Monday, April 26, 2010

Ghana Time

I made a list just a few short weeks ago when I realized my time in Ghana was coming to an end.

I wanted to write down everything that I wanted to do before I left. I wanted to be sure that I did everything I could possibly do while I was here for the last few weeks.

I wanted to make sure I climbed a mountain, had a beach weekend, and even find a way to attend a Ghanaian funeral. After all, Ghanaian funerals are unlike any funeral most Americans have ever seen. Glittered with intricate fabrics of red and black, lots of shouting and screaming, funerals tend to be a true celebration here in Ghana. Few, if any, dwell on the tragedy, and instead embrace the life that has been lived.
I glanced at the list the other day, realizing I haven't gotten around to much of it. I won't be traveling to Ivory Coast, I may not make it back to the Volta Region to do some hiking, and I may not even get to a funeral before I leave.

But, Ghana has never really been about the lists. In fact, it's never really been about checking things off, getting things done. Ghana is much more about letting things come as they will and just going with the moment. That's probably one of the biggest reasons why I really just love it here.

When you walk down the street, adjacent to the night market, being sure to watch where you walk (you would hate to fall in the gutter. Seriously. We have open gutters in many places in Ghana…), you might see a friend and talk for 20 minutes unexpectedly. You might grab an egg sandwich—of course with laughing cow cheese (you know, cheese that doesn't need refrigeration)—or you might just grab a mango.

When you go to catch a tro-tro you never know what you might experience. Just the other day, I rode on a tro to Kissemahn alone. Just me, the mate, and the driver. While I know they wanted more people to get on so they could get more business, I secretly liked riding alone because I got to ride shotgun. One other time, coming back from Kokrobite, the mate and driver let me help them out a bit. I screamed out the places we were headed, coupled with the hand signals, and for a minute felt like I could be Ghana's next greatest mate on a tro-tro. This past weekend when we went to Makola market to get fabric we expected it to be a quick process; you know, get in and get out. But, shopping here doesn't tend to work like it does when you enter Super Wal-Mart back home and you can pick what you need and move right along. Instead, we became immersed in the world of fabric, contemplating which colors were best, which designs were the most suitable, and of course had to work our bargaining skills. I will say, even after 4 months here, I still can't bargain well at all. This, on top of making friends with the women selling the fabric, led us to taking our time and enjoying ourselves, despite the heat, close spaces, and the beckoning market women.

We run on a thing called Ghana time. At first, it was so hard to adjust to. I couldn't possibly understand why a class, a program, or a service would start over 45 minutes later. It didn't make sense. But, once you start living the Ghanaian life you begin to see a little more clearly. Things move a little slower, a little calmer, and you learn to just take things as they come. In the grand scheme of things, it just isn't that big of a deal.

I try closing my eyes, imagining what things are like back home. I've always been that girl, running from one thing to the next, trying to get as many things done as I could. It's always been like that. Even in Ghana, I can still be that girl walking fast, always headed somewhere. I think it comes from just being an intense person. But, I feel different now. If I'm late, it's okay. If I need to get things done and it takes longer than expected, it doesn't really matter.

You know what the best part is?

It's the truth. It really doesn't matter.

Because, at the end of the day, if you are doing what you love, enjoying life, and embracing the people around you, well, then you really can't go wrong.

I may not get everything crossed off of the list I made a few short weeks ago. I'm not worried though. Because in the last 21 days that I have here, I fully intend to spend my days just being here. I know that at some point I will begin the mental, emotional, and spiritual process of leaving. But, that day has not yet arrived. And so, I am here, and I am living. I am living on Ghana time, and I don't think I would have it any other way.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hope Does Not Disappoint Us

It’s funny how you can literally feel hope leaving your body.

Your body tenses up. You want nothing more than to retreat into a state of apathy. You sigh. You feel utterly helpless.

It seems easier to turn away and create some distance from the situation. Scratch that.

It is easier.

Giving up though has never been an option for me.

Last week, with everything happening with the kids at Kissemahn, I was exhausted. I was so drained, and just so tired. I wanted desperately to understand the situation better, to know perfectly well what we could do to help, and more than anything, I wanted the kids to be okay.

