Summer Camp Team in Anwia

(I apologize for not having the pictures again, I know it’s so much better with them! Internet isn’t fast enough but soon I will be leaving Axim and then will be able to post pics..stay tuned)

*Written Thurs, Aug 2

Axim

Today is one of our days off, and I am just taking the day to reflect, and relax. I’m sitting at one of the gazebos at our hotel, over looking the beach, hearing the sounds of the waves, and thinking how happy I am to be here…and how sad I am that there are only a few days left. Time is moving so fast, as they always say it does when you are busy and enjoying your time. I wish I had more time here, but I am trying to make the most of each day. We’ve been staying at this gorgeous hotel called Axim Beach Resort. The 6 volunteers and I share a villa overlooking the water. There are a total of 6 volunteers, and 3 rooms for them to share. I have my own room, and there is a shared common room. Some of the volunteers have been sharing that they feel it’s a bit conflicting for them to come back here at the end of the day, after being in village all day long. I agree to an extent; it feels a bit lavish staying here when there is just so much poverty around us. Nonetheless, it’s still a pleasure to be able to come back here at the end of a long day, to catch up with ourselves and unwind. Even at times when one wants to be adventurous and try new things, I think some type of familiarity is nice to have, something of comfort, and this hotel has been just that. We supply the volunteers with water every day, and the rooms are cleaned every day/every other day. We do have showers, though whether or not the water is cold daily is questionable :). Like last year, my care for what I look like or how dirty I am, goes out the door the minute I am with the kids. I think all the volunteers feel the same way. If it means no shower, or a cold shower, we’ll take it. It’s all about embracing the experience! At this hotel, we are served breakfast and lunch daily, and have access to internet and laundry, which are both pay per use. The internet is very poor, but it’s better than nothing. Besides dealing with the usual GMT delay (Ghana Maybe Time, refer to last year’s blog!), it’s been great. I have come to realize I am much more used to the slow Ghana pace this time, vs last year; it’s just a part of the culture. At times my New Yorker definitely does break out when we have breakfast being served slow as can be, and we have somewhere to go! Oh, just one more thing that will always make me appreciate Ghana. As long as you have a smile on your face, who cares about time? Ha.

Camp 2: Success!

I can’t believe how quickly time is going by. Not only has our first camp finished, but now, our 2nd one has to. I have really loved the experience of seeing different schools, and their different management/cultures. The 2nd school we worked in, was in a village called Anwia. The school we volunteered in, is the only public school in Anwia. Like Salman, Anwia was affected by Adamus, but in a different way. Adamus currently utilizes some of the farming land in Anwia; as a way to give back, they have supported this school by providing them with new facilities. These include a drinking water pump, 2 large bathroom houses (1 for the older kids, 1 for the younger), and trees on the school grounds. When speaking to the principal during our pre-interview, it sounded like he was very pleased with what Adamus has done for them. This was great to hear. We had made an agreement with all the schools we were to work with, that the maximum children we can work with was to be 120. Because this was a public school however, it was a bit of a challenge settling on the right number. When Rockson and I met with the principal at the school a few weeks ago, he told us that there were about 320 kids between the youngest grades and oldest. One of the hardest parts of this job, is turning away our support to a certain group of kids, but due to both budgeted finances, and the amount of volunteers we have, it’s just not possible for us to work with such a large group. The principal then divided the camp into two groups; 3 of the lower groups, and 3 of the upper. I had known that the volunteers had really wanted to work with the little ones, so I tried my best to see what we could do to work with them, but unfortunately their were 183 of them and that was just too much. After taking some time to think and having a few phone conversations, the final decision I made was to work solely with the 3 upper groups, with a total number of 143. The principal warned me that some of the younger kids may still want to come and be involved, but he told me the local teachers will be there to try to manage them.The volunteers and I were prepared to handle a lot more kids at this school and couldn’t wait to meet them!

Both the schools in Nkroful and Salman were private schools, but this one was public. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to tell a difference, but both myself and the volunteers did notice a few. A lot of the kids at this school knew a lot less English; understanding even simple instructions was hard for them here. I was told this occurs often in public schools where classrooms are overly crowded and students cannot receive the individual attention they need to learn. The principal showed me the lower classes; two small rooms in which 90 kids fit in each day. I couldn’t believe it, and felt really bad. We noticed the kids we worked with struggle much more so than children in the 2 other schools, with spelling words, and matching letters to sounds.

It was that much more rewarding for my volunteers when they were able to make a breakthrough during our time with them. One of my awesome volunteers, Steph, had a class that had no idea where a lot of the continents and countries were. She spent an afternoon reviewing the world map with them and going through the different categories. For the next two days, the kids were able to retell some of the things they learned and even apply them when asked to point them out on a map or answer questions in a game of trivia. That was really cool to see! It’s exciting for me also to see some of the volunteers experience for the first time, what I had the honor of experiencing last year. It also gives you a chance to be creative with your teaching, and finding alternative ways to get through to the kids. I saw another volunteers, Heather, playing a game called 4 corners, which didn’t involve detailed instructions and was easy for the kids to catch on..they loved it! I myself had a really great experience with one of the older groups as well. One of the other volunteers, Sharon,  was having the kids draw using stencils of different animals. I was just walking around looking at their pictures, when I got this sudden idea to have the kids make the sounds of the animals they drew, just to add a fun element to the activity. We thought we’d try it out, so we had each kid stand, say the name of the animal and do the animal sound. Not only did they like it, they got such a kick out of it. As I kept going, I kept thinking of more creative ideas to add to it! I’ve worked with kids before where they make “music” using different sounds…and I was ready to try it with this group. I had each stand in a semi-circle around me. When I would point to them, they were to make their sound. The quicker the activity, the more you can begin to make “music” with the sounds. It turned out so well! At times we had to stop because we were all laughing too much. Such a simple game, with not many words. They totally got it and had a lot of fun with it! Me and the other volunteer couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t stop smiling, because it was so great to see the kids enjoy it so much. It went on for a while, our little animal choir. I remember thinking, if we tried doing this with our kids in NY, it would either turn stupid and sexual in some way or another, or they would be too cool for school. Not these kids. They totally rocked at it. They got so good at it, that we invited the principal to come watch. We even performed our little choir in front of the whole camp group at the end of the day. It was such a good time! A great group of kids.

Working at this school, posed one challenge for both myself and some of the volunteers; a challenge I certainly had not prepared for. It was true what the principal said about the local younger children who were not invited to our camp; there were so many of them that came by to watch, and even try to play. Of course they wanted to, who wouldn’t? This group of fun, happy adults came to your school to play..but with other kids and not you. I can imagine the level of curiosity and wonder these kids had watching us, as well as their natural kid-like urge to want to join in and play too! Watching them watch us, and not being able to include them, was one of the hardest parts of this camp. It was really hard for a lot of the volunteers and myself to turn them down or tell them to go away. It was definitely another hard part of my job…especially having to tell the other volunteers not to feed or give arts and crafts supplies to them. If it was up to me and my ‘i want to help the world’ mentality, we’d have helped every child in that school and even that village-but unfortunately, we just were not able to. Because we are funded by Adamus, we only have a certain amount of money budgeted per camp. We also only had 6 volunteers and didn’t have enough to work with more than 6 groups. Also, I ordered and brought with us just the right amount of materials for 3 camps with 120 kids per camp. As much as you want to be able to help everyone, it’s just not possible and one thing I am learning through this experience, is the importance of setting boundaries of some sort with this type of work. Not easy! These cuties would crowd around the doorways watching, and for a lot of us it was heartbreaking. I think one of the challenges of the role of team leader, is trying to balance both sides…the admin side, and the volunteer side. Here I am someone who always, always wants to help others, and I have to tell the volunteers not to help the locals. It makes me come off to the volunteers as someone who is cold and doesn’t care, and that’s far from the truth. That was definitely a struggle for me at this camp, more so than the others because there were just so many. It’s a horrible feeling having to turn down kids when you know they just want to play, and that they have nothing. Alas, I still have to follow the rules, and our program just doesn’t have the supplies, the man power, or the money to provide for these kids. So, I had to tell the volunteers to please not engage with them….Not easy at all!

