Vision screenings, entertaining children and appreciating my surroundings….

Our back yard.
These adorable girls…. (I’m careful to not include faces in the photos due to privacy issues)

Today was day 3 of the vision screenings.  We get more and more efficient with each day and I’m getting more and more comfortable with my Spanish, as I muddle through directions to the kids, who speak little to no English.  When they understand me, and follow my directions, I’m always a bit surprised, as if I finally found the key that fits in the lock.  No doubt that I sound like a 4 year old to them with my Spanish, but whatever I can get, I’ll take it.  The one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if I’m ever going to become proficient at another language, I’ve got to be willing to toss the pride out the window and go for it.  Children are far more honest in their responses to me that the adults are.

This is the first place I’ve volunteered where English is not taught in the schools, or at least not in this school.  It may be different in higher grades, but not in the lower ones.  Trying to understand the kids when they give me their name, then trying to find it on my roster, is the harder part of the screenings for me.  Today, every other boy seemed to be either Sebastian or Cristian and they all have 3 names, which they say so quickly that it sounds like one name.  When I finally think I’ve found their name, and will repeat it back to them in my own pronunciation, my words are often met with a giggle or a quick glance over to a friend. When I add “cerca?” (close?), I usually get a smile and a “si, cerca.”  So much communication happens without any words…. especially with children.

I had some concerns the past two days as the boys,  aren’t faring nearly as well on the screenings as the girls have, with about 1/3 of the boys failing.  I’m reallly curious about this and will likely get an answer in the next few days when we accompany those who failed the screenings to the eye doctor either Thursday or Friday.  I’ve got to wonder if they are confused with the testing or if they really do have vision problems.  Basically, the students are to match what they see on the computer with letters on a card, while seated the appropriate distance away from the computer screen. They put on glasses that have one dark lens that they can’t see out of and the other with no lenses, to test one eye at a time.  If they miss one or more out of the four letters, the next screen shows larger letters.  The computer then gives a “pass” or a “fail” and those who fail will be the ones that will see an eye doctor.

Today there was a lot of down time with the kids who seemed to be “at recess” most of the morning.  Lynette and Michelle got them going in copy cat type games with signing and mimicking superceeding all language barriers with a focus on the language we all know – laughter, which they do very well.  We later learned that the kids were on an “extended recess” because their teachers had left the school.  To do an errand?  To go grab a snack or a coffee?  No one seemed to know.  They seemed to think that since we were there, we would tend to the kids, who fortunately were very well behaved in their absence.  They did return a bit later.

There are only a handful of teachers at the school due to a teacher strike that is going on all over the country.  It started in September and there’s not end in sight.  The strike is over the high taxes the teachers pay when the businesses in the country pay no taxes at all.  Unfortunately, it will be the kids who will bear the brunt of the strike as they will all fall behind in their education this year.  It also means that there are many children whose teachers are on strike who are not coming to school and consequently won’t be able to be a part of the vision screenings.  In listening to the principal explain all of this to us this morning, I came to realize that whether Ghana, or the refugee camps in Greece or Costa Rica, or even the United States, we all share the common thread of concern for our children and their well-being and our frustration that more is not being done.  It’s universal, regardless of where you reside.

It’s pretty hot in our room at night and I’m struggling with sleep.  The roosters are a good alarm clock and I’ve been waking up before 6 and will go out and walk before the heat sets in but the restless nights make for low energy days, which also means I’m headed to bed early.

Yesterday we went to a pottery studio set in a beautiful outdoor setting in a nearby town. The process of using a manual wheel made from old motorcycle parts was fascinating and the end product, which we will pick up after it is fired in the kiln, wasn’t too bad.  Today, we’re going to spend some time on a dairy farm and will learn how to make cheese.  CCS continues to excel in sharing the culture of other countries through the activities that come after the volunteering.  Every day is truly an adventure.

Lynette entertaining the kids…

Oh, and if I didn’t mention it yet, we’ve figured out the shower, which is a thin trickle of cold water.  It gets the job done, but I can’t imagine washing my hair in the drips of cold water, so it doesn’t look like I will.  Hygiene standards are slipping.

My cave.

Pura Vida!

Santa Cruz, Costa Rica

First impressions….

I miss the mosquito netting… go figure.  The billowy fabric that I tangled myself up in nightly in Ghana, I’m missing.  So much so that I woke up in the middle of the night and thought someone had taken it.  It took me a few minutes to realize that I’m in Costa Rica, not Ghana.  It is hot but not near the heat I experienced in Ghana and I do have the mesmerizing whir of the fan in my face at night like I had in Ghana, so it does feel somewhat “familiar.”   I’ll learn to live without the netting, but will have to find a new way to make my bunk my “camp.”  Our room is huge and is only occupied by Lynette and me with another volunteer coming from Canada to do the vision screenings with us tomorrow.  I’ve stacked and restacked and organized my small pile of belongings until my nest felt like home.  This is a very important part of my entry into a new culture and something that I enjoy very much, even though I’m only dealing with a couple of stacks of clothes and a bag of toiletries.

The house is big and our room is huge with 5 bunkbeds and as of tomorrow, will only have 3 of us sleeping in them.  The bathroom is almost as big with a large walk in shower that we couldn’t figure out how to get water out of last night, and were shown this morning how it works.  I’m guessing it’s the Costa Rican touch as neither of us could get it to work tonite.  We will probably need to get this sorted out before too many showerless days get underway.  We were forewarned, however, that there is no hot water in the house so showers are cold, as is the water where we hand wash the dishes after every meal.  Some things you just can’t think too much about.  Our house is a 10 minute drive from the small town of Santa Cruz and is tucked away in a rural setting with a mountain backdrop and cows and horses for neighbors.  It really is quite beautiful here.

The coffee is amazing, which was a wonderful surprise for me as it usually has been a disappointment (instant) and more than once while on a volunteer trip, I’ve made the switch to tea because of that.  I like it so much that I’m skipping the milk and am drinking it black…something I’ve not done in a very long time.

I’m going to be very happy with the food… simple, basic, good.  El gallo pinto, the national dish of beans and rice, has been present at every meal so far (4) as a side, and is the main course at breakfast.  I may feel differently after 2 weeks, but right now, I’m happy.

