Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Day 11 (May 30) - Beacon House and the Beach

Today was the hardest day during my entire trip to Africa. I have actually had a hard time blogging about the whole trip because everything culminated in the experiences I had at the Beacon House Orphanage. This orphanage is privately owned and run by an American woman. She takes children with disabilities and illnesses that other orphanages will not. Several of her children are HIV positive and several have hepatitis, among other ranges of problems. We arrived at a gorgeous house and walked up onto the side porch, where at least 10 girls were playing with barbies. This was something I had not seen yet and the american influence was very clear!
When we asked how we could help, we were asked to help entertain the younger children who were watching a movie inside. The director of Beacon House had other visitors and we were left with the children until she could finish her business.
These children were the cleanest we had seen yet. They swarmed us, climbing on our legs and arms. We gladly surrendered our shoes and found ourselves sitting on the floor with piles of children in our laps. I had several girls braiding my hair while 3 more fought to sit in my lap and another paraded in my shoes. I looked around the room and everyone else had their own little group to entertain. We were all having a great time playing in the clean, cool house.
Then, I turned around to see a baby crawling towards me. He came out of nowhere and crawled right into my lap. Well that is where he would stay for the rest of our visit. All the other children were spilling toys while I made sure the baby didn't eat any of them. This little guy was mouthing everything and needed constant attention in the mess of activities. I had not seen him smile until I turned him to face me. He studied my face for a moment, then touching my chin, started to laugh. Up until now, all babies had been terrified of me and this was a nice change!
Once the director was finished with her business, she took us to a classroom to talk. She carried the baby with us, whose name I still did not know. She handed him off to Meredith and started to tell us her story. Of course, I don't remember everything the director said, but I remember exactly what he was doing the whole time. Getting squirmy, Meredith was instructed to put him on the floor. The baby immediately went for a piece of crayon but I was faster! I let him explore for a minute and then put my hands down to see if he wanted to be held. He crawled straight to me and climbed into my lap. As I was rocking him to sleep, the director told us about many of the village customs. Many villages consider twins to be evil and require a ritualized killing. The twins are placed in a tent with heavy incense, so thick they choke on the smoke. If one infant survives, it will be drowned. Many villages also consider the 3rd born in every family to be evil and therefore these babies are killed at birth. In addition, there are not many children with physical disabilities or birth defects in the villages because they are killed at birth. These defects are seen as evil. In many cases the doctor or midwife will drown the baby in a bucket of water just after being born. In other cases, mothers will leave the children by the river. The myth is that these "spirit children" turn into snakes, but we know what actually happens.
The baby's story was different. This 1 year old child, now sleeping in my arms, was not born with a physical disability or disorder. His mother gave him to the Osu Orphanage where he was sexually abused at the age of 6 months. The women at the Osu Orphanage tried to say that a 5 year old was responsible. However the hole suggested otherwise. They then tried to blame it on the Western volunteers. However, they were only protecting one of their own.
Fortunately the baby left that government run orphanage and is in a much better one now. However, his mother is still alive but doesn't want him after he was abused. It was explained to us that he may never be accepted by his family but he would be difficult to adopt out because his family is still alive.
Usually babies in orphanages go to Ghanaians to adopt, but they will not want him. He is tainted according to their culture. This baby will carry the trauma for the rest of his life although he may have been too young to remember it happen. A sound, a touch, or a word may one day trigger these feelings to resurface and he needs to be with a family that is willing and able to handle it appropriately.
Apparently rape is a common occurrence in villages. The director informed us that 4 out of 5 of her orphan girls around 8 yrs old have been raped and are able to explicitly describe the experience. Girls are customarily raped between the ages of 7-9 years while on their way to fetch water for their family. Girls are instructed to travel in groups or take a boy with them. Obviously, this does not always protect them. On the other hand, sodomy is not so common. Homosexuality is a huge taboo in Ghana and conversation on the topic is often forbidden as well. Therefore, the baby's rape carries much more taboo weight than the girls'.

It was truly horrifying to me to hear these stories. I think it was even worse to have this precious, gorgeous child peacefully asleep in my arms. My arms were aching under his weight, but I only held on tighter. He deserves all the love the world can give him after everything he has been through in his life already.
As we left, I handed the child to the director, and felt his hand gripping my shoulder and then his fingers trailing my arm as he let go. It was heartbreaking. I was at the orphanage for about 2 hours and I had fallen in love with this amazing little boy. I refused to take a picture with him because I knew he and his story would haunt me, and I did not want to obsess . . .its been hard.

