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

Advertisements

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.

The Children Of Ghana

 

 

I’ve never used the word ‘amazing’ to describe things so much in my life as I have on this trip, but really it’s the only word to describe everything I see, smell, watch, listen to and observe around me every single day.

I have heard it second-hand, but now I am able to experience and learn myself that Ghana is such a special place. Everyone here is so friendly, and it’s so clear that there’s such a deep pride for those who live here. A Rastafarian man I met working in th market yesterday who lives in a local refugee camp (from the Ivory Coast) embodied this pride and spirit. He had such a positive look on Africa..even with all he’s been through. It’s really so inspiring. So many Ghanians are so open to meeting new people and that’s an amazing quality to have as a country.

Yesterday, I started realizing how fast time here is truly moving, and …I just can’t really imagine leaving here yet. I am not ready. I don’t know if I ever will be; I just love it here so much. I love not caring about what I look like, or what I am wearing..not checking my phone to see who texted me, or going on facebook to read the latest status’…I love not caring how (sometimes extremely) dirty I may be after a day of school or if an article of clothing is damaged. I am very much enjoying and embracing the African life, and realizing that there are such bigger priorities in life for so many people in this world. Like.. getting money each morning for lunch at school. Or wearing a pair of shoes that don’t fall apart. Or finding a pen to grade the children’s tests with. Or, for me, making a child smile just by holding their hand.

Me & Bea with 2 of the school teachers, Solomon and EmmanuelHangin with my cutie little Stage 1 friend, Blessing

The kids at Rock of Ages Academy School are truly amazing, and I think they are all going to grow up to be such great people. They are so smart. They are happy and they really do make the most of the situation they have been handed. It’s also so impressive to see how quickly and well the kids I am working with can retain information after learning something only once; it’s really such a pleasure to work with them. At our school, I love  to hear all the children giggle and laugh and see their positive spirits. Their helpfulness and empathy for everyone around them. I love the camaraderie they have amongst each other and how well they take care of one another. The older kids are always watching after the younger kids. Here, everyone refers to close friends as “sister” or “brother”, both children and adults. It sometimes gets me and Beatrice really confused, but we managed to figure out eventually which students are actual siblings. Here, if they understood it, the students would very much agree with “There is no I in team”. Though they fight just like any other child may, overall they are so respectful of others, much more than any American child I have seen. When a friend is hurting they show so much empathy. If a friend is happy, they show such happiness for them. They are also very good at taking care of the younger, and are very helpful to each other as well. They really learn to help each other and it must come from growing up in a community where everyone helps each other. On the weekends most of our children at school work with their families, as I think I’ve mentioned before. I have now found such deep meaning to the American saying, “It takes a village to build a house”.

Here in Ghana, there is also a well-known saying that goes, “A tree that stands alone will fall, but together the trees will stand.”

The boy to the right lives in the orphanage. Here he is with one of his "brothers" from the village

It couldn’t be more evident that the children of Ghana are raised with this mindset.

One of the teachers with his "sister" (really his niece)

The students at my school are also so respectful of adults around them. Any time I may drop something, there is a child picking it up. Any time I may put my bag down, there is a child there to give it back to my when I am ready to go. Today I tripped (because of my own two clumsy feet), and one of the students immediately said sorry to me! The respect they have for adults is amazing. They may have trouble not being silly at times, or may not like what an adult has to say, but I have yet to see a child speak back to an adult. On one of the exams last week, Beatrice and I saw a true/false question that read: “If you respect your elders you will a. live longer, b. die early, c. not have children.” Though it seems crazy that “A” is the correct answer, to me it makes sense that this is their believe, after being with the kids for just a week and a half and observing their values through their ongoing positive actions.

Because the kids don’t have much, they are very innovative and find many ways to creatively amuse themselves..in ways that American kids would never be able to do. An outsider (i.e. me on my first day) who may come along and look at the school property, may think these children must be bored, must have nothing and may feel badly that they don’t have anything to play with. At the end of the day however, these children may not have the same stories to tell, but they surely can talk about the what they did at school today and the fun they had doing it. It’s really inspiring and so impressive. It makes me almost embarrassed by the amount of toys and gadgets our kids have in America. To kids here in Africa, you can find entertainment easily if you look carefully at the things around you.

This one I find most impressive. Here, the children are crushing rock, then collecting the powder in a bag, and then they used it as face paint!