One particular experience stands out for me, from the rest. It was one of our afternoons with the kids, where we have all ages play together in a whole camp activity. This day we were playing Steal The Bacon. Within just a few minutes of the game beginning, one boy and girl were so excited to run and grab the ball in the center, that they ended up colliding and as a result, the girl was hurt. She got badly cut on her chin..so bad that even after a while, the bleeding wasn’t stopping. The poor thing was standing there crying hard, and it was a mess. As all kids do, her classmates were surrounding her to see what was going on. We were able to get them to move and give her privacy. The teacher asked one student to grab a mixture of mud and grass, which is used here to stop the bleeding. When we saw even this remedy was not working, it was time to get her to a clinic. We were able to have our driver bring her to the local clinic, and there was no way I wasn’t going with her. Though she had a (male) teacher there, she still looked really afraid so I hopped in the car and held her hand all the way to the clinic. They took her in to be seen right away. I was surprised, since there were a lot of woman with crying babies all around, but I am glad they noticed the urgency of her injury. I went into the dr.’s room with her, which was a tiny room with a cart full of first aid materials, and a wheelchair that was being used as a patient’s chair. The nurse looked it over and said she would need stitches. I wasn’t able to stay, so I stood outside with Mandy, the other Adamus social responsibility staff member, the student’s teacher and myself. They gave her a shot to numb the area, and then stitches on her chin…while sitting in a chair!! I was amazed. After that I sat with her while we waited to get her medication, and then a shot to prevent infection. All of that was 17 Cedis only, which obviously there was no way I wasn’t paying for. 17 Cedis is only about $8.50 in NY. She recieved a discount because she was a student and did not have a hospital card, but I was so happy to be able to help out and pay for it. When that was completed, we went back in the car, where I held her hand and gave her some cookies. She was SO brave, didn’t cry at the dr’s once! What was most impressive? She came back the next day all ready to go! Children’s resiliency is so admirable. I was so glad to be able to go to the dr. that day, and to help pay for her medical as well. It meant so much to me.

What was also a really cool component to it all, was when we went to bring her home; we sat down with her mother and grandfather to explain what happened. Sure enough when I looked up at her grandfather, I realized I knew him! He was one of the chief’s members and i had met him when I went to the chief’s palace a few weeks back to discuss the camp! He didn’t speak much English, but he didn’t need to; his smile said it all. He thanked me for paying, and gave me a firm handshake. It was in that moment that I got the chills because it wasn’t just that I knew this man… I felt like such a member of this community in that moment. It’s the best feeling. Things keep happening to me that continue to make me see it, feel it ; the more things come up, the more I really truly feel I am a part of this community. That’s what makes this trip so much more unique from last years. People know who I am here. They know I come to help. I am part of the culture here. I am part of their world. Even when we were leaving the clinic, it happened…when we were walking out of the clinic, into the van, I suddenly heard “Madam Alana!!”…it was two of my kids from the school I worked at last year, who saw me down the road and wanted to say hi. It’s such a good feeling 🙂 I love it here and really could see myself spending more than just a few weeks here. I feel so comfortable, and oddly, so at home. I am not ready to leave!

We only had three days with this group, but from what I saw it wasn’t about how much time they had with our volunteers, it was the time spent with them that really mattered to the kids. This goes back to what I have written about in the past, when people ask if they think a few days/weeks can make a difference. I personally think 1 day is definitely not going to, but if you have just a few days to spend with them, you end up giving the kids a gift that they’ll keep in their mind and hearts forever. It doesn’t just end there, it stays in the community… it stays in conversations, it stays in the school culture. For some kids, we are the first people with different races or from different countries, that they have ever met. Our impact is strong and it’s such a great feeling knowing that what we are doing may perhaps make a lifelong difference. As I always say, you can’t change the world but you certainly can change a few people’s individual worlds. And that’s exactly what we are doing.

Madam, I love you

**Updated: Pictures are up!

Those were the last words I heard from the principal, as I hugged her and headed towards the van on our last day running camp in Salman. It was our first camp, and successful it was. It made me so proud to finally see all the work I’ve been a part of for so many months, in action. The experience was moving for everyone, including the principals and teachers. Let me tell you all about.

Our 1st camp

Our first camp, camp A, took place in a village called Salman (pronounced like Sal-mah). The school we worked in was a private school. It was chosen, because Adamus has directly affected it’s community. The entire village was relocated, in order for Adamus to use their land for mining. As I discussed in one of my previous blogs, when Adamus will relocate a village, they will give back to the community with money and houses. There are other things given as well, such as churches, schools, etc….basically any building that was previously in their village was built from scratch by Adamus, in a much newer revamped version. The school we worked at was one of these buildings.

Our summer camps provided lunch for  every child. Thanks to our amazing donors, I had over 700 dollars to bring to the camps and utilize as needed. I thought about what would be best for the program, and came to the decision that we’d use most of it to buy breakfast for all the kids in each of the camps we were going to run, since our program was unable to cover both meals a day. This couldn’t have been a better decision!! The kids and principals were so thankful, especially at this school!  All our schools were grateful for the breakfast we were able to provide for them, but so far the kids and teachers at Salman, seemed to be the most appreciative. With some of the 700  dollars we raised in NY, we were able to provide breakfast to about 400 kids. The cheers and smiles on the kids faces when they found out breakfast was provided every day, was priceless. (One group has even made a ‘thank you’ video for you guys!) If you donors didn’t already know, you ROCK.

When we got to the school on th first day the kids were so excited, and curious as to who we are and what we’d be doing. Because it was an Adamus school, it was much different than the school I worked in last year. The walls are all brick, and each classroom is really big. There are real doors with locks, and windows that shut! We walked around to get situated, and I was able to briefly meet with Rockson and the principal. We asked to have all the kids lined up in assembly, so we could introduce ourselves and tell them all about what the next few days will be like. I was so excited it was finally beginning. I went through each volunteer’s name, and got them pumped, and then off each group went with their “madame”.

The kids at assembly on our first day of camp

Once everyone was settled, I was able to meet with the principals, an older man and woman. I instantly thought to myself that they must be married, because I got two answers to every question I asked! Ha. (Turns out I was right!) Regardless of the occasional bicker, I grew to love the two of them rather quickly.  They were both very warm and welcoming, and seemed so excited about our program. They were very willing to help in any way they could too. A lot of their teachers were around, and as I requested, stayed with their regular classroom of kids. I wanted to include local staff in our summer camp program for 2 reasons. One, because they are really helpful with things like translating instructions, or managing any difficult behaviors. Two, because I think it’s important, and very much a part of this program, that we not only learn from the children and the culture, but that we also exchange ways of teaching and learning, with the local teachers as well. If we can at least leave the school staff, having learned at last 1 thing from our summer camp, I would be so happy. The teachers at this school turned out to be really great. They got so involved!

When all was settled that first day, I was able to visit the chief of the town for our 3rd camp, camp c. As I blogged previously, it was such a cool experience. On the ride home, I had a chance to talk with Rockson to learn more about education and children in Ghana. Rockson is from here, so is a great resource. Our conversation began when we were trying to estimate how many local kids would be joining our summer camp in Salman. In this village, there is a somewhat high rate of kids who don’t attend school. I learned from Rockson that some just drop out, and some just can’t go at all. The reason for not attending or for leaving school, are the same; the family most likely does not have enough money, and needs the student to work on their local farm, or to sell goods for their family. Because we knew the rate was high in Salman, we invited them to our school program. I was most excited to see what it was like working with these kids. I had expected that their English may not have been so strong, but some of them ended up not knowing English at all. A lot of the local kids who were invited choose to sit and watch, rather to engage. This was most likely because it was overwhelming, or because they just didn’t know what was going on. Nonetheless, it was really nice having them there; it was really great seeing some of the school kids working with the local kids. A lot of them knew each other, but some of them were just meeting for the first time, and still played so nicely together. There were definitely a few that were a bit roudy, and a few that were just too young to engage at all, but overall their presence really added to the experience.

