Friday, February 24, 2012

Welcome to the Jungle

Disclaimer: I’ve started and had to stop writing this blog about three different times over the last two weeks because I’ve been very busy, so if it seems a little all over the place and long, that’s why. Also, as I’ve said before, everything I write is absolutely my own personal opinion.
To pick up where I left off, Tuesday I went with the local representative for the PPAG (Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana) who sometimes works with the social services officer. This is an organization that recruits young people (between the ages of 10 and 24) from surrounding communities to become ‘peer educators’. They take classes and workshops on such topics as sexual development, teenage pregnancy, contraceptives, HIV/AIDS, and even drug abuse so that they may educate their fellow youth on these topics. The administration of Ghana feels that young people are much more ready and willing to listen to people their own age than their elders on such topics (which I agree with). There are a young man and a young woman who are selected from each village. The stipulations for being a peer educator include being able to read and write, being an indigenous member of their respective community, being prepared to volunteer their services without being paid, and being able to stay in their community for at least two years after training. This is a great program and I met many bright young Ghanaians, some only a year or two younger than myself. The brightness (not merely just their intelligence but their entire attitude, personality, sense of humor, and outlook on life) of some of these young people, who are coming up in these terribly impoverished situations and against odds that are entirely stacked against them is just utterly humbling and inspiring to me. It makes me wonder if I have always been grateful enough for the opportunities I’ve had and somewhat ashamed that I have not always used the blessings of my education and the like to their full advantage whenever some people out there have the ability and will to succeed, but just do not have such opportunities.
We ended up going to thirteen different communities to give invitations to each of these peer educators for a meeting the following Friday at a local technical high school and to interview some new volunteers for the program. We were out for over seven hours (it was a long, hot day!) but I enjoyed it very much and I thankful to be able to get out and become acquainted with the communities around the area and the people who live there. When we pass through some of the communities now many adults and youth recognize and wave at me (as opposed to the little kids who always yell and wave at the sight of a white person).
Wednesday and Thursday Leo and I went back to the Egyam Catholic JHS and continued to interview several more students who, as I mentioned last week, travel on foot several kilometers to get to class. After walking anywhere from an hour to two hours or more to class they are obviously tired and often fall asleep in class, which only compounds the lessons they miss by being late. Also, many of these children, who come from some of the poorest communities and families around, only have one uniform for class which they are only able to clean twice or three times a week and which are obviously even harder to keep clean when you’re walking that far and sweating like crazy every day on roads that are almost pure dust and dirt. These problems are even greater for some of the young women who may not have access to feminine hygiene products and must walk such distances. We all know how vindictive other kids at school can be (Ghanaian schools are no different) and the fact that they’re embarrassed of their uniforms or they themselves being dirty is actually a great deterrent that keeps some of the children from attending school. With Leo’s assistance I am beginning to work on a program for my internship to raise funds to obtain bicycles for some of the neediest of the students which will belong to the school itself and can then be passed on to future classes of students and which would alleviate many of the problems that I’ve just mentioned.
On Friday I went to the meeting of the peer educators for the PPAG that I mentioned. They have these meetings three or four times a year to decide their goals for the year (for instance, how many times they will hold community meetings and activities in each of their respective communities and how many people they will speak to). There were about 45 peer educators altogether, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. I enjoyed myself very much and as always when a bunch of young people get together like that there was a lot of joking and carrying on at different times over some of the topics but all in all it was very educational and it was a great way for me once again to introduce myself (I hadn’t yet met some of them when we went out on Tuesday), to share why I am in Ghana and what I’m doing here, and also to relate their program to some similar things that I have been a part of in the U.S.
Friday evening I began an activity with the kids at the orphanage that Daniel, the Ghanaian director of the orphanage, and I had come up with the first week I was here. That first week, when a couple of the younger boys had found out that I was in the army, as I mentioned in an earlier post, they began asking me to show them how to salute, stand at attention, etc. Daniel and I thought it might be a good idea to start a “cadet” program while I’m here at the orphanage, teaching boys and girls who are interested how to march, facing movements, and things like that. It will help foster camaraderie and teamwork within the different aged children here, as well as enable me to get to know them and their unique personalities more closely and vice versa.
Well for over an hour-and-a-half starting Friday evening, I taught about 90% of the kids at the orphanage how to stand at attention, parade rest, at ease, how to right, left, and about face, and how to raise and lower a salute (present and order arms…I also taught them the significance of saluting someone or something (like a flag) in a show of respect). I also began teaching them how to mark time and to begin marching. So far we can only march forward a while, mark time, halt, about face, and then do it in the other direction. We’re going to have to get more practice in before we can change directions while marching. Needless to say they loved it! There are a few of the boys (a couple of them are some of the youngest ones!) who have been very proficient at it and there are a couple of the girls who are about 12 and 13, such as Vic (Victoria) and Hannah who might even be better than the rest of the boys.
