Farewell Ghana, my dear friend

Written on the plane coming home, 8/7/2012, and recent

I’m on my way home, and wish more than anything else I  could rewind time and land back in Ghana.  I am not ready to go home, and face the craziness of it all. I can’t believe it’s over. I feel like the time flew by so fast. I have such a conflicting mix of bittersweet feelings… both really happy  it happened and went well, and sad that after all that planning it’s all over. (I wonder if it’s similar to what my newly married friends feel after all the planning of a wedding!)

One lost luggage for a week, 4 sick volunteers, 1 lost handbag…but we made it!!  I have to say I had such a great time. This experience only reassured to me that I love what I do, helping people and giving to others; it also showed me how much I enjoy working with communities and working in collaboration with leaders from other countries. Also, it really showed me how much I love to watch other adults share the same joy in the things I do; watching my volunteers work hard, grow and learn about themselves was something I really enjoyed being a part of. I feel SO grateful to have been welcomed so graciously into the lives of those I worked with, for a second year in a row. Words cannot express my gratitude!!

I always liked challenges, and this was perhaps one of the biggest ones I’ve faced in a while. We had some bumps in the road, but in the end, we came to Ghana to give to 3 communities, provide days filled with activity, fun and learning, and that’s exactly what we did. I am so proud of the volunteers for making it happen,  and for doing an amazing job! Happy as well that I was able to ensure the programs at each school ran smoothly. At the end of the day, we didn’t just meet our goal, we excelled it, and I think that’s an achievement for both myself and my team to celebrate. We had never worked with two of the communities before, and as with anything new, there’s always that chance of it not going as planned. Working in a team, also comes with it’s own challenges. You may come across personalities with whom you clash with, or have trouble getting along with. Though there’s always going to be differences, I have to say that I think my team did an excellent job trying their best to work together, and enjoying each other’s company. On this trip, as team leader, I learned not only  about myself, but also, about  teamwork and people in general as well. 

At times I had the volunteers come together to reflect on their experiences, to help them learn about themselves as well. We did one in the beginning, the middle and the end of our program. I think it’s always helpful to stop and think about what you are doing, how it makes you feel, especially for a team of adults working together. The girls did a great job really thinking about the program and how it was affecting their own personal feelings and growth, mostly in positive ways. I loved it most, when volunteers would share new things that they’ve learned about themselves. That’s the only real way to grow.  From my own last year, I know that an experience like this really makes you think, and in a way, forces you to learn more about yourself..what you enjoy working in a team, and what you don’t, how volunteering can impact you differently than it does to others, how it affects your own life back at home, what challenges are the hardest to face, and most of all, how powerful it is to try something new. I think reflecting through out the program was a great opportunity for the volunteers in so many ways;  If nothing else, it helps to remind ourselves what we were in Ghana for, and that we all had one common interest…helping and giving to others, working with kids, and trying something new (for some). I felt so proud hearing what some of the volunteers have shared. (Made me think back to some of my teachers, and thought ‘I bet this is how they feel when some of their students get really into class assignments’!) Overall, it was great. If you know me, you know I’m a thinker, a processor, and am always encouraging others to write, journal, and just take a minute to think about things going on around you, when life moves so fast. I can only hope that the volunteers found it as helpful as I intended it to be for them.

As a team leader, I have learned so much. I’m a planner. I usually have a busy week and know what day I’ll be doing what. That is my sense of calm. This summer, helped me to learn and stretch my boundaries of planning. As my role of team leader, I was constantly emailing, on the phone, coordinating all our services…our drivers, school work, the kid’s meals, our meals, our hotel stay, etc. etc. The list goes on! As many phone calls it took to make things work, things were always changing..and more phone calls had to be made. There were days I thought, ‘Ah hah! I got it nailed, it’s all planned and things will be perfect when we get there!’… and then we’d get to a school and everything was switched around! It felt wierd at first, it was frustrating at times.  There were so many things up in the air and shifting…breakfast and lunch times at the school were sometimes moved last minute, volunteers had to swap scheduled with someone else, dinner plans were delayed, and sometimes messages got mixed up and lost in translation due to  language miscommunications. Those were the best! But, in the end, I embraced this lifestyle, and  I learned from the Ghanaians that even when things aren’t planned, or unorganized, or delayed..it still always works out. As one of my friends from there always tells me, “There is always a way”. I hope to take some of this Ghanaian mindset with me into the next year, and wonder if I may grow at least a little bit more faith in that things will just work out in the end even amongst chaos. It makes me wonder if our overall definition of “chaos” in America, is just different from those in Ghana as well.