I had thought that I would be sad not being able to work with my own group of kids, but in just the few days of working with Salman, I grew appreciation for my new role; instead of working with 1 group, I had the chance to work with them all.  Besides getting the chance to work with a whole new community of kids, I loved being able to watch all the volunteers do their thing. It helped me learn a little bit more about who they were, but I also got a chance to observe 6 different teaching styles. I love that. I noticed some of our volunteers would pair up with others through out different times of the day, and I really enjoyed watching their teamwork, each having had such a different background and age from the next. Some groups were a bit rowdy for the 1st day or so, but with just a little patience and practice, they volunteers working with them were able to have them back on track in no time!  I saw SO many creative games, and activities going on in each classroom..it made me feel like a proud mama! I watched one volunteer teaching her kids all about yoga and the importance of breathing when stressed. I watched another volunteer teach her kids new songs. Another, ran a whole dance circle with drums and everything… It was just awesome. Actually, sorry, I meant to say, it was fantasical. You read it right.

The non-word word wall

In all our fun teaching the kids at Salman, we had a few moments that stand out. Kids in general can be really funny…but some of the kids we worked with walked around saying some words we had never heard before and weren’t so sure they were actually even words… Fantastical was one of them. They say it about everything! And, they say it like it’s a word that’s completely normal. An example of how they may use it….”Madame, look at my drawing. It is fantaaaastical.” Say it outloud to yourself. It’s kind of catchy. We adults have not stopped using it. There are 2 other words that have us crying, we laugh so hard  whenever we think about them. I’ll save the best for last. The next, is “Sasabosom”. One day I was reading through some of the stories a group of kids had been working on, when I came across the word “Sasabosom”. Clearly, I lost my cool and keeled over laughing. It took everything in me to calm down and ask one of the kids what on earth this word was. Sharon and I, one of the volunteers, weren’t able to find out that day, so we came home and in our stupid over tired laughing fit that was, we looked the word up online. All I hear is “Alana, I found it!”.. I came over to the computer. “I got it! Here look. It says it’s a hairy vampire that lives in the forest and sometimes can be seen, but isn’t often. It’s something scary.” I looked up at the computer..”Sharon, umm you are getting that information from a site alled Monstapedia… I’m not so sure that definition is real.” And the laughing fits continued for the night. We finally were able to ask a child the next day what it meant; we learned it is the term that kids refer to when speaking about the Devil. Oh, and we also learned that it is really called “Sasabonsom”. But let’s face it, Sasabosom is so much more amazing. I’d say we use that one about once a day, the least. It’s a great word.

The last amazing word we heard at this school, was called…(drum roll please)…”insosophysicalmentality”. (Hear it in your head with an African accent).  I first learned about this word when I happen to walk into Sharon’s room again one day, and the class was playing hangman. One boy was filling out the letters for a really long word. He was so serious, and focused on what he was doing. (I am already laughing as I type this). I learned he was filling out the words because as excited as he was to have his class guess this word, they all knew he would pick this word because it’s apparently his favorite. When I saw it on the board I had to stop myself from bursting out in laughter because it is NOT a word. Our little friend Solomon (who turned out to be one of our favorites) fought and fought that it is in fact a word, and even went so far as to say it’s in the dictionary. His friends were all laughing at hime, but he even had some supporting him shouting out that it was a word. One kid furiously pulled out the dictionary to even try and support his friend! I suggested we settle the debate by asking their teacher. So, we marched up to the teacher, asked him to get a pen, and little Solomon began spelling his word, letter by letter. I suggested the teacher write each letter out as well, to see if he would recognize it better on paper. With a very serious face, Solomon began to spell out the word for his teacher. “I-N-S-O-S-O..”. As the teacher was writing, and the word began to get longer and longer, you could tell that the teacher was realizing that this was in fact a madeup word by the smile that began to creep up on his face. Poor Solomon just stood there with the most serious face, reading it over and over, until his teacher stopped him and told him it was not a real word. It was like Solomon’s world was crushed. I felt bad but it was really a great moment. From that day on we haven’t stopped joking about the word. Sharon and I even went so far as looking up the word on the computer to try and help him out a little..or at least to see if “insoso” has a meaning. Well, we found nothing, but even though it may not be a real world, it is a word in our books, and is one we will never forget. All these words are currently hanging in my room on the “Non-word Word Wall” we created..who knows what else will be added as this trip continues!

 

The End

Leaving this camp was definitely difficult; me and the volunteers felt a special connection to this group. It was clear that the principals of this school felt the same way. At the end of the program, there was a lady that came by to sell cloth. I knew that one of my volunteers has been very interested in shopping locally whenever she had the chance, so I called her over and together we excitedly looked through this basket of beautiful materials. There were so many different colors and textures. The principal came by and asked which ones we liked, helped us translate prices, etc. When we picked out the ones we liked, she tapped us on the shoulder, and said  “I will buy”. Words can’t express how much this meant to me/us. I get chills thinking about it now. Here is this woman, who has less than me, who is so busy running this school. Here we are to help them, give to them, provide…and she is giving me a gift? My instinct said, don’t take it, this isn’t right. I felt wrong somehow taking something from someone in a village where so much was taken from them..where I was supposed to be giving to them. I looked into the principal’s eyes, and heard her say “I want to buy for you. A gift”, and continued to kindly turn down the offer..but then,  something about the smile in her eyes, the sincerity in her offer, made me realize it’s something I had to do. I really honestly was struggling with whether or not I should take it. When I realized how much it would mean to her to take it, I decided to give in and accept. She was so overjoyed and I gave her such a big hug. It’s a moment I truly will never forget.

As I’ve been doing at all my schools, I also had the chance to meet with the principals and interview them at the end, about the camp, their thoughts on Adamus and what they have learned from us volunteers. I love knowing that we can come and help, but even more so I find it much more rewarding knowing we can leave a piece of our work behind. If the schools can learn from even 1 thing we did and keep it as part of their school culture, that makes me so beyond happy. Part of the interviews I conduct with each principal at the end of each camp, is to find out exactly that. Something about the interview I conducted with these 2 principals, really stood out to me. I asked both of them to join me at a table, and showed them the questions I had for them. Together, we read them outloud word per word. Something about their dynamic as a married couple I think, made it such a unique experience, rather than working with the typical principal. It was also really interesting to get a female perspective, as so many of the dominant roles here in Ghana are male dominant. So, I was really excited to see what they both had to say.

We began by talking about the impact Adamus has had on them. I asked them how they felt when they were asked to relocate, and they said at first they were scared of the unkown. They didn’t know what it would be like. I can only imagine what it would be like to leave the only place they knew all their live…where they cooked every day, where they had babies…that land is so much more than land, it’s their home. Interestingly enough, when talking to them they seemed so happy about the move once they got to the new village. I guess it makes sense, because it was SUCH an upgrade to them. They said they didn’t miss their old village at all. Now they had bigger houses, and a nice school, and they were so happy about the facilities they were given. Because of this, they really had nothing but positive things to say about Adamus. It helps for me to have these types of stories, because I have such conflicted feelings about Adamus and their work here. It’s comforting to know that some people are really happy with what they have recieved, rather than sad for what they have lost.

