Things you get used to

– washing clothes and bathing without running water
– sweating a lot
– small plastic bags and plastic water sachets littered everywhere. There’s no rubbish collection, so people burn their own rubbish but generally think nothing of dropping their empty sachets on the ground. And everything you buy is served in a tiny black plastic bag, so the ground is covered in plastic

Things I’ll miss when I leave

– The noise. There’s always someone with a big sound system playing African music loudly in the street, or in the taxi
– The friendliness. People here all talk to each other. They don’t pass on the street without spending time chatting to people they know, even mere acquaintances.
– The hosts of local children who get all excited when they see me and come running up to hold my hand, show me things etc.
– All sorts of things available to buy on the street at affordable prices
– I’m sure I’ll be adding more …
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Getting through the hard time

As you know, last week I was so dispirited that I thought about leaving, but I knew that giving up would only lead to regret. How would I frame the experience when I looked back on it? Would I think of myself as a failure? Or would I blame Africa, thinking the whole thing an expensive mistake? Or an experience that made me cynical, caused me to lose faith in human nature or changed my values?

None of these options appealed, especially since I had felt moved to come here in the first place. Instead I had to see this crisis of conscience as part of the learning that was waiting for me here – and come out the other side. This is why I asked for your support. And I was brought to tears by the wonderful support I received.

Overwhelmingly, your comments came from a spiritual perspective, whereas I think my despair was coming from a political perspective. Thinking politically, you have to consider what system or structure you might be inadvertently supporting by trying to make things better. For example, when volunteers come from the West to help in places like this, does it simply enable these places to continue, when we would be better to campaign for them to be closed down? Should I support Mme Rose’s little empire by helping out with money or gifts?

From a spiritual perspective, these questions become irrelevant. Instead, it’s the spirit of what you’re doing that counts. The outcomes cannot be measured by size; instead each act of kindness or love is part of something greater and is worthwhile simply for itself. Many of your messages focussed on the children and what difference a seemingly small act of kindness might make in their lives. This gave me a focus and a reason to stay.

I was also brought to thinking about having a ‘mind of love’ and that this ought not to be reserved only for those I deem worthy by my standards. I resolved to accept the situation here. This is Africa; everyone knows there’s a long way to go before society is fair and organised. The people here are doing their best.

So I decided on a few strategies:
– I will tell Mme Rose that I would like a regular job to do each day. That way my work will come to be recognised, rather than just my presence here
– I will look out for opportunities to create a role for myself
– I will be friendly and compassionate even to the people I suspect of ripping me off
– I will find ways of extricating myself graciously and with good humour from situations where people are asking for money or wanting my phone number
– I will bring such gifts as I know will benefit the children eg a packet of nappies every few days, some chairs for the nursery class, other little things that come up
– I will carry sticking plasters with me for the times when children hurt themselves. (Madame Rose has a first aid kit but it’s a performance to get her to get it out. Any small scratch in the tropics can get easily infected, so bandaids are important.)
– I will think about what experiences I might be able to give the children, rather than what material things I can give. (For example, my friend Prue who has been to Africa talked about once taking a load of children to the beach. There are some beautiful beaches here and I suspect the orphanage children have never seen them. What if I could organise a bus trip? It might take some doing, but it would be something they’d never forget.)
– I will get away from the hostel every weekend and travel around to see the country
– And of course, I will be sensible and not leave myself open to being ripped off or taken advantage of

Having made these resolutions, I felt a lot better on Saturday morning when I set off for Kokrobite beach. Rose the cook had been hinting heavily that I should go away for the weekend – which would of course give her the weekend off – and she was most helpful in showing me where I could go and where to change buses etc. I had been nervous about travelling alone but I suddenly appreciated that Ghanaians are extremely friendly and helpful, so there was no way of ever getting lost. People will go out of their way to show you or even escort you to where you’re going.

So I was both proud of myself and in a better frame of mind when I arrived and booked into a lovely resort , complete with open air bar and restaurant under thatched roofs. My accommodation was in a dormitory in ‘the loft’ – an open air arrangement on stilts with a thatched roof, situated right beside where the reggae band would be playing for the regular Saturday night party until 2 or 3 in the morning. It was all quite idyllic, with local arts and crafts for sale alongside colourful fishing boats on the beach. A tourist spot, so there were a few more white skins scattered amongst the black.

