Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cape Coast

If our goal this weekend was to be as touristy as possible, we did well.

For one, we stayed in a nice hotel while we were in Cape Coast (a city about two hours west of Winneba). It's much more a tourist town than anywhere we've been so far... there were Obrunis all over the place. Our first day there we visited a school for deaf and blind students. That was a very unique experience, it was interesting to see everyone gesturing animatedly and smiling but not hear a word. The school sells artwork and raises animals for food- it's nice to see an institution taking steps to be sustainable.

Our second day we went to Kakum National Park for their canopy walk. I think all the hundreds of times I've crossed the Little Mac bridge at school have desensitized me to walking through the tree tops. While all the other tourists were gasping and pointing, I was thinking about how nice it was to be doing this without two tons of textbooks on my back.

Our next stop was the Cape Coast Slave Trade Castle. We went on a tour there and learned about the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The dungeons we went through were about a step and a half short of triggering claustrophobia, I would not want to spent any more time down there than I had to- and people used to spend months down there with minimal food, water, and light. It was a grisly but eye-opening experience. Definitely worth checking out if you ever happen to be in the neighborhood.

That's all I really have to say about the weekend. Funny how there's a lot less to say about the tourist things people purposely travel to see than there is about day-to-day life. This may or may not be my last update. We've got three days left and we'll be spending them winding down in Winneba. See you in T minus 96 hours!!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Challenging Heights

Hello! This is going to be a probably quick update (partly because the last week has been smooth sailing, and partly because I'm on a janky computer that I don't expect to survive the one hour I've paid for).

After getting back from our Volta adventure we took a week easy. Lots of time was spent on the gulf, exploring Winneba, and just kicking back. This past week I've been working at Challenging Heights school as a second grade teacher/ teacher's assistant. My kids are great, they're most engaged when we play games pitting the guys against the girls. I've been learning a lot myself from the teachers at Challenging Heights. For example, people born on certain days of the week are supposed to have similar personalities, and incarcerated people in Ghana can be hired out by contractors to do labor against their will.

Our group also spent time with James Annan, the founder of Challenging Heights. He talked with us about all the other programs that Challenging Heights has initiated, include: a microfinancing program for struggling parents of students, an apprenticeship program for older children who have never received an education, and oversight of at-risk students at local schools of other communities. So many great initiatives for Grand Valley students to get involved in next year!! This program is going to be phenomenal.

I've also had some interesting meals. I talked about Emmanuel making jollof rice and possibly about our redred dinner, but our most recent homecooked meal was fufu (ground cassava and plantain in a fish/crab stew with okra, eaten with your hands). Our next will be fish and chips, but we're waiting for the right type of fish to show up looking fresh at one of the coastal markets. Most of the fish here look like they've been caught, dropped on the ground, forgotten about for a week, transported down a dusty road in a bumpy car, cooked eight times until they look like charcoal, and displayed for however many days until they are purchased. And I'm pretty sure the reason they look like that is because they have been.

Today I started the qualifying round of a Spelling Bee that we're putting on for the school, I'm getting excited now. The school wanted us to put on a program (just can't escape gosh darn programming) and I think this one is going to be a lot of fun. Tomorrow though we are leaving for Cape Coast to visit some of the touristy sites and a school for the deaf and blind... and that's really the last hurrah of our trip.

We only have six days left.... whoa, for reals??

Friday, July 16, 2010

Lake Volta

Macha from Winneba!! (That means good afternoon, but it's probably spelled wrong)

We are now in the final stretch of our trip. We have been working with Challenging Heights, an organization that has two essential functions. One is the rescuing of children being trafficked and the second is the running of a school here in Winneba where the rescued children are streamlined into an education system with local and at-risk children. In the beginning of this week, we did a lot of work at the school. I have been helping a teacher named Peace with her second-grade aged class. The first lesson I experienced was French so I was completely useless, but I've helped Peace with a lot of grading, scorekeeping, and even taught a lesson of algebra to the children. It's amazing some of the things the children are being taught... I don't think I was doing algebra in second grade. And I definitely wasn't learning three languages (Fante, English, and French).