Lush and very green is the best description I can come up with regarding the topography.   I’m loving the gentle rains, which I’m told is good as I’ll likely see it every day I’m here.  It’s light and intermittent and really very pleasant.  My hair doesn’t care for it, but oh well.

We had a 2 hour Spanish lesson this afternoon and it had been a while for me, but I was pleased at how much I remembered and remembered how happy it makes me to conduct conversations in Spanish.  I hope I’ll fare as well with the kids, who I’m told will speak little to no English.

Very, very friendly.  Our in country manager, Franklin, said that is in part because we are in the country and the people here are more “humble” than in the big cities.

And most importantly, we can brush our teeth with the water directly from the bathroom faucet!  But no flushing toilet paper, which isn’t surprising.

Costa Ricans seem to have a sense of humor…as witnessed in the signage around the house.

Tomorrow we begin our vision screening in a nearby school.   I always feel a bit anxious on the first day, hoping I’ll remember how to do the screenings (the computer program specifically) as it looks like Lynette and I will be giving the tutorials on how it’s done to the other volunteers.  That first day is always an exciting one.  I’ve yet to be disappointed.

Pura Vida!!

Neighbors.

A year goes by…. just like that… Happy birthday, Arlo!

Love. Minutes old.
More love. One year old.

 

I’ve measured time in many ways throughout my life – as a child it was measured in the “untils” as I didn’t have enough “pasts” to really matter……. how many days until my birthday, until summer, until Christmas, until I get new clothes/shoes/stuff and, well you get the picture.  As my life started accumulating more pasts, my time markers became milestones….graduating from high school, starting college, quitting college, finishing college, moving, moving back, getting married, having kids, getting divorced and so on.  Those are dates that are easy for me to remember because of their significance and dates that everything else seemed to be based around with befores and afters.   Lately, say in the last 12 years or so, monumental trips  have become markers for me…. Perú, Morocco, Patagonia, Bhutan, Nepal, the Camino, the Camino again and most recently, Ghana.  Those experiences help me keep track of life, when looking back, giving it a sense of order.  I may not remember all the travel dates exactly, but I do know the order, which makes it pretty easy to extrapolate an approximate date. Not that any of this really matters one bit to anyone but me, and only at the most inopportune times, such as in the middle of the night when I’m trying to piece together a life timeline for no reason other than insomnia,  but today it all seems very relevant.  One year ago, on this very day, I was given a new marker to the year 2017 – one that I’ll never have to extrapolate with events  to remember.

Arlo was born.  My daughter became a mama.  My son-in-law became a dad.  I became a grandma.  And all of this happened on MY first born’s birthday.  April 30, a date that was etched into my memory – a date that has become a double marker for my timeline of befores and afters.

My friends that came into “grandmahood” before me, had shared stories of a love like no other and told me with such certainty that everything would be forever changed when grandkids entered my life.  Of course I had no reason to doubt them, but it was like having someone tell you how incredible seeing the ocean was for the first time.   OK, I thought, my first time standing barefoot in the sand with sea spray in my face and water as far as I could see was memorable, but who’s to say what the introduction of a new generation into my family will really bring?  I’ve got a confession to all of those who went before me and fell head over heels in love the first time they laid eyes on their grandchild, I get it.  You were spot on and all of your predictions and words of love made perfect sense as I held my minutes old grandson for the first time.  That understanding has grown each and every day since, 365 to be exact.

A few years ago, my cousin’s daughter was pregnant with her first and had asked the question (possibly rhetorical) of, “Just how long is the umbilical cord anyway?”

I had no answer, simply because I didn’t know, but have thought a lot about that question ever since and have most likely included it on at least one previous Mother’s Day post.  So here’s my answer (once again):

It’s as long as it needs to be and will continue to grow as necessary.  Mine has extended to Chicago, LA and Ft. Collins, CO.  Of course physically it is no longer attached, but energetically, its connection remains strong, and much to my surprise, it has the capability of growing a new grand baby branch.  As a Mom and a Grandma, the tethering has continued.

Just one year ago… a very short year I must add, I was doing my own version of the in labor pacing – into and out of just about every retail store in downtown Fort Collins, buying much more than I should have but blaming it on nerves, excitement, and my daughter was in labor for Pete’s sake!  I found a miniature version of a stuffed dog that my own first born had been given when he was born (thank you, Aunt Robin) and had loved it clear down to an unrecognizable pile of pieced together patches that was missing both ears and a tail.  I bought it.  It seemed ominous.  It just happened to be the birthday of MY first born child as my baby was in labor with HER first born child.

Emery’s first words to me just moments after Arlo was born, were:

“Mom, we both gave birth to our first child on the same day… and they were both boys.”

I had held full composure until that moment….I hadn’t thought of Arlo being born on Thomas’s birthday as OUR shared experience, but rather, had looked at it as her son being born on her brother’s birthday.  Our thread of connection, which was already strong,  became even stronger than I could have ever imagined.  Right then, at that very moment, with her newborn in her arms,  she had everything she needed to begin to understand the depths of love that a mom has for her child.  As I looked at her,  a new mom holding her baby, my love for her expanded so much that I could physically feel it in my chest and I’ve got to think that because of what she was feeling for the first time as a mother to her child, her love for me did the same thing.  We were our own versions of the Grinch – hearts exploding with love.

For the past year, and as often as possible as we don’t live in the same state, I’ve watched my grandson grow from the tiny helpless newborn that I didn’t want to let go of, to a walking, communicating, personality-filled one year-old that I also don’t want to let go of.  I’m continually in awe and it’s not as if I’ve never  seen newborns turn into toddlers,  but watching my grandson has been different.  I get to roll around on the floor and play and be silly and make funny sounds that I forgot I even could,  while leaving the heavy lifting to his Mama and Daddy.  I earned this role and I’ve got to say, I’m loving it.