This afternoon we went to the beach where we ate lunch, played on the rocks and collected shells with Eric and Felicia Annan's daughter Euphralia. We then went back to the Tadakwashi market where I bought jewelry, a djembe drum, and souvenirs/presents for friends at home. The Tadakwashi market is a bit less than the Macola Market and helped me refine my bartering skills. However, the baby was constantly on my mind.

Day 10 (May 29) - The Accra Rehabilitation Center

This morning we walked to the Accra Rehabilitation Center near our hotel. This is a government run institution for men with disabilities. They are supposed to get government funding to continue providing services, but this has not been the case. The center is run by Tingo, the director, who has dedicated his entire life to the residents. He works 24/7 without pay, help or respite. He earns a small salary without overtime. However, his outlook is positive and he believes things will get better for "disabled persons." He stated, "if you are not god fearing you cannot do this work for long. If you treat individuals with disabilities well, then you will get something." Even without a salary, he has job satisfaction with all that he can do for his clients. He provides for them which makes him happy. Tingo is truly inspiring.
He explained to us that they do not get any money from the government. Therefore, he has to require clients to pay about $40 Ghana cedes for 1 year. Most individuals are unable to pay. The enrollment, or way of admission, is such that individuals cannot just walk in the doors. They have to visit the social welfare office where someone will then write a social welfare investigation report. In this report, the individual must provide information dating back to prenatal care. Obviously this is not always possible....
They also need to know how the disability occurred, family relations, environment, and all personal information. Then once this report has been filed, the individuals must get a full medical report from a government hospital. Visits to the doctor or hospital are often very expensive and many of the people have no way of getting there.

The clients of the Accra Rehabilitation Center (ARC) must have a person backing them who can be available to come to the center to help with their personal care. This is not a dumping ground and clients are expected have outside support. Many people do not have families and have been begging on the streets previously. These individuals are instructed to find a fiend, organization or anyone to sponsor them. This method is due to the fact that if they have nowhere to go when they leave the ARC then it is defeating the purpose of the center: to train individuals for jobs.

Many beggars with disabilities make enough money to send their kids to the best private schools and care for their spouse at home. So if they remove them from the street to complete the 3 year program at the ARC, who will care for their families? This is further complicated by the fact that at spouses and children cannot stay with their husbands during the 3 year stay. Spouses must learn to function independently without anyone to help in case of a divorce, death or illness. Spouses are expected to do everything on their own while the men are at the ARC.
An additional challenge at the ARC is the lack of staff. There is no money to hire employees to help in the areas that they may need help (such as ADLs). Therefore, friends, spouses, hired workers must come each day to help with bathing, toileting, etc. An there is no training for families while men are at the ARC or during the transitional period. The director is the only professional on the premises and he states that the goal for the men is learning how to care for themselves as best as possible. The reasoning behind this is - if the men cannot do anything at home then they are worthless to their families. With the training they get at the ARC, they can function at home. It is simple training but there is no follow up available to graduates of the program.
Follow-up is limited not only by the lack of funds but the lack of transportation. There is not way to get to the families in order to check in on them to see how many are working, or have gone back to begging. Therefore data on success rates are unavailable.
The vocational training offered at the ARC includes dressmaking, carpentry and shoe-making. However, many of these trades are becoming outdated. Tingo explained that they need a computer laboratory. He said that all jobs want you to be computer literate and it is easy to get a good job if you can work with a computer. If one of the clients cannot make shoes, but if they have a computer, he can write to others to see what he can do. In addition to being able to use a computer, repair of TVs, radios and air conditioners would be a marketable skill as well.
Tingo is correct in his assumption that as society changes, the vocational training must change too. There are several companies in Ghana that are starting to make their facilities handicapped accessible. Tingo thinks that the individuals with disabilities should get jobs here. If other individuals with disabilities and the general public see that these people can do these things, the hiring will increase and more individuals with disabilities will be inspired to work.
We asked Tingo how easy it would be for us to ship him some supplies – his answer was surprising. Apparently the materials shipped must be addressed to an institution, not to a post office box or to a specific individual. Unless you are a registered company, taxes to pick up packages may cost as much as a car.