I then was able to talk to the principals specifically about the camp program. They couldn’t thank me more, and continued to say ‘God bless you’ to me through out the week, but especially through out that meeting.  It seemed both husband and wife were really genuinely pleased with the program. The best was asking them to rate on a scale of 1-10 how happy they were with the camp. The husband said 7…and then I heard a bunch of bickering in Twi, the local language. A few minutes later when the husband stepped out, the wife told me she thought it was a 10! Ha. Gotta love married couples. Especially married principal couples 🙂 (Steve and Margaret, I told them about you and they loved that we shared something in common!) I delved a little deeper and asked them what they liked most about the camp. They said they liked that the kids have a chance to use their brain in new and creative ways. The husband said that their school is so focused on academic, there was no time for too much play or fun (Reminded me of the charter school world a little..). The wife said that she never saw the kids so excited to come to school and was amazed and so thankful to see the school in full attendance every day of our summer camp! She was emotional and all she continued to do was thank me and said what a good person I am/we all are. She also added that it’s good for the children to see people from outside, from other countries come and work with them. I was so happy to hear this all, and I too got a bit teary eyed. For a moment, one of the teachers stopped by and we asked him the same questions. He gave me a ’10’ and said that he loved the camp!  I asked him if there was anything he saw that he learned and wanted to do when we are gone, and he said definitely the running and jumping activities. He said that his kids don’t get enough chances to be active, and pointed out that some kids who may be really low academically may be really talented in sports, or music. Such a great point! I felt so accomplished when I heard this, that we’ve opened the door to a whole new range of activities and ways of learning. Just to note, this one teacher at one point had his jeans rolled up and got so into the relays that he was doing them along with the kids! As always, kids anywhere in the world love nothing more than to see their teachers be silly, and show that they too can be fun, so the kids went ballistic when this guy hopped on one leg, or skipped. It was so great to get to talk to him and hear that he would love to carry on some of the things we did in camp.

As much as we prepared, it was so hard to say goodbye. The night before camp, I had a talk with volunteers about endings, and goodbyes. I thought it would be helpful to pass along what I have learned from both my counseling experiences in NY, and my experiences of saying goodbye to the kids in 2011. Last year, our goodbye was so emotional and was just too much. I wanted to avoid making that same mistake again. I told the volunteers that we want to try our best not to cry in front of the kids, because it will set the tone for the kids and they will all follow. I spoke about the importance of leaving on a positive note, but reminded them it’s ok to tell them you will miss them and that it’s sad. Goodbyes are sad, period. They just are. So, it’s definitely important to acknowledge that. It’s also important to leave this kids with a happy, positive feeling. It’s really hard, i know it because last year I couldn’t help but to cry with the kids and now it’s just a really sad memory in my mind. I told the volunteers that it’s important to let these kids know you will always remember them, and that they too can always remember you. I also suggested they tell the children not to be sad, but to happy because we’ve spent so many good times together. I also was really honest with them and told them pointblank, tomorrow is going to suck. It’s not going to be easy. You may be more sad than you think. You may not be sad at all. That is ok, everyone copes differently. I asked if they could just wait until we get in the van to cry, so the kids don’t see it.

In the end, the goodbye went as good as it can go. Some kids were crying. Some didn’t understand. The volunteers did a fantasic(al) job and in the end, I think it went very smoothly. I was really proud of them all for handling it so well. Surprisingly, I was ok, but I think because I have experienced it once before, I was more mentally prepared to handle it and somehow put up some sort of wall. Funny, I realized that last day  I took a lot less pictures…probably as a way to close myself off a little bit. Whatever it takes, to each his own really. I told the volunteers it’s ok if they cry, and I would be there for them through the night, because it’s a lot to process. I know for me, it was particularly hard to leave both the set of twins (from the pic I posted on facebook) and the female principal. When it was time to leave, the two girls just looked at me with tears in their eyes. They just stared, with that I-cant-believe-you-are-leaving-me face. It was awful. I gave them one last hug, and just had to walk away. Everyone knows I am really emotional and sensitive when it comes to this stuff, but I knew if I sat with them, I too would fall apart. Before I left, I went over to the principal and gave her a big hug. I thanked her for the cloth, and said I will always remember her. Ah, getting teary just thinking about it now. I think I’ve sort of blocked the ending out of my mind as to not get sad and be a role model for the volunteers, so it’s good  I get a chance to reflect on it now. Anyway, the principal hugged me tight, then looked at me, grabbed my arm, and said “Madam, I love you”. Just another moment I will never forget. As we piled in the van, we tried to each go in 1 by 1 in order to prevent the kids from crowding the car and making it more emotional. While we did this though, the principal had all the kids gather on the grass to watch our car drive away…which was exactly what we were trying to avoid! Nonetheless, there they were all staring, some smiling, some crying, some just trying to get their last wave. I had sang “Boom Chicka Boom” with the kids through out each camp day and boy did they love it….so right then and there, I thought what better way then to leave the kids with something positive and a smile…I rolled down my window and just started singing with them. I sang it out my window, and they sang back, until we were too far to hear them anymore.

There’s not much more to say, than what an amazing journey this has been. The pride I have after seeing something I have put my heart and soul into for so long, is a feeling like no other. I am proud of it all..myself, the volunteers, and the school for making it all happen and making it go SO well! It’s true that we have to enjoy the moments in our lives and appreciate each and every one of them, and where I am right here, right now, I couldn’t be happier.

Reflecting

A quick thought that came to me today…

Some of the kids here don’t know their birthday. Some babies walk around barefoot without pants. Some adults wear the same shirt day after day. It may sound sad; I know at first I felt somewhat saddened when I asked a child, “what’s your birthday”, and heard back, “I don’t know. I’ll ask my mom if she knows and will tell you tomorrow.”Naturally I also felt sad when I saw babies in a local town walking without shoes or pants. We’re so used to diapers, shoes and clothes, it’s off putting at first. But then, I thought about it, and realized it’s only sad because we come from a society where those things are SO important….even to adults, birthdays are a big deal in the US. And here is a child, who didn’t even seem to be bothered that she didn’t know her birthday. I realized, it’s just not important.  More so, what’s important is what’s essential for survival…and knowing  a birthday isn’t one of them. Or, wearing pants for a baby, isn’t either. Instead he can just walk around bottomless because it’s easier for him to go to the bathroom without soiling another piece of clothing to wash. Instead the child’s life can be celebrated all the time…for being here and healthy. It makes me disgusted in a way that we have such priority for birthdays and such when there are places in this world that it’s just not even a part of the culture, simply because there are more important things to know, care about, and deal with.

Those things…clothing, birthdays..things we put such emphasis on in the US..they just aren’t a priority here. And I love it. Here, priority is 2 things in order to survive: health and happiness. That’s it. And really, that’s all you need.

 

Ghana Summer Camp: behind the scenes

Camp is going so, so well so far! Today we finished our last day at the first village we worked with. I will blog about it all, but before I do so I thought I’d talk a little about the behind the scenes of it all.

There is so much that has gone into making this camp happen; meetings, phone Skype phone calls, google docs over the winter and spring, and then in person planning meetings and scheduling that goes on, on-site here in Ghana. I have loved every second of it so far. Before I left I thought this part of the experience may feel daunting or intimidating, but in actuality it’s been the most amazing, exciting part of it all. This is a whole new element to the trip that I didn’t have last year and it has made my experience so different in such a positive way.

For the past 7 months, I have worked consistently with a team at The Humanity Exchange, to put together all the componenets of the program. The first 2 steps were to begin thinking of the dates we wanted to run the camp, as well as the villages. The first one was a lot easier than the second. I selected the dates for our summer camps based on when I was available, while also keeping in mind when the school we worked with last year ended. Then exact details of the program aren’t planned until the few months leading up to the program, but there is so much that is done before those months are reached. During this time, I worked on the details of each day of the program, as well as how many days will be best at each camp, the age groups we want to work with, and the total amount of kids I think is best for each camp. The process was worked on up until the first day of the program! Needless to say, it took a lot of time and team work to make it all come together into the final schedule that we have this summer!

Through out the winter, I worked on my very first marketing project. I was responsible for writing up a few things: an ad for the program, the website portion of the program, and a video advertising the program as well. Though this was all very new to me and at times challenging, it was a great process and felt very exciting through out. It got even more exciting when emails began to roll in and the interview process started. I had so much fun getting to know different people’s backgrounds, occupations, and motivation to travel abroad. It was a long process, and though we originally intended to find 10-15 volunteers, we were able to find 6 fabulous volunteers, who straight from the phone call interviews, I knew were perfect matches! With all the advertisements and work we had done thus far, we had to work on the next step; finding the villages that were the best fit for our program.