I chatted to all the people who approached me and managed to move on without buying anything or giving out my phone number. One of these encounters turned into a real conversation, with a Rastafarian guy called Richard. He talked about his beliefs, which include being totally honest so that you are not a slave to other people or to harboured bad feelings. He also said it’s important not to hurt anybody because you only hurt yourself, and if you’re good to people you’re being good to yourself. It was so good to hear these ideas expressed by an African. I ended up telling him how desperate I’d been feeling over the last couple of days, and he had lots of encouraging words and good advice.

In the evening we danced amongst the lively throng to the booming reggae band and when it got too hot you could go and stand on the beach, where a cool breeze, swaying palm trees and splashing waves made it truly a tropical paradise. That’s when I thought, “I’m so glad I’m in Africa!”

I need your help to stay on track

Thanks so much for the comments affirming that I am making a difference. Today I just feel overwhelmed by the hugeness of the problems here and the seeming impossibility of changing anything.

For a start, it’s so hard to give anything to the orphanage children without someone else taking it from them. And it seems wrong to pick out particular children anyway – we wouldn’t do that in NZ; we’d make sure everybody got something. But to do that you need a lot of similar items plus a way of distributing them.

Here’s an example. Lead pencils are sold in the school ‘tuck shop’ for 5c each. I had a whole bunch of lead pencils and the girl who runs the tuck shop said she’d make sure that the children who sleep here would get one each. She sounded very genuine in wanting to share them out, but how do I know that she didn’t just put them in the tuck shop to sell, or keep them herself, or give them to her friends? That sounds cynical, but it seems to be the norm here.

I have just met Mara, a young German volunteer who lives at the orphanage. She told me that Mme Rose was given 100 toothbrushes for the children. She put them in her room. Mara is trying to teach the children to wash their hands and brush their teeth regularly. When she asked Mme for the toothbrushes, she was told there weren’t any.

Mme Rose has told me they need nappies for the little ones – yesterday that was very clear to me when the babies were getting around in wet pants. So I thought about getting a whole heap of nappies, but I knew that if I did they would go to Mme Rose’s family including her well dressed little granddaughter. So I bought 2 packets only. She thanked me this morning, saying the babies had had a good night and this morning there was “no toilet in the washing”. I will have to buy just one or two packets every couple of days, to make sure they go to the children who need them.

There’s a new little boy at the orphanage aged about one. His mother is epileptic and can’t look after him. He spent the last two days screaming and walking to the big iron gates, wanting to get out. At one stage he did get out – Mme Rose realised he was gone and went looking for him. She said she always worries when there’s new one, because if a child goes missing “there are big problems with the government”. I take it that means they could be closed down. She later referred to the little boy as a ‘problem child’.

Mme has told me several times that she can’t afford to pay her two daughters – they teach here for nothing. But one of the daughters let slip that they get paid more than the other teachers.

Today Mme’s brother came especially to visit me. He wants a wife, but when I explained that I didn’t want a husband, he changed it to – he wants a sponsor so that he can travel overseas. I would only have to say that I want this person in my country and I promise to pay his fares etc, and it would be so much easier for him to get a visa. Well, I can understand that from his point of view it was worth a shot, but I’m getting pissed off with the number of strange men who want to marry me. It seems so damned materialistic and selfish.

So I feel I can’t trust anyone and I am struggling with wanting to just give up. I can understand that when people are poor they use whatever tricks they can to get by – but I can’t stand that they don’t have compassion for people who have so much less than themselves. Those poor vulnerable little children are just a means of scoring donations to them.

So please – if anyone can help with words of advice. Why am I here? What can I achieve? I don’t expect to change the world, but I don’t want to become cynical either. I don’t want to leave here thinking this was just an expensive mistake. How can I think about this in a way that helps me carry on?

Another impromptu teaching day

I was wandering around the orphanage wondering what to do, since I have no specific role, when some children came out of a class and invited me in. Their teacher was nowhere to be seen.

Luckily I had some addition and subtraction flash cards in my bag, so I got them out and got them playing a game. They were all excited by the cards but very unruly. Then I used the maths in little stories like: I had seven apples and I ate two, how many did I have left? Then I got them to come up individually with similar stories and they really enjoyed doing that. At the end of the session I gave reward stickers to the children who hadn’t pushed and shoved each other. So that felt quite good.