Out of anywhere we visited, this facility is obviously the one in the most need for supplies, money and expertise.
After a long morning and another delicious meal at Paloma, Jessica and I decided to go back to one of the markets we had previously visited, Macola Market. This is one of the largest open air markets and yes it is huge. We were dropped off in the middle and I’m glad we made it out! Our mission was to buy more fabric and that we did! I have plenty of fabric now to recover several pieces of furniture in my house and donate some too.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Day 9 (May 28) - Echoing Hills

Today, Thursday, we travel to Echoing Hills Multi-Purpose Clinic near Medina. We were all feeling a bit burned out and this was very obvious today. This Clinic is a center for individuals with disabilities in which they are educated and learn vocational skills. This is also a center where wheelchairs are sent for the disabled in Ghana. Apparently they have already distributed over 90,000 wheelchairs. However, I was still shocked to see how many wheelchairs they had on site, in storage. In order to get a wheelchair, they claim an individual must have a doctor's prescription. Going to the doctor can be very expensive and time consuming, not to mention how would a person get there if they are immobile? This was hard for me to handle after the number of people I had seen using scooter boards.

Many of the individuals with disabilities that do not have wheelchairs, use a scooter board - a wooden board with wheels on the bottom much like a skateboard. They use their hands to propel themselves along the street. I only saw one person using flip-flops on their hands, the others use their bare hands along the pavement. These are very dangerous as the individuals are seated on the ground and cars cannot see them.

All the residents at Echoing Hills seem very well cared for and the center is located on a beautiful piece of property. They grow their own food, bake their own bread and sell items they make. Several volunteers (one from England, the other from Spain) are there to teach the students. The center requires that volunteers teach the christian doctrine and do not accept non-christian workers. Ghanaians do not like our separation of church and state, they believe they should be one.

Pictured below is a remarkable young woman we met at the center. She had amazing skill precision coloring and writing using her mouth.

Tonight the seamstress who was making our clothing came back with the finished products. Wow. I was very impressed with her skill and creativity. I will definitely be having more clothes made on my next trip to Ghana!!!

Days 7 & 8 (May 26 & 27) - The New Horizon Special School

Days 7 & 8 (Tuesday and Wednesday) were spent at the New Horizon Special School. This school is a privately funded school for individuals with disabilities. They have about 100-120 students ranging in age from 6-52 years old. They have two sections of students, an educational section and a vocational section. In the educational section, individuals are put into 7 groups by age and ability. Both sections of the school are a day school from 8-4. It costs families about $200 per term (3 terms per year)to attend. There is no government funding and they cannot depend on donations. A few of the students have sponsorship but most are able to pay out of pocket. The goal of the school is to put students back into the community and enable them with something to do. However, this is not always received well. Most of the employees and teachers do not have special education training and have learned everything onsite. They have workshops to learn more and yearly training for teachers, but more specialized training would be beneficial.
All the students have either physical or intellectual disabilities. The building is not accessible but the students manage. We were suprised to find that a physiotherapist from the Netherlands works here. She works with students on positioning and exercises.
Students in the educational section take normal school classes such as math and reading. They try to group individuals by abilities and then break it down to everyone's individual level. They also work with students on daily ADLs and take them through various skills to discover their interests. Students who do well get some allowance as an incentive. Then they can spend this at a restaurant.
Students in the vocational section can sell their goods at a store located onsite. The school buys the materials for their dollmaking, basketweaving, cloth dying and woodworking. The school tries to give 50% of the profit on the products back to the students and they spend the money together. Some students have joint bank accounts with their parents.

There are other schools that are funded by the government but this one is not. Everything is funded by the parents. It is important for the students to know their roles in their families and society. Institutions are not helpful because they do not know the social behavior of a family. The best place is at home with their families in the evenings. The students need love from their parents just like their siblings.

The Physiotherapist at the school is trained in the Bobath technique. She told us that there are about 80 physiotherapists in all of Ghana. Her work at the school has been with children with cerebral palsy (CP). She makes chairs and standing frames for the children our of recycled paper. She mentioned that they do have proper equipment here but they may not at home. She is teaching some of the vocational students how to make these chairs so that they can be sold. Her focus is mostly on positioning and exercies. She said that pressure sores are not bad but some of the older children have contractures that started long ago. She described how we need to work in hospitals to catch these individuals early so that we can prevent many contractures. The school has several wheelchairs but not special ones necessary for appropriate positioning. Some children have wheelchairs at home but all wheelchairs stay at the school so they will not be lost.
Many children have nannies to care for them. We later learned that many of these children are cared for nannies most of their lives and rarely see their parents. They are cared for but separated from family life. This level of care is rare in Ghana and is only among the most wealthy families.
We spent Tuesday morning touring the center and looking at what we should bring back with us the following day. Areas of possible treatment included hand positioning, tool use, head support, eye control, communication skills and systems, ADLs, vocational training, increasing hand use, age appropriate activities, specialized equipment for the computer room, adaptations for pencils, rulers and scissors, dysem, slant boards and social skills training.
We spent Wednesday implementing many of these treatments including various adaptations to utensils, pencils, and other tools. We worked on feeding and positioning as well. In addition to our adaptations for the students, we gave an instructional course on all of our adapted equipment and proper transfer techniques. The staff was very interested in what we had to say and how they could improve. Another volunteer privately mentioned to us that nothing like that had been done before but needed to happen.

