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!

Things I will never again take for granted

Running water for washing clothes, flushing toilets, washing hands, washing dishes.

Fresh free drinking water, easily accessible.

Electricity, that means you can see after 6pm, charge your phone, use your computer or fan or whatever you feel like doing.

Temperate climate, which means that you can complain about the weather without ever being truly uncomfortable, or at least not for 24 hours a day. And you can do your hair the way you want and wear makeup without it sweating off your face.

Cameras, computers, bicycles, the ability to travel, toys and books – all things that people here crave.

Education. How lucky I’ve been to have access to all the learning I have, and with good teachers.

We, who have so much, are such a small percentage of the world’s population. How very fortunate we are. And I’m so grateful that I have had the opportunity to make this experience happen in my life.

School in Ghana

I haven’t witnessed a lot of school yet, but the impressions I’m gaining are confirmed by other volunteers I’ve met who work in other schools and orphanages. There is a desperate need for trained teachers here. Of course it may well be that the regular schools in Ghana have trained teachers and that the orphanage schools are not representative of the whole country.

The differences between school here and in the West are huge. For a start, they use the cane. And not just in the sense of getting sent to the principal’s office; the teachers all carry canes and use them willy nilly to keep the kids in check. And it’s not surprising the children get restless – a lot of the time they are expected to sit quietly at their desks with nothing to occupy their minds.

They can recite the alphabet and know the letters, but they seem to have no idea that the letters stand for sounds.

I took part in a science lesson about the uses of water. After talking to them about the things it said in the book, the teacher asked me to write the sentences from the textbook on the board for them to copy. Most of the lesson was spent copying from the board. Some of the children did this quickly and well, but when I asked them to read back to me what they’d written, they couldn’t read it. It was just an exercise to them, with no meaning.

I’ve yet to see a teacher explain how to do something or why; the emphasis is on correcting their work and letting them know when they are right or wrong. A correct answer will be rewarded with a special applause from the class: Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap, clap. But when two boys got nothing right, the class were told to ‘shame them,’ leading to mocking cries and calls.

For those who don’t catch on, there’s not much hope of catching up. I’m wondering how I might help some of them to learn to read, given these circumstances.

Day 2 – A lovely day in Accra

This would have been the ideal introduction to Ghana. It was Independence Day and George said we would all go into Accra (pronounced A-crar) with him. This was part of my cultural package but the other 2 volunteers had to pay 60 Cedis each. A Cedi is just under NZ$1.

Well, if I thought the usual streets were a hive of activity, it’s hard to describe Accra market, which was so busy, crowded, densely packed and colourful it was a sensory overload. George led us through a whole series of streets where the colourful wares lining the streets left only a narrow way to walk, along with thousands of other people.

As white people we attracted attention, but mostly smiles and greetings rather than people hawking their wares. One lady tried to teach us to say ‘how are you’ and ‘I’m fine’ in Twe. The best approximation I can come up with is ‘E tu sein?’ ‘E-ye’

At one point we walked past a woman with a child of about two years. She held him out to us and said ‘Take this boy. Take him.’ That was a shock.
After showing us through the market George took us to see the ocean, which was quite a magnificent view.

Then we were taken to the Kwame Nkrumeh Memorial Museum and park, which was packed with people because of the holiday. Kwame Nkrumeh was the first prime minister after independence and he is revered as a person who tried to unite all of Africa. Lots of schools had come into town for a big march and they were now having school trips to the museum. Each school had a different uniform, mostly in gorgeous colours.

After looking around the museum and seeing the tomb, where various people wanted their photos taken with us, we sat in the park and had a coke from a stall. I think I will be drinking a lot of coke while I’m here. It was a way of getting some energy without having to eat, because it was too hot to eat. While we sat there at a picnic table in the shade children from various school trips nearby smiled at us. When we took their photos they loved it.

After this George took us to another market-style area where he introduced us to a group of Rastafarian guys, who showed us around their shop. This was a cultural and arts centre, where they made traditional things like drums, baskets and the kind of beads that used to be used for trade. The guys were all over us explaining things and asking where we were from etc. One man said his sister lives in Wellington and is married to a kiwi. Of course they were trying to sell us stuff but they weren’t too pushy. One guy, Abraham, seemed to take a shine to me and I actually thought he was very sweet too.

They took us along the lane where people were making the crafts – I held a piece of half-treated goatskin that was used to make the drums. Then they took us to another stall filled with ornaments etc. they sat us down and played the drums for us. Apparently their band had toured Switzerland and Sweden with their drumming. It was really cool! Then they taught us some simple drumming rhythms, which was fun.

