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.

Image

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:

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Image

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!

 

Advertisements

What will tomorrow bring?

Image

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.

Image

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

A new perspective

In talking to a good friend today, I came to realize how much my perspective on life has changed, now that I am back home. I have only now really began the process of reflecting on my trip and how it has impacted me. More than ever before, I am realizing  that life is too short and that it’s so important to live to the fullest, because you only get one shot. I am such a believer that it’s possible to do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it. It’s a message that we often preach to children, but so often we as adults forget to take our own advice. I believe excuses can sometimes just be fear, disguised. In thinking about my own experience, I feel so lucky that this summer I was able to go to Ghana and live out my dream, and that with every day that passes, I am able to gain further perspective from my experience.

As some of you may know, at the age of 19 I lost a best friend to cancer, an experience that changed my life, as well as my perspective on life overall. There was so much Ali was not able to experience, and watching her lose her life at such a young age changed me as a person. I used to be somewhat shy, timid, afraid to try new things. When Ali passed it was one of the hardest, saddest times in my life-but it was also the moment I decided to take advantage of what life has to offer. As cliche as it sounds, I really understood that life is too short, and you really never know what lies ahead. From that moment on, I was determined to try new things and to live my life, and live the life Ali would have wanted to live herself. It’s what helped me gain courage in college to go abroad by myself, to try new things, and make new friends…and even in trying new things to this day.

I felt compelled to write tonight, because of my newfound appreciation for the Ghanian mentality I observed, and the difficulty I am recently experiencing in  trying to have others around me understanding it . As I got to know the people and culture of Ghana during my stay I always saw such comrade, genuine compassion for others, and happiness all around. The school children may not have had  any toys to play with, a clean uniform, or maybe just enough money for  a small piece of bread for breakfast. The adults didn’t always have a pen or pencil to grade a test, or enough money to go to the college they wanted that year….but, they were all happy. They found happiness in the littlest things.

I started to take on that mindset while there-and it felt SO good. It’s not what we Americans are used to- especially in New York. Life moves fast. There’s high anxiety, a lot going on around us, people always on the go, places always to be- and in turn, a lot for us to worry and stress about. Then there’s extra drama that’s created by friends and people around us, adding even more “stuff” to our lives. It’s almost unnatural for us in our society to stop and find happiness from little things..to not sweat the small stuff..to look at the bigger picture. We live in a smartphone-obsessed, drama-frenzied culture. The next best thing. Bigger is better. Less is certainly not more. Facebook so actively a part of our lives. Drama constantly keeps us entertained, and clothes keep us stylin’.

In Nkroful, the small village in which I stayed, it just wasn’t like that at all. Adapting to this new mind-set at first honestly was a bit of a challenge. No blackberry and no internet at first was almost anxiety provoking. I felt naked. We are so used to talking to everyone, knowing who’s where and what is going on, that it’s like we lose focus of what’s really important..and right in front of us. You know what though? After 3 weeks of none of that, I LOVED it. It helped me really focus on what I was in Ghana to do. It helped me live in the moment, and not worry about silly little things I’d normally worry about at home. It made me feel more productive, and every morning I woke up with such a clear and positive mind. It was great! Every day I came home SO dirty from working with the kids. I gained weight from the carb-fest it was. My hair a fro, and quite knotty. I didn’t look at a mirror for days at a time, and sometimes, we weren’t able to shower every day-but when you work with people who are so less fortunate than you- you realize all those things don’t matter at ALL, and your priorities start to change.

I learned so much and gained such new perspectives on life, and feel so lucky to have  had the chance to do so.  I ‘ve had  a hard time coming back and adapting to New York, and work life . I don’t just miss Ghana but I also miss being around a culture who thinks so calmly and positively about everything. Because I won’t be able to go back to Ghana so quickly, I have been trying my best rather than being sad, to focus on the positive and realize how proud I am for the entire experience. I’m proud of myself for following my own mantra of living life to the fullest by taking a plunge and trying something new, living out a dream I’ve always had. I’m excited to share that I have applied for, and recently accepted the position of Team Leader for next year’s Ghana volunteer program! I couldn’t be happier knowing I will for sure be back to visit my new favorite place in summer 2012!!!  Though I miss it a lot, I am excited at the opportunities that lay ahead this year, in continuing my work with Ghana and it’s people.

Not a day has gone by where I haven’t thought or dreampt about one of the kids, or the teachers, or a place, or the food. Today I received a call from one of the teachers and it made my day! It’s such a nice feeling knowing I have made such special connections with both children and adults there; I have a feeling somehow, we will always stay connected.