In Ghana….A large tree branch provides endless smiles and giggles as a see-saw. An empty water bottle becomes a lively musical instrument. Weeds become wind mills that turn in the wind, and a pretend pair of glasses. Flipflops become cars honking on a busy road built in the sand. A few sticks together become a game called “High Jump”, in which the boys challenge their ability to run and jump over them. Sand on the ground can so quickly be turned into a gameboard for the girls, in which they jump through different squares, according to a clapping beat. A plant magically turns into a beautiful necklace. A simple rock can become  face  paint. The favorite amongst the school children, is the large dirt ground that provides hours of football (soccer) fun. To a “bufaleh” all these things may just be useless object, garbage, pointless…but to the children of Ghana, they are toys, and really fun ones. Sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity and a whole lot of appreciation for the world around you.

My class

Yet another amazing week so far, and it’s only Wednesday. I have had the best time with the kids in my class. Because exams are over, we are able to spend more time together learning and playing games. Beatrice and I (and my portable speakers) have also spent a lot of time rehearsing the song for the performance Saturday. We are working on some dance moves, and perfecting it all. I can’t believe we are going to be a part of such a special occasion. All the people from local towns have been invited to the performance and I expect it is going to be so much fun. Ah, we (the female staff) got our outfits today!! Pictures surely to come this Saturday! They are really cool. Friday is our last day of school, and we are all having a picnic. That should be a lot of fun too.

This week, the kids asked if I can show them pictures of my family, so I showed them some..and they loved it! Especially the picture of me in my Avatar halloween costume! (Thanks Amy for my awesome picture album! It’s really come in handy). The kids saw my brother and asked if he was black. I explained he was not 🙂 They also asked about “yellow hair”, to which I answered by explaining what “blonde” and “brunettes” are. They also asked about the feeling poster, which I brought for them..they also absolutely love it and look at it all day long. We taped it up in their classroom so they will always have it. I brought Feeling Bingo with me, and this they loved as well. Today we learned about “PATIENCE”, as this seems to be an area of difficulty when the kids are in their seats and want to be called on (But really, what kid in any country is this an easy task for?!) I had some kids come up and we did some role plays to show what it looks like  both have patience, and no patience. For the rest of the afternoon they were trying so hard to be patient! During a game we played today, I had the kids break up into teams and we played a game where each team had to write as many things they can under a specific category which I would give them. They were SO into it and really took it seriously. Not one complaint, they were all very focused on the work and took it very seriously. At the end I gave the team who won glittery pencils and all others, stickers. Amazing how no matter how old the child, what language they speak, or country they are from, a reward always puts a smile on his or her face.

Again, the work ethic of these children, ages 10-14 is so very impressive. In Ghana they believe that education is so very important if you want to go far in life, and it is clear that families teach this to their children at an early age. I had the kids write letters for some of our Harlem Link kids and they were so excited about this idea. When I took out the white paper for them that I brought from home, they started cheering. Next I showed them a pack of colored pencils and markers, to which they also started clapping, cheering loudly and saying “Thank you Madame” over and over. It was such a sweet moment, one which made me realize how truly special this experience is and that perhaps this may be just the start of a lifelong journey to help the children of Ghana.

 The letter writing was SO awesome! We reviewed how to write a letter, how to introduce themselves, and ask about the other student. For this we composed a list of things the kids wanted to know about the American kids-they had SO many questions, like… How long does it take you to get to school, are you black or white, do you have family, what is your favorite food, game and color, what is the name of your school, what is your religion, what languages do you speak, and how many teachers do you have. It was really great to see how into it the kids got. And how appreciative they were of the materials I bought them. Here are some pictures of the kids working on the letters.

Frank with his 1st and 2nd draft of his letter for a Harlem Lin student!Me and some of my ladies of Stage 5

The children in our school really know what it means to appreciate. One particular memory that stands out, is of one of the boys in my class named Monister. (He made an appearance in one of my last blogs, a favorite for sure!). The day I introduced the feeling poster to my class, I saw Monister standing with the poster folded up under his arm at dismissal. I asked him what he was doing with it, and he said that he wanted to show his grandmother the poster, with a big smile on his face. I asked him to point to the feeling he was having and he pointed and said “excited”. When asked why, he said because I brought the poster to show the class and he was going to show his grandmother. It made me so happy to see one thing meant so much to him. Yesterday he came into school with such a smile on his face, and the poster in hand.

Me and Monister. I love this kid.

Yet another memory-and student-I will always remember.

