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)

Day 1, orientation, getting settled, and adjusting to the heat.

Because the food is so good it is worth of a photo…fresh tilapia, beans and rice, plantains and watermelon.
The back porch and a nice spot to sit during the mosquitos “off hours”… mornings, I think…
The gang, for now…with Makafui, the director.

Happy Easter!  Although I can’t see any of the celebrations from our house, I started hearing the music when I woke up this morning, around 6:00.  It’s always tough the first night in a new place… getting used to the bed, the mosquito netting, the constant whir of the fan, that is about as close to the bed as I could get it, and of course there’s that heat and humidity, which according to the locals is “nothing” as they all have been talking about how nice and pleasant it’s been.  If that’s the case, I hope it stays this “nice and pleasant” because hot would really be tough!  I slept well and hard and woke up to a mixture of roosters, singing (I’m guessing Easter celebrations) and my fan.  I don’t think it will take me long at all so settle into my life here.  I dreamt I was at laying on a beach and the waves were rolling in over me while I slept.  When I woke up, I realized that my mosquito netting and the fan blowing on it had lent themselves nicely for the ocean wave dreams.  Malaria is a serious problem in Ghana, so I’m thankful to have the netting as an extra defense, along with my daily malaria pill.

Our program director, Makafui, came by late morning for an informal orientation for the 3 new volunteers (my roommate has already been here 2 weeks, so all total there are 4 of us and hopefully 5 soon, when Lynette arrives).  Given that this is my 4th volunteer trip with this organization and my 2nd time with the vision testing, it was really more about getting to know Makafui, as well as his own personal tidbits regarding this region, for me.

While giving us a rundown on the house, it was mentioned that the electricity goes out often and on cue, at that very moment, of course, we lost electricity.  Once the fans have stopped, you realize how much the moving air helps with the heat.  It was back on within 15 or 20 minutes.

Makafui went to school in the US, and of all places for someone who is used to the heat, it was in Fargo, ND, so he has a handle of many things American, including slang, that one wouldn’t have unless they had lived in the states.  He told us that he was as freaked out by the threat of flu in the US as we are with malaria here, which  on a side note is the leading cause of death in Africa.  Of course we’re freaked out!  He said it’s really nothing and most here have it a few times a year… but that flu!  That’s what’s really scary!  The deaths happen to those who aren’t able to get treatment, which he said is just a quick trip to the store for the pills.   Sorry.  I’m still cautiously afraid.  He did say that the mosquitoes have gotten very smart and have learned that at night, when you’re sleeping, is the best time for them to perform their “operations”, hence the mosquito netting.  Again, any defenses against malaria are well received for me.  Oh but that flu!  Stay away from that flu!

The right hand/left hand and which one does which came up (thanks, Ado, for the reminder during our flight yesterday) and I learned today that the protocol extends to waving as well.  Left-handers are kind of getting screwed on this, with that extra step of moving objects away from your dominant hand and into your “working” hand.  (Note to two thirds of my kids if they ever come to Ghana….

A few other interesting things I gleaned from the meeting:

– People from Ghana do not need much personal space, and like to get as close as they can to you when engaged in conversation.  Ado, and his lack of respect for the boundary wall of the arm rest on our 10 hour flight yesterday, makes sense to me now.

– Kids are taught never to make eye contact with adults (I’m guessing that their parents would be the exception to this, hopefully, otherwise that “look me in the eye so I can tell if you’re lying” would fail).  They see it as a sign of aggression.  By the time kids reach adolescence, they unlearn this and handle the eye contact in a similar manner to us.

– The community raises the child and corporal punishment is the norm and it’s totally fine if other parents use it on your ill-behaved kids, but it is an embarrassment to the parents of said bad kid as it reflects on skills as a parent.

– Marriage proposals are common, to the point that we should probably expect them if working around men, and they’re serious about the proposals!  Polygamy is legal under civil law, and does happen, although it’s highly discouraged and is against national law – I’m guessing much like the marijuana laws operate in the US.

– And on a similar note, when one finds their “soul mate”, it is said that they have found their missing rib (this being of course from the male’s perspective, not the females, from the story of Adam giving his rib to make Eve.)

Easter services are just now wrapping up.  4 hours, at least, in length, as we had someone who will be working with us in the schools next week come by who had just been to the service.  She was all dressed up and had a loosely fit white sweater over her skirt and blouse.  Meanwhile, I’m in sleeveless and am using a paper towel to wipe the sweat off of my face.  The hot season is over as far as they’re concerned.  Time for the sweaters.  Easter celebrations are church, no egg hunts, with big family and friends picnics tomorrow, which will put off our volunteering time to a Tuesday start as there is no school tomorrow.

I’m loving the food, which traditionally is eaten with the hands here.  I’m happily obliging, although at this point, I look like the one at the table who is sorely lacking in the manners department!  Even with the heat, my appetite is good and I’ve been going through the water like crazy, which is bottled and plentiful.

We will have our first Ewe lesson this afternoon.  Although English is taught as the first language, I don’t seem to be hearing much of it.  Ewe is the language spoken in this part of the Volta Region of Ghana.  It’s one of TWENTY languages, not dialects as I had thought, spoken in Ghana.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of what one of the young adults asked me when I was teaching English in Morocco:

”What do you call someone who only speaks one language?”

And after a bit of thinking, I thoughtfully answered,

“I don’t know… what?”


And there you have it.

And finally, as I mentioned before, it’s hot, or at least that’s how it feels to me, although we are exiting the hot season and entering the rainy season (more on that I’m sure as there’s a whole lot more dirt than grass here) and although not a sweater by nature, I’ve been putting on a nice post-sauna glow since I’ve been here.  This may be more information than you want (I said wipe in my last blog, so feel I’ve already opened that door), but I felt that despite the deodorant, I had some strange body odor – a smell that took me back to my boys post sports in middle and high school.  With hesitancy, I mentioned it to Cassie, my roommate, who said,

”Oh, sure… it’s common.  I’ve talked to a lot of people who have the same thing going on… like a high school boy post sports, right?”

We’re guessing it’s something in the way the food is seasoned.  At least I’m not alone.