March 6th is Ghana’s Independence Day so Daniel brought up the idea of taking a group of the best marchers to participate in the local ceremonies for Independence Day in which many groups of youth march. This is a huge honor and means a great deal to young Ghanaians. The youth of Ghana have played a pivotal and governmentally recognized role in the country’s history and independence. The kids love this idea and I can’t wait to help them do it and to see them perform.
Saturday Leo and I took Thea and Herman, the older Dutch couple, into town (Takoradi) to catch a bus to the airport in Accra. It was the end of their five-week visit here. We exchanged our goodbyes and I told Thea how much I will miss her cooking (my first two weeks, while they were here, she made me macaroni salad several times, pancakes with slices of fruit baked into them a few times, a kind of rice stir-fry a few times, and once she shared with me some fried chicken and potato pancakes that she had made). She told me that she felt that some “Western”, “home-cooked” food (as opposed to the canned food and ramen noodles I was mostly eating) would make me feel a little more at home, and boy was she right. I told her that anybody that cooks for me, especially as well as she did, is immediately endeared to my heart for life. I also thanked Herman for the Star beer and for inviting me into the small guest apartment that they were living in here at the orphanage to watch the football games, as well as sharing with me some things about his family, his life, and the Netherlands. I told them that they were the first people from the Netherlands I had ever met and that their first impression on me was a marvelous one. Anybody who’s ever been anywhere far away from home knows that the greatest possible diplomacy that one can extend to someone from a foreign place is to share your food, especially comfort food, with them. I intend to send them a hand-written thank you card as soon as I arrive back in the U.S.
Also, originally, Leo and I had planned to take a break the rest of Saturday and possibly spend some time at a local beach resort where you can lounge around and hang out for free. It’s always nice just to get away for even a little while. However, a member of his family died and he had to take a long journey to the north of Ghana, where he’s from, to attend the funeral on Sunday. He didn’t get back here until Monday morning.
Sunday was pretty much just a relaxing day and I practiced some more marching with the children. Also, another member of the board of the orphanage and her teenaged daughter arrived from the Netherlands, so I got to meet them. They will be in Ghana for two weeks. It makes for a totally different dynamic and vibe around here with the woman here instead of the other couple but I guess you’ll have that.
Monday Leo and I went to the local communities around the orphanage and the local Catholic school I’ve mentioned and interviewed some of the families of the children we interviewed at the school who walk the long distances. One was a fishing community, once again right on a beautiful beach but that was in a state of poverty, and the other two were farming communities. It was the same story with each of the families: there was nothing that could be one to help the children travel to class, each family was struggling to support itself, and each mother, when I asked at the end of the interview if there were any additional comments they’d like to make or if there were just anything at all they’d like to say to me, just said that they wished for nothing more than to be able to help their child to get an education and to be able to be successful in supporting themselves.
Tuesday I again went with Mr. Ghansah, the social services officer, this time to a sea-side community that was an hour away, to interview several more students who are candidates for the LEAP program and their families. I first sat in on a meeting of about four community opinion leaders (the town elders) and six or seven teachers to discuss and explain the program to them and to let them air their questions and thoughts. Mr. Ghansah is very meticulous about who he extends the program to because, unfortunately, many people try to cheat the system and get maybe their relatives or people who aren’t necessarily as needy as others into the program. Out of seven student candidates only three of them were chosen. One young man’s mother was struggling to raise him and his older sister because after he was born his father literally left the community and hasn’t been seen since. Another had a mother who died from a disease. The third one was being raised by his grandmother because his mother had also died and once again the father deserted him and two other children…an older sibling of which had begun using his grandmother’s last name when he became an adult because he didn’t want to carry his absentee father’s name anymore.
The name of the community was Akimidaa, which means old man. It was set in this amazingly beautiful coastal landscape, complete with beaches and these huge, massively tall trees that were noticeable that were in a patch of vegetation on a patch of land at the end of the peninsula that enclosed a small enclosed bay of the community. However, despite the natural beauty, the community was once again just simply mired in poverty, with piles of garbage everywhere in the palm trees and huts. The juxtaposition of the natural beauty and human poverty always strikes me as powerful and I mentioned it to Mr. Ghansah, who agrees with me.
Wednesday and yesterday (Thursday) I spent accompanying Leo and the board member of the orphanage foundation to some of the colleges that a few of the older youth here at the orphanage attend (with the sponsorship of the foundation) to see how they were doing at the school and so that the people who support the foundation back in the Netherlands could know that their sponsorship was being used properly.
Be prepared…my opinions are about to be strongly expressed in the next couple of paragraphs.
First, it was bad enough that the member of the board insisted on visiting the kids at their school even after Leo and others at the orphanage had explained that there are certain visiting times at the schools (just like any other schools pretty much anywhere in the world) and you can’t just barge in and expect to see the student and talk to their professors (imagine sitting in your class at college and your parents suddenly come in and want to know how you’re doing and want to talk to the professor!), you can only visit at certain scheduled times of the year. It was even worse that more than once Leo, who was making our introductions to the faculty and staff at a couple of the schools (introductions are very important and done in a certain formal way here in Ghana…hell, that goes for most places in the world, especially when it involves foreigners!) was rudely interrupted when the board member didn’t think that Leo was expressing what she wanted in the way she wanted and thought it’d be better if she herself spoke to the faculty members.