I had a great time at this school but realized that it is not in the greatest need for our help. Yes, there is a lot we can do to help with what they have already established, but other centers with less funding may need more of our help.

Day 6 (May 25) - HOLIDAY!

Today, Monday, is a National Holiday! We decide to use this day to do our tourist activities. We leave the hotel at 6 am to travel to the Kakum National Park. This is a large rainforest preserve with an old (but hopefully safe) canopy walk. They give us cards to wear (pictured below) that state the obvious...

In the canopy walk, series of rope bridges connect to tree stands and allow people to walk atop the rainforest canopy. Apparently there was a cobra on one of the stands while we were up there...

Next we traveled to the coast to visit the Elmina Slave Fort. This is where the dutch kept slaves to be sent to the Americas. This building was very eerie and it started to storm while we were there. The fort is gorgeous, but holds a horrifying history.

We ate dinner at Paloma, a restaurant frequented by tourists. All 6 of us packed into a 4 person cab for the short ride. However, our cabbie did not speak english and had no idea where we were going. He tried to drop us off in a dark alley before asking another cabbie for directions...we couldn't stop laughing. Once we finally got there, I had pizza...it was glorious. Susan ordered a hot dog in a pita...an amazing masterpiece pita filled with a hot dog, french fries and pickles. A great ending to our touristic day!

Day 5 (May 24) - The Slums

Today, Sunday, we attended Eric Annan’s church (above), Shepherd Baptist Church. They are in the process of building a new church, so we sat next to the construction site under a tent. It was extremely hot, as usual, but all the men wore suits and the women were dressed in floor length dresses made of gorgeous, colorful fabric. The church service was very religious and much more conservative than my Episcopalian upbringing. Faith is a huge part of African culture and an open mind must be kept.

After church, Felicia and her daughter Euphralia, came with us to the slum neighborhoods. Felicia often visits individuals here and does what she can for them. We first met Lizzie (pictured below). She is almost totally blind and has decreased use of her legs. She is from a village outside of Accra but cannot pay to get home. She came to the city to beg but now cannot get back.

Once I took the camera out to photograph Lizzie, children came up to have their pictures taken as well. One of these children was the little girl pictured below. She was afraid of me because she had never seen a white person before.

We then met Moses and George (pictured below). Moses is angry that the government has done nothing for him. He said it is easier and more lucrative to beg on the streets than to learn a trade. He is able to send his children to private school with the amount of money he makes begging in the streets. Moses and George would like to start a dressmaking business but claim they have no help from the government to do so. They may be taught the trade but then no one gives them money to be able to start working on their own. They are both very enlightened about the rights of individuals with disabilities in Ghana and are angry that more has not been done.

We then walked to where we would be assisting with the weekly feeding of local street children. Many of these children are orphans and have to fend for themselves. One 6 yr old is not only responsible for her own survival, but that of her infant sister whom she carries on her back. However, the most amazing part was that these children were so happy! They are filthy, hungry and probably full of worms – but they are happy.

We evaluated several children, in the back of the blue van, including 10 yr old Felicia. Felicia had a suffered a stroke which resulted in left-sided hemiparesis in her upper extremity and lower extremity. She presented with possible contracture in her left hand. Stacey and I traced her hand for a splint to be made if possible.

I have a friend, Dianne, who lives in Richmond and worked with me before graduate school. She is from Accra and her parents still live there. Mr. and Mrs. Azu, and their friend Joe, met with us at the hotel. We were able to interview them about the disability culture in Ghana among other things. It was nice to feel as though I have a family in Ghana and I know I am always safe and welcome in their home.

Day 4 (May 23) - Where the Wild Things Are

Today, Saturday, we returned to the child development center where we had been painting for the past 2 days. Today was the day when the children from the local village would be coming to be read to and play. Unfortunately all of the books we collected took longer to arrive than we anticipated and would get there after we had already left. However, we were also going to evaluate children with disabilities.
Only 2 children with disabilities arrived among the many other children. With the help of Felicia Annan to translate, Stacey, Susan and I evaluated Moses - a teen aged boy with lower extremity paralysis since infancy due to an injection. This would become one of many individuals we would see who claimed their dysfunctions were due to injections they had received. We speculated what this could have been and guessed that many of these children had had polio and the injection saved their lives, but damage had already occurred.
Moses arrived with his mother, who was dressed in her finest clothing and heeled shoes. He could barely walk but used crutches to compensate. We learned they had walked several miles to get to us.
Elizabeth, the second child that came to see us was suspected of having a mild form of Down syndrome.