Today in the middle of the day, the female teachers told us it was time to visit the seamstress. I’m unsure if it’s because it’s the end of the year, but it’s crazy to me that teachers can just leave, with all the children in classrooms unattended. Teacher attitudes seem to be a bit different here. When there is a sick child, or sad child, a teacher doesn’t do much. Some kids were unable to get money from their father before school, and therefore are sad because they cannot by lunch that day. Sometimes kids are really sick or don’t feel well and often can be found sitting by themselves or with an older student who may be trying to help them. Teachers don’t respond to them, it feels strange to see this. If a child seems to have really bad fever, sometimes they will  be sent home, but so far I have seen teachers pretty much ignore a sick child, or tell them to lie down. If Beatrice and I advocate enough for the child, they may give them a headache pill or tell them to sit near them. A hug seems to be the least popular response to a sad/crying child, which is so different than what we think would be our natural instinct.  The kids are learning me and Beatrice run to the kids who are sick, hurt or sad because we give them so much love and TLC, the way we are used to it. Though I know it’s not the way they do things here, I’m still going to continue as long as I am still visiting..it’s SO hard and heartbreaking to see a sick or crying child, and just ignore them. Even worse, is watching the teachers ignore them. The images below are some of the ones I find the hardest to see:

This child had a headache and fever. Most likely a small case of malaria. (common here)

 

This little girl had thrown up on her clothes, so the teachers removed her dress, but that's pretty much it. I found her sitting like this alone, burning up. We brought her to the teachers, who then (finally) sent her home.

As I said in the past, corporal punishment in the schools is also a social norm in Ghana. When Beatrice and I inquired a bit about this, teachers told us it’s in the Bible and they said it’s the only way to get children to do as told. Her and I tried but miserably failed at explaining the impact adults hitting a child will have on that child’s social behavior with other kids when they are mad. They really couldn’t understand, and when we told them it’s illegal where we are from, they were amazed. It’s so interesting to learn about the social norms of different cultures-to learn others view on things and how they socialize  in different ways..though this is something I won’t really ever agree with or understand I guess. I at least feel a little better knowing sometimes they teachers may lift their sticks to hit but it only acts as a threat, and if they do sometimes it’s a small tap.

I have to run now but will write another one tomorrow about an unforgettable trip that the girls and I recently took to a nearby refugee camp. Stay tuned!

I leave you with “That Thing”, a HIT song here in Ghana

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9z4VrDu_ZYw

A Spaniard, American & 2 Brits take Ghana

CAPE COAST AND ELMINA

Friday morning Beatrice, Pippa Sophie and I woke up early to catch some breakfast, and we were off for our first trip together. I know many of you have asked where I am staying, so before I go on I can briefly explain. Our program, The Humanity Exchange is stationed in Ghana at a space that was once a hotel, but is now used by a mining company called Adamus. They let us use their dorms for sleeping, food hall for meals, and drivers to get to and from places. It’s a lot like college. It’s not what you may typically think of as a hotel, but it is really nice. We all have our own rooms, and every day we are given bottled water in our rooms (as we can’t drink from tap here) and we have the option to get our laundry done daily. So, it’s really everything we need. I know some of you will be asking me about the food. If you know me well, you know there’s a blog dedicated solely to food in my future 🙂

Once we were ready to go, one of the Adamus drivers were able to drive us to Tacoradi, 2 hours away. After a few rounds of Nintendo DS, we arrived at a “taxi” station. There we paid 3 Cedis each and were told to wait for a “tro-tro” that was going to Cape Coast, about 1.5 hours away. In Ghana, there are three main forms of public transportation. One, is a private taxi, which usually the most expensive if it’s just you and/or a friend, as we have back at home. The second is shared taxi, in which you pay less and there is 1 or 2 other passengers also going in the same direction as you but getting off somewhere separate; this is usually the most convenient way to get around quickly and cheaply. And third, is a “tro-tro”. Fares on tro-tros are cheaper than either form of taxi and is the term used for pretty much any licensed passenger vehicle that isn’t a bus or a taxi. They are also slower and usually less comfortable than buses-because they pack in so many people! You may look at a filled tro-tro and think to yourself that there’s NO way more people can fit. But, surely a Ghanian will come along and easily be able to (somehow) squeeze in 6 more passengers. Actually, I have come to notice that overcrowded vehicles is common here in Ghana. I watched a family pack into their car with so many, that I watched the car physically lower only a few inches from touching the ground. Also, the children at our school pile into this “school bus” that looks more like a van; Beatrice and I stand in amazement at how many children are actually squished in together. Even more amazing is no matter how crowded it may be, at the end of every day there’s always a few children who manage to squeeze their little hand out of the window to say goodbye to us! (Reminds me of the Shel Silverstein poem about too many kids in a tub!)