The icing on the cake was when we visited one of the local fishing communities so that she could visit the grandmother of one of the young people being sponsored here…once again in a completely informal way. This could have involved scheduling a meeting with her ahead of time (the poor lady had no idea we were coming), but no, she basically just barged into the woman’s home area.
Once this was finally over (Leo and I had just walked away from her at this point) she and her daughter began doing something that personally really pisses me off. They began taking pictures with the little kids that always come up to you in the communities. Not for any particular reason, not because they even knew who any of them were or had any personal attachment to any of them, but just to get that token picture, just to say, “look, I’ve been with the poor little children of Africa, aren’t I a saint?” Now, granted, the daughter is only sixteen and doesn’t really know any better (and she is actually very bright and charming), but her mother should.
Mind you, the only pictures I have taken the whole time I’ve been here have been of the town areas like Takoradi, different parts of the orphanage, landscapes that may include the rural communities from a distance (when you can basically only see the roofs of the houses), and some at the Catholic school, for a presentation I’m doing for my internship project. I’ve only taken one or two pictures so far of different children here at the orphanage doing different things with me, but only after I had established an individual relationship and a first-name basis with them. The absolute only pictures I have taken inside the communities have been for either my internship project or when I went with one of the social services officials (when part of my unofficial duties have been to use their cameras to photograph the things we do for their respective programs for their own documentation purposes). The only pictures I have taken for my own project were of the family members I interviewed standing outside their homes (after asking their permission!) and a couple of shots just to establish the basis for the livelihood of the community (for instance, I took a picture of some fishing boats sitting on the shore in the one fishing community, and a picture of the main street in the other community). The only people in the pictures are seen from afar and are not the focus of the pictures.
I don’t know if this is making any sense to those of you who may read this, but these people are human beings with feelings and dignity, not some circus fucking sideshow to be taken souvenir pictures with when they don’t even know you from Adam.
Granted, this is only the third time I’ve been in a situation like this in a foreign country and I’m no expert, but I still understand these things. This is also why I take all my cues from Leo and the other native Ghanaians professionals I’ve been working with when we are in the communities, which is what you should always do when you are a guest in a foreign country. But, back to my rant. And the worst is yet to come…
At this point, Leo and I had already walked back to our van and were waiting for them to finish their photo shoot. The van has a door on the side, like a minivan in the U.S., that slides back along the side of the van. Leo was in the driver’s seat and I was sitting in the back seat in the open doorway of the side door (because it’s so hot!). About 10 or 12 of the people of the community had begun to crowd around the open door, all within arm’s length of me, but they were just calmly, curiously speaking to me and asking questions about this or that. Most of them didn’t speak English and of course I can only say a few words in their regional dialect, so the conversation was dull to say the very least. One girl even asked for one of the several rubber “cause” bracelets that I always wear on both arms because it was colorful and she liked it, so I gave it to her. It was no big deal and everyone was still calm and pleasant.
At this point, the woman with us finally gets back to the van and tells me to reach in the back of the van to get one of the few bags of clothes that she had brought with us (I had no idea what they were going to be used for). She tells me to stay where I am on the edge of the seat and leans over my lap and opens the first bag of clothes on the seat beside me (I realized very quickly that I was going to be used as a shield to prevent the clothes from being taken). Of course, at the sight of the clothing and after a couple of pieces had been handed out, people basically started rushing the van. The woman with us was basically caught in a mosh pit of her own making, being pushed up against me, and I myself was being repeatedly poked and touched aggressively as the people tried to get themselves a piece of clothing. There were three bags of clothing, and I began just giving handfuls of them to Leo in the driver seat so he could just give them out the window and get rid of them so we could leave. The woman kept yelling, “No, I’ve already given you a shirt” or just saying “No!” I immediately started getting pissed off as soon as it started. I repeatedly asked Leo to please say something to them to get them to calm down and back off but he, having long ago washed his hands of the blatant, idiotic foolishness of this woman, just told me he didn’t want to get involved. (Note: At no time during this were we in any real danger, in case anyone is wondering.) Unless it’s in a welcome manner (obviously), I really don’t like to be touched, and especially not in an aggressive way. So by this point I am so pissed off that my heart is literally beating out of my chest, the woman is being shoved into me by the people pushing up against the van, and at one point I had been getting poked and slapped so repeatedly and aggressively on the shoulder that I just instinctively turned and yelled “STOP IT” at the person doing it…who turned out to be a boy of about 12 and who immediately ran away from the van before I even realized who it was that I was yelling at. I felt horrible beyond words.