Our guesthouse has been amazing. The owner is a man named Emmanuel. I went into the little community kitchen the other night planning to make rice and onions (lets be honest, I was just going to throw the odds and ends I had bought at market into a pot and see what happened) when Emmanuel intervened and taught me how to make Jollof rice. It was amazing, Kaleigh and I know the secret ingredient and Leena (aka the Quality Sugar Mama) will never find out haha. Since then, we've also had an amazing meal of redred. Fried plantains are a new favorite of mine.

On Wednesday four of us embarked on a trip to Lake Volta, the site of the rescues that Challenging Heights does. We traveled with three Canadian volunteers and Challenging Heights Rescue Coordinator William. It was seven or eight hours to the biggest lake in Ghana, we stayed the night nearby and then traveled by boat very early in the morning to one of the fishing villages. Lake Volta is notorious for its fishing industries that use children as slaves. Even while traveling on boat, we could see little fishing boats with children aboard. The fishermen catch fish using very fine netting strung between stumps (formerly tree tops) in the lake. When the nets become tangled, children are sent into the water to untangle them, but often become entangled themselves and drown.

In the fishing village, we met with the chief and talked a bit about modern slavery and what is being proposed as a solution. The chief is hoping to have a school built that will give children an alternative to being used in the fishing industry; however, we toured a school while we were there so I don't fully understand the plan of action. William was able to recognized trafficked children on shore by their reactions to be addressed. The fisherman warn the children that visitors come with bad intentions, so they scatter when boats approach the shore. The children who do not hide are noticeable by their fear of visitors. A result of this is that it is difficult to gauge how many children are actually be used in such a way.

On the whole, my visit to Volta was not as staggering as I expected it to be. Conditions of enslaved children are not deplorable: often, the children are embraced by families and given food and shelter. Also, children do not necessarily resent the fishermen who use them as slaves. Often, the chief told us, these children grow up and become fisherman themselves- and they too use children. This let me view the problem from a new angle. It is common for us to think that those who traffic children are evil men who disregard human life, but in truth they just know no better way to conduct their businesses. It is a vicious cycle that the educated people in the village lack the resources to bring to a halt. The issue is much more complicated than I'd ever assumed.

The ride back to Winneba was one of the low points of my trip. The seven hour drive, while bad enough, turned out to be a thirteen hour ordeal. Think of everything that could possible go wrong, and there you go. I don't even have to type it. I got an interesting crash course in Ghana night driving. Ghanaians are much more liberal with the use of their brights. Apparently you're supposed to turn on your brights as you pass someone to let them know you're there. In America, we call this asking to get shot.

We're taking things easy this weekend. Next week is our next full week and we'll be doing more work with the children at the Challenging Heights school. That weekend we'll visit Cape Coast, and on Wednesday of the following week, we'll say goodbye to Ghana. Where has our time gone??

Looking forward to a few specific amenities I haven't had for a while here. Perhaps a future entry will include a list of things I would like to have waiting for me back in the states (including but not limited to three pints of Ben & Jerry's). Hope things are well for everyone and I'll see you in not-so-long!!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Northern Regions

I did tell you I that I wouldn't be consistent about this. We found one internet cafe up north, but they had no internet. Since my last update, I've been to Damongo, Mole, Larabunga, Damongo again, Tamale again, Accra again, and now Winneba. 1 cedi of internet time is not going to do this adventure justice.

The road from Tamale to Damongo was just as treacherous as I had heard. Luckily we were spared a bus trip between the two because Abraham, the director of the Redemption Children's Home, drove all the way out to pick us up for him. Abraham is an amazing person, he has dedicated his life to taking care of the children at the home (I believe there were 48?). The kids were so much fun, we read to them and taught in their classroom, and they taught us games and life lessons in general. Damongo is so pleasant after the bustle of Accra. Everyone says hello, and the children still yell Obruni!!

I have developed three minor addictions while here: Alvaro (a pear or pineapple flavored soda), FanIce (ice cream in a plastic bag), and Tampico (Sunny Day in a plastic bag, frozen to slushy consistency). I'm sure everyone else is writing about deeply philosophical things, but my comfort foods cannot go without mention. I always felt guilty buying them because I was probably the only one in Damongo who did. Disposable income isn't much up there.