A year seems to go by faster and faster the older I get, and honestly, I never thought I’d type those words as I’ve heard them so often that frankly, I’m bored by them, but it’s true.  In the short span of 365 days, I’ve watched a helpless 7 pound, 7 ounce bundle of wonder turn into a walking, climbing, babbling, funny, curious toddler.  I’d say that’s a very productive use of time there, Arlo.  In comparison, I’ve logged a few more miles and have a few more wrinkles to show for my year.  I could have at least upped my Spanish game or learned how to crochet or something.  In comparison to your year, I’ve simply laid around.  There cannot be any other time in life where so much development and change happens outside of that first year.  What a joy to watch from the sidelines while not having to worry about schedules or feedings or planning ahead and bringing everything you MIGHT need in the diaper bag along with the everlasting wonder of will I ever get a good night’s sleep again?  I’m here for grandma duty and I’m here to play.  Can we wake him up now so we can play with him or can I just go look at him???

I’ve fallen head over heels in love with my one year-old role as grandma (or Laudie as I’m referred to) and am continually amazed by the impact that this little soul has had one my life.  Today, while trying to turn on the window unit air conditioner in my rented space in Boulder,  it took me a few moments to realize that I was using Arlo’s clunky baby phone (or is it a remote?), which wasn’t getting the air conditioner turned on.  Without hesitation or even surprise, I slipped the not an airconditioner remote into my purse, grabbed the correct remote, and turned on the air.  Later, while in a coffee shop, I pulled that same toy phone, or whatever it was,  out of my purse to answer my phone and wasn’t the least bit embarrassed when I realized that it was Arlo’s pretend phone and not my real phone.  Again, I have to emphasize the no embarrassment part.  I also had a pacifier and pretend car keys in my purse.  I suppose I put them there, but have no recollection.  At least I didn’t attempt to start my car with the big primary colored plastic keys.  There was a time, many years ago, when volunteering with the elderly in Perú, that I felt I was one Kleenex up the inside of my sleeve away from becoming one of them as I had begun to take on some of their behaviors (forgetting to zip up my pants, hugging and kissing far more than was appropriate and of course always having that tissue tucked up the sleeve, which I rarely used).  It’s possible that it is happening again.  This time, though, I feel like I’m one call on a Playskool phone call away from becoming a toddler.   I’m guessing I’ll be redirected by my daughter if it gets too out of hand.

A few nights ago, while trying to calm down an overly stimulated almost one year-old, I heard my daughter quietly singing the same song that I used to sing to her.  You are still my sunshine, Emery, and the sunshine that you and Miles have brought into my life with Arlo, shines brighter than I could have ever imagined.

What a year it’s been.  Happy first year of everything, Arlo, but mostly love.

 

 

 

 

 

What I (we) did, what it meant and what is left behind.

 

Girl talk with these beauties on my last day…

My two weeks volunteering in Ho, Ghana, was spent doing vision screenings at schools in 2 villages,  30 minutes from our home base.  During that time we (5 of us the first week, 4 the second) screened:

331 people, including a half dozen or so teachers

21 failed the test, 2 of them teachers.

I was very pleased with the results, less than 7% failing, compared to our results in the refugee camps in Greece which was close to 20% failure.  Those who failed will be seen by an eye doctor in the coming weeks and will be fitted for glasses.

We also did BMI’s on the children – none were overweight, but many were underweight.

Added to those numbers are the 50 or so school uniforms that we were able to piece back together with buttons, patches and a needle and thread, offering a bit more dignity to the wearer.

I’m very proud of how my time in Ghana was spent and the measurable difference we were able to make simply with a vision screening or a needle and thread.  It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the tremendous sense of need when volunteering in developing countries,  and although I feel very proud of what I accomplished,  I’m also realistic and know that it is only a tiny drop in a vast ocean of need.  It hasn’t been that long that Ghana has even been on my radar screen – its needs, its generous spirt, its beautiful children, but the curtain has now been pulled back, the same as it was during my time in the refugee camps in Greece,  and I can’t unsee what I’ve seen or unexperience what I’ve experienced.  It would be easier on my soul if I could. Hard as it is, I have to keep reminding myself that although it’s only a drop, that drop is a part of something much bigger, and collectively we really can make a difference.

I’m smack dab in the middle of my re-entry process, a process that is never easy for me, but one that I’ve come to embrace as it’s the time in my journey where the memories are still close enough to the surface that I feel like I’m straddling two universes.  This is the time when I will wake up in the middle of the night, wondering why the fan is no longer blowing in my face or why I’m not tangling myself up in mosquito netting and why is it not unbearably hot?   Without even giving it a thought, the first thing I did when I got home was turn up the heat in my house (despite the pleasant temperatures) and turn on the ceiling fan in my bedroom, which I rarely use.  Re-entry.  It’s slow for me and although we boarded 3 flights to get home, that soul of mine will hang back for a bit in Ghana, in a hot room with a blowing fan, and will visit me nightly in my dreams with nudges of,  “not so fast there, Laurie, this is your absorption time.  Don’t rush the process.”  The time will eventually  come when the suitcase is put away, the laundry done,  and my coveted passport  tucked away for safe keeping until the next time and life will return to its familiar place.  I still have 4 more days of malaria pills to take though,  and until that is complete, I still have one foot in Ghana.

I’m amused by how much I miss the things that initially I was so apprehensive about – the heat, oh my word, the heat!  And sleeping under mosquito netting with a fan as close as I could get it to my bed, blowing directly into my face.  I miss my campsite of a bed, tucking in at 7:30 or so every evening, while reading with a headlamp and eventually being lulled to sleep with the whir of my rotating fan.  And my biggest surprise, and for reasons that this heat and humidity hating girl cannot explain, I miss the heat.  Go figure.  The one thing that I couldn’t stop complaining about my first few days there and now I feel its absence.  As a non-sweater by nature,  I discovered that a good sweat and frequent brow mops feel  pretty darn good,  earthy, teenaged-boy odor, and all.