I write this blog today to share with you how thankful and proud I feel to have been able to live my dream of going to Africa to help others-  but also  to encourage you to do the same. Do something you’ve always wanted to do. Try something new (be it a rollercoaster, or frog’s legs!). Try a new language. Eat a new food. Take that zumba class. Do something alone for the first time. Apply for a new job. Go on a trip. Volunteer. Take a risk. Be fearless. As my mother always says,

“Life is not a dress rehearsal. You only go around once.” 🙂

I leave you all with this great song that is really popular in Ghana, but that also has such a positive life message about living in the moment:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6etQIK4Y2Rc

Homesick for Ghana

*I have returned this morning. Usually this blog would be the last, but I am going a little out of order; I feel compelled to write this one now because leaving Ghana was so hard, and is the only thing on my mind. Because of the lack of internet last week, I am behind on my blogs and plan on continuing them in the next few days, so this won’t be the last.

 

 

 

I’ve never felt so connected to a country like this before. It’s not just a connection to one or two children; it’s a connection to a whole culture-a set of people and their way of life, a whole school of children, a new set of friends. It’s a deep respect for the youth of Ghana, but also for their elders who are working so hard at teaching them such strong values.

When people ask me, ‘so how was it’, it’s the hardest thing to explain. The past 48 hours have been a rollercoaster of emotions, and leaving Ghana has affected me in a way I never thought it would. Though goodbyes are always hard, leaving the kids at the end of the day Friday had to have been my hardest goodbye yet. The whole day was difficult knowing I was leaving in a matter of hours. How could I just leave? I started feeling badly thinking about how I have come into the lives of the children and then just up and leaving. It was hard in the moment to think about how my work affected the kids, and I just felt really sad to leave them after being so close to them for 3 weeks. When I got to work on Friday, one of the boys in my class, Nathaniel who is always, ALWAYS smiling, laughing and goofing around, looked really down. He came over to me, I said good morning and we hugged. Then he looked up at me, right into my eyes and without saying a word, tears started to fall. I’ve never seen him sad the whole summer, so it seemed surprising..and absolutely killed me to see. Who knew the class clown, the one student who never showed anger, sadness or frustration, would be so affected? It was so touching and as much as I tried to held back, that was the start of my day of tears!

Sad Nathaniel

We had a great last day of camp filled with different whole camp games and activities, and ending with a big dance party. Through out the day, students would ask for my address, my phone number, and some just came over just to ask me to never forget them. Yesterday before my flight, I started to recieve phone calls from some of the students! I even recieved a text just a few hours ago from a student, asking if i have arrived in my hometown safely. Those kids are seriously awesome. During the last few days, I brought a notebook so the children could write messages to me if they wanted, and they wrote such heartfelt letters. One from a boy in my class named Solomon read,

“Dear Madam Alana, I am very glad to write you this leter. I will be sad of not seeing you again and I know I will see you again. I know you will remember me and also I will remember you too. I want you to tell your children at school that they should write a letter to me. I will be happy that your children will write a beutifull letter to me and I will be happy to see that. And I will remember you forever and I know you will remember me forever. I will be happy for you to help me in school. Lovely Madame Alana live forever. Regards, Solomon”

Another one wrote:

“Dear Madam Alana, I am with much pleasure to write you this letter. The reason why I am writing you this letter is that I want you to remember me when you have gone. When you go to NEW YORK I will be sad when you go there living me along. But Madam remember me when you go there. Wishes you all the best. Yours faithful, Micheal”

There are so many others that are so beautifully written.

One of the younger girls named Hannah, began writing her message, but after the first sentence just broke town in tears. It was so hard not to cry with her, but I tried my best to be strong. All day she would just come up to me, hug me, and just burst into tears.

Sad Hannah

At the school dance, other kids began coming up to me and Bea and hugging us, and that’s when the tears really began to flow. There was one girl in my class named Ahali, who was definitely a little different than the other girls…everyone made fun of her, no one paid her much attention. Every day, I made it a point to let her answer a question or to give her positive praise if she got the right answer and it always made her smile. About half an hour before I had to leave, I looked over and saw her sitting in the corner with her knees up and her head down, crying hysterically. I came over, sat down next to her, and without saying anything we sat there together with my arm around her shoulders. Some of the other girls came around and joined us…and you know how tears can be contagious with kids. Before I knew it, there were a whole group of girls sitting around me (and Bea) crying. Again, I tried so hard not to cry with them, but there’s only so much you can do when you feel just as sad as they do.I tried reminding them of the positive memories and the fun times we had, and reiterated over and over that I’ll never forget them. The hardest part for me, was knowing I may never see some of them again, or if I do, it won’t be for a whole year. It was the hardest afternoon, and when the van came to pick us up, it was even harder.