When you realize your own limitations though, it’s hard not to want to remove yourself entirely. I almost reached that point. I was on the edge of wanting to call it quits; I was thinking that there was NOTHING I could do to help. I figured that this was above and beyond my understanding and that being the hero of this situation was not only grossly off the mark, but quite frankly, inappropriate. How dare we come into a community assuming we have the answers, assuming we could make things right.

Much of this, I believe is right. I still believe that this is beyond my understanding and that we can’t be the heroes and end all of the pain in this community. It realistically just can’t happen.

So, I prayed. A lot.

I think I got my answer today, as Rachel and I had some quiet meditation in the courtyard of our hostel. I found a little piece of affirmation. I reflected on the past week I had at Kissemahn—making a solar system with the kids, spending time with Rukia, walking around Christian Village, and teaching, really teaching—and realized that the last thing I can do, or want to do, is to retreat away from this community. Yes, I want the community to work on solving these serious issues, even seeking our help when appropriate, but the best thing that WE can do is to just continue to support these kids. Even more than that, support them by believing. We have to believe that problems like this may never fully disappear, but that with hope God will provide. It’s not simple. But, in some ways, it kind of is.

Hope does not disappoint us.

I read this from Romans 5:1-5 and made this my prayer today.

When the girls from Kissemahn came over today—Gloria, Akos, Rukia, Maame, Margaret, and Sala—I repeated this in my head. Hope does not disappoint us. Today, we painted the girls’ nails, danced to our favorite Ghanaian music, ate a ridiculous amount of jollof, chicken, and egg at the night market, let the girls shower at our hostel, and tried to chat with the girls about boys. We tried to gauge an understanding about what they know about boys and babies, just to see if they even understand that rape is a bad thing. We made a little progress, not very much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s the first step in trying to help these girls, I think. We came back after taking the girls back to their homes and I was just so tired.

But, I was hopeful, which means a lot to me these days.

I am hopeful that the girls will be okay, I am hopeful that the girls will one day be educated and can do big things in their lives, and I am hopeful that these girls will one day understand how loved and wonderful they are. Yes, tonight I will go to bed hopeful, a feeling I have been missing and needing this entire week.

Hope does not disappoint us.

It’s true. I know it’s true because I have lived that while I have been in Ghana. I came to this country, hoping to have my eyes opened, hoping to understand a totally different way of living, and hoping to embrace this journey as much as I could. Everything has been exceeded. I came to Ghana, carrying only 2 suitcases and a backpack, with lots of questions, assumptions, and worry. Here I am, with a month left to go, realizing that I am not that same girl who stepped off that plane into the intense and humid African heat. It’s a good thing, really. I have gotten used to everything here, and with that, comes change. The weird things that I found the first month or so here are just a part of everyday life. I say “no shakin”, I snap my fingers with the other person when greeting someone with a handshake, I run even more late to things and never worry because there seems to be an unspoken adherence to “Ghana time”, and I will even test my Twi abilities with people in the market by speaking one of my four go-to phrases. You know, your basic “Ete sen?” (how are you?) or “Medasse” (Thank you). I’m not very good, but I will certainly try.

More so though, I have spent a lot of time thinking about why I do things I do, and why I want to do the things I do later in my life. I think about what really matters, honestly. I think about the painful things I have witnessed, and wonder if such a thing as justice really does exist. I question what I have spent my entire life believing in. I try and understand more about the place I come from, a place that I think I have come to understand a little better since being away. I don’t know, but being here in Africa has encouraged me to ask the hard, difficult, painful questions. I don’t really have a lot of answers, at least fully developed answers, but when I reflect on being in Africa months and years from now, who knows what I might find.

Yes, in many ways, this place has become a home to me. Catching tro-tros, eating mango, sitting in the hostel for hours talking to my friends, and living without air conditioning has become a part of the routine here. It’s become comfortable. I hoped for that when I stepped on the plane to leave Denver back in January, a few short days after turning 21. I hoped to find a home. I did.

Hope does not disappoint us.

Rukia playing field hockey

Hanging with the kids, getting ready to watch The Lion King

Kissemahn--Salem, Gosway, and Forgive


Red, Gold, Green, Ghana Colors

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

what you feel is what you are, and what you are is beautiful.