After all the clothes were gone the people finally dispersed and the woman and her daughter finally got back into the van. I was so pissed off that I couldn’t even think straight and I was shaking. But don’t misunderstand me. I was never pissed off at the people in the community. Keep in mind that these people are desperate. Many of the young children were walking around with only underwear on or maybe even no clothes at all. The only clothes these people have are donations from other nations and which sport the logos of brands and universities in other countries that mean nothing to them and that they’ve never even heard of. We’re all human, and we all have survival instincts. Trust me, if you and your family were reduced to certain circumstances, you would act the same way. This woman took what should have been an act of kindness and made it into a horrible experience because of sheer ignorance or stupidity…I’m not sure which. A donation like this should have been planned ahead of time and with the help of some of the important members of the community so that the clothing could be handed out in an orderly and fair fashion. You don’t just tear open bags of clothing and start tossing them to people like you’re feeding animals.
I thought to myself, lady, if you even say one negative word about the way those people acted I am going to just snap. In fact she said a couple of things to me as soon as we started out that I don’t even remember because I was in my own little bubble after what had just happened, I was pissed, and I just blatantly ignored her. I was embarrassed and ashamed of the whole scene that had just taken place. This was the head of dealing with this woman’s antics for two days. I don’t know how some of the staff here have done it for several years. She finally turned around from the front passenger seat, looked at me for a couple of seconds just staring out the side window, and said “Joe, have you ever seen anything like that?” I just said, “No.”, without even looking at her.
All I can say is thank God I met the older Dutch couple first, because my opinion of the Dutch may have been totally skewed for life if this woman had been the first.
So, I’m going to end this on a lighter note of weekly random thoughts and maybe pick up with today (Friday) at another time because frankly I’m tired and just want to go to sleep…
One day this past week I walked into the shower room in my one-floor, bungalow-style building and closed the door to find a spider sitting on the wall behind it whose leg span was easily three inches across, at least. That might not sound big, but go get you a ruler and check it out. It’s big. Now, I like to think I’m a tough guy and spiders and things don’t usually bother me, but this sucker was big (in fact the biggest spider I’ve ever seen that wasn’t in some sort of an enclosure). I am also completely aware of the fact that I am basically living out in the middle of nowhere in rural Ghana, with nothing but a concrete block wall separating the property from dense, tropical vegetation all around and that these critters are bound to be around. Completely of out reflex upon seeing it I let out a four-letter expletive which I immediately regretted and hoped no one head heard because, after all, I am living at a Christian institution. Normally, I’m the kind of person that will just get a piece of toilet paper, gently pick up the offending creepy-crawly, and place it outside. All the good Lord’s creatures have their place and purpose. But this guy didn’t look like he was going to go gently into a piece of toilet paper and you can call me a coward but he was not staying in the shower room with me. So, needless to say, he met a swift and painless demise by the bottom of my shower shoe, followed promptly by a burial at sea in the next room with full honors.
I am really beginning to love Ghanaian food. Augustina, one of the student teachers that live in the building beside mine, has begun making me what the Ghanaians call fufu basically every night this week. She was informed the day that the above-mentioned Dutch woman arrived that European people (and, by extension, white people in general) don’t eat the kinds of hot, spicy foods that Ghanaians do because their stomachs can’t handle it. I told her that this was most definitely not the case and that this white boy loves him some spicy food. Fufu is basically diced cassava and yams that are mixed with water and hand-ground into an almost mashed potato-like consistency in a huge mortar and pestle (you know, like the things that pharmacists used back in the day?). It is then place placed in a bowl in a serving-sized clump and soup that is made with red pepper and other spices is pour into the bowl with it. The fufu itself has a rather bland taste, but you take pieces of it off with your fingers (God, I love this culture!) and sop up the soup, and therefore the great taste, with it. You usually also top it off with a pieces of dried fish (remember how I told you that this culture, and actually most cultures around the world, use a lot of what we more spoiled people consider the less desirable parts of animals because they have historically had to depend on every last bit of every animal they could catch?), or in my case this week, pieces of a fish that Leo and I bought fresh in the one fishing community we went to. Augustina prepared it by simply cleaning the sand from it, cutting it into about five whole pieces, including the head and tail, and boiling it in a sauce that consisted of more red pepper and diced onions and fresh ginger. Again, very spicy, but just absolutely amazing. Tonight the piece of the fish I got was the head (the whole head) and she told me she was amazed that I cleaned every last bit of meat from it, because most white people she’s known would have thought that eating the meat from the head of a fish was gross.
I am really starting to get to know Augustina, Dorothy, Alice, and Lidia, the four student teachers I have been mentioning. I had assumed they would be in their young twenties, but I was wrong and they range from twenty-four to thirty years old. All this last week I have been eating dinner at the table with them on the porch of their building and they are absolutely hilarious and charming. I’m sure that half of the orphanage can hear them laughing when we joke about everything from what the roles of men and women should be to my reaction at finding one of their sets of hair weaves hanging on the little clothesline I put up for myself between the pillars of my porch this morning. Leo joins in sometimes but he is a bit shy around them when they’re all together and so he leaves me at their mercy most evenings…which I don’t mind in the least. Good times.
To be continued soon…