Many of the school supplies that were generously collected for us by family friends were given to this center. As you can see by the picture above, we had a good time coloring with the children in the shade. Some of the coloring books had stickers in them and I soon learned that these are highly valued! I had to regulate the sticker distribution so that all the children got at least one. Some of us played ball, soccer and Frisbee with the children after we colored. However, the best part was when all the children performed their play for us. Led by a sassy older girl, the group performed “Where the Wild Things Are” for us. The play was fabulous! They had programs for us with the script on it, costumes and scene changes.
While the play was performed, the young girl pictured below sat snuggled in my lap. While many people would cringe at the thought of snuggling a warm body in the African heat, I cherished the moment.

That evening we had a seamstress come to our hotel to make dresses, skirts and shirts for us out of the fabric we had bought at the market.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Day 3 (May 22) - Fatoush and Spaghetti

We returned to finish our painting at the child development center. Today, we were a bit more alive after having a normal night’s sleep. As we were getting close to the center, our driver stopped, got out and started hitting the ground. He had seen a snake and got out to kill it before continuing down the road. Interesting…

Today, I got my first Ghanaian proposal. Ah yes, as I am enjoying myself painting trim, I realize there is a man that is overseeing my work. He directs me where to paint and then watches. He then asks me to marry him. I politely tell him I have a boyfriend. He then goes outside and I hear him laughing with his friends. I am flattered, confused and insulted at the same time.

For lunch we walk to a different stand, but stop to buy fabric first. Ghanaian batik fabric is made by taking a white piece of cotton (looks like a sheet), and stamping designs onto it with wax. The fabric is then dyed and re-dyed. We bought most of her stock – a very good day for her home business. She was kind enough to show us how she made these pieces of batik in her backyard. She showed us additional stamp designs she had and we told her we would be back for more fabric (unfortunately she did not finish them in time!).

We bought sweet bread and Fanta from a closer store and as we sat in the shade and ate, we noticed some children gathering. Several little boys were walking our way with a soccer ball. This started the juggling session between Stacey and the boys. Wow…Stacey didn’t mention that she is an all-star soccer buff as well…I am very impressed. In addition to my bend-it like Beckham professor, the Ghanaian boys were good…they were really good. More children began to gather as they walked home from school to watch the Obruni (white person)playing soccer. The younger children kept their distance from us and some even started to cry. We realized, later, this was because they had never seen a white person before and we scared them.

On the way back to the hotel, a mother with a child was begging for food from us. She kept repeating, “please, for the child.” I just couldn’t take it anymore. I gave her the rest of the loaf of bread I had bought at lunch. She looked so grateful for this tiny piece of bread and it made me feel really good for a moment. It also made me feel infinitely sad.

I was exhausted and sunburned from the long day of painting in the hot air. Our shower had been fixed! I took the best cold shower I have ever had (in Africa). We decided to go to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner. My stomach and body were starting to feel the effects of my unbalanced diet. I was eating mostly Special K bars and Luna bars during the day with the addition of a loaf of bread and a Fanta. This sugar rich diet was helpful for dehydration but my body was not use to it. I craved a salad and anything but the spicy, greasy Ghanaian fare. Dinner was amazing. I ate spaghetti with marinara and fatoush (an amazing salad). I ordered so much that I was able to take most of the spaghetti home to eat the next night. This was such a delicious meal, I craved that fatoush for the rest of the trip. Again we went to bed no later than 8:30, totally exhausted (I was fat and happy too).

Day 2 (May 21) - PAINTING!!!

George picks us up in the blue VW at 8:30 this morning to take us to the Adotamen Child Development Center outside of Accra. The future school is located in a developing community nestled among the tropical forests. The community is surrounded by rolling hills and overlooked by the President’s retreat. Looking at the lush jungle and the President’s sprawling property juxtaposed against the red dirt schoolyard and its concrete buildings, made me slightly angry. We had heard about previous Presidents who had built themselves amazing palaces while their people were living in poverty. This is more than apparently still the case. It is frustrating to see how easily things could be implemented but there is a lack of governmental help.