I also learned how to be a successful leader (at least I hope so!).  I can now check off ‘lead a group of adults in a foreign country’ off my bucket list! I know I was always a natural leader in activities when I am with friends, or when I was younger, but I never had an opportunity to be one for adults. Well I did this summer, and am really happy to say, overall it went well. I’ve always been good at being calm when things are stressful for others, so that was one characteristic that played as a strength in my role as leader. We had a few stressful situations; one volunteers luggage was lost for a week! I was on the phone or texting to get updated every hour of the day, and ensured to update her whenever I heard news. I was SO excited for her when we found it, as I can imagine she was as well. I have to say she did an excellent job staying calm and being patient.(You rock girl!) Everyone was so generous in sharing their things with her as well! I also had a few sickies; I hate talking myself up, but one thing I’ve always been is giving to everyone around me. I gave the girls as many of my meds as I could, while trying to leave 1 or more to spare in case I got sick. So glad I ended up buying that cough syrup at the airport last minute! (Hope that cough is gone by now Soph!)  One of the other volunteers had to go to the clinic, but it was also a very smooth process and I made sure to wait with her every step of the way. She got better in no time! (Hope you are feeling better Steph). Another volunteer got sick and had to stay home one day..which killed me. I felt so bad. The show had to go on though, as her group was waiting for her, so I jumped in and worked with her group for the day. (MaryBeth, they didn’t stop asking about you!) I’m glad she stayed home though, the rest was definitely needed and helped her recooperate. There were also moments that the volunteers were frustrated with some of the program logistics, and this was definitely hard on me. But, I wanted to make sure they felt heard and held a group meeting to discuss the difficult topics, with the hopes of alleviating some of their frustration and other feelings. I wish I was able to do more to have made it a better experience for them, in those areas which they may not have been satisfied, but I at least feel happy knowing that most all of the volunteers felt a high level of satisfaction with the actual time they spent with the children in our camps.

This job required multi-tasking on a whole new level! I’ve also always been good at multi-tasking, but I even impressed myself with the amount of daily tasks I had this summer. I actually looked forward to each new task and embraced every new task with excitement. There were so many tasks on my to do list each day, and at first I thought it may be daunting…but in the end, I loved it, and it felt easy. I also learned that I can indeed get over my (silly) fear of talking to locals, being on my own, and that I actually really enjoy it. My trip was that much more special to me because of the fact that I got to work with so many different community members… they were all so interesting and I learned something from each and every one of the people that I had the honor to work with..the chiefs, the principals, amazing Adamus staff, etc. They were all so friendly and conversations were endless when it came to learning more about their own backgrounds and stories. As a team leader, I also learned that I can handle multitasking more than I ever thought was possible! I learned how to be firm with Ghanaians, when you need to be (because otherwise we’d still be sitting at breakfast waiting for our juice and fruit!) 🙂  After having one summer experience in Ghana under my belt, I finally mastered how to understand the local English as well as how to have the locals understand me the first time rather than the 4th or 5th 🙂 I learned how to constantly get used to changes, and work with things not going as planned- and still seeing positive results and learning to trust that everything will be ok. I learned that as a leader you are going to have people not like you, or listen to you, as much as you have said something over and over…and how not to take that stuff personally, because most often than not it’s not about you. I learned that sometimes you can’t please everyone but the best you can do it be yourself and know that you’ve tried your hardest. That perhaps was the hardest for me; I tend to be someone who likes to make people happy but I’ve learned to accept that with a large group of people, it’s just not realistic.  When there were some group frustrations, all I wanted to do was make everyone feel better and alleviate the upset feelings. If you know me well, I hate more than anything in the world, when people are upset and will try to do what I can to make them feel at least a little better. In this type of position, I learned sometimes no matter what you do may not help, and sometimes you have to let things be. Settle with the uncomfortable feeling that I can’t fix it all….it’s really hard for me to do that, even in my professional social work world. However, from this experience, more than ever before I’ve learned that it’s just going to happen that you can’t please everyone, realistically.  And, I’ve learned to settle with that feeling and accept it as it. I’ve also learned what it feels like to have pride in a team of hard working adults. Finally, I have learned what it’s like to feel a sense of pride to watch something you have put so much time and effort into, take off and be successful!

Ghanaians have this beautiful way of handling life that I continue to admire. I know I spoke of it a bit last year in my blog, but it’s just so inspiring to me. Ghanaians make the best out of everything and genuinely are happy and positive people; they deal with problems as they come, and never stress too much about anything. I spent time with so many different Ghanaians..some old, some young, some who spoke Twi, some who spoke Nzema, all from different places, and with different stories. Amongst them all, I noticed an inspiring sense of calmness. There was always a way, things were always worked out, nothing was too big of a problem or too much trouble for anyone. I found all the Ghanaians I worked with, to be so generous and always willing to help. I love that about the Ghanaian culture as a whole.

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I love that most places you visit in Ghana, are filled with the friendliness people. They say Ghana has a reputation for being one of the friendliest countries in Africa, and I completely see it. The ones I have come across, are just amazing people with warm hearts and sensitive souls.