It all begins with Adamus Mining company. The Humanity Exchange works hand in hand with a mining company here in Ghana called Adamus. This year, because of all the community work I’ve been able to do, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the company, and how they have worked in both positive and negative ways with their communities, as well as their involvement in the selection of the villages THEX works with. There are lots of different opinions about the mining companies in Africa overall and how they affect communities within; I myself have conflicted feelings about it. When I first heard about the mining companies and how they move villages out of where they live in order to mine there, it felt unsettling. I thought only negative thoughts. However, as I began to talk to mineworkers and community members, my opinion has changed a little. The first time I heard it, I thought it sounded so invasive and unfair to the people. I am learning that it sounds a lot worse to a bystander, than it actually is for those who are moved. This is because, as much as there are a lot lost, there are also a lot of benefits in a mining move.

Just last week, I learned all about the process, from the start when a mining company wants to move to a particular place, to the time that the locals have settled in. First the mining company will use different gps tracking systems to find areas that are potential for gold mining. Once found, Adamus will then apply to see if they can get a license for this area. When I was talking about this with an Adamus employee, two thoughts crossed my mind…1-‘do the people have a say at all?’ and 2- this oddly reminds me a lot of the charter school space issue in NY. The similarities actually continue; I was told that Adamus then holds a big hearing. At this hearing, there are Adamus members, important political figures, and the members of the potential village are also invited to listen as well as to speak. The hearing lasts for a while and whoever would like to speak can, similary to other types of hearings. It made me happy to hear that the village members at least get a chance to be heard, but I comtinued to feel concerned about their well being. My next question was, is their opinion really heard? I was told that yes, their opinions were heard and were very much so taken into consideration. Besides acting as a place for voicing opinions, the hearing is also a place where offers are made to the village people and negotiations begin to take place.

I was really interested in hearing more about what it is that gets negotiated. The mining company takes into consideration all that takes place on the land they want to move into. So, for example, they consider whether there was farming and crops growing there. Once all of those details are considered, they will then make offers to the people so that there needs will be met. Offers include money, but also agreements such as the amount of new land given, etc. Adamus will also give each family a newly build brick house with rooms, doors and electricity. These houses are a lot nicer and bigger than the houses that they had before, so they feel this is an advantage. I have heard that some people try and move into the village that will be relocated, so they can also be included in benefitting from a new home. I also heard that some families will have several people stay at their home, so they can get a bigger house; since the number of rooms in the new houses will match the amount in the old houses. The families who are moved are given a lump sum of money, which makes most families very happy. However, there is much controversy about this, and possible plans for change in the future. This is because if some families who were previously making money on crops they sold from thier farm land, and in their new space they do not have this space any longer, in the long run they will be deficient of funds they once had. When speaking with someone from Adamus, I myself felt this was a concern and he told me that Adamus is already trying to update the system. Perhaps in the next few years families will recieve money through out the year, rather than solely in the beginning, in one lump sum.

With this said, Adamus works with The Humanity Exchange, in order to help give back and provide support to these villages which they re-located. There was a lot of discussion around which areas would be best to work with, for our summer camp. The 3 villages that were decided in the end, are called Salman, Nkroful and Anwia. Above is a picture of the houses that were still being worked on last year, in 2011 when I visited. The other is the “after” picture of the village after the houses were completed and the families have been all moved in. It was pretty cool to get to see the work both before and after.

One important step that needs to be taken before proceeding with any of our camps is to consult with the chief of the town. This was definitely one of my favorite parts of my trip thus far! The chief is the promiment decision maker and figure of the village. One becomes chief through passed down generations, so there is no voting involved. The chief has many representatives who work with him and makes decisions with them, as the chief delegates tasks to them. For example, one time we were unable to meet with one of the chiefs, so his members met with us instead. (When I say us, I mean me and Rockson, the social community liason for Adamus Resources). I had the opportunity to meet with the chief of Salman, and Anwia. Both were such different experiences but equally as exciting! Because I arrived in Ghana a few days before the volunteers, I had time to have meetings and do different prep work. It was during this time that I met the chief of Salman. Me and Rockson arrived at his “palace”, which wasn’t much a palace at all, but it is a larger living quarter than most people have. When we got there, there were a few seats lined up in front of the chief, who was sitting down with 2 woman, and 2 men. Rockson began the meeting by explaining what the camp will be like, listing the number of kids, ages, activites, etc. The chief’s assistant than spoke. The interaction between the 2 went back and forth for a little while. Every now and then, Rockson would translate to me what was being discussed; he said that overall, the chief was very pleased with this idea and was very grateful for my help. Then, Rockson presented my gift for me. Allison, the program director, had suggested perhaps I get alcohol at the duty free shops in Morocco, to give to the chiefs, so Rockson handed over a bottle of rum to the chief and his members. Once they took a look at the bottle, huge grins appeared across all of their faces, and everyone was laughing and saying things I couldn’t understand. I took this as a sign that they were happy, and smiled along with them 🙂

Meeting with the chief of Salman was similar, but more intense. It was such a surreal experience! When Rockson and I went to visit this chief, there were 10 people who were there to represent the chief. Though he was not there, his representatives were equally as important and involved. The process was similar with Rockson explaining, me talking, him translating. This crowd had a lot of questions for us, such as what will happen with the local staff. We ensured them that they can be a part of the program, and that it would in fact help to have them around to help when there are language barriers and to control behaviors. Similar to the last meeting, everyone was very pleased and thankful with the camp idea. I was able to shake each representatives hands, and provide a minute of entertainment to them all by repeating a few phrases, to express my thanks and happiness. It felt so empowering to be working on making this camp happen first hand, and watching it all unfold made me feel so proud to be able to help these communities. It made me feel like I was suddenly initiated into their communities. Both visits were really unique and special opportunities; I don’t think I’ll experience anything like that again.

Another important task upon arrival, was to meet with each of the principals, in order to review the camp details. This was another favorite part of my experience so far. I was able to meet with the principal of Nkroful on my own and met with the principal of Anwia with Rockson. The schools are all a bit different in number, so we had to work out how many children we were able to have, based on an approximate 1:25 ratio for each of our 6 counselors. It took several meetings to make sure that we can work out an appropriate number, but we were finally able to come up with final numbers for each camp. We would be working with 130 kids in 2 of the camps, and around 145 kids for the third. One major factor that also played a role, was looking at how much program money we had in order to pay for lunch for each student. I think one of the hardest parts of this has been turning down groups of kids that we just don’t have the man power or finances to work with. However, as I’ve been teaching the volunteers, there comes a time you do have to set boundaries of some sort, because it’s natural here to feel like you want to keep helping people more and more as much as you can.

Adamus has taken an interest in learning more about how our summer camps are affecting their communities. Because of this, I’ve created a pre and post interview, which includes questions about the locals views on Adamus, and how they feel the camp has affected their school. Hopefully it will help us get further insight, and we may even be able to see if their opinions have changed or stay the same over time. I was really excited at the thought of delving deeper into the local communities, and was really looking forward to this step. I had the chance to do a final interview with the principals at Salman today, and it was an amazing experience. I’ll talk all about it in my next blog coming soon.

I am enjoying the role of Team Leader so much, and it’s the community work that I am doing this year that is making this experience unique and very different from last year. I love it! Who would have known a year ago when I came to Ghana for my first time, that was just the start of a whole new experience and chapter in my life? I never thought I’d be running a volunteer program and creating a summer camp program in Africa. I feel so lucky to have such an experience and can’t wait to see how this shapes me moving forward in my career and life experiences. The first week of camp is over and I can’t believe it..as always, time is flying by. Soon I’ll be posting all about Camp A, Salman. There are so many amazing pictures, but with the slow internet connection we have here, I am unsure if I’ll be able to post them. I will definitely try 🙂 I look forward to sharing more with you about my experience running my first Ghanian camp in the town of Salman in my next blog!