I also miss the food, well most of it anyway.  Because I have a gluten sensitivity, and have been advised by my doctor to avoid it, the pancakes and french toast that our cook would make for breakfast were off limits for me.  Every morning he made me what looked like a thin omelette with diced red peppers that was rolled up  burrito style.  I was so pleased the first morning, feeling that my “special” breakfast outshined the pancakes or french toast options.  15 days later, my opinions changed and although I ate it without hesitation, the joy was replaced with nourishment needs.  After leaving the home base, fellow volunteer, Lynette, and I spent a few days at a lovely boutique hotel in Accra before heading home.  I was so excited to see a beautiful breakfast buffet laid out our first morning there, yet on closer inspection, I realized that, sadly, it was a gluten-laden feast with only one option for me.  An omelet.  And by choice, I requested red pepper only as my add on.  Lynette laughed when she saw my breakfast choice after hearing my morning sighs at my daily,  here we go again, omelette.

With the exception of our free time on weekends, my time and my purpose in Ghana was simple – doing vision screenings on the school children with the added bonus of uniform mending.   When I wasn’t at the schools, I was immersing myself in the culture of Ghana through dancing and drumming, beading, a lesson in kente cloth weaving, Awe language lessons and even a visit with a witch doctor.   My time felt clean and purposeful and held the same kind of amazement that I used to discover in my cultural anthropology classes, only this time they weren’t just stories.  They were real and have become my stories that no doubt will be told and re-told for a long time.  Stories about the beautiful children – the pure joy in their laughter,  their enthusiastic welcomes and the  curious hands that would gently touch my arm to see what white skin felt like.

As I process these experiences, during both my waking and sleeping hours, the one thing that continues to  give me pause and brings a big smile to my face every time,  is the children… the beautiful, sweet, kind children of Ghana.  It is their sweet smiles and enthusiastic goodbyes as our van would pull away every day, that I will hold dearly.  Those children, who have so little in material possessions but who have an abundance of joy and happiness in their spirits, were there to teach every one of us who worked with them a valuable lesson in what is important.  It’s natural for me to come to my own conclusions about their happiness and well-being using my template of experience simply because that’s what I know.  Initially, it was the visible scarcity that took my breath away – the small mud brick hovels that hardly seemed livable surrounded by piles of what I can only describe as broken – broken bicycles, tires,  car parts and heaps of  desk top monitors, or tv’s, I couldn’t tell which.  It was an overwhelming entrance into where I would spend the next 2 weeks.  When I met the children though,  and saw their joy, their happiness and the strong sense of community they shared with one another, their abundance of spirit slowly softened the edges of the poverty that was so overwhelming on my drive in from the airport.   I was stunned at how different that drive looked to me 2 weeks later, while I noticed the people in the villages, rather than their surroundings.  Once again, time spent in a developing country, has given me the tremendous gift of gratitude for the gifts in my life that are so basic that I hardly see them as gifts… water, a solid shelter from weather and adequate food.  Beyond the most basic of needs, our joy and happiness comes from a place within.  This is an ongoing struggle for me that I face during my re-entries from developing countries.  How do I find my comfortable balance between what I experienced and my own reality?   I think it will be the faces of the children of Ghana as they come to mind, that will help me find that place of balance.

The inconveniences of not being able to flush toilet paper, not having hot water or water pressure in the shower,  doing my laundry with two buckets rather than a washing machine and forgoing coffee for two weeks (yes, true story on that one…) were just that… inconveniences.  Adaptation didn’t take long at all, and I got used to “showering” with a trickle of cool water and skipping the coffee for a cup of tea in the morning.  I will say though, that the first cup of coffee and a real shower was pure heaven, something I never would have said a month ago.  I no longer need the layer of mosquito deterring deet that I reluctantly applied to my skin every morning, or the fan and mosquito netting that turned my lower bunkbed into my night “camp.”  No longer do I need to pay  careful attention to the cultural sensitivity of which hand I use, a habit that was very hard to break initially, but one that kept me constantly in check, especially when I would hand items to the children during the testing.  Lefty is back on board.

While I make my transition back, the feelings, the emotions, and the moments that tugged at my heart, will remain, with unexpected reminders of who I am, what I’m doing and a clearer picture of my place and my responsibility in the world.

The word Akpe in Awe means thank you and the syllable “ca” has the significance of adding emphasis to the word that precedes it, much like our “very” only with much more of  a “more is more” significance.  And so with that…

Akpe cacacacacacaca….  (and yes, that many “cas” would be totally acceptable).  Your gracious welcoming of me to your country,  I will always hold dear.

 

 

 

 

From eye screenings to triage tailoring. All in a days work.

Eye tester turns tailor.
No pats on the back for the technique, but I got the holes covered!
Before… it’s hard to tell, but these are actually the back of the pair of shorts that I was so distressed by. They also had no zipper so I improvised with some buttons and used holes already there for the buttonholes.
After. Again, no songs of praise for my technique, but at least more shorts and less underwear will show now.

Today our vision screening team of 4 became tailors when an observation of mine on my first day here became a frustration, then an idea, and then a solution, which came to fruition today.  One of the first things I noticed about the children whose eyes we were screening, after getting past how adorable they are, was the tattered shape of their uniforms.  It was a girl who was holding up the side of her skirt where it had become detached from the bodice and a boy whose seat of his shorts had more underwear exposed than actual shorts and several boys who only had one button on their uniform shirts, leaving most of their chest exposed that I couldn’t stop thinking about once we left the school.  With a little bit of effort and a minimal investment in supplies, the solution seemed simple and if in sewing on a few buttons, closing some seams and patching some holes could be a way to restore some dignity to the kids who were wearing uniforms that were long past their prime, then it seemed we should do what we could.  I brought up the idea up to Makafui and he was totally on board with it. We had finished the vision screenings yesterday so still had time to bring this idea into a reality.  Supplies were purchased, the idea was presented to the headmaster, and our roles from vision screeners to tailors (and I use that word generously) began today.

We had asked the  headmaster to tell the children who had uniforms that needed repairs, to bring an extra set of clothes.  I’m not sure what we had expected, but were somewhat surprised when we were met by the usual large groups of kids, almost all of them with a 2nd set of clothes in their hands.  It was great seeing their enthusiasm but I had to wonder if we had taken on a job far bigger than what we had anticipated.