Monday, February 13, 2012

This and That

So, I’m just going to pick up where I left off last week, because I want to try to get down every little thought I have about the things I see and experience while here…
            First, my week…Thursday, as I said before, I went with the district welfare officer to disperse funds for the LEAP program to some of the poorest people in the district. Some of the communities we went to looked just like something straight from a Save The Children commercial. Mostly mud-walled, one-room huts with thatched or corrugated tin roofs, with stray dogs and chickens running everywhere, and trash covering the ground everywhere. But the children there seemed to be happy for the most part (they waved and smiled at me and always asked, “How are you?”…a few of them also yelled at me from far away, “Hey you, hey English!”), so I kind of try to take as much of an objective view as possible, and realize that my U.S., fortunate eyes might make things out to be a little more terrible than they are. But don’t get me wrong, the poverty is real, and the struggle to get all of the children to school instead of participating in fishing or peddling small goods to help support their families is very common. Part the study I’m doing for my internship also concerns children from places like this whose studies at school suffer because they have to walk sometimes literally miles to get to class because they have no other alternative.
            Friday, I went with Leo to the Catholic school to begin interviewing JHS (Junior High School) students from a list that the headmaster has compiled for me with the students who travel great distances and how it affects their studies. Leo, as usual thus far, is a great mentor and is a huge help in showing me the things I should be looking for and asking.
            The highlight of my Friday evening was having my first cold Ghanaian lager beer (it’s called Star beer), courtesy of Herman, (the Dutch man whose wife is the founder of the organization here) while we watched the Ghanaian football (soccer) team make a mess of the competition for 3rd and 4th place in the Africa Cup of Nations and end up playing and losing horribly to Mali. They were the pick to win the cup but everything went downhill fast after their defeat by Zambia. But God bless Herman for offering the beer! Perfect for the hot nights here. He is a couple of years retired and lives on pension now, and he is a great carpenter (it was his profession all his life) who has helped oversee and participate in many of the building projects here at the orphanage.
            Saturday Leo and I went into town (Takoradi) and visited his friend who is a Ghanaian policemen, used his broadband internet (a blessing here in Ghana) and ended up watching part of the Manchester United vs. Liverpool English football game (I’m really getting an education in the game here…).
            Sunday was a bit of a lazy day here and I went again with Leo into town so he could ship a package to his brother. We ended up sharing a meal together that consisted of cooked plantains (which are a cousin of the banana and when prepared a certain way have kind of the same sweet taste, but in the way we ate them they had the consistency and taste of a potato.) and a stew made from the leaves of something or other which was slightly spicy and very good (I’ll have to ask him to tell me the name of it again). We broke off pieces of the whole plantains and used them to scoop up the stew with our fingers. I also ordered a fried fish for myself. Notice I didn’t say filet of fish, but a whole, fried fish--bones, skin, eyes, and all…about the size of a small trout. But it was all very good and hit the spot. I went on Leo’s suggestion for the plantains and stew…I trust his gastrointestinal instincts which are usually very good, and he hasn’t led me astray yet. Before we began eating, however, we used a pitcher of water and a bowl to wash our hands with (this is how it’s done in Ghana), wetting our hands by pouring water over them into the bowl, washing with hand soap, and then rinsing our hands, again into the bowl. I also enjoyed another Star lager (this may be the start of a beautiful friendship for me and Star).
            Today I again went to the office of the district social welfare officer, where I sat in and listened with him and his own intern for a couple of hours to a teenage pregnancy case where the young man’s paternity was in dispute. They spoke mostly in their regional dialect and so the intern (a young Ghanaian woman who is also a social worker-in-training and is doing her national service (sort of an internship that is mandatory for all civil servants and social services workers in Ghana after they graduate from university)) translated for me. It was very interesting to see the way it was handled.
            So, now I’m just going to mention a few, random thoughts I’ve had while here.
            First, I am slowly getting to know the children.
There is Nathaniel, thirteen years old, (one of my favorites, if I may be honest) who is mild-mannered but funny and always has conversations with me about things in the U.S. He always asks me to come and help feed the goats that are kept here on the premises, and which he has been but in charge of feeding at the moment. He is very good with the younger kids and with the animals. He is also the one who helped me break the ice with the younger boys by asking me to show him how to stand at attention and salute like they do in the U.S. Army. He and some of the other boys can now stand at attention, parade rest, and present and order arms (saluting and dropping the salute) perfectly.
There is Cecilia, who is I think 6 or 7, and who is a very tiny but constantly smiling little girl. She sometimes gets upset because she wants to participate in some of the things the older kids do but she can’t because she is still very small. I always say “Hi, Cecilia.” to her anytime I see her, which brings a huge grin from her.
There is Isaac, also about 13, who is very funny, outspoken, and who also asks me many questions about the U.S. and the army.
Then there’s Dennis, who’s about 6. He is kind of quiet and speaks very softly but always stays very close to me when I’m around…for instance when I’ve watched the football games with the kids he always wants to sit right next to me. He always gets a big smile anytime he makes eye contact with me. I told him that he looks like a very young Denzel Washington (he does!), but he just smiled and nodded at me as if I were full of it. I said that meant he was a good-looking little dude…again, just a smile and nod.
There’s my namesake Joseph who is about 11 or 12 and who is a practical joker. Every time I am around him he makes everyone laugh. He cut me my very first fresh coconut, straight from the tree, and chopped the top off so I could drink the milk from inside it (the jury’s still out on how I feel about it, btw…it’s kind of sweet but has a strange aftertaste), but when he handed it to me, he said something in his native dialect which made the other children all start laughing. When I said, smiling, “What did you just say? Why are you laughing buddy??”, he just started laughing harder. So I made him drink some before I did, which he did. I always keep my eye on him when I’m around him, sure he’s going to pull something…all in good fun, of course.
Finally, there’s Robert, who is 17 and very close to leaving the orphanage. He is studying to be a math teacher at the local education college here in Takoradi and he is very bright. He and I have had a few conversations comparing universities here and in the U.S. I tell him how much I hate math and prefer natural science, English, or history and he says he is the exact opposite, except he also enjoys science.
There are a few other children whose names I know, but there are many of them and I am still learning.
More random thoughts…I’ve noticed that Ghana is a highly spiritualized country. I’ve seen every Christian denomination you can think of represented here, as well as a few mosques (Christianity is more widespread here in the south, while Islam is more prevalent in the north of the country). Also, every taxi and small vendor shop I see has some sort of religious slogan printed on it, such as “In His name”, “Nothing without Him”, or things like “Only Believe House of Fashion”. Very interesting…
Also, I have gotten to know a couple of the young ladies living in the guest building next to mine who are studying to be teachers. They spend three years becoming a teacher, with the last year being a “practical year”, spent shadowing a teacher in the classroom…akin to our student teaching I suppose. I estimate the one I talk to the most to be about 21 by this, as she is in her last year and is done with her field work in June. We have conversations about our respective educations and just this or that. They make for nice company when there is not much else going on…and a couple of them are not exactly hard on the eyes, either (but, I digress). A funny thing, too, is that I can hear some of them singing in the shower sometimes because the window to their shower room in their building is only a few feet from the window to my room, separated by a storage area between our buildings. Always entertaining to listen to. I’m sure they can hear the music playing from my laptop, too, when I sit in my room and do my work.
Lastly, the house mothers, which there are 4 or 5 five of, never let me lift a finger around here. Anytime they see me doing something, they order one of the children to do it for me (all part of living in a rule-based orphanage I suppose, but it seems to be good for the kids, and they seem to want to be the one that gets picked to help me anyway) and I always get kind of embarrassed because I’m not used to being waited on. Case in point, for the last few days, the power has been going on and off here, sometimes for hours at a time. This is a common occurrence, I’m told. Well, when the power is off, obviously, the water doesn’t work in my building, so for the last few days, I’ve had to get buckets of water to bathe with (the decent-sized, white buckets that you would buy building supplies in). A “bath in a bucket”. Though I always try to sneak and carry the buckets myself from the main building to mine, I always get caught and one of the kids does it for me. Though I have only had to do this less than a handful of times in my life (though it is an everyday thing for many Ghanaians), I consider doing it to be adventurous. I accomplish it by first dunking my head in the bucket, washing my hair, splashing water on the rest of me, washing with body wash, and then dumping the bucket over me. Refreshing!
And, on that note, I conclude…stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