Reunited

*From Wednesday, July 18th, 2012  (Sorry, really poor internet where we are!)

Today was one of those days I know I will never forget for the rest of my life. I know have said this before about my previous experiences here in Ghana, but today was just so special and will always stand out in my memory. I was able to visit my kids from last year, in the town of Nkroful and the school “Rock of Ages”. The principal and I have been communicating these past few weeks. Just last week  we confirmed the summer camp dates for this village, as well as my own personal days I will be visiting. During this email exchange, the principal said he will be sure to pass along the dates I will be arriving, as well as the camp dates, to the staff and kids. The very next day, while still in NYC, I received a call from one of the girls who I taught, Esther. She told me she heard I was coming July 19th and 20th and was excited for my return. They may not have email to spread the word, but they still have a pretty quick and efficient word of mouth system 🙂 I thought this was awesome. I have received calls from Rock of Ages students, all year round, but this one exemplified to me just how excited and ready they were for my arrival- and it made me 10 x more excited than I was already, to just get there and be with them!

I’ll never forget the butterflies of excitement I had in my stomach driving up the very familiar road to the school, this morning. It’s a bit of a hill, so when we got close to the top, all I could see were kids jumping and hands in the air waving. I could tell they were yelling, but couldn’t hear what-but as we got closer, the yelling got louder and louder. I realized then, they weren’t just yelling. They were chanting. They were chanting my name, “Madame Alana”, over and over again. Tears welled up in my eyes; I couldn’t believe it. I was so overwhelmed with emotion (and have been all afternoon just trying to process it all). Kids began banging on my window and trying to open my door. When I confirmed with my driver when I will need to return, I opened the door and suddenly I felt like I was in a movie. A sea of children, well over 100, surrounded me..chanting, yelling, laughing with excitement. As I looked around, I realized just how special this arrival was to them; there wasn’t just smiling faces all around me, but as I began to look around me, I noticed the signs. 1, 2, 3, then 4, 5 large signs, some painted, some handwritten.  One said “Akwaaba madame Alana”, and another, “We missed you very much.” Again, I was simply overwhelmed with emotion.

 

I also saw that all the kids in the class I worked with made individual signs they were each holding up, with similar messages. It was so beautiful, and I was really moved. The kids put SO much time and thought preparing just for my arrival. It was such a good feeling looking out and seeing so many familiar faces. It was also cool seeing new kids who didn’t know me but seemed just as excited. (I wondered what the kids told them about me…Madame Alana is this white girl from New York who taught us how to Chicken Dance and talk about our feelings..ha).

All the teachers let the kids from all classes come out of their classrooms, so there were just literally hundreds of kids roaming around, some coming up to hug me, others looking at me from far with a smile. I tried as best as I can to go around giving as many hugs, holding as many hands, and saying hi to as many kids as I could. I wanted to savor every second of this moment, because I didn’t want it to end!

It felt so good to be back spending time with all my kids from last year. Monister, Solomon, Beatrice, Daniel, Michael, Nathaniel. They definitely got bigger, and some were totally trying to play the whole I’m an adolescent boy so I don’t get excited to see people-thing. Nathaniel, the class clown but deep down softy from last year, tried to keep this up for a while, but broke down and starting being silly and talkative with me eventually! It was just so great spending time with them again. The youngest kids were super shy and seemed almost overwhelmed at first, but then they came around! Blessing, one of my favorite cuties, got SO big! I couldn’t believe it.

Once the excitement settled down, we hung out in the classroom. The kids were so excited still and more silly than ever before. To provide some consistency for them, I did some of our old favorite games. First request, was that we do the under water morning greeting- they can’t get enough of this one! (Thanks again to my Harlem Link teachers who helped me out with this one last year- the best!) Then we played Simon Says, and Indian Chief, two other games they could play for hours. They asked for Hangman, so we did that as well. I even went around and had each one tell me how they feel 🙂 It was just an overall AWESOME time.

I had some time to talk to the teachers. It felt like sitting down and catching up with old friends. They were just as happy to see me, and asked me all about my trip, my kids in new york and my family. I told them that our kids in Harlem were able to write them letters back, and they were so excited about this idea. I asked them also about the beautiful signs, especially the big one that looked professionally done. One of the teachers from last year who was one of the best teachers, told me he had the class that I work with, make individual signs for me, because he thought I would like it. I LOVED it and thanked him a bunch! Then I asked about the big sign. They told me that a group of children brought in money and together they were able to pay to have a local artist make it for me. WOW. I couldn’t believe it. What made it even cooler is that they tied it in with something we did in camp last year. (This made me laugh!) Last year, at the end of every camp day, we had  all campers competing against each other.  For lack of creativity, one afternoon, in the spur of the moment when we couldn’t think of team names, we thought of “Team Alana”, “Team Pippa”, “Team Sophie”, and so on. Apparently the teachers are this school have been so psyched about summer camp beginning, they have already broken the school up into groups, and gave them these names! Each group has a banner like mine made. Can’t wait to see them. I also noticed a picture hanging in the office, that was from the end of the year celebration where me and Bea dressed up last year. That meant so much to me..it’s like they really consider us a part of their school community.

When people ask if I feel I can really make a difference in such a short amount of time, today couldn’t be more evident that the answer is yes. It shows how strong a human connection can be. It’s the gift of just being present and giving your time to others, that really stands out in people’s memory. It shows that spending time with someone, doing a mitzvah as they say in Judaism, can truly be more powerful than any expensive gift or tangible thing. It’s really just incredible how they welcomed me, how much it meant to them. So many things about it was just so moving to me- the time spent on each sign, the way the teachers were just as excited, the picture hanging in the main office of all the school staff from last year- that included myself and Beatrice. It all meant so much to me, words really just can’t fully describe.

The teachers told me that they even stopped hitting the children as discipline in school a week before my arrival, as a way to celebrate (in that case I should tell them I am coming every week!). It’s just incredible, and is a day I really will never be able to forget. At the end of the week the principal came over to where I was staying so we can talk further about camp details. He also said he came over to thank me. For what I asked? And then he said, ‘I want to thank you for boosting our school moral, our school name. Because of your presence, children from all different villages registered with us. You have given our school a good name and is somewhere kids want to be.” I was speechless. If that is not a sign of an impact, I don’t know what is!

As well as seeing differences in the children, it was really such a great feeling to see how the school has changed and advance in a positive way. For example, in the main office, there was a radio! I looked up and saw they had a whole new electricity system in the school. That’s so great. They also had garbage cans, which showed they were starting to make an effort to take better care of their community. Last year when I showed the teachers what hand sanitizer was, they rubbed it all over their face and arms, because they were so curious about this thing which they had never seen. Now, there’s a bottle sitting in the main office of antibacterial, that one of the parents donated. It was great to see overall how things have really evolved. The principal was so excited to share with me that he got his first modum and now his emails are fast. He even got a printer! It’s a great feeling to see a place change for the better. I was so happy for them. I was so happy the entire day; I had a permanent smile on. Unfortunately my time was cut short around 1:00 when it was time for me to go meet the chief of one of the villages. Though I was really looking forward to this new experience, the little kid in me was laying on the floor throwing a tantrum at the thought of leaving-but, nonetheless, I said goodbye and told the kids I will return tomorrow. I look forward to spending another day with them and then having more camp time at their school later in a week!

To The Mosque

Hi from Ghana!

It has been 4 days in Ghana, 6 days total since I left NY, and it has been nothing but amazing. Not only is it great to be back, but the experience has been totally different…in a good way. I am taking it all in and loving every minute. My internet access has been very limited so I haven’t been able to post much, sorry! However, I have been writing my blog entries off-line, so lookout for a few posts in the next upcoming week for sure. Below is the first, which I wrote last Wednesday night/Thurs am…I didn’t change it all so, to make it feel more real and in the moment. Here ya go!

