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…

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