First Impressions

Well I’ve been here for a few days now and I want to write some of these initial thoughts down before I forget them. Also, I just want to make it clear to anyone who may read this that everything written in this blog will be my own ideas, my own thoughts, and my own impressions, unless otherwise stated. I’m writing them down for my own interest, that of my friends and family, for posterity’s sake, and because, well, writing is just what I do. Not that there is any particular reason to mention these things, but I just wanted to. Anyway…
My first impressions of Ghana… The first thing I noticed upon stepping off of the plane was the heat. I don’t just mean it was hot, but it is the kind of heat that clings to you…the only thing I have experienced quite like it was in Iraq and Kuwait. I was wearing a hoodie-jacket when I arrived which was not enough for the freezing temperatures in Frankfurt but which I immediately had to take off when I got here. Ghana is a tropical country that is only a few degrees from the equator so it stays very warm here constantly. I must say it is something you get used to very quickly. My room also has a ceiling fan that I keep on high so it stays very comfortable.
After passing through customs at the airport I met Leo (short for Leepodde), the social worker here at the orphanage and my supervisor for my internship (more on him later), whom I’ve been talking to for months on Facebook to prepare for coming here. We took a taxi through Accra (the capital) to a bus depot where we waited a while to try and take a bus the few hours down the coast to Takoradi, where the orphanage is. What I mean by that is that we were waiting for an empty, full-size charter bus to fill up completely (they don’t do half-empty transportation here…the drivers need all the money they can get). Leo and I realized that we would be waiting for hours (which is normal) for the bus to fill up, so we, along with another young man who was waiting, decided to get a ride with a guy (who, incidentally, happened to be a soldier in the Ghanaian army, so we had a little chat at one point, comparing our illustrious military careers) who had a taxi…which had partially working power-steering, a bad fan belt, and gears that were going out in his transmission. Also, the driver seemed to be a little out of it (possibly a bit inebriated as well?) so Leo convinced him to let him drive the distance to our destination. Along the way there were throngs of people in the streets at different points cheering and celebrating Ghana’s soccer (football) team (the 2012 African Cup of Nations is going on right now, and Ghana is ranked number one in Africa) and they would cheer even louder when Leo (who is a huge fan himself) would honk the horn going through them. Eventually we got to an army barracks where we met Daniel, the director of the orphanage foundation, who drove us the rest of the way to the orphanage in one of the organization’s small vans. While most of the trip from Accra was on a two-lane highway (one of Ghana’s main highways), the orphanage itself sits near the end of a couple-of-mile-long dirt road (and by dirt I mean straight dirt, not dirt, gravel, and rocks like some of the dirt roads back home) that literally cuts right through the tropical vegetation. At one point it goes from being wide enough for two vehicles to pass with a little space left over to being only wide enough for one vehicle to pass through. It is so rough that for the most part you can only crawl along it with the vehicle rocking back and forth as you go…a four-wheeling junkie’s dream. We finally arrived at the orphanage at about 2am (we are five hours ahead of the U.S. east coast here), at which time I was shown my room and promptly crashed after having travelled for about 17 or more hours, not including the car trip.
Monday, I accompanied Leo to the local Egyam Catholic elementary and junior high school which the children here at the orphanage attend with about 1,000 other children so that he could pay their tuition. It is only a short walk down the dirt road I just described from the orphanage. I met all of the teachers and the people who are training to be teachers, some of whom are real characters. One (I can’t remember his name right now) is a real jokester whom Leo says likes to tease. When he learned that I was from the U.S., he asked if I liked Obama. When I said eh, Obama is ok (thinking he liked Obama), he said, “I don’t like him, Clinton was better.” I just started laughing. He then said that George Bush, however, was terrible. I could tell he was trying to get a reaction from me but I assured him that he wasn’t hurting my feelings in any way by saying these things…and that I actually may have agreed with him. Leo told him I had been in the army and when he asked I said that I had been to Iraq. He then started making machine gun gestures with his hands and asked if I knew how to use one…I said yes. Then he asked if I had ever killed anyone and I said no. He then waved me away and said, ah, too bad. Leo and I started howling, just because the way he said it was hilarious (he meant it in a joking manner). Leo says that he likes to tease everybody who comes to the school.
Later we went into town via more taxis (most of which are small (by that I mean tiny), bare-bones vans that seat about 9 or so people and which the drivers make sure to pack to the last seat before going anywhere) so I could purchase some food and other things I’ll need while I’m here…which brings me to my impression of Takoradi, the city a few miles down the road from the orphanage.
I have never seen so many people, vehicles, and vendor stands packed into such a small area in all of my life. Most of the buildings, the sidewalks, etc., look as if they were built around the time that the British finally left for good (or shortly thereafter…circa late 50s-early 1960s) and are dirty and in dire need of repair. The majority of the people, however, young and old, are very well dressed and sharp looking, wearing mostly western-style clothing. Vendors of every sort pack mostly every inch of the streets and when moving through them one’s senses are immediately and simultaneously engaged by the most amazingly delicious smells of food and assaulted by the most horrendous stenches of open sewers. I can only follow Leo as he quickly navigates this labyrinth like the expert that he is.