My first 48 hours

I am in Accra after a long journey…what a whirlwind these past 48 hours have been. My flight over from NY was great, and surprisingly the time went by quickly. I only slept one of the 7 anda  half hours; probably because I was so excited to arrive. As most of you know, I had an 18 hour layover in Morocco. I had never been there before, so all at once I was very excited to visit, but yet nervous at the thought of traveling around by myself- but, more on that later. My flight landed in Casablanca, Morocco at 7:30 bright and early in the morning. I shuffled on to the shuttle bus with the rest of the crowd, where I met two other woman who were heading to Accra, Ghana as their final destination as well. In typical me fashion, by the time I was in customs I had already made a friend (who little did I yet know would be my buddy for the next 24 hours straight). After getting my passport stamped, we were off to find out where to go next. When passenger flying with Royal Air Maroc to Morocco have a layover more than 8 hours, the airline has a private hotel in which they can stay until their flight takes off. Needless to say, I was qualified 🙂 Eleanor, my new friend, and I, waited for our hotel tickets, then went outside to wait for our shuttle…walking around the airport in itself was really cool….Two of my favorite things at airports are when you hear a mix of languages from all over the world, and when you see family members reuniting at arrivals. In this airport, I saw it all, and was already loving every minute of the journey. It was great hearing all the different languages, in particular Arabic and French. I was always really bad at languages, but it’s funny how it always works that when you hear a different language than your own spoken, especially to you directly, you suddenly can think of random words from all the different languages you know-but, more on that later. Here we were in Morocco, and I couldn’t wait to see what our day would unfold.

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Casablanca

When we stepped outside, the air was heavy and wow was it hot…I had heard that it was supposed to be 110 degrees in Morocco upon my arrival, but didn’t quite know how it would feel. It was scorching..definitely put NY’s little heat wave a few weeks ago to shame! I had been to Eilat, Israel, and always thought that was the hottest place I’ve been, but this was even hotter. We hopped a shuttle to the hotel, and then we arrived, to what was the start of a chaotic next few hours. Though I was feeling really grateful that I had a place to stay in the interum of waiting for my next flight, the hotel was a bit of a mess. When we arrived, they didn’t have any rooms for us, and told us to wait an hour. They told us to enjoy breakfast in the meantime..though we were pretty sleepy (It was about 9:30 their time, so 4:30 am NY time), our hunger trumped our tiredness and we excitedly sat down to our first African meal….unfortunately when we walked in, we were told there was no more food. Wamp wampppp…it felt like the day was making a turn for the worse, but…in my usual positive manner I made the best of it and settled for whatever there was- cucumbers, jam, and a piece of bread. Eager for sleep, we went back to the front desk, where a room was finally available. Eleanor and I said goodnight, and took a nap for a few hours. The beds were a bit skeevy, and pillows lumpy and stained…but that didn’t stop me from passing out- I took my sweatshirt and neck pillow, made it my blanket and pillow and was out for 2 hours.

When we woke, it was time to eat again, but this time our expectations were a bit lower…and for a good reason- more cucumbers and bread! This time, there was a little rice and other vegetables well…it definitely wasn’t the meal of the year, but I was thankful at least we had somewhere to stay. (Seema, tripadvisor reviews weren’t kidding!!) At this point, I was still a bit out of it but I knew staying in this hotel all day was not an option. I was looking forward to visiting the city, and was a woman on a mission. I was going to find a way to make this bad day into a good one. Though Eleanor wasn’t on the bandwagon at first, I (the one who was anxious and unsure about traveling through the city by myself for weeks before this trip!)- shared with Eleanor my eagerness to go and explore, and explained it would be totally fine and safe. “We have to go see what’s out there!” Though I didn’t have a plan as to how we’d get there, and was ready to go by myself if she did not want to go, we asked the receptionist what the best and most affordable way would be to go if we went together; Eleanor wasn’t planning to travel beyond the hotel so she had a limited amount of cash…but we made it work. Now, a lot of you know I was looking forward to trying to brave and go around Morocco by myself. I was even thinking about meeting a Chabad Rabbi who my stepfather connected with via email (only my family!)…but, the roaming services on my phone were just not connecting, and I was too tired and unsure to go solo. I felt a little bad that I wasn’t able to try and beat my fear of trying something new and going alone…but I thought about it and realized-I am still trying something new and going with a friend I JUST met, and that’s definitely still something different in itself. So, off we went to the city!

The taxi ride brought on a new calamity….I felt like there was a candid camera, somewhere. We got in the car, and realized the driver speaks not one word of English. He only spoke French. I took French when I was in high school, but suddenly I started throwing a mix of all the languages I had known…french, spanish, I think I may have even threw in a hebrew word in there…. clearly that got me nowhere. The driver was getting frustrated with us, Eleanor was hot and flustered, and we were stil sitting there in a un-airconditioned taxi in 110 degree weather, all speaking over each other….needless to say we weren’t making much progress. As I tend to do when there is nothing else to do, I started laughing. I swear, all that was missing was Chevy Chase. Eventually, miraculously, we were able to understand that the driver was trying to make us an offer to go to the city, show us around, and take us back for $70.00. A cab one way is usually $40.00, so this was definitely a deal, but Eleanor was short on cash, so she quickly declined the offer. I had my heart set on visiting this one mosque, so I quickly threw out the name to the driver, and told him just to take us there. “To the mosque”, I said, and off we went. (Pause for a sec- the driver wanted to take us on a tour. A tour. The guy speaks no english. Could you imagine what the scene would look like? Ha. Again, Chevy Chase, where are you?) Somewhere along the ride Eleanor broke out her N Y bargaining skills, and got the driver to take us to the mosque, wait for us for an hour, and then return back to the hotel, all for $50. He agreed, and all were happy. I would have liked to see more of the city,but it was probably too hot to walk around for much more than an hour anyway. Though it was incredibly hot, and humid, I rode the 45 minute ride to the city with a smile on my face, because the day just kept getting more interesting.

The Hassan II Mosque

They say some things are worth waiting for; this definitely was. This mosque was by far one of the most beautiful landmarks  I have ever seen. It’s huge from far, but as you drive closer, you see it is really so vast, and breathtaking in person. This mosque, the Hassan II Mosque, is the largest mosque in the country of Morocco, and the 7th largest mosque in the world. I was completely mesmerized. I have always loved Moroccan inspired designs, so I was that much more excited to see the original! I remember when I studied abroad in Spain, I was always so into the Morrocan/Middle Eastern inspired doorways, gates, buildings and patterns. The architecture, detail, design, space of this mosque was incredible. There was SO much detail in every building and wall. The patterns were SO beautiful; I couldn’t stop looking at them. I was in complete picture heaven! Every building had such a unique design, different from the next. I have a feeling pictures don’t do it justice, but here are some:

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I only knew some information about this mosque before arriving, but unfortunately didn’t learn much while there, as they didn’t have tours. When I got home I researched more about it. The mosque was built after the former Moroccan King, Hassan II. It was built in 1986 as a gift to the king, who said,

“I want to build this mosque on the water, because God’s throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the Creator on firm soil, can contemplate God’s sky and ocean.” There were 10,000 artists involved in making this building. You can certainly tell a lot of time was put into every detail of it. It was cool to find out later, that the building had a Moorish influence, from those who inhabited in Spain. I read on Wikipedia that it is very similar to one of my favorite buildings in Spain, The Alhambra. I definitely see the resemblance. I also could tell that the mosque was able to hold a lot of people, but wasn’t sure if people still did pray there, and quite how large it really was. I learned that the mosque can hold 105,000 worshippers at once, with 25,000 inside and 80,000 in the ground surrounding it. Crazy! I also learned that the mosque’s minaret is the world’s tallest, at 689 feet.