Most Ghanians don’t really like the tro-tro.it..but there we were the 4 of us absolutely loving the experience and were taking it all in. Sophie and I were squished in the front seat next to the driver, and Beatrice and Pippa were in the back. 4 smiles from ear to ear the entire ride. What we found really amusing, was right before we left to go, a few woman selling a variety of things on their head, came up to the car. This is really typical for Ghana, and something that never ceases to amaze us. Literally, children, woman, men, elderly will all carry things on their head rather than in their hands. Even luggage!! It’s seriously incredible. This particular woman was selling  toiletries, and turns out one of the girls remembered she forgot her razor. Unsure if the woman carried it, she asked if she could see what was on the other side of the woman’s head, and the woman just slowly turned her head like it was a turning plate of food on display at a diner! It was really funny…and ended up helping us out in the end.

After a long ride we arrived in Elmina, where we took another short cab ride to the town by the beach. You didn’t have to have been out  the cab for long, to know you were in a fish town-all you needed was a quick sniff. It was a smell like I have never smelt before…fish was everywhere. It was almost as if we stepped into another world, like old school Ghana. Right away we found truth to our guide book’s warning about men being  pushy here; Sophie and Pippa who are blondes had people touching their hair the most. There was a fish market by the water we paid a few Cedis to get into, and immediately we sensed that we were not very welcome. This was surprising to us at first, as most Ghanians have greeted us with smiles and waves in other towns. They especially didn’t like when we took any pictures. I  assume they probably felt we were being intrusive with our cameras, so we were quick to look around and leave.  We moved on to walk along the streets of the village and then by the water, where we stood and watched the fisherman reel in their fishing nets and see new boats arrive. We found a small bridge from which we were  able to get some really pretty views as well.

It was so hot and humid, so it wasn’t the best day to be in a fish market. We sat down and had some Fantas, brought some fresh bread,and then headed to Cape Coast.

Cape Coast is a beach town that’s known for it’s modern urban Africa life, often filled with many tourists. We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and went right to the shops we saw along the road in our taxi..then onwards to see the Cape Coast Castle, one of the known landmarks of this town. (Priorities, priorities..) It was actually really exciting for us to shop, since the town we are living in is small and often not visited by tourists. Something we were really excited to see, were the beads that Ghanian women are known to wear.

These beads are sold around 1 Cedi per string. In Ghana, they are usually worn around waists of women or around babies to measure weight gain, though they can also be worn on wrists as well. After much indecisiveness we each selected two colors and had the man tie them to our wrists. (It was really hard to pick with so many to choose from! ) We also got some other jewelry, handbags, and some cool African looking pants.

It was time to do what we really came for, and visit the Cape Coast Castle. It was such an interesting learning and sad learning experience, one I’ll always remember. In the colonial era this castle was the place where Ghanian slaves were held before being put onto merchant ships and traded for alcohol and guns. We first walked through a small museum and looked around the upper level of the castle, then took a tour around the inside. Ironically, the British made the castle so beautiful from the outside, when such horrific things took place inside.

On the tour we were shown the rooms male slaves were kept. It felt very eery being inside. There was also one for female slaves. In both rooms, the slaves had to defecate and urinate right there along side all the other slaves.  Even worse, the females has there menstrual cycles in the same space as well. It sounded so horrible, and many people died because of the poor living conditions. The rooms were barely lit and were also very hot. Sadly, we learned there was a tunnel connecting the British living quarters to the female slave chamber, so that any time an official may want to rape one of the female slaves they had “easy access.” We learned that if a woman resisted, there was a separate public chamber where they had to stay for a few days without any food; it was visible on the upper floor in order to teach the other female slaves a lesson. We also learned that if any of the raped woman got pregnant, they were removed by the British and automatically freed, but only to become a house maid to take care of the baby. The babies were born with light skin and given English last names. To this day, many African families of descent still have British last names as a result. It was really sad and was quite the experience walking through this castle.

the door which led the slaves to the ships

 

 

Many come to pay respect and in some of the chambers we were led through visitors have placed flowers in memory of those who suffered and/or died through this horrific experience.  Cape Coast Castle left a lasting impact on me and is one place I will never forget. I am so glad to have had the opportunity to visit.