Sometimes people ask if 3 weeks helping children in need can really make a difference, and I have definitely also done the same. My answer, is that I believe it’s better to make a small difference than nothing at all. And, yes, I do truly believe that I made an impact. If I only touched the life of one child, that would be enough for me. Seeing the childrens’ reaction Friday when we had our last day of school though, and reading the heartfelt letters some of them have written me, makes me realize the impact is much larger than just one child. Sometimes when you work with kids, (and I know all my teacher and parent friends will probably be able to relate to this), you can be so wrapped up in how the experience is affecting you (either positively or negatively) that your ability to see how strongly it make be affecting children becomes clouded. All it can take is one small reminder though, and suddenly you sit back and realize how strong the impact you have made, really is.

It seems the work I was a part of, has affected an entire community in such a positive way..ways that I am first now realizing and probably will over the next several weeks. Though I have been crying a lot (truthfully, more than I would have thought), I am trying my best to practice the one quote I often preach, which is,

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

It’s true that this is a lot easier said than done. I am now beginning my reflections, and am starting to feel a sense of accomplishment, and of fulfillment… like I never have before. I love helping people and always have; but going to Ghana reached a whole new level of ‘helping’ and has almost made me feel ‘whole’..like I have completed a void that needed to be filled. If you are thinking that just sounded really cheesy, I’d have to completely agree with you. It’s really strange, I’ve never really felt this way about something though. It’s crazy to think one trip has the power to do so.

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints in our hearts, and we are never ever the same.” -Unknown

The people of Ghana have left footprints, and memories that I will have with me forever. I can never forget…every one of the children that I worked with..the inspiring teachers I saw teach….the amazing culture all around me. The proprieter of the school wrote me a letter that was so reflective of how my work, along with the other volunteers, has made a positive impact on the school and the community. He wrote,

“I am flabagasted for your presence and performance at Rock of Ages Academy. Your presence and contributions has so much lifted the image of our school. You have really added colour to our school. You have genuinely contributed your quotea in developing our school. May the lord give you the strength to do more. May the favour of the Lord be with you. Stay blessed and have fun.”

After the last day of school, I told the proprietor to come by and pick up all the art supplies that I had bought for the school to use next year. When he saw the amount of stuff I had brought, immediately he teared up and continued to say ‘God bless you’. He continued to repeat that words could not express his gratitude, and speechless he was. It was very touching to see him tear up, and in that moment, I teared up as  well and gave him a big hug ; it’s the best feeling in the world to give to others, and I was filled with such a sense of joy and happiness for him, for his school, and knowing I may help add a little creativity to the school year next year when I am gone. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

I am so proud of the work we have all done, and I have a strong feeling this is just the beginning of my work in helping Ghana. One thing for sure, is that I know when I left yesterday, it wasn’t a goodbye, but more so, a ‘see you again’. I left knowing I will be back. I’m not entirely sure when but I know it’s something I need to do. I am so happy I went on this amazing trip and even more so am feeling so lucky to have been welcomed into such a beautiful culture and community. For now, my work with the Ghanian people is not done. While I am back home, I will be working on creating a website for the school I worked with. Once it’s up and running, the principal and I will continue working together to add pictures and find ways people can donate as well. I am also working with Allison, the director of Humanity Exchange, in finding ways I can continue to work with the Ghanian communities in the future. I have explained to her the strong impact my work with the Ghanian people has had on me, and the overwhelming sense of connection I have felt with Ghana. I can’t wait to see what future opportunities await me. For now, I will live in the amazing memories I have of all the children, as well as the friends I have made along the way. I may be leaving, but the impact I have had on the school, the children, the teachers and the community will remain in Nkroful for the next year, or more to come.

To the people of Ghana, you will always be in my heart. You have inspired me in so many ways.

“We only part to meet again.”

 

The orphanage

I have had the honor of spending time with some of the children from a local orphanage, in which The Humanity Exchange has partnered with. I also spent time with some of the children from Living Stone School, a school located right next to the orphanage. Sophie and Pippa, 2 of the volunteers, have worked there for the past few weeks (school is now over). Beatriz and I had the opportunity as well to visit both the school and orphanage children after many of our school days.