It is so hot outside…and inside. The thick, humid air sucks every bit of moisture out of your body…and yet you are soaking wet. The concrete walls suck in the paint and the sun dries it mid-stroke. Multi-colored lizards run from shady spot to shady spot, stopping only briefly to feel the scorching sun. Huge spiders are drawn inside the classrooms, attracted to the cool walls. Anything outside in the sun for too long will bake. It feels good to keep moving so the air can move across your skin.

Midday we stop for a break and walk into the small town to find a store. I have amazingly cold peach Fanta and sweet bread for lunch. The shop owners always want their glass bottles back, as they can make money off of them. Everything in this country can be bought or sold.

After completing our painting for the day, we head to the Kwame Nkrumah National Memorial. Kwame Nkrumah, the“LIE founder and first president of the modern Ghanaian state, was not only an African anti-colonial leader but also one with a dream of a united Africa which would not drift into neo-colonialism. He was the first African head of state to espouse Pan-Africanism, an idea he came into contact with during his studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (United States), at the time when Marcus Garvey was becoming famous for his "Back to Africa Movement." He merged the dreams of both Marcus Garvey and the celebrated African-American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois into the formation of the modern day Ghana. Ghana's principles of freedom and justice, equity and free education for all, irrespective of ethnic background, religion or creed, borrow from Kwame Nkrumah's implementation of Pan-Africanism.” (Wikipedia.com)

Tonight we got our first taste of Ghanaian beer, Star Beer bought from Strawberry (the beer shop and bar near our hotel). What a nice way to end a long, hot day. We ate dinner at the hotel on the patio. Dinner consisted of steamed vegetables and fried rice. We were exhausted and fell into bed around 8:30 pm.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

AFRICA: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

" Westerners arriving in Africa for the first time are always struck by its beauty and size - even the sky seems higher. And they often find themselves suddenly cracked open. They lose inhibitions, feel more alive, more themselves, and they begin to understand why, until then, they have only half lived. In Africa the essentials of existence - light, earth, water, food, birth, family, love, sickness, death - are more immediate, more intense. Visitors suddenly realize what life is for. To risk a huge generalization: amid our wasteful wealth and time-pressed lives we have lost human values that still abound in Africa" (Dowden, 2009).

Day 1 (May 19/20): Akwaaba to Accra

We arrived in Accra, Ghana this morning at about 8 am local time (4 am our body time). Stepping off the chilly plane, the thick, humid heat instantly engulfed my body. The African air felt exactly like a sauna and I was almost immediately drenched with sweat.
After a relatively easy exit from the airport (much unlike our departure) we were met by Eric and Felicia Annan of the Sovereign Global Mission, our driver (also Felicia's brother) George, and another VCU Grad student, Cameron. Cameron is in the school of social work and is in Ghana for 1 month. It was definitely nice having her advice before and during the trip!

We climbed into an old VW van (our transportation for the entire trip), slid the windows open and melted onto the old leather seats for the drive. On the way to the hotel there was a lot to see and the driving itself was an adventure. Ghanaians’ driving style is a mix between New York City cab drivers and a crowd of excited young kids trying to siphon through a single door to get candy. I was amazed that there were no collisions but instead cars stopped inches from one another, with lots of honking and yelling. Other than the traffic, there is a lot to look at in Accra. There are huge gated homes and buildings next to straw huts and makeshift stands. The women carry their babies tied to their backs by beautiful pieces of fabric. Many of these women also carry anything and everything from water to tables balanced effortlessly on their heads as they navigate gracefully around other people, cars, goats, chickens and uneven surfaces.
The air in Ghana has a distinct smell. Sometimes it smells foul and sometimes its delicious. The air is a mixture of burning garbage, sewage, butter for frying food, car exhaust, body odor and spicy food.

Arriving at the Hotel President, we peeled our sweaty bodies from the van’s leather seats and were welcomed by rooms with air conditioning and fans and a mini-fridge! Jessica and I shared room #2 and began to settle into what would be our home for the next two weeks. The bed was two twin beds pushed together with a single sheet over top and one loose sheet folded at the end of the bed. Our corner room was situated directly above the Hotel Restaurant and there was always a lot of activity outside. One window looked out the back of the hotel to where the kitchen was located and the other looked to the driveway where we had entered. The décor was simple with dark wood furniture and long, dark merlot colored curtains. The tiny bathroom held a toilet that only halfway flushed and a shower that offered only a trickle. But, we were happy to be here and had prepared for much worse.

