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…

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! I imagine you'll encounter a lot of cultural differences that make for interesting reading back here at home. Keep us updated :) I'd love to hear about different personalities you run into and the foods - I can't imagine. Keep it up :)