By now we were hungry and it was time for a late lunch. George wanted to show us another side of Ghana, which was the mall and the supermarket in Accra. We were thrilled with the air conditioning!!! We went to a KFC-type restaurant where I used my last 4 Cedis to get a piece of chicken and fries.
The place was packed with people all looking very well dressed and beautiful. I felt incredibly frumpy in my loose clothes, sweaty hair, sunburned nose and red face. This is not a place for vanity, at least not if you’re white.

After lunch we went to the supermarket, where I was able to use my credit card to buy some cartons of fruit juice. It was a bit of a palaver though, having to go to a separate service desk to use the credit card machine.

When we got back Rose wasn’t home. I had her number on my phone so rang her about 5.30pm to say we were back. She said she’d be there soon, but we didn’t see her for about 2 and a half hours. So we had a late meal – spaghetti pasta with a spicy red sauce to go with it

Reflection on Day 2: Total helplessness. We all felt totally dependent on George and Rose. Scared of getting lost, didn’t understand the money, didn’t want to trust anybody, felt like magnets for attention, good and bad. Couldn’t even make our own dinner as we didn’t have any ingredients and wouldn’t dare go out on the street by ourselves to buy anything.

Day 1 – Introduction to the orphanage

When I did my bungy jump, the moment of falling was accompanied by a sense of: “Oh my God, there’s been a terrible mistake!” Well, today is the equivalent of that moment. Absolutely horrendous.

I was booked to have a Language and Culture programme for the first week. The programme was nicely detailed on the net, but it turns out I’m the only one booked on it, and today it consisted of someone called George interviewing me about my flight and then telling me that I’d be going to the orphanage with one of the other volunteers today. It wasn’t even the orphanage I’d been told I was going to, since George explained they were ‘having issues’ with that orphanage. (I found out later that the issues concerned a previous volunteer who had made unsubstantiated accusations in a blog and the orphanage people had seen it. For that reason I’m not naming organisations or orphanages in this blog.)

So within an hour I was sitting on a trotro on the way to the orphanage. A trotro is a minivan with about four rows of seats, some of which fold away to create aisles so that people can move through. They can be packed with about 25 people and each time someone wants to get off, other people have to get out too, to let them out.

Rose walked us from the main road to the orphanage, which was about a 15 minute walk through dusty, bumpy pink dirt roads. The buildings are all made of concrete, some half finished and some painted in bold pastel pink, blue or yellow. There are people walking everywhere, many with wares balanced on their heads, or sitting at street stalls selling cooked food, clothes, shoes and even televisions and computers. A few goats and chickens roaming around complete the picture.

The orphanage was the biggest shock – how can I begin to describe it? When I got there I couldn’t help thinking I wanted to go to my original allotted orphanage instead – it was so much nicer than this one. But of course I really meant that the one I had imagined was nicer: an institution, suggesting cleanliness and order, not quite with rows of children in neat straight lines like the little Madeline books, but at least with the sense that there were competent adults in charge and clear rules and routines. And I had naively thought that the orphanage children might be better provided for than the local poor children. All preconceptions busted.

I can only describe it as absolute squalor. Everything is falling down, filthy, crawling with flies. The children wear uniform, since it is also a school catering for the local children, but the uniforms are in various states of cleanliness and repair. The older children seem better dressed and healthier. Some of the younger ones have running noses and look quite sick, with sores, bald white patches in their hair and rashes on their skin. One baby, not yet old enough to walk, was sitting in the dirt looking as though he had to fend for himself.

There were 4 classrooms, each with two grades. The lady introducing us would say to the children, “Good morning children” And they replied “Good morning Madam” and she would say “How are you today?” and they replied “I’m fine, and you?” in chorus.

The desks are wooden with little bench seats attached – all falling to bits and rickety, swaying from side to side. At one stage a little boy picked up a piece of wood and started hammering in some loose nails on his seat.
School here is nothing like at home. The kids are supposed to sit quietly, but of course they don’t, and if they get out of line they are caned. The lessons consist of the teacher writing examples from a text book, which the children copy into their books. They are constantly tested and told whether they are correct or not, but there is no actual explaining how to do things, so that the children who don’t catch on are left simply guessing the answers.

They were writing in pencil and erasing a lot. They sharpen their pencils with razor blades and there are quite a few razor blades to be found lying around in the dust on the ground, amongst other rubbish

At break time, kids swarmed around me and the other volunteer, touching us and pressing our skin to make it go white. They taught us clapping games, which they were very good at.