Climbing back into the van with George, we drove down the street to exchange our American dollars and cents into Ghanaian cedes and pesewas. Once we had money we could spend, we went to the internet café so we could check in with our families and Stacey could buy a phone. This is where I came to realize it would be impossible to stay in regular contact with my family. The café was crowded and overpriced, and being chained to a computer instead of taking in the culture was not why I came to Africa. Stacey purchased a phone with which we could call home and we would rely on this instead.

We then drove to buy water and boxed wine before heading back to the hotel. While stuck in traffic, a small child came to our van window begging for food. We had studied how giving money to these children perpetuates the begging problem and we had learned how adults exploit children to beg for them. I could not look at the child when she was at my window. I had nothing to give her and we were told not to do so. I watched her as she circled the van - her bright eyes shone under the desperate expression and layers of dirt she wore on her face. There are individuals selling everything at your car windows – gum, mentos, coke, bagged water, shoe polish, peanuts, fried plantains, hankerchiefs and cell phone minutes. Among all of this, starving children are begging to survive. My heart hurt and I knew this was only the beginning.

Once back at the hotel, we had a chance to shower under our trickle of cold water and change our clothes. Our meeting place became the hotel patio, where you could hide from the heat in the shade and slight breezes were often. I had bought a book the night before leaving home and had a while to do some reading in “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles” by author Richard Dowden. I discovered this book at the last minute and have discovered in it the words to describe many of the feelings I would have. Dowden’s ability to explain Africa’s ordinary horrors and joys is insightful and written with tender detail.

We had dinner at the White Bell Restaurant, where I had jollaf, a spicy rice. We then sat and talked on the hotel porch, enjoyed some of our boxed wine, and planned our next day. We went to bed early, exhausted from the long trip and our bodies had not yet fully adjusted to the time or the heat.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Where am I?

This will be the first of a series of posts about our adventures in Ghana. Unfortunately, it seems I have brought a parasitic "friend" back with me and have not felt up to blogging. It has also been a hard week of processing what I have experienced and seen while in Ghana.
But, in the next few days, I will try to recount the ups and downs of my experience. To say the least it has been an extremely hard adjustment back to western culture and society with or without my "friend." Some days I wake up thinking, "where am I?" but also wondering where I actually want to be...

The question everyone wants to know is "Did you have fun? and "Tell me all about it!" It is difficult to gauge which individuals actually want to know about the trip or just want an Ghanaian answer of "it was great, everything is great." The word "fun" is not one I would use to describe my first trip to Africa. Yes there were fun moments and lots of laughing. But the trip as a whole was not for the purpose of "fun." It was an amazing trip...I learned a lot about a different culture, about myself, and about my place in the world as a whole. Another question that I have also been asked a lot is, "would you go back?" The answer is a strong YES and I am already planning when my next trip will be whether it is with the VCU OT department or on my own.

Our photos should be up soon and that will hopefully help to give you some images of what we experienced. However, a camera can never capture everything and sometimes I felt it was easier to just put my camera away.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bon Voyage

We leave for Ghana tomorrow, tuesday the 19th. I honestly can't believe how fast this semester has flown by and that our departure is so soon!!! Packing has been an interesting experience as we have only an idea of what to expect. The average temperatures in Ghana are in the 90's currently, with 95% humidity - its going to be H-O-T.
We also found out that we will be doing much more teaching than we first had expected. One of our other professors helped us prepare by giving us a quick tutorial in positioning, pressure sore relief and prevention, and transfers. It appears we will be wearing many hats while in Ghana: teacher, OT or physiotherapist, student, tourist and friend.
We had an understanding that shorts are inappropriate in Ghana...a fact that my Ghanaian friend found very funny. Apparently shorts are allowed for all casual situations- just not church, work or going to a club at night. I will be packing some more shorts after hearing this!
I will be updating my blog from internet cafes in Accra so tune in for first impressions in country!
On to finish packing and prepare to tackle the 11 hour flight awaiting us!!

Monday, March 16, 2009

An Obruni in Ghana

In approximately 2 months we will be leaving for Ghana! Its amazing how fast the trip is approaching! The support we have gotten for our book drive has been fabulous. I am very thankful for Christina Hamner who has organized a book drive at Mango Salon in Richmond, Va. This is a perfect example of the ability for individuals to help immensely without having to travel.
We also recently had the opportunity to orient ourselves to the culture of Ghana through the eyes of Randi from the VCU department of social work. She has been going to Ghana for the past 6 years and has had the ability to see changes occur and be maintained. Randi not only discussed safety and culture issues with us but gave us a picture of the extreme poverty we will encounter. We talked about the street children in Ghana, many of which are orphans after their parents died from AIDS. Fortunately, the street children in Ghana are different than the street children found in other countries. In Ghana, children form tribal families and care for each other instead of fighting and competing. Interestingly, children are most at risk for exploitation from adults, not each other. But trying to survive without appropriate adult guidance is a 24/7 job when these children should be playing and developing.