One reason I came to Ghana was to study social work. I was looking for a place that had English as the official language, a place that would push me completely out of my comfort zone, and a place that I could discern whether or not social work was something that I wanted to pursue in my life.

The notion of studying social work almost seems ironic now. I am doing social work.

I anticipated that I would stumble upon situations that I was entirely unprepared for. I expected that; this is Africa. I have seen poverty in ways that are indescribable, I have seen brokenness, and I certainly have seen people and places that have broken my heart. Literally. This, however, is beyond anything I could have imagined.

A young girl—it has now been confirmed—has been raped. Allegedly, it happened on our school property just about a week ago, on the porch that we teach on every day. The details and exact recounting of the event is still to be established, but we are under the impression that 3 young boys were involved; one holding her down as the others sexually violated her. Kissemahn is in an uproar about it; the girls' parents (or guardians, rather) are pissed. They are angry. Her mother wants to go to the police. As for the boys, one father threatened to kill his son. One of the boys was beaten with rocks by his brother once the information came out. Fingers are being pointed, tension is mounting, and the integrity of the school is being called into question. It's been a few days since the news broke, and things are starting to be sorted out. Still though, it's a long, uphill battle, and I know that the volunteers will do whatever we can to help this situation. We are trying to mindful of everybody—the victim, the boys, the school, Kwame, our director, the families, and the community—and it just gets harder when there doesn't even seem to be a united front within the community to address this issue. It's complicated. That's all I can really say. Some want to the boys to be sent away, some aren't paying much attention to the victim at all, not to mention, that we are discovering one incident that represents something that happens all of the time in Kissemahn, in Ghana, in Africa, and in places all over the world. Yes, even in America too.

I keep wondering, how rampant is this issue? Rumors flew around before, maybe just a few weeks ago, about a couple of girls being raped. Myself and the other volunteers have so many questions, like, what do the kids understand about sex? About doing something like this? They have used the term "sleeping with each other", and we wonder, what does that exactly mean to the kids? Violating someone like that, it just has to be learnt, maybe even experienced.

These are kids raping each other.

The young girl needs help. I pray to God help comes.

I can't even keep my eyes open writing this. It's late. But, my heart also aches tonight. I am struggling to find the right words. I am drained. I am worried. These boys—this community—it needs help. It needs to come together for such a time as this, and it's a damn shame that it hasn't happened yet.

I am going to talk with a young girl I have grown particularly close with tomorrow. She was allegedly raped—held down also—and I want her voice heard too.


Her voice.

Does she actually get one?

This isn't America, y'all. The police are corrupt and don't think for a second that a government program exists to help counsel these kids.

I am scared to ask the question but all that keeps running through my mind is WHAT CAN WE REALLY DO?

Dealing with rape on an individual level is a lot different than dealing with rape as a social problem. We have ideas about how to deal with this situation, about getting the victim some help, and about addressing it with our kids as much as we can. As far as sending a larger message though, what the hell do we say?

We can continue to check in after we leave, but our departure date is now about a month away. The good news is that we have a month. That's something. But, we have to focus on doing what is in the best interest of these children, and we have to understand the context we are working in. We are in Africa. And, as with dealing with something this heavy, we can't be the heroes.

Damn, I hate saying that.

I used to believe we could. I used to think that with enough hope, passion, and love, the horrible, horrendous, and awful things of the world can be overcome. And, that's so much a part of me that I think I will always believe that. I know with God anything is possible. But, for this situation, I have tasted a strong dose of reality. Kissemahn is a small community in Ghana that is stuck in a cyclical problem. Poverty. Pain. Abuse. Repeat. Where do you break it? How can you turn it around? All I am saying is that I don't have the answers. We don't have the answers. Our school has a responsibility to these children—to help them, to love them, and to fight for them—but we must remember. This is about the kids. This isn't about us. And we can't be the heroes of a situation that is drenched in complication, undecipherable to those who even know it best. I, as all of the volunteers, will stand by the kids throughout this process. But, we just can't stop this social problem in a matter of weeks.

It just isn't like that.

We can't change a community in 4 weeks.

We can't stop the rape.

We can't stop the abuse.

We can't stop the cycle.