We had been at another school for the past 4 days doing vision screenings so the children were all very exited to see us, greeting us with smiles and high fives and shouts of “Yayvu, yayvu!”  The teachers had the kids line up, the little ones first and we started making assessments.  Very few of the 5 and 6 year olds had uniforms that needed any repairs, then we moved onto the older kids (ages 7 to 10 or 12), and that’s when I went into full operation tailoring triage.  I’d give each kid a once over with a quick turn around and raising of their arms, then with shouts of “buttons, side seam, situation in the seat” and so on, shirts and dresses were removed and placed into one large heap next to our makeshift work table.  There were a few girls (probably no older than 7) who didn’t have other clothes to put on so simply hung around in their underwear.  We put a stat on those orders, as running around in only their panties didn’t seem appropriate, although we were the only ones who seemed to care.  No one else batted an eye.

Besides being tattered, it also looked as if many of the uniforms, especially the boys shirts, had not been washed, in a very long time.  This was not a job for the faint of heart.  I was reaching into arm holes and crotches to reattach seams while trying not to think about the actuality of what my needle holding fingers were actually coming into contact with.  Thankfully, I had a small container of wipes that offered a bit of relief between jobs, which we made our way through in the first hour. The kids waited patiently, right outside of our open door, never once stepping over the threshold, but spending a lot of time peeking their heads in with giggles and smiles.  I’m sure the teachers had told them not to come in as we were busy working and obediently, they didn’t The state of the uniforms were even worse close up as we closed seams, reattached sleeves, sewed on buttons and patched large holes.

We didn’t realize it until we got there that the students and the teachers had begun their 2 or 3 week break from school just the day before, so this was their first day of break.  This gave our job even more weight to think that all of the kids had come into school when they didn’t have to, simply to get their uniforms repaired.  I felt sorry for the kids that stood in our triage line, clutching onto their extra set of clothes, only to find out that their uniforms needed no repairs. The teachers, who were getting nothing personally out of this, showed only gratitude, rather than annoyance, and thanked us multiple times while assuring us of the importance of our task.  It showed the genuine care and affection they have for these kids, which doesn’t always seem obvious then you see the kids getting “caned” by a stick for misbehaving.  One teacher told us that the mothers of the students are told to keep their children’s uniforms mended and in repair, but they rarely do.  I’m sure repairs to their children’s uniforms are low on their long list of priorities, including survival.  I was, however, surprised by the condition of the 2nd set of clothing that the kids had brought – all of them looking clean and very well cared for.

The two tattered uniforms that inspired me to even suggest doing this, happened to fall into my sewing pile.  The girl with the skirt that was falling off the bodice and the boy who barely had a seat left in his shorts, hopefully will have a bit more dignity when they put their uniforms after their break and head back to school.  We were able to fix all but 2 uniforms because we ran out of time, all of us just hating to leave the 2 untouched.  We asked about taking them home then returning them to the school, but the break complicated that idea and the teacher said no, she’d simply hand those uniforms back to the kids.  That broke my heart.  Hopefully, they were the 2 kids that didn’t care one bit, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.  We repaired 50 some uniforms, leaving them better than when they were brought to us.

I can’t say I’m ready to add tailoring to my list of job skills and am not overly proud of the patch work I did, but it was a quantity vs. quality situation so corners were definitely cut.  I am, however, very proud of what we accomplished for the kids today.  I’m also proud that what started as an observation that really bothered me, is now a going to be a program that will be implemented with the CCS Ghana program for volunteers as time allows.  THAT, along with the smiles on the faces when their repaired uniforms were returned to them, made every needle poke into dirty and smelly fabric, totally worth it.

From the dry season to the rainy season….overnight.

 

 

Mud and standing water post storm…
Broom closet….


I got my big welcome to the Ghanaian rain season last night at around midnight.  Lightning, thunder, rain and very strong winds.  Besides thinking about the laundry on the line that I had forgotten to retrieve before going to bed, I  couldn’t help but think about all of the mud block and thatched roof houses we pass on our way into the schools – most likely where our students live.  Even in a solid house with windows that can be shut, I was still a bit scared.  I want to say that I’ll never, ever complain again about a wet basement or downed limbs after a storm, but sure as I’m typing this, I know I’m lying.  I will, however, think about that storm last night the next time I experience a big storm at home and will remember those mud brick houses that we pass every day and hopefully will remember that there are others who have it far worse than I could even begin to imagine.

The road we take to get to the schools was muddy and difficult for our driver to navigate without getting stuck, making our 40  minute drive a lot longer.  Even in the muddy conditions, with standing water in the ditches on both sides of the road, we still saw women carefully navigating the mud and the puddles with goods on their heads and flip flops on their feet.

We passed groups of kids along side the road with  large metal bowls (like the  one I use to do my laundry in) collecting mud.  Our driver said they were likely going to use it to fill in the erosion around their houses from the strorm.  After seeing that, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see that many of the kids were absent from school today as they were needed to help their families make the necessary repairs and reinforcements to their homes.

We lost power with the first crack of lightening, which meant we lost our fans.  The temperatures had dropped considerably, so the fans weren’t all that necessary, but I have found that I have grown so accustomed to the white noise that once the storm passed, the room felt far too quiet for me.  Our room is big and there are only 3 of us occupying it,  each of us with our own entire bunk.  The white noise of the fan along with my mosquito netting that drapes from the top bunk and is tucked into my mattress, really gives me separation from the others in the room.  It feels like a tent to me.  We all 3 feel the same way about our tiny spaces, and really look forward to getting in, turning on the fan and tucking in the netting for the night,  which is getting earlier and earlier.  Tonite I’m tucking in at 7:15 and will write and read until 9 or so.  Much earlier and we’re gong to have to ask Joe, our cook, if he could go early bird on the dinners for us!  Because I stay up later to read, the lights are usually out around 8:30, at which point my head lamp goes on and the real camping begins.  I sometimes forget how emotionally draining this work can be and it takes me more time to recharge my battery so early to bed it is.  I’m also up by 5:45 though, so guess tucking in at 9 or 9:30 isn’t all that late.