We went to Mole National Park and took a walking safari. We saw elephants, baboons, warthogs... it was fun. That's all I'll really say about it because it was pretty touristy of us. We stopped at the nearby village of Larabanga though. It made Damongo look like New York City. By far the coolest part of Larabanga is the Youth Movement that's happening there. Last year Amanda, Annie, and the others connected with two high-school aged students named Issak and Cosco. These two are spearheading a movement to improve the village of Larabanga in so many ways. Their current mission is to complete two unfinished boreholes (wells) and successfully maintain them. It's something that we're hoping to get Grand Valley involved with in the fall.

Back at the children's home, a kid named Noah asked if he could use my duct tape to mend his book. I sat and watched him work and I was getting impatient because he was taking a very long time. I suggested throwing to strips of tape on either end, but he brushed my suggestion away and I was left to wait. I didn't realize until he was almost done that my method of book repair wouldn't have worked. He knew what he was doing and he did it very well, the book was good as new, with the addition of lime-green tape binding.

This was an important moment for me because it made me realize that people here do not need the USA or other Westernized nations to tell them what to do. We always hear about the conditions in Africa and are expected to feel bad, but having been here for... almost 20 days now, I'm becoming convinced that conditions will soon improve of their own accord. The current young generation in Ghana is being educated while their parents and grandparents lacked such opportunities. When I look at people like Essik, Cosco, and Noah, I feel confident that they and the other young people in Ghana are worthy adversaries to the challenges they will soon have to face.

Currently I am in Winneba (if you think traveling in the U.S. is horrible, you need to experience a trotro). We just got in late yesterday, and we haven't buckled down to any serious work yet so it feels a bit like I'm on vacation. The palm trees and roar of the Gulf of Guinea three minutes down the street definitely contributes to that. We're going to have to make all our own food for the rest of the trip, I'm in trouble. My diet will probably be bread, peanut butter, and oranges. My American cooking is questionable, my Ghanaian cooking will be traumatizing. At least they sell Alvaro out front.

In short, things have been wonderful here. Every night I go to bed thinking that there can't possibly be any more for me to learn and every day I discover something totally new and exciting. I'm looking forward to this finishing stretch working with James Kofi Annan and Challenging Heights, and to seeing everyone again in 18 short days!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Destination Damango

Hello from Tamale!! This morning we said goodbye to Accra at the ungodly hour of 4:30am and departed for the Northern regions of Ghana. We are currently in Tamale (pronounced TAH-mah-lee, not like the candy) waiting for the air conditioning to be repaired in the van that will take us to our eventual destination, Damango. While there, we will be working with a man named Abraham and his orphanage, the Children's Redemption home.

I am excited to get started. The air is so much fresher up here than it was in the city, and the people are friendlier and less adament about selling you random things. After the bustle of Accra, we are all relieved to enjoy the quiet of the countryside. It's not all cookies and cream though, northern Ghana is much more rural and we're going to have to adjust to the lack of ammenities and Westernized food. Neither the airport nor the restaurant we had breakfast at had any toilet paper, so I am not optimistic about the remainder of our stay.

Our last day in Accra was hectic. Leena and Beth arrived late Monday night and accompanied us to the market. The part of Accra we visited was highly modernized. We saw a lot of four-door SUVs (with big silver grills, the ultimate status symbol) and men walking around in three piece suits (while I broke a sweat in a T-shirt). The vendors there were relentless, note to self for any future Accra visits: never passively suggest that you find something a vender is offering "nice." You will be stalked. In the end I made no purchases. I will wait until up north or Winneba, where the things that can be purchased are cheaper and more authentic.

These past few days have also brought many interesting conversations about politics and gender equality. We met a woman named Mrs Awortwi who is the director of science and education for all of Ghana. It was very interesting to hear her take on government. She implied that there is a general lack of interest and participation in public affairs. Government in Ghana remains an abstract concept rather than something to be influenced for the betterment of the country. What a contrast to the USA, where the government is constantly under scrutiny.