Our school is reaching out, and it's beautiful. But, ultimately, even after months of teaching, I still don't know this community in and out. The other volunteers, with the exception of Renee who started the school back in the fall, have been working in Kissemahn since January. While we have been able to get to know this community, these kids, and these families, we still don't know everything about this community. How could we?

We have made a difference. I know we have, I don't even think twice about that. And that's why we will do the best we can with the challenges ahead for Kissemahn. Maybe we can't stop the pain in a matter of 4 weeks, but we can certainly help in beginning that process. We are headed down a path. I don't know how far we will get. I don't know what it will look like at the end. But, we are going. We love these kids so much. For right now, that's just going to have to be enough.

I have a lot of questions, we all do. Processing this whole thing has been unbelievable. I haven't been sleeping well; my stomach hurts anytime I start thinking about what is happening. When I went to Kissemahn today, for the first time since hearing the news, I knew I had to keep it together. This whole thing might be tearing me up inside, but we are here for the kids. We will do the best we can with this situation, and we will also teach as much English as we can, laugh as much as possible, sing our hearts out, and love them. Hold them. Be with them.

Yes, I came to Ghana looking for confirmation about how I wanted to spend my life. I wasn't sure, a 100% sure anyway, if social work was the right path for me.

I have it. I can feel it when I am around our kids. I sense it when I have been trying to understand the family and home situations of our children. I know it when I am spending time with the kids, learning about them, just listening, and hearing their stories. Maybe it's a story of heavy proportions, or maybe it's just about how they want to eat fried rice for lunch.

Social work, it just feels right.

Please, if you are reading this, pray for everyone involved with this situation. For the young girl, for the boys, for the community, for the school, for Kwame, our director, and for the volunteers. Pray that God will provide, and that just maybe, change can come. Help us to know our place, help us to do what the community needs most. Pray for eyes to be opened; pray for hearts to be healed.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Se Bon, Benin!

I’ve spent the last 17 days sleeping in all sorts of different places.

My dad and I had to light a single candle for light for about an hour in a rundown hotel in Kumasi over two weeks ago and previously had stayed at a secluded beach resort on the coast of Elmina. We also spent time in Mole National Park, deciding on a whim to take the long journey in hopes of seeing elephants. We didn’t see elephants, but my dad did get to see Northern Ghana, which is a great opportunity. Ghana is so diverse from region to region, and I am so humbled by everything we were able to do in such a short amount of time.

My dad flew from London to Accra, and I was so jumpy just waiting to get a glimpse of him at the airport. When he finally showed up—sans his baggage due to British Airways misplacing them—I was just so happy. This was really happening! My dad managed to fly from Denver all the way to Accra. He was here. He was finally able to see this place that I have slowly grown accustomed to calling my home. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but indeed, this is now home for me, and I was just overjoyed that my dad would get a glimpse of it, and a taste of Africa to boot.

He spent a total of 9 days. In those 9 days we did a lot, saw a lot, and experienced a lot together. On his first full day in Ghana, I took my dad to the Madina market. We took a tro-tro there, and I knew once we stepped off that this was literally unlike anything my dad has ever seen in his entire life. The market is chaos, people are everywhere, anything can happen. People are selling their goods every which way, and it is incredibly overwhelming. I remember how I felt the first time I spent time in the Madina market. I felt so much sensory overload and quite unsure of how I would ever manage to get used to things here. Somehow, I have, and as my dad and I walked around, I felt comfortable showing him the ins and outs of market life. He seemed to take the experience to heart; I know it was intense and hard to see, but I was proud of him for willingly jumping right into Ghanaian life. Sometimes in life you just have to jump in and get your feet wet to begin to understand a new environment. Our day at the market certainly did that. I thought it was neat for him to tell me later that even being the only white man at this market he still felt safe. Comparatively, he told me that in downtown Denver he feels more threatened. He asked “why?” and we could only speculate. Something to think about.

Our travels brought us many surprises, experiences, laughter, and reflection. From seeing a bat being sold for food on the side of the road in a remote village up North, to my dad’s first taste of Banku, and to seeing a dead body on the side of our hotel room in Kumasi, it was always interesting. Hardly ever a dull moment.