On Monday and today we ate at small places called chop bars. These are small “restaurants” where one goes in and picks from food that is already prepared on a counter, the attendant stacks it on your plate, and you go find a spot at a table and eat it. Leo shares my love of food and he says he likes these places because they are cheap, the food is great, and he doesn’t like having to wait to eat his food at restaurants. He is truly a man after my own heart. The food items include simple things like plain spaghetti noodles, fried and white rice, a mixture of greens with dressing that one could compare to slaw in the U.S., and then various fried pieces of fish, chicken, beef, etc. By pieces I mean random pieces that we would not normally eat from in the U.S. but which are still just as good and are much cheaper. Different alcoholic beverages and soft drinks, etc. are also sold there. There are also more traditional Ghanaian dishes…one of which is something called banku, which is something (from what I gather from Leo) like maze (corn) which is allowed to soak in water and then which is pounded into a kind of white paste and served in decent sized, um, clumps, and used as a kind of bread to soak up different kinds of soups that are also served at these bars and which can also include the afore-mentioned various pieces of meat and things. Think tamales…same sort of thing. One breaks pieces of it off with one’s hands and dips it in the soup. I’ve seen Leo eat it now with two different kinds of soup, both of which smelled spicy and delicious, but which he will not let me try, yet. He says these are the kinds of foods which are prepared with local ingredients and which I must first build up a bit of immunity to the local environment before trying. I’ll take his word for it…better safe than spending the remainder of my trip in the bathroom. So I settled for a plate piled high with the fried rice, pieces of chicken and fish made with spicy seasonings, and the slaw. However, they also add a spoonful of something which Leo says is locally called shito (and which I later read is Ghanaian for “pepper” and is a traditional Ghanaian black pepper sauce) and which is also spicy and amazing tasting (in case you haven’t picked it up, I love spicy foods). I asked Leo if I could buy some to mix with the foods I bought to make on my own so he showed me to a place where they were selling small peanut butter-sized jars of it. Great stuff. Should definitely help keep the mail running smoothly during my stay.
On the ride back to the orphanage, we got out of one of the taxi vans where the highway meets the dirt road and got into another tiny car taxi to take us back the couple of miles to the entrance road to the orphanage. At this point, let me describe the soil here. It is bright red, actually almost an orange-ish color, it is very fine and sandy (we’re very near the coast here), and a fine layer of it coats almost everything here. Well, every inch of the inside of this car was literally covered in it as if the young kid who was the driver had just done donuts in the parking area with all the windows down. Leo and I just looked at each other and got in. After a second of sitting in it I looked at Leo, shrugged and said, “It’s a little dusty”, which made both of us crack up again.
Later in the day Leo formally introduced me to the children and young teens here at the orphanage and they took an instant liking to me, asking me all sorts of questions, one of which was my age, after I had asked several of them their ages. I made them guess, which they enjoyed, and I was surprised when some of them guessed as high as the lower thirties. The few that I’ve talked to one-on-one seem very bright, and a few of them are real jokesters. I can’t wait to get to know them further.
Tuesday I went with Leo to speak to the district social welfare officer for the Ahanta West District (Ghana is divided into formal regions and then districts…we are in the Western Region, Ahanta West District) who is a friend, senior colleague, and mentor of his. We spoke about several of the programs that are being implemented in the area, one of which is a program that helps sponsor very poor children who are going to school with uniforms, books, food, etc., so that they may stay in school. We also discussed another problem that affects many of the youth here--the fact that they live so far from their respective schools (often several kilometers) that their parents do not send them…which obviously creates a problem. Studying how the distance travelled to get to school affects the ability of the students to learn effectively is something that Leo and I are looking into to use as part of my internship study. Tomorrow (Thursday), I will be accompanying the welfare officer as he goes to different villages in the area to assess the eligibility of several young children for the LEAP (Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty…which also helps to give funds to the very poor) program as part of the work for my internship…I am very interested and anxious to see what we will discover and I am very excited to work with him.
Today Leo and I went to visit the headmaster of the Egyam Catholic school I mentioned to introduce myself to him and to explain to him that I am interested in getting data on the children who must walk great distances to get to the school to see how it affects their ability to learn as opposed to the children who do not have to come such great distances. We have also begun to set forth a plan for me to gather the information I need for my internship studies.
Later in the day I watched the soccer game between Ghana and Zambia on television with the children and staff of the orphanage. Sports fans in the U.S. are nothing compared to the way that the people here love their football (soccer). They go crazy every time there is even a hint that Ghana will score. It is hilarious to watch the children root and cheer for the different players. Unfortunately Ghana, the team highly favored to win, lost in an upset to Zambia.
Well, since I think I’ve written a book in this entry, I’m going to stop for now. In the next day or two I want to write more about the things I am already learning from working with Leo about him, myself, and social work, and also a little about some of the staff and people who are also here at the orphanage and who have already made me feel very welcome.
Also, pictures will be coming very soon! Comments and thoughts would be greatly appreciated…