After my trip to Ghana last year, I felt a life change. Slowly, I instilled this sense of calm into my life the past year and I noticed it made such a difference in all my interactions with the things and people around me..the way I’ve dealt with my own stress, and that of friends, the way I deal with friends’ drama or with arguments. I found myself at the end of this year, realizing that I have handled things a lot better than before I went to Ghana. I also changed so many of my priorities. Things like Facebook and shopping, lost it’s appeal after returning. Naturally, the new perspective I had when I returned wore down a little bit over time. So many people told me, it won’t last a whole year. My answer is that it lasts as long as you want it to last. Realistically, there are definitely things you just have to adjust to, living in a city as crazy as NY, but I definitely noticed a big change in my life over the past year; I hope to be able to do the same thing, after this trip. I hope to be able to pass this on to some of my friends and family at home as well. It makes me hate coming back to NY where things are moving so fast and everyone is on the go but if  I take the Ghanaian love for life and sense of calmness with me, I know that I will be able to practice that way of thinking no matter where I am.

I know for sure, that this summer with our Summer Camp Team, we made an impact that goes beyond the kids. We affected families, teachers, principals, Adamus workers, and so many kids. We made friends along the way, left some lessons behind, and walked away having learned ourselves. We taught kids things they never knew before, and gave teachers new ideas of alternative ways of learning. We enhanced lives. I’ve mentioned this before, and will again..people wonder what kind of impact you can make with such short time. I myself struggled with that idea this trip because we were only with the villages of Anwia and Nkroful for 3 days each. I went back and forth about whether it would be successful. Though I do think if we stayed longer it would have been even more powerful, I believe strongly that we still left something with those kids that they will hold on to forever.

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I loved Ghana after returning last year, and I think this trip only enhanced my attachment to it. The connection I feel is the type you may have with a friend who you don’t see that much, but think of often. Whenever you see them again, it’s like you never left eachother. It’s easy and effortless. There’s a sense of excitement yet also a sense of calmness. That is exactly how I feel. You know you’ll never have to worry about losing touch with that friend, because you know they’ll always be there. If there’s something you may ever need, they are suddenly right there by your side. You know even though you can’t see each other, you are both thinking about each other. Whenever you are with that person, life feels carefree and perfect. Cheesy, yup. But it’s how I feel. Ghana, is that friend to me. I feel so at home there. I’m always so genuinely happy when I am there. It’s comfort, happiness, excitement, and tranquility all at the same time. I honestly feel like some time in my future I would be perfectly happy staying there for a longer period of time. Some of the kids asked me if I’ll ever come back, if I’ll be back next year. I answered by saying I don’t know when, but I know I’ll be back. It’s true; I know it. I love it too much not to. It’s a part of who I am and always will be. Each and every person I had the honor to work with will forever be in my mind, and thoughts. I look forward to sharing all my pictures and stories with friends, because there are so many amazing memories!

Soon, my birthday is on it’s way. “The” birthday. As a single female in NYC, there is so much stress put on that number. Being in Ghana this summer, has helped me feel a lot more at ease, and ready for it to come. As I approach the dreaded 30, I am going to be positive and feel happy for all the amazing opportunities I have been fortunate to have in the 30 years of my life thus far.  I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity 2 years in a row; as with all my memories and experiences, it has made me who I am today and experiences like this continue to make me a better person. As I move on to this new period of my life, I am ready to embrace it and look forward to more exciting opportunities in my future. Before I left, I was really anxious about being 30, but after coming back from Ghana I realize…it’s only a number; kids in Ghana don’t even know their birthday. As I wrote in one blog, priority there is about health and happiness. And that is exactly what I am going to make as mine. Instead of dreading it, I am going to celebrate another amazing year of life, and instead of being bothered by it, will be happy I am healthy and alive. I miss Ghana and am still so sad, but I am ready to embrace the Ghanaian lifestyle as I take on this new chapter in my life, since it is a country that will always be close to my heart. I will continue to blog in the next week or so because I have so much to continue to share with you all! I hope if anything I have inspired some of you to pursue this dream that I have continued to live out for the past 2 summers. I know some people have shared with me that this was their dream too. Always remember, life is what you make of it, and anything is possible 🙂 To all my Ghanaian friends, you are in my thoughts every day, miss you SO much. I leave you with the quote that rings so much truth whenever I think of all the kids and adults I had the honor to work with in Ghana for 2 summers in a row..it’s a quote repeat from last year, but I don’t care..it puts exactly how I feel, into such perfect words..””Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts. And we are never, ever the same.”

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Happy weekend everyone.

Reflecting

A quick thought that came to me today…

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

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

 

Ghana Summer Camp: behind the scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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