At this stage I was feeling faint every time I stood up; a combination of lack of sleep and the intense heat, so the thought of getting through the day in this incredibly foreign environment was daunting, let alone being here for 10 whole weeks. The teachers, orphanage staff and the children were all going out of their way to welcome us, but nonetheless it was a really hard day. I can only hope that things get easier as time goes by and that I’m not totally crazy for being here.

Arrival in Ghana

Accra at night is beautiful from the air. The street lights are orange and the house lights the bright aqua-white of halogen lamps, making the city look like a sea of sparkling jewels. As I stepped off the plane I was greeted by the sense of entering a sauna and a huge sign saying ‘Akwaaba!’ (welcome).
The tiny airport was crowded; the lines to get through immigration and customs were chaotic. Inside I found a booth for currency exchange and changed some US dollars for the Ghana currency, Cedis, having no idea how much they were worth. The man handed me the notes, not bothering with a receipt, which was my first taste of how things are done in Africa.
When I emerged from customs I searched the long line of people holding signs, but couldn’t see the one for my organisation. An airport security guard named Tanko kindly took me under his wing and used his phone to call my contact person. He also took me to a telephone shop and helped me buy a new Simcard and credit, so that my phone would work in Ghana. Little did I know that this was a ruse to get my phone number and that he would harass me by phone and text for the next few days: ‘Hey babe, how did you sleep?’ ‘Missing u, my queen’ Hey sweetheart, call me and I’ll show you around.’ Crazy, since he was probably half my age!
Outside the airport was a hive of activity. A group of Rasta guys were singing and drumming loudly and there were people everywhere. When I found my contact person I was led to a car, where a driver was asleep with his legs up on the dashboard. I was driven in the dark for about an hour through busy street: lots of old cars, tooting and weaving in and out of the lanes, women with things balanced on their heads. There were some big gathering places – I asked if one was a market and was told it was a car park .
I was expecting a hostel in a rural setting but it was urban all the way. We pulled up to what looked like a construction site: a nice looking half-built building amongst piles of dirt. Barred doors were opened by a young woman who was introduced as Rose the cook. Rose showed me to my room – bare concrete with a bunk with a mosquito net. A room to myself, which was good. I was told two other volunteers had arrived for this intake but they were asleep.
The toilet was an indoor proper western style flush toilet at first glance, but completely dilapidated and with no running water. Flush with a bucket. Seat and lid were detached, sink plughole rusted away.
Went to the loo and straight to bed, exhausted after 36 hours travel/ I lay bathed in sweat but slept anyway, a couple of hours at a stretch.
Night here is 12 hours, 6.30pm-6.30am. During the night I heard a rooster crowing over and over – but with missing syllables ‘cock-doo’ instead of cock-a-doodle-do’.

Clothes for Ghana orphans

On 1st March I’ll be leaving for Ghana, to work in an orphanage with over 100 children aged 2-16 years. I’m asking YOU to help by donating an item of clothing for one of the children. Please choose something suitable for hot weather and add a gift card or note with a message and your name.
Alternatively you might donate a packet of pens, pencils or crayons for their school.

I will accept only one item from each person so please choose carefully. Email for details about where to drop off your gift. Donations accepted until 28 February.

Many thanks.

Deciding to just do it

Since I began telling people I’m going to Africa to work in an orphanage, lots of people have told me they’ve always dreamed of doing something like that. Like me, many people are aware of the huge numbers of people in the world who live in less fortunate circumstances and they feel a desire to help in some way.

But there are a number of obstacles to overcome between thinking it’s a nice idea and actually doing it. First, the timing has to be right. Responsibilities at home, such as children or parents, understandably come first.

Then there’s money. We can never quite afford all the things we think we need. Most of us will never reach the point where money is not an issue – and it’s considered irresponsible to stop earning before then.

Another consideration is what a tiny difference one person can make in a world that’s so fraught with problems. Not to mention the hardship of living without the physical comforts we’re used to.

For me, the ideas that underpin Happy Nation overcome all the objections. First, if I am responsible for my own growth and happiness, it’s more important to fulfil my dreams than to be successful according to other people’s rules. And growth comes from extending yourself, so I welcome the opportunity to escape from my comfort zone.

Second, as citizens of the world we all have a responsibility to one another. Too often we think individualistically; we don’t attempt to make a difference unless assured of a measurable outcome. I prefer to think of myself as part of, and connected to, the thousands of others who are doing similar things. And in the spirit of reciprocity and participation, I know I will gain as much or more from the children and workers in the orphanage as they will gain from me.