There was a group of girls cleaning up the storm debris of leaves and branches in the school yard this morning, using brooms that were made of dried grasses.  They were working, unsupervised, with such cooperation and focus.  Gender roles are very defined in Ghana, with the girls doing the “housekeeping” chores and the boys with the heavy lifting, manual labor chores.  What struck me as unique was not only the lack of complaining on the girl’s part regarding the fact that they had to do the chore in the first place, but that they were totally OK with the fact that the boys continued playing while they did all the work.  The sense of community  is a way of life for the people of Ghana because it’s a necessity.  They have to rely on the help of others to survive.  I see the cooperation, respect and helping one another already coming into play with even the 5 year olds.  There is a lot that Ghana lags behind the United States as a developing country, but I truly think there are lessons we could learn from them in cooperation, humility, respect and kindness.  It seems to be a part not only of their education at home, but something that is stressed in the schools as well.

While a group of the older girls were waiting in line for the vision screening (10, 11 and 12 year old range), several began to giggle and point fingers at one another.  I had a pretty good idea what it was simply by their gestures and was right.  Someone had farted.  Kids will be kids will be kids.  There are some things that are universal.  I loved it even more that it was the girls and not the boys as the girls that age seem so poised and graceful.

As much as I enjoy the younger kids (Kindergarten through grade 2) as they are so affectionate and sweet around us, I have discovered  the older girls in the past few days and find them to be absolutely charming.  There was a group of 12 to 16 year olds, with one 18 year old, all  6th graders, who wanted to know our names and then in unison, would try pronouncing them. They all told me they thought my name was pretty and actually pronounced it properly with the “au” rather than “o” sound.  I then tried to pronounce their names, but with a language that is tonal, I struggled.  I tried to explain to them that we simply don’t have the sounds that they do.  I showed them photos on my phone of my family and friends and they got so excited with each one, holding their hands over their mouths in amazement.  They looked puzzled when I showed the one of my 11 month old grandson and wanted to know what was in his mouth.  It was a pacifier.  They had no idea what that was.  They also got a kick out of Thea’s water bottle that has a button you push to release the lid.  They wanted to take turns opening it and passed it from girl to girl to take turns.  I was absolutely charmed by them and the affection and kindness they showed one another with a gentle touch on the shoulder or arms linked or even holding hands.  It was girls supporting girls in one of the richest forms I’ve ever seen.  Their class happened to be mostly girls, unlike most, which seemed to run boy heavy, and I could tell they really liked it that way.  I said something about “girl power” to them, which had them all breaking out into cheers and smiles.

This was our last day of testing at this school and we had promised the kindergartners a piece of candy as they were feeling left out as they were too young to conduct the screenings on and had seen that the other children were getting a piece of candy when they completed the test.  So we brought candy for them today and passed it out, but were surprised that so many of them weren’t eating it.  Come to find out, they didn’t know how to unwrap it.  One boy was getting ready to put the whole thing in his mouth, wrapper and all and luckily I got to him in time and was able to get the wrappping off for him.  I handed the unwrapped candy back to him and he took it then took off running.  And fast!  He ran until he was out of sight.  Cassy and I looked at one another, not sure what to do, then continued helping the others get the wrappers off the candies.  A few moments later, the boy came running back with a piece of sugar cane that was about 2 feet long.  I’m guessing he ran home. It was the strangest thing.  Did that little piece of candy remind him that he really liked sugar and so he ran home to bring back the real deal?  Or did it whet his sugar appetite?  The other kids seemed unphased.  I was later told that they eat quite a bit of sugar cane, so yes, the candies were a treat, but the sugar itself, not so much.  The sugar cane kid, by the way, is one of the skinniest kids I have ever seen and struggles, even with a belt, to keep his shorts pulled up.  He’s always got the biggest smile on his face.

A 2 week break for the kids at this school will begin next week.  The junior high and high school students are already out for the break as they wrote their exams yesterday and the day before.  Today and tomorrow, they all go to their teacher’s farms to help them plant the crops then for the rest of their vacation, they will help their families plant.  The teachers are not paid well, but it seems like the free help from the students must be taken into account.  I like the idea of the students putting in their own sweat equity in order to help their teachers.  I had to wonder what would happen in the school system my children were in if they were not asked, but TOLD they had to help their teacher paint his/her house or help plant their garden or add a new deck to the house instead of heading to the beach.  I’m guessing there would be push back.

And finally, the  electricity came on just before we left this morning and on the drive over, I realized that although I had posted my last post, I had forgotten to complete what I had started to say about names in Ghanaian culture and then the whole no electricity then no internet happened, but I’m good on all counts now so will finish that explaination and correct my blunder.

The first name a child is given is the day of the week in which they were born.  Kofi, as in Kofi Annan, indicates not only that he is male but was born on Friday.  Ghanaians have several names and when I ask the kids what their name is, they always will tell you their family name first and then might add their given name, which always grab my attention.  Song, Bless, Surprise, Righteous, Forgive  and my favorite, Perpetual (a girl, whereas the rest were mostly males) caught my eye today.  I love the intention the parents are giving to their children when they bestow them with such hopeful names.  I couldn’t help but wonder though, what it would be like to grow up with the name Forgive.

The kids…the joy of my days in Ghana.

Junior high students taking their exams in the treed center courtyard area.

One of my favorite things on a growing list of the eye screenings, is seeing the kids names.  Confidence, Promise, Prayer and Bright for the boys and Bless, Delight, Gift for the girls and twin girls named Wonder and Hope.  I love the hope that is placed on their children at birth, especially in a country where the infant mortality rate is 35 in every 1,000.  Babies  aren’t named until a long enough time that they are sure they will survive.

We started working in another school on Friday, about 10 minutes down the road for our first placement.  It’s a larger school and has a nice set up with a large treed area in the middle.  We arrived Friday to see the junior high kids moving their desks out to that middle section to take their exams.  It looked very inviting, also pretty easy to cheat, but I’m guessing the “rod” isn’t spared on the junior high students either.  The kids uniforms are even more tattered than the last school with buttons missing, sleeves barely hanging on to the bodice, zippers missing and gaping side seams on dresses.  I’m very distressed about this as it seems to be such an unnecessary loss of dignity for these kids to have to endure.  I asked Makafui if it would be possible for me to buy new uniforms for the kids (it’s the younger ones that are the worst), but he regretfully said no as it’s not keeping with their sustainability policy.  So, I asked if it would be possible for us to bring in needles, thread, patches of fabric and make repairs.  He loved the idea and will check with the headmaster.  Of course the kids would have to wear something different to school for us to be able to do the repairs.