Poverty in Ghana is not about a lack of access to resources, not material goods. Randi explained to us that the people are very happy, joyful and resilient; they are hopeful and have positive outlooks on life. This is uplifting and inspiring to hear that poverty has not affected the spirit of Ghana. Randi also explained to us that the return culture shock would actually be more intense than when we arrive in Ghana and see the extreme poverty. Coming back to the United States where water out of the faucet is safe and the rush of life drowns everyone, I honestly don't know how I will react. Currently I am trying to get rid of things in my house that I do not need so I won't give everything I have worked for away when I return! I am nervous to see how this trip changes me as a person and re-orders my values and priorities. However, it is helpful to mentally prepare for this trip and our return and to have friends to be able to share these experiences with.

I hope to bring back from Ghana the deep understanding that it takes very little to be happy. I want to bring back the positives as well as the negatives and grow as a person from both.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

What can I do?

When I tell people I am going to Africa to help individuals with disabilities, the usual response is good for you that is very noble of you to do. No, it is not noble, it is humbling and it is what we should all be doing. I do not think that I am, in any way, better than my peers who are not going on this trip because that is not the point. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this trip and for the chance to encourage others to do whatever they can. We need to take the heroism out of helping others and realize it is something that we all should be doing whether it is at home or abroad. It is easy to think, "I'm going to make a huge difference" but I am not. It is impossible to make a huge, visible change in the two weeks that I will be in Ghana. But it is not about me personally making a change, it is about helping the country and people of Ghana to make the changes themselves. Therefore, the focus of our trip is not on what can we do immediately but what can we teach the people we meet that will be sustainable. Heroes are great but we need a wider approach that will be larger in scope until systematic changes happen. For example, it will be great if we can make several children with disabilities wheelchairs so they can play chase with their friends. But it is more helpful if when we are making these chairs, to teach the caregivers or other children how to make them as well. That way, if another child needs this type of modality in future, individuals will already know how to do it. The grassroots approach should be the emphasis of any type of foreign aid, one in which people are trained to care for each other. Our focus is equipping ourselves with the knowledge and strategies we need to pass on. So in conclusion, do not read my blog and think I am a hero, please read it and think "what could I do to help?"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I need Africa more than Africa needs me. Do you?

Click on this link to open a live radio station in Windows Media Player.

Ghana Home Page

This is a great resource for information about the country of Ghana.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ghana Renaissance

Last Wednesday, our group of 6 had our initial meeting and began discussing plans. I decided from the amount of time we spent laughing that this group is going to be great to travel with! Aside from the jokes, we also got down to business and started discussing some of our readings regarding developing countries.
I was reminded of a radio show I listened to for Stacey's class last semester. It is Act One: Harlem Renaissance and you can find the show through this link: This American Life

It is a pretty amazing success story about how improved parenting skills can allow children to escape the poverty cycle. Parents are urged to read to their children, which has shown developmental benefits (as well as a strengthened parent-child bond). Would it be possible for developing countries to implement similar prevention strategies with proper long-term assistance and funding?

During our two weeks in Ghana I know we will do everything we can, whether it is reading to children or building a wall. Mother Teresa said, "Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work."

So on that note, I'm ready to work with some cement.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

So after finally figuring out how to customize my page...I am actually blogging for the first time! As my profile says, my name is Lea and I am a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University. I just started my third semester in the master's of occupational therapy program and plan on graduating in December of 2010. In May of this year, I will be traveling with 4 of my classmates and our professor, Dr. Stacey Reynolds, to Ghana in West Africa. The following is a description taken from the syllabus of the course we are taking this semester.

"The focus of the course will be on understanding child development from the Ghanaian perspective and the challenges faced by children in developing countries. A special focus will be placed on children with disabilities and children who are disadvantaged by their family situation (e.g. orphans, street children). Participants will visit and volunteer at several orphanages and schools in the Central region of Ghana as well as work with street children currently being served by the host organization, Sovereign Global Mission. While in the country, students will meet with and interview local leaders to gain a better understanding of the disability culture in this part of West Africa."

I love to travel, and I have always wanted to go to Africa to experience the beauty and culture of the continent. Simultaneously being able to give my time to children who are disadvantaged is an opportunity I could not pass up. I am very excited to be a part of this trip as I believe the best gift you can give someone is yourself and your time.