Here are some interesting observations we have made:
- Even when arriving late, Ross and I were always served food before the ladies
- Practically every manikan I have seen is white. Whiteness is associated with sophistication.
- No businesses, restaurants, or otherwise will accept 50 cedi notes, because they cannot make change. We were only given 50 cedi notes. Way to go airport.

I have only four minutes of internet time remaining, so I'll finish here. On the whole, things have been great and hopefully will continue to be so!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Football and June-Births

Has it really only been five days? For the so-called "slow pace" of life in Ghana, we sure have been moving fast. Here's a little bit of what I've been up to, though my remaining 39 mins of internet could never do the trip justice.

On Friday we visited the University of Ghana (Accra) to meet with lecturer Justice Bawole and establish a study abroad partnership between UG and GVSU. Justice was an amazing man, and the course that's been designed for next summer sounds like it will be a phenomenal experience for anyone interested. As currently stands, the course would feature two weeks of classwork on Ghanaian culture, sustainable development, and NGO implementation followed by five weeks of working directly with an NGO of your choosing somewhere in Ghana. The course would wrap up with a debrief and project in which students create an NGO to answer a problem they see as needing to be addressed in society and mock-apply for funding. If you are reading this (whether you've found me through the GV Honors College site or otherwise) I would HIGHLY recommend considering this for next summer. I'm not even being paid to say this, I swear (although if someone would like to, i will not complain).

The UG has about 20,000 students and has an atmosphere similar to Grand Valley. Everyone there was extremely welcoming, responsive, and helpful (we learned, after some confusion, that a "bathroom" is where you take a bath and a "toilet" is where you take care of business. Why are these Obruneis [white people] so desperate to take baths???) Speaking of bathing, we were very excited when we got moved to a room with an electric water heater... but the shower was still cold. Nice water pressure in this one though, we take what we can get.

We were unable to appear on Kennedy's television broadcast because we had a prior commitment in Winneba, a much smaller city a ways down to coast. We were supposed to travel by bus, but the wait was impossibly long and we were being constantly approached by individuals whose intentions we did not know. Kaleigh got the first marraige proposal of our group, so as of two days ago Kaleigh and I are "married" (but we left our rings at home so we wouldn't lose them, oh darn).

We ended up taking a trotro to Winneba instead. A trotro is like a passanger van in the US, but without anything that could be considered a safety measure. In the states we can it armageddon, but Ghanaians call it traffic. I've never felt unsafe though, there is something about having EVERYONE ignore traffic rules that makes the system work.

In Winneba, we met Annie Hakim and her host Fred Dadzie, a former Challenging Heights worker that has since taken a job with Youth International. We were taken to Fred's house and then Annie took us across town for dinner. The atmosphere in Winneba is very different than Accra, there is much more of a community and everyone waves, smiles, welcomes you, and asks you your name (not your formal name but a name based on the day of the week you were form. I am Qwejo). One very kind lady outside the restaurant we ate lunch at had drinks sent up for us. I have a new favorite beverage, and I will find a way to get it back at the states. Ebay if I must. It is called Alvaro and it is pretty much the nectar of the gods.

That evening we went to another, outdoor restaurant to celebrate Annie and Fred's birthdays (along with everyone else born in June, it was a June-birth party) and watching THE football (soccer to you Americans) USA v. Ghana. When Ghana scored in the first five minutes, the place went crazy. People jumped up, ran around, hugged, sang, and blew horns. There was no way I couldn't root for Ghana, the excitement was too infectious. Believe me, the Ghanaian victory means a lot more to them than victory would have for America.

The party commenced with dinner on the house (rice and vegetables, chicken, and ambiguous-part-of-fish stew) and drinks (ALVARO LOVE LOVE and Gold Star... drinking age in Ghana isn't quite so high). We danced all night and had an amazing time. We did not know everyone there though, so I busted a lot of moves that involved brushing against my money pouch and camera. They say in Winneba that theft doesn't occur because you're stealing from your cousin's best friend's uncle, but there was no point in taking chances.

We returned to Accra in the morning via bus as planned. I had one night of not feeling well in the very beginning but haven't had problems since. I swear there are only four choices of food here though: redred, fufu, banku, and chicken/rice. Even if a restaurant has an elaborate, amazing looking menu, when you go to order they will tell you they are out of everything but redred, fufu, banku, and chicken/rice. It's a little bit like Grand Valley dining, hahaha.