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The area itself felt so clean and peaceful. Being that it was right off the ocean, it had a very serene atmosphere. There were people sitting at different spots, some with their eyes closed, some simply sitting in silence; You can tell the mosque was a special and mystical place for some. I could very much see myself sitting there for hours with my journal or my thoughts, and enjoying it much. In ways, it reminded me of some of the spots I saw in Israel that held the same sacred value to people from all over the world. It was such a beautiful place of worship, right in the middle of a busy city. I loved also how it was right on the ocean. I didn’t realize that there was such value of the ocean being so near. I learned later almost half of the surface lies above the Atlantic. I also learned that this is one of the only 2 mosques that are open to non-Muslim in all of Morocco. I felt really privileged to have visited such a special place. It had such a calm, relaxing feel to it, which was perfect for the type of day we had already. I loved it, and didn’t want to leave when our hour was up!

The different patterns/textures:

 

 

 

 

 

After our walk around the mosque, we headed back to the hotel where we freshened up, rested for a bit and headed to the airport. Our next flight was at 1:30 so we ate dinner and were all ready to sleep on the flight. I was so excited to finally sleep! Just as I started to fall asleep after takeoff, the lights when on and they started to serve food. I couldn’t get a break ha. Funny enough, I got a kosher meal served (unsure why), Allison my director may have thought I was kosher. Either way, I got a large meal that even came with a mini bottle of wine! Not bad.. I threw that in my bag for later.  I wasn’t able to sleep after that, but when I finally arrived in Accra, I had a good 6 hour nap! I was then taken on a small plane like last year, to a village called Tacoradi, where I then had a 2 hour ride to the place I was going to be staying in Nkroful (same place as last year).  I was so happy to finally be back!! It felt good to see so many familiar signs, street names, smells of food, sights of kids and women selling things on the street…it felt so comforting to be back.

I am about to go to bed now, but am really looking forward to the next few days of camp planning, visiting the school sites, and meeting everyone. Tomorrow morning, I get to meet the chief of one of the towns we’ll be working in.  Can’t wait! This is a new and exciting responsibility and after months of prep in NY I can’t wait to do some of the hands on prep here in the village. Looking forward to what the next few days have in store for me!

 

What will tomorrow bring?

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They say in life you never know what tomorrow may bring. Never did this saying ring more truth than it has for me this past year. In the middle of July 2011 I spent time with some of the most beautiful, talented, special children I have ever met, and had the best time both teaching and learning about the culture, life, people, and everything else about a country I previously knew absolutely nothing about. 3 weeks later, I left with such a strong connection to this new country. I came back home with such a new perspective on life  and great memories. Who knew I’d be given the most amazing opportunity to visit for a 2nd year in a row? This July 2012, not only will I be visiting the same children I worked with last year, but I’ll be leading a group of volunteers to Ghana to run a summer camp.  When I left last August, I left feeling like my work with the community there was not complete and that I’d be back to visit.. but had no definite time frame in mind. Now, I am counting down the days until I will be there again.. 6 more weeks!! Every time I think about going back..seeing the same adorable faces, hearing the same laughs, receiving the same awesome hugs, I have the biggest smile on my face. I can’t wait! So, let Ghana adventure #2 begin!

Not only is it a privilege to be able to spend time with locals in a different country, I feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to go for a second time in a row! Besides my own, it will be such a positive experience for the kids I worked with; to know there are people in this world who care about you enough to come visit, to know that there are indeed adults who care and love for children, is a lesson that you can only learn from experience. Some of the kids we worked with didn’t have families, and when we told them one day we’d be back to visit in the future they simply didn’t believe us, as they have negative experiences with adults abandoning them in the past. It’s the best feeling knowing I’ll be able to instill at least a tiny sense of hope in some of these children, letting them know that there are indeed people who care a lot about them.

I also can’t wait to see the same children I taught….to see their school, the teachers, and especially how they have grown. As any parent or teacher knows, one of the joys of working with children over  time is that you get to see them evolve and change. You get to see how they’ve applied what they’ve learned, what new perspectives they have gained, and how they have blossomed and matured. In Harlem I feel lucky to have worked with some of the same kids for more than 5 years. I have watched them grow in so many ways. Having not seen the kids in Ghana for a year, it will be that much more exciting!

This summer, as most of you know, I was chosen to be Team Leader for the Ghana Summer Camp Program. It feels so surreal to have an opportunity in international leadership. The past 6 months has been a lot of work; marketing, advertising, budgeting, interviewing, etc. I’m a social worker, so this stuff was definitely new to me! Nonetheless, I’ve been enjoying this new role very much. Last summer  in my blog, I often reflected on my belief that the best way to live life is to take challenges and to try new things- go that extra mile, and push yourself to explore the world around you. This is definitely going to be a brand new experience, and as much as I am nervous, I am pumped! There are so many components I am looking forward to. The first is being the head leader. Last summer I was lucky enough to work under the guidance of Allison, the director of The Humanity Exchange (http://www.thehumanityexchange.org/) Allison was amazing at helping us with any questions or support we had, but she also balanced this well with an equal amount of independence which she fostered in every one of us volunteers. It is her guidance that made our trip such a positive one, and is truly my inspiration as I move into this new role.

The 2nd, is the opportunity to bring camp into the lives of children in Ghana. Though I’m sure all my camp Eddie I bunkmates would disagree :),  camp was something I truly loved (I was the THE most homesick child ever!!). Seven years of summer camp left me with great friendships, and most importantly memories I find myself referring to at least once a week in my life today. Camp allows kids to show a different side of themselves, a side they don’t get many chances to show in school.  Camp allows kids a chance to laugh with their friends, explore who they are,  to play their favorite sport, to learn, and most importantly, to try new things.  Many students in Africa have a strict academic, structured environment throughout the year; they have limited opportunities to be silly and goofy through out their school day. Camp is the place just for that! Last summer, it was the most amazing thing to watch these kids let loose, have fun, laugh and enjoy their time together. Some of the kids who at first thought they’d never get too into our play activities, ended up being some of the most involved! Two of my most favorite memories from the 1 week summer camp we led last summer- One,  was when I had the kids self-lead a puppet show with the paper puppets they each made; they had a blast! At first they were pretty shy and weren’t sure what they should have their puppets talk about…but 5 minutes later they were raising their hand so they could have a turn. The second, one which instantly brings a smile to my face, is when I told the kids we were going to NY. On a plane. They looked at me like I had 2 heads. What unfolded was simply amazing; I had them all line up outside their classroom and told them we were going on an airplane. They got SO into it! Even the teachers got in line to come on our “trip”! I laughed so much when I overheard our “captain” turning down one of the “passengers” because he told her that her passport was expired. Ha! Awesome. From there, we spent almost an hour transforming their every day classroom, into a “plane”.  We lined up to take our seats, we got our drinks served by the airplane staff…we eve had the “pilot” tell us how high in the sky we were through out the ride! It was the best. Watching the kids find such joy from simple imaginary play made me so happy, and it was in that moment that I felt so honored to bring camp to a local village in Ghana for the first time. Creative play like this is something the students we worked with rarely have the chance to do; as explained to me by teachers whom I worked with in Nkroful, there are very high student expectations at Rock of Ages Academy, and as a result many students take their own learning very seriously. It was a little hard at first for these kids to unravel from their strict school mindset, but once they did, it was the most beautiful thing. I can’t wait for us this summer to bring this to them once more.

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This summer, we’ll be working in Nkroful, the same village I worked with last year, but also another village close by. We debated about doing a 2 week camp instead, but then we realized it’s more important we spread the love and give more kids the opportunity of a lifetime! So, we chose to do 1 week-long camps in 2 separate villages. We will be staying at a beautiful beach-front hotel on Axim beach, (http://www.aximbeach.com/) about half an hour away from our work site, where we will leave from and return to each morning and night.  We’ll also be going on 2 awesome excursions that I visited last year with my fellow volunteers. Here’s the link to my program, in case any of you still don’t know what to do with your summer and want to join me on this adventure! If you know anyone who may be interested, please spread the word as well.

http://thehumanityexchange.org/tours/ghana-summer-camp-team/

I’ll continue to write as this journey unravels, but for now, I leave you with this quote:

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”  ~Winston Churchill