But after the morning break there were 2 hours to fill until lunch time – with no resources, not even chalk! Someone went to the office to get their English textbook (there is one for the whole class) and some chalk, and after figuring out where they were up to, I drew a family on the board and asked them to identify who was who’s aunt, etc. They are not used to having to think, so when one person is answering, others will be calling out the answer or completely ignoring me and fighting with one another. Some boys were playing with a mini soccer ball at the back of the class. I kept confiscating it but they kept stealing it back. One girl kept getting into fights.

Then I found their exercise books – a ridiculous performance, since they are all kept in a box together and they all look the same, and you have to get their English book as opposed to their maths or art etc – and got them to copy some things down.

At this stage, amazingly, they all settled quietly and began to do their work (I guess copying is the part they’re used to). Just at that moment, Madame Rose appeared at the doorway with two ladies. They said they were from the Education Dept and they were here to check the school. They asked me how I found teaching in this school. I said I was just a volunteer and that I was filling in because their teacher was away. I wanted to say, “This is a terrible school! The teachers go to sleep in class! The children don’t learn anything! Give me your phone number so I can tell you what it’s really like!” But they went off smiling and so did Mme Rose.

After they’d gone and the kids had finished their copying, there seemed nothing else to do. I had no other lesson plans and the kids all began doing their own thing. Some boys were using broken bench seats like toboggans around the back of the class, that girl was fighting with all and sundry again – and I just thought, “I don’t care. Nobody even asked me to teach this class anyway, none of them are listening to me, I don’t know what to do – I’ll just let them run riot till lunch time.”

Which makes me just as bad as the other teachers.

Quaint sights in Ghana

Amongst the hustle and bustle, some of the sights I’ve seen have been quite amusing:

Businesses with names like:

Glory be To God Beauty Salon
In God We Trust Car Repairs
Black Shepherd Pharmacy “We shepherd you with humility”
Happy Phones and Carpets
Future Leaders Bookshop (featuring a smiling Barack Obama)

A brand new lounge suite for sale, set up by the side of the road on the dirt by a construction site.

The juxtapositions – shoes for sale next to pineapples, next to tyres, next to hair braiding. There’s no particular section of town for anything. If you want something you just go looking.

A safety notice on the bus, showing four sketches of the bus driving along beside a trotro (public transport van). The trotro is left upside down while the bus drives on, showing just how safe it is(!?)

Impromptu teacher

Yesterday, Monday, I arrived at school while the children were having their morning assembly. They stood in rather straggly class lines and after a period spent getting organised, they all raised their voices in song. Then they recited a prayer, after which two teachers walked up and down the lines checking everybody’s uniform and footwear. Those who weren’t in correct uniform, which was most of them, had to put out their hands and get the cane. Then their fingernails were checked, resulting in another round of caning. The sight of two adults systematically abusing children like that was almost too much for me – I nearly walked out. (The same thing happened this morning, with apparently different reasons for the canings. It’s just awful.)

Afterwards I took two of the littlies to their class and ended up staying. I had sat in on this class once before and here are my notes on that experience:

– They recited some songs and then recited everything that was painted on the walls – a few objects and what they started with, the months of the year, etc. Then they sat at their desks – of which there weren’t enough – and the babies, including little Kwame (aged 1), sat or lay on a mat in front of the class. Six children on the mat, at least one of them crying at any given time, so that the teacher had to shout above their noise.

– Lesson went like this:
o Teacher points to a hand-drawn alphabet chart on the wall and recites ‘A for apple.’
o The children repeat ‘A for Apple’
o Teacher points to the next picture and recites “B for ball’
o Children repeat ‘B for ball’
o And so on through the alphabet
o Then she gets a child to come up and take the stick.
o Child points to the chart and recites “A for apple’
o The children repeat ‘A for apple’
o And so on through the alphabet.
o Then the next child comes up and does the same thing
o And so on through the whole class.
o Some of the children clearly didn’t know what to say, despite all the repetition, and in those cases those who knew would call out “Y for yam” or whatever, the child would repeat it, and the n the class would repeat it again

Today the teacher welcomed me and straight away said she would like me to help her. “They don’t know their alphabet,” she said. “Can you teach them?” So there I was, thrown in the deep end.