Because we had such a long day, we spent Saturday night relaxing. Our hotel was beachfront, with a bar and restaurant as well as live performances at night. It was great..we really couldn’t figure out why the reviews were so bad. The food was really good and it was our first time seeing other white people in a week! It was a nice change not being the only one. At night we slept in a “dorm”, which was pretty much a hostel with 7 other people. 10 Cedis, not too bad. They even gave us locks to keep our bags safe. They also had really nice individual outside showers, which made me feel like I was in Fire Island. After we got some drinks we settled at a large table where we ate, made some new friends, and watched an amazing acrobatic dance show. We were also excited to show off our new African pants, as seen below. I’m totally wearing those in NY.

 A great day was had by all.

KAKUM NATIONAL PARK

Saturday we woke up early to visit Kakum National Park. Though it is known for it’s monkeys, birds, some elephants and ….HONEY BADGERS (This one’s for you ladies!)…unfortunately we were unable to see much other than trees and butterflies. Kakum protects some of the most extensive rainforest habitats in Ghana. Something interesting we learned was that the plant that is in the malaria prevention medicine can be found here. Here, we learned it often rains a lot and has a high humidity level. It’s most well known for it’s canopy walk, that was constructed in 1995. These were a lot of fun to walk on, and gave us really beautiful views of the rainforest below. It reminded me of ones I have been on in Costa Rica.

Lastly, though we had little money left, it was a must to stop by this Monkey Reserve we had read about in tour guides. It’s run by a friendly Dutch couple and they were exactly what we pictures when we thought of “monkey people”. It was raining while we visited but we enjoyed it nonetheless. The animals at this reserve were either sick or in danger and brought to be rescued. The reserve mainly provides shelter to baby monkeys, brought by hunters who killed their mothers. All local hunters know that they can do so whenever there are baby monkeys nearby, and it is at this reserve that they are taken care of and some are then released to the wild. Those there are mainly monkeys, there were some other animals such as these little guys, that we just fell in love with: (Himali, if Monty sees this, tell him I still love him)

Well, everyone but Beatrice..

At the top of the reserve was the perfect view:

 (It reminded us of The Lion King)

We had such a great time together and feel so lucky with each day of this amazing experience. Until next weekend, back to working with our little kiddies this week!

A school like no other: Part 2

 

Since Monday, I have grown so much more comfortable in the classroom with the kids, and am starting to grow very fond of them. Though they have had exams every day, I am able to spend time with my class, Stage 5, from 9-10, and then later in the day between 1-3:30. Every day I find something new and it’s been such a surreal amazing experience. Though we don’t always understand each other, we find a way to communicate. The kids in my class vary in levels, though a lot of them speak fairly good English. At first I was pretty nervous going in, because they didn’t tell me what to teach and I had no idea what to do with them. However, over the past 3 days I feel like I have already made a small difference in their learning. I continue to grow and learn on this journey as well, mostly that trying new things can sometimes end up being something really great.

I taught the kids about NYC…where we are on the map, our transportation systems, and who are kids are. They LOVED hearing about Harlem Link kids. Here I was, teaching a lesson I wasn’t even sure they understood, and one of our really smart kids raised his hand and asked “What is the population of the kids at your school?”. I was blown away!! It was just one of the many moments of this trip that have made me laugh and one I’ll always remember. The kids seem to love learning in general. Any time we are on “break” and they are allowed to play in the “yard”, they gravitate to their classrooms and if I am near they will ask me if I can teach them. Some things I have taught them so far: American greetings, funny morning meetings from Harlem Link (THANKS Tara and Elah!!), currency and geography, NYC transportation and schools, Simon Says, and lastly, what makes me happy the most, different feeling words and how to use them 🙂 They really loved learning about this, and now even come up to me and say “Madame, I FEEL happy today”. Ha, ahhh..music to my ears. I played “Feeling Charades” with them and they really loved it!

All smiles after our feelings lesson!

 

One of my students named Monister showing a pretend angry face

As I tell the kids back in Harlem, feelings are universal. No matter what language one speaks, feelings are the same everywhere. I can’t wait to give them the feeling poster I brought from home next week.