The orphanage is called Word Alive Orphanage, and was founded in January 2000 by Reverand Charles Nyane. Originally from Ghana, Rev. Nyane attended seminary in the United States, and shortly after returned to Ghana where he established the World Alive Mission in 1996. By January 2000, the mission quickly expanded, and included 2 schools, 1 orphanage and 10 churches. They are all located in the Western Region of Ghana.

The children in the orphanage live like one big family. There is a host mother who lives with them, and is sweet and kind.  The other volunteers and I have noticed that it seems to be the bond the children have amongst themselves that provide the strongest support system.  There are 21 children in the orphanage and they range in age, and sex. The orphanage consists of 2 bathrooms, bedrooms, a kitchen, a space to eat and a playroom. There is also an outside play area they often use as well. 

One of the bedrooms. The children don't have beds that belong to them, they sleep wherever.

I expected there to be a strong camaraderie among the children, but it’s even more moving  seeing it in person.   The older children take such sweet care of the younger ones; when one of the little ones may fall and cry, one of the older ones are there to pick them up.  Sophie and Pippa hung out with the children during the evening and were amazed at how involved the older children did in fact get. They helped cook, clean and prepare the little ones for bed.  Though it must feel normal for them now to play the adult role, it’s unfortunate that they don’t get a chance to really be a child.

The orphanage has been around for a handful of years, and most of the children have been there since it opened. These kids are so sweet and were such a pleasure to work with. When visiting the orphanage one most likely  has the image of a child sitting alone and crying, covered with flies-like they show in commercials, however it’s a lot different than pictures. Kids in the orphanage may cry, but mostly for the same reasons that our kids cry…maybe someone hit them, or took their toy. A lot of the times, almost all the kids are laughing and having fun all together, just like any other child. These kids are just a little bit different. Ownership of things and people mean more to them. Though they are  often happy, sometimes expression of feelings can be a little harder as well, and sometimes their moods will vary as they may have a hard time regulating them ; some are always happy and smiling, some are quiet and don’t say much. We have found that some of the children have a hard time showing some  emotions, most likely because they haven’t properly been taught. Even more so, some have trouble showing affection, sadly because they most likely haven’t received much all their life. The days we were able to break through to some of the quietest kids, have been the most rewarding! Many of these children have experienced difficult losses, but overall there really is such a warm, noticeable camaraderie among the orphanage children that seems to provide comfort to them all. Though from the outside the orphanage doesn’t look like much of a home, it has very much become a home to the kids who live there. They have been very lucky to spend time with Sophie and Pippa for the past 3 months, who are so warm and loving. Though my time with them was not as long, I too have created some bonds I will always remember as well.

There was one child in particular who was loved by all of us volunteers and is one we will always remember. Because I am leaving a little earlier than the other volunteers, I had to say goodbye to the children at the orphanage yesterday. It was so sad and so very hard. Savior in particular had a very hard time with it. When I visited the orphanage for my last day yesterday, he was being quiet and was acting less friendly than normal. I had a feeling it was because he was sad I/ all of us, were soon leaving, and turns out that was exactly right. When I heard he was sitting alone, crying in the other room, it really broke my heart. At the same time, I was happy he was able to allow himself to do so. He’s a 17 year old boy, but at the orphanage he’s a brother, a father, a role model, and a leader to all the younger boys and girls. It’s good for him to learn that it’s ok to let his feelings out sometimes. Him and I spent many afternoons talking about different things like what he would want for his birthday if he could choose anything (he choose a bible and a cellphone), questions he had for the kids I work with in Harlem, what life is like in the orphanage, his future plans, etc. He’s a great kid and I want to try my best to write him a letter. Him and I made a video that he asked to show the kids in Harlem Link, and I can’t wait to do so this fall. I am so glad I had the chance to meet him.

Here are some pictures of both the Livingstone school children, and the Word Mission Orphanage.

Savior

 

 

School Pride

I have seen schools with strong school pride, but I’ve never seen anything quite like The Rock Of Ages Academy’s school pride. It was more than a few smiles and cheers; the school celebrated the end of the year with two breath-taking, beautiful events which truly exemplified what pride they really have, and I feel so lucky to have been a part of both.