We were working with the “older” kids Friday (3rd and 4th graders) and I’m so  surprised by the range of ages in the grades.  I tested one 4th grader who was 16.  I also had a few 13 and 14 year olds in that same class.  Their age is only a factor of when they were initially sent to school and how many times they’ve been held back.  Many of the parents in the areas where we are testing are illiterate and it’s doubtful that they put any kind of a priority on education and because many are farmers, they need the help from their kids.  The majority of these kids will likely dropout before high school.  You can definitely spot the kids whose parents see education as more of a priority.  They are cleaner, have uniforms that are better taken care of and have good English skills, even in the lower grades, such as Kindergarten and first.  The headmaster started school a few years late and didn’t end up graduating from high school until he was 23, so older kids in younger grades isn’t a big deal here.

Today while I was waiting for the others to finish up, a crowd of the kids started gathering around (at least 30) so I started asking them simple questions such as favorite colors and how old they were.  One of the girls noticed that I had a writing pen hooked onto the edge of my pocked and she wanted to know “why I do that?”  I told her, “because it works…”. Then, I’m not sure what came over me, heat, being tired from a bad night’s sleep or simply the fact that they’re kids and kids are fun, but I said “because it works” again, only this time in a sing song manner as I danced to the words.  And then it happened.  Those 30 some kids broke into song and dance, repeating exactly what I had done.  To test my theory, I waved normally, then made a tiny wave with only my index finger.  Again, they mimicked my actions to a tee.  They are the masters of simon says!  It’s possible I’ve started something that I’m likely going to have a lot of fun with in our free time when I’m with them.

One of the girls had an infected open wound on her leg that was dirty and attracting flies.  Our driver was kind enough to get some gauze and wrap the wound, which will keep the dirt out, but I think it’s going to take a lot more than that.  I’m sure at this point she should be on antibiotics.  I’ve actually seen several kids with open and infected wounds, but hers was the worst.  Medical care, I’m sure, is hard to come by given the remoteness of their villages.  I felt so bad for her as I know it was hurting her because she was limping.

All of the kids in public school are required to shave their heads for health concerns (lice), so it’s rare to see a child under 16 without a shaved head.  I’ve got to think it’s a lot cooler as well and certainly easier to take care of.

Many of these kids have never put on glasses before and don’t even know how to put them on their face, which is so surprising to me, but then again,since I’ve been here, I’ve not seen any natives in sun glasses.  I think that’s probably one of the reasons the child waiting for the test is so tickeled by seeing their classmate in the test glasses (one pair with the right lens out and the other with the left lens out to test each eye separately).

It was a good day.  They keep getting better.  And their goodbyes… oh those goodbyes… they touch me every time.  Today they ran behind the van, continuing their waving, until almost to the edge of the property!

Weekend in Cape Coast

Cape Coast Castle

My weekend getaway with roommates was short and almost 15 hours of it was spent in the car, but we managed to pack in quite a bit during our stay in Cape Coast.  After the adrenelin  rush at the canopy walk in Kakum National Park, we shifted gears and toured the Cape Coast Castle – a fort built by the Swedes in the 17th Century and later used by the British.  When slaves became a valuable commodity for the Americas, the Cape Coast Castle became a holding place for the slaves before shipping off to the Americas and Europe.  Changes within the castle were made to accommodate the slaves with the addition of several underground dungeons where they were held awaiting export; a duration that ranged from a few weeks to 3 months.

We were taken through these dungeons as a part of the tour and stood in the exact spots where over 150 to 200 men or women were housed in one of several dungeons.  Even in our small group of 20 or so people, it felt very crowded, extremely hot and so stuffy due to the lack of ventilation that it was hard to breathe.  At one point, the tour guide shut the lights off for a few moments to to give us a small simulation of what it would have been like to be in total darkness, below ground, in a room full of people.  Of course in reality, there would have been 5 or 6 times the number of people and far worse conditions than our brief experience, but just in those few moments, it was terrifying.   To  accommodate so many people, they literally were stacked on top of one another amid feces, urine, vomit and the decaying bodies of those who didn’t survive.  Those who did survive the tortuous conditions, were often partially blinded by the time they made it from the dark dungeon then to the dark ship hold once their eyes were finally exposed due to the prolonged darkness.

My words can’t begin to articulate the impact of this experience had on me – heartbreaking, humbling, horrifying and raw.  Many in the group were in tears as they listened to our guide lead us through the horrors that were played out on these innocent victims.  The energy within those stone walls of such an injustice against humanity was palpable  in the air that hung thick in the dungeonous caverns. It’s an experience that will stay with me for a very long time.

We got back to our hotel around 4:00, had a late lunch and did little else.  I felt mentally exhausted and needed to simply absorb the day.  We had a small patio with dining tables at the hotel with a half-wall around it, which made for a nice place to have a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening, although I can’t say I felt totally comfortable in the space.  After 2 nights there, I concluded that although our hotel was a nice place to stay, I didn’t want to spend anytime wandering the neighborhood around it.  Our hotel was situated at the bottom of a pedestrian bridge, which was crowded with vendors, children quietly trying to get our attention then motioning for money, goats and groups of people gathering.  The stark difference between the hotel and just feet outside of its front door, the poverty, was unsettling to me.  We were the ones that had the kids pulling on their mom’s skirts to get their attention to point out their curious discovery.  If they were old enough to talk, the word,  “yayvu,” or white person in Awe, usually followed.  We have been reassured by many that this is not said to us with disrespect, but rather as a matter of singling us out, much like you’d do if you saw a rare bird, which I guess we sort of are.  It felt uncomfortable, not only being the only white people in the entire area, but that we were sitting in chairs, at a table, eating food, when I had to wonder how many of those who were watching us were hungry.  I felt as if we were on display.