Putting into words what my dad’s visit to Africa meant would be hard to do, but I can say that my absolute favorite moment of his visit was our time at Kissemahn. We lugged a suitcase full of school supplies around Kissemahn, being greeted by many in the community, until finally reaching the school. Literally, the minute the kids saw us, they ran up as fast as they could and greeted both my dad and I with so much love. Immediately, my dad became “Daddy Ted” and instantly admired by all of the kids. We were walking from the office to the classroom when I looked back at him and saw a face full of sadness, intensity, and emotion. I think seeing these beautiful children and seeing the conditions of their lives was beyond intense for my dad. I know he has never seen such extreme poverty all at once….and I watched it tug at his heart strings, which in turn, pulled at mine. We were continuously greeted by the kids, they sang my dad and another volunteer’s dad songs they sing every day, and just expressed so much love and gratitude for their visits. In the midst of so much brokenness, there was strength. There is strength in Kissemahn. I don’t know what will happen to all of the kids. Where they will go, what they will do, but I do know that they have changed my life, no doubt about it. That’s why, more than any other place in Ghana, I had to take my dad there. It’s a part of me now, and there is certainly no turning back.

Around Accra, I showed my dad the Accra Mall (a vast contrast to the poverty rampant in the streets), Champ’s Sports Bar, Ryan’s Pub, the STC station, the major tro-tro stations, and other places in the city. I think he might tell people that Ghana is much different than what he expected—in good and bad ways. I think he was overwhelmed by how welcome Ghanaians are to “Obrunis” and also shocked by the lack of infrastructure in Ghana. Ghana, in my experience, has been relatively “hit and miss” in that some things work, some things don’t. So, we certainly experienced a lot of that while he was here.

Dad said goodbye to me up in my room at the hostel and though it was hard to see him go, my dad continuously reminded me of something very important. The fact he got to visit at all is huge, something that I was SO blessed to experience, and I can’t help but be thankful that he got to see Africa. And besides, saying goodbye also allowed me to realize how quickly this journey in Ghana is winding down. It will be over soon, I will be back in the states, and will be leaving this home for another. I thought about this as I saw his car drive away, and I once again had a wonderful moment of affirmation. This is where I am supposed to be. This is it. And with just over a month left, I certainly had no time to waste to soak up every moment.

Soaking it all up began the next day of course with another beginning of another journey. Rachel, Paula, Taylor, Mitch, John, and myself left ISH at 5:00 am. Destination? BENIN.

We left early enough to catch a tro to the main station in Accra and then catch a tro to the border town of Aflao. Without a hitch, everything went smoothly—we even had air conditioning in our van to the border! Rachel certainly was right when she said that this transportation would be the best of the entire trip. Hands down, she was absolutely right with that assessment. We made it to the border and of course had to re-work what we were going to pay for the ride. As we would many times throughout the trip, we would be sucker punched and forced to pay a little more extra. It just happens, unfortunately.

We crossed the border on foot, literally, and headed into Togo to continue on to Benin. Justice, Mitch, and I got separated temporarily from Rach, Paula, Taylor, and John when we were taken to different spots in Lome. Somehow we were fortunate enough to find each other again at the market and get transportation to continue us onto Benin. We drove through Togo in what seemed like a New York minute! Our driver was a vigilante on the road…with a broken speedometer Lord knows how fast we were going, but we were swerving recklessly around other cars. I can’t say we didn’t have a few close-calls, but we managed to make it to Cotonou, Benin after a quick stop in Ouidah, Benin to see a python temple. Ouidah has an extremely strong presence of Vodoun, and though we didn’t have the time to explore it more, it was neat to be in the place that is a stronghold for Vodoun practices and rituals. We entered a small hut full of at least 70 pythons…and I was totally creeped out and fascinated at the same time.