 

 The first was last Friday, the whole school “Picnic” . Those who were able to afford it, came their “Friday outfits”, a blue jersey top and bottom. They looked really cute, and everyone was so excited. The teachers were all wearing their staff t-shirts, and to assure that we all looked uniform, the proprietor stopped by our dorm at 6:30 am just to drop off shirts for Bea and I. We were honored to receive the shirts and felt like such a part of the community. After hanging out for a few minutes, and having a morning assembly, the children began gathering around by the entrance; we were told they were waiting for the band…we had no idea what this meant. Within minutes a van pulled up and the kids all began screaming and running towards the van, hitting it’s sides. When it stopped, out stepped a BRASS BAND!

This was the last thing Bea and I expected to see, knowing we were in a community with not much money. But now we understood the importance of the day, and couldn’t wait to see what was about to unfold. The kids were quick to surround the band, who started to play. Bea and I really weren’t sure what was going on, so we thought we’d step back and watch. But the next thing we knew, we were being asked to lead the whole camp in a procession through town! Her and I each were lead one of the two lines of children the teachers helped form, and that’s all we were told. The brass band, who was in the back of the 2 lines of children began to play, and everyone began to dance. The kids began marching, dancing, waving their arms and walking to the beat of the music. There they were, over 200 kids dancing, singing, clapping, and most of all smiling huge grins as they danced their way through town to town in the streets. All the teachers were dancing as well. They were actually all encouraging the children to dance the entire time. In the middle of the procession the oldest kids took over the front of the line, and were given a large school banner which they waved proudly. The kids kept asking myself and Bea to dance with them, and so in between trying to keep all the kids (somehow) in line, we joined right in and began dancing. We were completely amazed at the entire event. Even the smallest kids were in the group dancing, smiling through the street, right next to cars, without any fear or fatigue…and it lasted for a while! We didn’t keep track, but it felt like 2 hours. With each new field, or town that we passed Bea and I began wondering when the picnic was going to start. We asked one of the staff members, and they said this WAS the picnic! Confused yes, but having a great time we were!

It was the most amazing thing to see….people from all the towns we passed through were all standing along the sides of the road watching. Some joined in, others clapped from where they were. Some woman came by laughing and spraying the children (and us) with perfume, as a way of showing celebration and happiness for our school. Others came by with white powder and threw it on some of the childrens’ heads, which the children then rubbed all over their faces. This is a common way of celebrating here in Ghana. The whole event was just awesome. Picture a big brass band, leading hundreds of cheering kids and staff from one town to another. It was such a happy celebration, and it was clear that our school is shining with pride.

Once we got back to the school grounds, the children ate, and hung out for a bit. Then, it was time for some football (soccer) with a local school. It rained, but rain over football, and these kids will pick football any day 🙂

Introducing The Rock of Ages football team!

 

Saturday July 30th, 2011

Saturday morning was the big school celebration that the children have been practicing for, for months. One day Bea and I assisted the male teachers in a taxi ride through different towns, where we stopped to hang the banner above at multiple locations. In Ghana, most people don’t have emails, so the best way to get the word out regarding an event is through signs. It was really cool to see how the teachers put up the signs, and all the effort that actually went into actually finding a way to get each banner up.

 

It wasn’t easy! Because the even was so important, whether the task was easy or hard didn’t seem to matter to the staff; the dedication to this task was impressive. While Bea and I were on this little day trip, we took it upon ourselves to talk to different locals from each town, inviting as many people as we can. Since the first week I came to the school, the students and staff had been relentlessly practicing the different songs, dance and skits for the show. It important that they got it right, especially since all their parents would be there.

Typically on GMT (Ghana Maybe Time), the event was set to start at 9 am Saturday …and didn’t begin until around 11:30! Bea and I were asked to come at 8:00 so we both were getting a little frustrated with the whole Africa time. Nonetheless, it was a really exciting morning-especially because we were finally able to wear our awesome staff uniform!

 

The kids loved them. The celebration was such a success. Many important guests from different towns and district were invited to speak. Different age groups did different performances-songs, dances, poems, and plays.  The big  day to sing our song was FINALLY here! It was really exciting to finally have our kids perform Wavin’ Flag. Watching them do the real thing, totally brought tears to my eyes. I felt like a proud mom! We accidentally downloaded a version of the song that was a little different so the kids were off a little, but it didn’t matter- they rocked it! Bea and I were SO proud of them. It felt really good knowing we were successfully able to teach them the words and some dance moves in under two weeks!

So many people came to watch!

The ceremony ended with awards and certificates given to both the youngest and oldest grades, and books given to those students who excelled in certain subjects. Bea and I were so proud of our classes!