Thursday, February 2, 2012


     So, as most of you know, I am not yet in Ghana by now as I thought I would be. I am not leaving until this Sunday, the 5th. I thought I would update anyway just to let everyone know what I'm up to and what exactly it is I'm going to be doing in Ghana.

     I'm going to be going to Ghana to do my internship (field experience) which is a requirement of my degree in Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State. I'll be working with the social worker, Leo, at the Egyam Orphanage in Takoradi, Ghana. The orphanage supports the basic needs (food, shelter) of the children as well as their education, even sponsoring a few up to the university level. I will be there as a volunteer with and member of Mercy's Dream Ministries. I'll be "shadowing" Leo and also working alongside him to assess the welfare needs of the chidren who live at the orphanage as well as in the surrounding communities. I will also be learning how an NGO (Non-Governmetal Organization...meaning not governmentally funded or administered) works and is run on the ground level, which is the kind of work that I would like to do after graduating college.

     As the volunteer/internship program at the orphanage and for Mercy's Dream Ministries is still in the basic stages (I will only be the second volunteer of my kind at the orphanage, and the first male) a lot of what exactly I will be doing is kind of an unknown. We will be kind of breaking new ground and hitting the ground running as we go. The challenge of this in itself is very exciting to me and I am so looking forward to working with Leo and Mercy's and combining what I have to offer with him and the people there.

     The first challenge I have faced and first lesson learned so far is having all my stuff stolen from my vehicle in Altoona last week. Everything from my iPod which was plugged into the dashboard to my favorite backpack (which has been everywhere from Iraq to Europe to Nicaragua with me and which contained my laptop and school work as well as, most importantly, my passport and visa) to several bags from Walmart which contained basic stuff like underwear, hand sanitizer, and razors...and a small pillow that I bought to use there at the suggestion of the last volunteer. Needless to say I was pretty the the thief and myself.

     I got my first real experience dealing with the police to get my stuff back, the state department and a passport agency office (which is its own small, international circus - good times) to get a new passport ASAP, and a foreign embassy to get my new visa. I have a feeling this will only be the beginning of a life spent dealing with such places so after it was all said and done I was greatful for the little bit of insight gained in maneuvering with these kinds of organizations.

     So now, once again, I will be leaving in a few days, for real this time, and I am more anxious and excited than ever to do so!

     Also, any comments or questions anyone has are more than welcome...I would like to have a little feedback, especially once I'm in country!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Beginning

This is the blog I am going to be posting to allow family and friends to see what I'm doing while in Ghana and also to express my thoughts and ideas about anything and everything while I'm there.

To start, I am going to post a couple of maps and some information about Ghana itself as I've had several friends and family member ask where exactly Ghana is...

This is Ghana's location in Africa...

This is a map of Ghana itself. On Saturday, after flying from Pittsburgh to Washington-Dulles and then to Frankfurt, Germany, I will fly into Accra, the capital of Ghana. You can see it on the southern coast. From there we will drive about three hours to Takoradi, further down the coast, where the Egyam Orphanage is located.

I will be working in and around the orphanage, in conjuction with Mercy's Dream Ministries.

Another question I get asked is, "Is it safe there?" Ghana is a stable democracy and is one of the more developed countries in Africa, thanks to rich natural resources. It was said to have the world's fastest growing economy in 2011. (Economy of Ghana) Although there is widespread unemployment and poverty, Ghana also has a relatively low crime rate compared to many of the more violent countries in Africa.

The third most asked question I've gotten so far is, "What languge do they speak there?". Ghana was a British colony (it was then known as the Gold Coast) until 1957 when it gained its has the distinction of being the first sub-Saharan African country to do this. So, that being said, English is still the official language of the country and the most widely used, although there are scores of other regional languages still used, usually divided into the Kwa subfamily (south of the Volta River) and the Gur subfamily, north of the river. Here is further information for anyone interested...Ghana. Ghana has a fascinating history and political history.

Anyway, I leave on Friday and arrive in country on Saturday. I am beyond anxious and excited to get there! I will be posting as regularly as I can, including pictures, so stay tuned!