I feel like I've only covered the very basics, but my internet time is running out and to cover everything would require as much time typing as I've spent living here. Everything has been a unique and amazing experience. As usual, I hope everything at home is doing well. Miss and love you all, I will see you one month from tomorrow!!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Greetings from Ghana!! Despite a frightening two-hour flight delay, a sprint across Detroit metro airport, and some terrifying turbulence flying over Cote d'Ivoire, we've finally made it to Accra, the capital city of Ghana. It feels so good to be back on the ground.

What little of Accra we've been able to see in our seven or so hours here has been fascinating. We traveled by trotro from the airport to our hostel, and more or less followed the lines on the road and other traffic suggestions. The traffic is surprisingly heavy in the city, and merchants walk between moving cars offering to sell everything from peanuts to soccer balls. No purchases yet, aside from a pancake breakfast from Frankie's restaurant and the 50 peswas (<50 cents) spent for a half hour of internet to make my update. No promises that consistant updating will continue; being a largely Westernized city, Accra offers certain luxuries that may be hard to come by in the northern regions.

Our hostel rooms are fairly basic but they have much wanted air conditioning so no complaints here. Our water isn't working at the moment but hopefully that's squared away before we turn in for the night (hopefully not to long from now, I have jet lag like whoa).

The girls and I walked a bit around the city and ended up finding a school for children 4-8 years old. They were all so excited to see us, they kept asking us how we were ("etensei") to which we responded "yaaaaa!!" to much laughter. We are supposed to visit again tomorrow when the children are actually in school. Also on our agenda is a meeting with a university professor and a weekend trip to Winneba to celebrate Annie's birthday. Our friend Kennedy, who drove us from the airport, is a sports broadcaster and has invited us to appear on his nationally broadcasted coverage of the Ghana v. USA game Saturday.

USA, you are great but it's gonna be a Black Stars victory. Sorry!!

Hope everything is well back home and I'll check in again as soon as I can!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Afternoon Before

I'll start by apologizing for the unoriginality of my blog. My mom is a scrapbook pro, so you'd think some of her talent might have rubbed off on me. Yeah, no. I created a blog, picked the template background that looked like it could maybe be an African savanna, and ended up with a page full of clouds... and that's how it's gonna be forever. Sorry.

I am one day away from setting out on my "adventure across the pond." My family and friends have expressed horror at how little I've packed, but I think I've covered all the essentials (peanut butter, nutella, and frisbees. What else could I possibly need?) My luggage is sitting in the office behind the Niemeyer front desk and I'm spending the afternoon relaxing and hoping that it doesn't get locked up back there before I have a chance to retrieve it.

If you aren't already in the loop, I'm heading to Ghana (Africa) for a five week service-learning trip through the Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley. Our trip will include work in a school for the deaf and blind, participation in Annie & Uma's clean water initiative, and involvement with the outreach organization called Challenging Heights.

My pre-departure thoughts? I think I've forgotten how crazy this trip really is. I've spent so long talking about it that what was once unreal now seems entirely possible. Only my friends remind me from time to time that Africa isn't your typical vacation destination. My biggest concerns are small things. I'm worried about a daunting bus ride to Damongo and back (I get car sick very easily). I'm concerned about how well I'll handle the change from a steak-and-hamburger diet to one of rice, fufu, and red-red. In particular, I'm not a big fan of my fish having eyes and watching me while I try to figure out how best to eat them. And I'm really hoping that I don't waste any amount of my trip laid out in bed with malaria.

My excitement for the trip far outweighs any of my concerns. Many students travel to Spain, Germany, Australia, and other westernized places where they can see the world without sacrificing their McDonalds and flush toilets. Very few places will offer the same unique cultural experience that I'm going to have in Ghana. I've heard a lot of great things from my friends who traveled there last summer, and I can't wait to share in these experiences and have some new ones of my own.

I've always been told that there are things that can't be taught in a classroom, and I'm one plane ride away from finding out what they are.