The little KG graduates!

What a special weekend it was, and I felt so honored to be able to celebrate the end of the year and all the children’s successes with our community.

A church service like no other

*Sorry for the delay..we’ve had no internet for the week. I only have a short time to use the computer now, so here’s a short one. I’ll post more on Saturday before I leave as well as some more when I get back. Needless to say, my week here has been amazing. Camp has started and will definitely blog about it next!

 

“The Church, it is not here. But we the people, we are the church”

Last weekend me and the other volunteers visited a refugee camp in Ghana, about half an hour away. We were asked as we entered not to take any pictures out of respect. The camp serves as a place of refuge to 7,000 people who have fled from the Ivory Coast. Many arrived between May and June, however some are still arriving. Visiting the camp was definitely an emotional experience for us all. Upon entering the camp, we were led around the grounds and soon began walking through a sea of white tents, each stamped by the words UNICEF. I wish I could have seen the camp from a bird’s eye view, because I couldn’t believe so many people were living there. In each tent lived 8 people, some just one family, some combined. The money that the refugees have currently, is only the money they came with from the Ivory Coast. If they had items they wanted to sell however, they were able to go into the nearest towns and do so. We had the chance to walk and talk with some of the refugees, and heard stories that brought tears to our eyes. We were told some of the children had parents that were killed and had to flee with their mothers, some with no parents at all. One man said he has some of his kids with him, but that some were left behind. Another man said that before he had to flee, he witnessed the enemies shoot people, and burn them with gasoline, right in front of him. So many traumatic experiences. So many broken families and lost loved ones. In that moment I wish I was able to give them so much. Turns out I left the camp with them giving me an experience and memory to last a lifetime instead.

It all started when we were invited to join their church. We headed towards a school building, where we heard masses of people singing, and dancing. When we got closer, we saw not only was a church service going on, but quite a lively and upbeat one it was! There were two school buildings with mostly adults sitting in desk chairs. Between both buildings was a group of people gathered in a circle singing a church song. Though it was all in French and only one of us understood what was going on around us, we threw ourselves right into the circle dance and began clapping and moving to the beat. We were instantly greeted with smiles all around. After about 20 minutes of different song and dance, everyone sat down in the two classrooms, and prayer began. The services were run by a French speaking priest, though there was also an American man with an interpretor. We were told he was responsible for supporting this camp; he seemed like a very likeable and respectable man by the community. Being a part of this church service was so moving. Even without understanding, I was able to sense the strong spirituality and religious beliefs among these refugees. I looked around, and saw so many people with tightly closed eyes, arms in the air, faces in their hands, and teary eyes. As I looked around, I saw one man who continued to look down and wipe his eyes and nose, as tears continuously fell from his face. I thought to myself, I could only imagine what the people all around me were thinking, praying, and how important this time was for them. Who were they thinking of? What did they miss? What were their hopes? I felt really sad for them and though I am not very religious myself, it was in that moment that I closed my own teary eyes, and began to pray for these refugees- I hoped they will find whatever family members they are missing. I hoped they will eventually get a chance to go back home. And I thought positive thoughts that one day Ivory Coast will be a safe and peaceful place soon. I wasn’t able to understand at the time but later found out that at the end of the service when people were asked to make testimonies, one woman stood up and said that she fleed without knowing where her children were. She had been calling her house in the Ivory Coast, where she suspected they were living, though for a while there’s been no answer. One day recently she called, and her children picked up the phone! They were there and were safe, and she was happily able to tell them she was safe as well; they thought she had been killed.

The American priest said something to the congregation that very much stands out in my memory. He said to the people “The church, it is not here. But we the people, we are the church.” As I continue to think back on the experience, and after having visited the camp a 2nd time now, I am realizing that though these refugees have been through so much, they are making the best with the situation they have been given. It was so amazing to see such happy people dancing to prayer songs at such a sad place. The 2nd time I visited, I saw a few kids waiting to get their buckets filled with water to have a shower. While they waited, they sang a few different songs, did hand games, and laughed non-stop. It’s so inspiring to see people adapt to an environment no matter how barren it may be, and even more so, to see such a large group of people who have been through so much negative in their life, yet still have such strong faith in their religion. It really also makes you realize that it doesn’t always matter where you are, but if you have the people you love, and a strong community of family and friends, that’s all that matters. As the priest said, it is true that they were not in their own churches from the Ivory Coasts, but that it didn’t matter because they had what they needed- A strong community, positive outlooks, and faith-and that was enough.