We traveled more the next day too, but not before spending time in Ganvie, Benin to see a stilt village. By far, this was one of my favorite moments of the trip and even of my time in Ghana. We took a canoe with all of us on it for a couple hours to see the village. The entire village is on stilts, leaving transportation only available by water. I was taken aback by the families that we passed, by the homes, and by the people. I couldn’t help but wonder what we looked like. I felt invasive almost like I might be seen as gawking at their way of life, but I also couldn’t snap my camera fast enough. It was all just…surreal. We docked our canoe and I managed to find myself alone out on the dock. I tried taking it all in; I tried to understand what it must be like to live in this village, and even after 3 months of living in Africa, some things just aren’t easy to understand. I found a friend to try and attempt to speak French with, and I thought I was making relatively good progress. Of course, then I totally had to butcher “Si vous plait” as we departed on our canoe, and I couldn’t help by chuckle. God has certainly blessed my life in many ways, but when it comes to learning other ways of speaking and languages, I certainly do struggle! It’s okay though, I feel now that after 6 days in a French speaking country I can at least, very slowly, make do with short basic greetings. It’s something, right?

After the stilt village we had some trouble getting to our next destination, but after a couple of hours we did manage to get a couple of taxis to Abomey, Benin. From there, in the morning, we headed to the Abomey station to get a bus ride closer to Penjari National Park (our final destination!). I had a lucky break when we had the same taxi driver from the night before come and pick us up. I had left my camera in there the night before, and when I checked in the backseat, no problem. It was right there. I was fully relieved. We spent a couple hours at the station until the bus up into Northern Benin finally arrived. The bus in a word? CHAOS. Getting on was barely possible, and we were crammed with nowhere to sit. People were everywhere, drenched in sweat, with not even the slightest breeze. I couldn’t help but be amused when I realized my seat on the bus would be on John’s lap on a gas can. Yes, believe it. All 7 of us were placed on gas cans in the aisle so that we could have a place on the bus. Eventually we got seats and arrived at Tanguieta to make arrangements for stay before our safari in Penjari. Long story short we stayed in Tanguieta after Rachel negotiated for awhile with Samuel, an intern from Penjari that we met. He helped us arrange the actual safari and was so helpful. It’s amazing the amount of wonderful people you can meet traveling, and that’s one of the many reasons I love exploring new places.

After a restless night, we awoke at 4:30 am for our SAFARI. Penjari National Park, located in Northern Benin, is one of the better national parks in West Africa, especially in terms of seeing big cats. We didn’t see cats, but if it’s any indication, an elephant charged at our car just a few short minutes into the safari! I heard the trumpet of the elephant’s horn, and others actually saw it coming! Needless to say, we drove away rather quickly. The park was beautiful. It was so big, so open, and once we stopped at the waterhole, I fully was able to appreciate everything. We were witnessing the African savanna. How amazing! We saw baboons, water buffalo, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and so many different types of antelope. The day was perfect. I had the chance to ride on top of the car for hours, and it was incredible! I could see everything, and just sitting up there made it all so real. I laughed a lot on our safari. After our safari we headed to a nearby waterfall that was completely stunning. We had a short walk to the upper falls, and the colors of turquoise, green, and blue were everywhere. The water was so clean, and the minute I saw it I immediately took my shirt and shorts of and jumped right in. I was sweaty, dirty, and dusty from a long day in the park, and the chance to cool off was greatly appreciated. I even mustered enough guts to jump off a small rock probably 15 or so feet above the water. It was a rush, a great rush, and as I made impact with the water, I realized that this moment, this day couldn’t have gone much better.

Our journey home was long, full of early mornings and long bus rides, but we finally made it. The boys headed back to Accra a day earlier, and the girls stayed in Contonou to finish the last leg of the trip the following day. It was so great, just able to relax, drink lots of coke, and chat for hours with my wonderful girlfriends. Rachel, Paula, and Taylor are my closest friends here in Ghana, and I couldn’t have asked for better travel companions. When we pulled up to ISH with our backpacks and food bag I had a big grin on my face. I was home. I had a film of dirt on my face, an empty stomach, achy joints, but I was content. Happy. Relieved. I spent the last two weeks traveling all around, so to come home just feels so good. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point or another, Legon, the University, and my hostel have just become my home. The uncomfortable has become comfortable. The impossible has become possible. Somehow, someway, I feel like I belong here.

Benin was a trip to remember. I have jokes, memories, and experiences that I will carry with me forever. The last two weeks have just been exceeding all of my expectations. My dad, Benin, what’s next? I can’t say for sure, but I do know that my last month or so in Africa will be a month to remember.