Our drive back went a lot faster as we didn’t hit the traffic we hit on Friday night, which meant we encountered far fewer vendors and only in a couple of spots.  They had upped their game though and to the list of goods that were being sold, I saw a lot of new items, such as bike intertubes, toilet bowl cleaner, dish towels, flip flops, first aid kits, oh and chickens…live.  Of course all of these goods were carried atop heads as they wove their way in and out of the stopped cars.  At least it was daylight and not dark, which seemed totally unsafe to me.

I saw several posters as we passed through small towns that would have a person’s picture on it and would have the words, “Call to Glory” below the photo.  I’ve got to think that this was an obituary of sorts, although there was no other information, except for the age.

This is a very religious country with a strong Pentecostal following.  About every other billboard, it seemed, was advertising a church – mega churches, the “hot” church (no idea), the church of many miracles and so on.  What surprised me the most though was not necessarily the advertising, but rather that the picture was always of the minister, which looked like he was the one being advertised, rather than the church, in full celebrity fashion.  I found them  fascinating, for that reason, and started taking photos of them.  I think my roommates think I’m strange.

We made a stop midway for a bathroom break and to pick up a few things.  On our way out, there was no bathroom break, but rather, our driver pulled over, behind a bus, and asked if we needed to go.  Granted, we would have had the bus for privacy, but the bus had stopped and was unloading it’s passengers for the same purpose.  No, thanks.  We’re good, at which point legs got crossed until our arrival a few hours later.  We appreciated the gesture though, and a few miles later, he pulled off again and told us that he needed to “go use himself.”  His English wasn’t very good.  He may want to work on that phrase a bit more before using it on passengers.

We only had one checkpoint, vs the many checkpoints on the way out and our driver told us that it was because people don’t rob during the day.  I’m grateful now for the inconvenience of those stops, in the dark, on Friday evening.

It was a powerful weekend in many ways but it felt very good to be “home.” Lynette, my traveling buddy who was detained in Atlanta due to illness, is finally here.  It’s was so good to see her and I’m anxious for her to get to meet the charming kids tomorrow.  2 volunteers left on Saturday, so our group is only 4 now.

The Wi-Fi is very slow so I could only download one photo.  I’ll try to post more later.

The kids, the waterfall and why are there so many goats???

 

So much joy in these sweet faces.
Another grand Ghanaian goodbye….

 

Today was a good, productive day… we did vision screening for 45 kids and not a one of them failed.  Failure rate is around 20% and we were far below that.  I’m guessing that when we get into the older grades, we will see more failures, but so far, this is very good news!

The kids school uniforms are all different and very tattered, which I’m guessing is because they are the cast offs from a variety of other schools.  Although there may be large holes in them or gaping fronts due to all but one of the buttons missing, the sleeves still are ironed with a crease and they all seemed to be clean.  Oh what I could have done with a needle and thread today!  One of the girls was literally holding her skirt up as she was having her height and weight checked because about 1/3 of the seam that connected the skirt to the bodice was ripped.  The boys shirts are always tucked in and their shorts belted, most with belts that look like they could wrap around their small bodies twice.  All are in shoes that are quite worn, mostly sandals and 2, a boy and a girl, were in slippers.  One little boy was barefoot.  Even  though their uniforms are quite worn and ill-fitting,  there still seems to be a lot of pride taken in the children’s appearances.

Because I was doing the height and weights today, I had a lot more time with the kids while they waited to have their vision screened.  Most are quite small, the average weight being around 20 kilograms for the girls (or around 40 pounds), which is considered underweight for girls their age, making the age guessing quite difficult.  One very small girl that I guessed to be no more than 6, was 10.  Assumptions of their age due to the grade they are in are also not accurate as the grade one class had an age range from 6 to 10.  It simply depends on the age the parents start sending their children to school.  Most of the children knew how old they were, but very few could tell us their birthday, so I’m guessing it’s not a day that is widely celebrated.

I’m still absolutely amazed by their discipline and respect these children show, as they waited in line, single file for quiet some time this morning.  The teacher wasn’t even present, yet they still kept their hands to themselves. I’ve heard from several Ghanaians that family values are a top priority in Ghana and it sure is reflected in their children.  I noticed that when I gave the girls a post it note with their name and birthdate on it to be given to the vision screeners, they alway did a small curtesy when they accepted it from me.  I didn’t see this with the boys, but without fail, every girl genuflected when she accepted the piece of paper from me.  It was sweet.

Along with the more traditional names such as John, Andy, Jennifer and Esther, I enjoyed seeing multiple Princesses, a Courage, 2 Godsways and an Elvis.  Of course their pronunciations, quite different than mine, only added to the interest.  I learned many body parts from the girls while they waited in line and as I’d pronounce the word back to them for nose, or ear or eyes in Awe, seriously thinking I was mimicking their sounds perfectly, they would glance over at one another and cover their mouths, trying to hide their giggles.  The only word I can remember and seem to be spot on with my pronunciation, is “baba”, or “sorry” so I apologize a lot to them.  I need to find some more words.  I do know that when you add “cacacaca” to a word, it means “very much”… so the more ca’s the better.  I like that.

Our drive into the school is 30 minutes in a rickety old van on rutted dirt roads and we all feel pretty exhausted once we get home.  Today, after lunch, we drove two more hours, but this time to Wle Waterfall, hours, about half and half on paved roads and dirt roads.  It’s  the tallest waterfall in Ghana and the 2nd tallest  in Western Africa.  It was incredible and the hour and a half or so of hiking to get to it felt good, even though it was quite a brow mopper with the humidity today.  Temps, however, have come down a bit, thankfully.

Goats and chickens seem to be the cats and dogs of Ghana.  They are everywhere.  The goats are quite small (Pygmy?) and run around like dogs, although I’ve only seen one dog since I arrived and 2 kittens.  The goats have the run of the place.  They don’t seem to be raised for their milk as this seems to be pretty much a dairy-free area (oh coffee-free also it appears…just instant and it’s bad, so my 2 a day, with milk, has been replaced by a one a day with tea.  Sigh.). I’ve not seen a meat I couldn’t identify at mealtime, so don’t think we’re eating the goats either.  I’m good with just looking at them.  They sure are cute.

That’s it for now.

Eza ne Nyo (goodnight)