I started by going over the alphabet chart again and then I chose a letter, ‘B’, and explained that ‘b’ was the sound at the beginning of the word ‘ball’. I named some other things that start with ‘b’ and then asked them to think of some more. Some of them began to get the idea. Then I did the same for ‘h’ and ‘f’. The teacher was quite supportive, and tried to encourage them. When I got to ‘s’, the teacher suggested ‘cement’ as a possibility; I politely moved on. (This morning I heard her teaching them 3 letter words. One of them was “B-I-T spells Bite.”)

I tried getting them to play ‘I spy’ but they couldn’t grasp the idea of thinking of something without saying it out loud, so in the end I got individuals to come and write a letter on the board for the rest of the class to think up words for. I also got each child to come up and write the first letter of their own name, and repeat ‘P for Priscilla’, or whatever. Some of the littlies had to be shown what letter to write and their tiny shy voices a were a complete contrast to their usual rowdiness.

After the break I went into the mixed Grade 1 and 2 class (Standards 1 and 2 for NZers). This was another class I had been to before, and watched with horror as the bulk of the lesson was spent copying down sentences from the blackboard, which most of the children couldn’t read. This class teacher immediately asked me to teach the class about verbs, then left me to it. She remained at her desk and provided some discipline when they got out of hand, but before long she was quite openly asleep at her desk!

It was hard to hold the attention of more than a few kids at a time, but I did my best. Then the teacher found some sentences for them to copy down, with the instruction to underline the verbs once they’d done so. Teacher promptly went back to sleep while this was happening.

Meanwhile the Grade 1s had no books, so just amused themselves while the Grade 2s did their work. Again, many of the children didn’t know what they were writing, but they started coming to me for help when it came to the underlining.

The oldest children in the class are twin boys whom the teacher labelled (in their presence) as ‘stubborn’, but I could see that their problem was that they hadn’t a clue and no hope of getting anything right. One of them was particularly keen to get help, and I think I got through to him what the ‘doing word’ of a sentence was. When it came to underlining the right word though, I had to point to each word as I read it out, so that he could pick the right one.

When he went up to get his work marked, he got 10/10, which would have been a first. I think the teacher was very surprised to see me taking an interest in the ‘stubborn’ kids rather than punishing them. I hope my role modelling might make a difference. But who knows?

A funeral in Ghana

The father of one of the school boys had died and some members of staff invited me to accompany them to the funeral. In Ghana funerals last three days, always starting on a Friday, with the burial on Saturday and a church service on Sunday. We were going along on the Saturday, to the ceremony prior to the burial.

I was told to dress in red or black, and having nothing black I wore a bright red sarong and top. The others in our group all wore black, apart from the teachers, who wore their school staff shirts made in a colourful African print of bright green, yellow, blue and black. After a long taxi ride with five adults, a baby and the driver all crowded sweatily together, we arrived at a place where four long gazebos had been set up around a courtyard, each shading rows of seated guests. The scene reminded me a little of a marae, with the bereaved family gathered on the porch of a building in the front, but the guests were around three sides and the casket was displayed right in the centre of the open square. Everyone wore predominantly prints of grey or red patterns on a black background. The immediate family wore shirts and dresses all made in the same material.

The casket was ornate, painted in a metallic pale pink, with large brass fittings. A sound system had been set up, so that the speakers, singers and drummers could be easily heard.

Soon after we arrived, the singing and drumming began. It was time for the visitors to give their contributions to the family. From three directions lines formed and made their way to the metal bowl in the centre of the square. They reminded me of conga lines, as people were jigging to the music. As each person reached the bowl they dropped in some money and then made their way back to their seat.

A man took the microphone and spoke for some time in Twi and then one of the sons of the deceased spoke in English about what a good man his father had been. I could see the younger boy, from our school, crying on the porch as his brother spoke.

Then there were some hymns, delivered very loudly, as it seems everything is, in Africa. After that things went quiet for a while. Someone brought around bags of drinking water and later a bottle of soft drink for each person, while some individuals went up to a little table and sat down to talk and write something down. Then the preacher started reading out names and amounts of money. Soon after this, people began coming up to me and shaking my hand and saying “Thank you” and “God Bless You.” Not knowing what was going on, I was rather alarmed. They were acting as though I was donating a large sum.

A member of the family came over especially to shake my hand and asked me for my full name. He asked me to come over to the table and write my name in the book. This is when I found out that the people going to the desk were writing down their names and pledging money to help the family. I asked if he wanted some money and he said no, since I was already paying for their child’s school fees.