Beatrice and I have learned that not only are we working in the school teaching kids, we are also teaching the adults. They are just as curious about us “bafaleh” as the kids. They are muh better at English and though they don’t speak perfectly it’s a lot of fun to talk with them about-different parts of our cultures and religions, the students in their school and Ghana in general. With Beatrice being from Spain, and me from America, we have a lot to talk about! So far, we have introduced them to pizza, American sports, and antibacterial gel (which the male teachers put all over their arms and shirts they loved the smell so much!). I really enjoy the staff here and love that we have just as much a chance to get to know them as well.

I will end this (very long) blog with my day today. I had by far the best day with the kids that I have had since here, and one that will certainly be a memory I will never forget. All week I have been telling the kids I will be bringing them in music and today I did (I’ve brought my Ipod and portable speakers). I wanted to teach them some American songs and Beatrice and I wanted to teach Stage 5 and 6 a song together, and we decided on K’naan’s ‘Wavin Flag’. So last night I got the lyrics from the internet, and after lunch I wrote down the words on the board and together she and I gathered both our classes into one room and taught them the lyrics. It was such a surreal experience and hearing the kids sing the words back to us after a while of teaching it to them; it almost brought tears to my eyes.

They did so well and I can’t wait to rehearse with them again soon. Hopefully, if we reach super star quality, the good news is that the headmaster said we can perform in the school’s celebration performance going on July 30th for all of the nearby towns!! That would be awesome. Bea and I are going to work extra hard all of next week to make sure they learn the words and perhaps a dance move or two, so we can be part of the experience with them. After they did that, we showed them some American beats…we taught them (warning, the following statement may leave you feeling disappointed or somewhat embarrassed) Justin Bieber (come on, he IS an American heartthrob), Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Katy Perry, Eminem & Rihanna, Jay-Z and some others. They didn’t just like it, they absolutely LOVED it! We had such a blast with them during this….all they wanted was to see us dance, so I finally put the speakers and Ipod down and Beatrice and I gave them a little dance. Then, we invited them to come up to the front of the class to dance, and it was hysterical! They were really feeling “California Girls”. The class got a bit rowdy so we moved to outside, where we proceeded to dance the Chicken Dance. The little kids were alllll over this one! There were children surrounding me and Beatrice, it was such a fun moment.

Playing music for the children outside the classroom. This picture makes me smile.

Our 10-14 year olds were a little too cool for school for this one. We eventually tired everyone out (ok, maybe more so us, the adults) and we spent time hanging out with the adults and some of the kids who were sitting down on a nearby bench as well. There were actually  kids laying down today because some didn’t feel well. Actually, we think they were sick because today was “cold” for the kids, compared to the normal heat. Me and Beatrice found this amazing, since at home it would feel really good to have a breezy day in 70’s! When I had the kids tell me how they felt today, almost the whole class said “cold” and many kids even got sweaters to put on. It was really funny to hear them be so cold.

One last bit of really exciting news! Beatrice and I have been invited to the school’s Graduation Ceremony…not just to watch it but to be IN it! Our principal has purchased material for all of the staff, and they have included us in this! They gathered all the staff members for a quick meeting a few days ago and we voted on the material we liked the best. Then today a seamstress came and got all our measurements and we will recieve the uniforms Wednesday. It was SO cool, we got to pick one outfit from the list of outfits below:

It made me and Beatrice feel so a part of the community. We are so excited to get to wear (and keep) African clothing! There is no doubt in our minds that we are going to look like fools (Um, we already stand out just a tad) but it sounds like it’s a very important event in the community and we are so excited to be a part of it. Oh, and if you are wondering which design the female staff and me and Beatrice all picked out together, you’ll just have to wait for the pictures after July 30th 🙂

Here are some more pictures:

One of the my sneaky little friends from Stage 1 or 2. She doesn't speak English but every day when I arrive she comes to hug me .

 

The seamstress asked me to hold her baby. I couldn’t take her fast enough!

This truly is such a unique experience and today I thought to myself, I couldn’t be happier being anywhere but here in this moment, singing, laughing and dancing with these Ghanian children.

 This weekend me and the 3 other volunteers (Beatrice and 2 sisters from England, Sophie & Pippa) are going to visit Cape Coast, so we have been permitted to take off work tomorrow. I’m going to miss the kids tomorrow but can’t wait to see them again Monday. For now, me and the girls are so excited for our roadtrip this weekend. I have to wake up early, so I should probably get to bed, but I’ll try and post about our trip next week. Also just a side note, I wish I could post more pictures, but our internet connection here is pretty slow, so unfortunately you’ll just be getting a glimpse now and will see all my pictures when I am back!

 Let this weekend’s adventure begin 🙂