacity (in the military), I can have up to five pieces of luggage. That's when I needed to ask others to help me with the remaining seven," he said.
Members of the 188th Engineer Company were more than happy to help with anything they could. One of those Soldiers was Staff Sgt. Rachelle Barendt Klein, a squad leader in the unit, who first heard about what Duku was doing when he was unloading the extra bags at the armory.
"The unit was supportive. They helped load and unload the extra bags and haul them through the airport. The suitcases were packed light so they could check the bags without paying the airport fees. Duku and the rest of us spread and shared his story, with pride, when anyone in line would ask," Klein said.
Once in Ghana, the entire company wanted to help at the school, although plans had to change. Logistically, it was going to be more challenging than expected. In the end, a team of three made the trip.
"Everyone wanted to come with me. I was overwhelmed; I wanted to help my school and everyone in my unit wanted to help my school, too, and it was really surprising to me. I was really excited," Duku said.
It was about a six-hour drive to Duku's school, Dadwen Schools Complex, in the western part of Ghana. When the team arrived, they were greeted by Ghana's municipal chief executive and hundreds of excited school children.
"The level of excitement was surreal. I look back and I am not sure who was more excited, us or the kids. Duku talked to the kids, old classmates and teachers. School songs were sung, (there were) prayers, hugs, so many smiles, happy tears," Klein said. "Spc. Duku was so humble. He repeatedly pointed out how he just wanted to give back."
"In terms of class, my school would be considered third class. They lack certain things. They have good infrastructure, but as far as student amenities, they do not have basic things," Duku said.
The children at his school were walking a very long distance to use the washroom, so Duku also bought and donated 100 bags of cement to begin construction of a new wash room closer to the classrooms.
"I left there (Ghana) in 2003 and have never been back since. When I saw it again, it was the same as when I was there. Nothing had changed in those years. It looked like no one was helping," Duku said. "I became the local hero; they were really happy to see me and my guys."
During the same trip, the 188th Engineer Company, with the help of Soldiers from the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, Ghana Armed Forces and the Royal Netherlands Army, also built and donated 40 desks to L&A Memorial Academy, another school in Accra, Ghana.