As I walked back to my seat, one of the teachers explained that they had told the gathering that the white woman was offering to pay the child’s school fees, but they did not expect me to do so really. Instead they would simply allow the child to come to school for a term for free. (The normal fee would be 150 Cedis for a term.) This was their way of helping the family without advertising the fact that they could offer free tuition. What a relief that was!

I then had a photo taken with the school staff and family members, standing by the coffin. The photographer had a little portable printer, so it was printed on the spot. Seeing the photo made me realise how much I stood out with my white skin and red clothes, amongst so much black.

Next, a vehicle came to take the casket for burial. I had seen funeral vehicles before. Far from the slow and stately funeral processions we know, these black vehicles towed the casket on a trailer, blaring a siren to let people know they were coming. In this case, though, the vehicle was a battered old ambulance. A crowd of pallbearers loaded the casket into the back, then piled in after it. Immediately the ambulance began sounding its siren. Three taxis arrived to take the family members to the burial. I was told the burial would be in the man’s home town, some distance away, so we would not be going. One of the elders threw water in front of the ambulance and it started on its way, followed by the taxis.

At this stage things were extremely noisy. Music was blaring over the sound system, the siren was sounding and people were moving about and shouting to one another. For some reason the boy from our school wasn’t going in the taxis. Our group went over to say goodbye to him and he was so upset it brought tears to all our eyes.

I feel very lucky to have experienced something like this after just two weeks in Africa and I’m grateful to the school staff who looked after me so well.

Birth in Ghana

Today I was given a language and culture lesson by Vivienne, one of the teachers from the orphanage. Vivienne has a 6 month old baby, carried around on her back in the traditional way in a piece of cloth wrapped around her body. It’s fascinating to see how a simple piece of cloth can be used as a back sling. The older babies have their arms free, while the younger ones are wrapped up to their necks. I sometimes wonder how comfortable it is for them, with their heads pushed backwards and their chins pressed against their mothers’ bodies. The women with babies on their backs seem to walk around and work quite normally, although it must be heavy and make them hot.

Vivienne said that the baby’s naming ceremony is one of the biggest celebrations, because by then you have survived the birth. Many mothers and babies don’t make it, which makes pregnancy a scary time. For this reason, pregnant women make sure they go to Church regularly. They also cover their bodies modestly because “some people don’t have good eyes.”

Giving birth in the hospital is expensive, so Vivienne said she had to save all her money towards the birth. Many mothers give birth in the hospital and can’t pay the bill, so they disappear, leaving their babies there. This is how babies end up in orphanages. The government hospital offers free care, but still some mothers abandon their babies because they can’t afford to look after them. Some of these babies are later adopted by couples who can’t have children. Vivienne showed me the public toilet at the local market where a woman had given birth in a toilet and left the baby there. Luckily another person heard the baby cry and the mother was tracked down and sent to jail.

After a birth, mother and baby stay inside for seven days. On the day of the ‘outdooring’, the baby is brought out early in the morning. Water is thrown onto the roof and drops back down onto the baby as a welcome. The pastor then prays for the baby and everyone eats, drinks and dances. A day is then set for the official naming.

On the naming day, the father brings the chosen name to the mother’s family. There is more eating, drinking and dancing and gifts are given to the baby. I asked Vivienne whether she had done this and she said no, because it takes money to have such a big party. Instead the naming was done with just the immediate family.

Stories like this make me realise just how difficult life can be in Ghana. An upcoming birth should be a joyous time, but here it’s a time when ordinary women must face their own mortality as well as confront stark financial realities.

Well wishers

Recently I found out that the water at the orphanage where I’m working was to be cut off. They have one tap, which is fed from a pipe connected to a well some distance away. The water is metered, and is expensive because of the length of the pipe. The orphanage was in arrears to the tune of about NZ$380.

I was there when the lady from the Water Board arrived and I persuaded her to give the orphanage a week’s grace while I emailed friends in NZ to try to raise the money. Luckily she agreed.

I emailed lots of people – and some of them emailed other people – and in no time We had raised $780! I was able to go in to the Water Board yesterday to pay the bill and put the orphanage in credit.

Thank you so much to all who gave so generously. Your gift has made the world of difference to those children!