Friday, June 29, 2007

What is Africa to Me?

Countee Cullen once asked, "Copper sun and scarlet sea, What is Africa to me?" I don't remember what Africa was to him; I read the poem a long time ago. But I know what Africa is to me.
Africa is Fanta in 300 ml glass bottles for 3000 cedis.
Africa is cold bucket showers.
Africa is my blue backpack filled with teaching tools.
Africa is sharing the streets-- not only with throngs of Ghanaians, but with goats, chickens, and taxis that seem ready to run over you if you don't make way.
Africa is sharing taxis with six other people and laughing at how squished you are.
Africa is handing Benjie a "color" (crayon), and hearing his tiny voice cheerfully say, "Thank you, and God bless you!"
Africa is Adjoa singing while she works-- all day.
Africa is Precious and her black backpack that is practically glued to her.
Africa is Kobi's mischevious fake cry just to trick you into thinking it's real.
Africa is Elizabeth wanting to play the hand-clap game "Mister Mister," and wanting it "sharp sharp!" or very fast.
Africa is calling "Ansapatu" to the mate (or money taker) on the tro tro (minibus) and walking down the orange dirt hill to the orphanage.
Africa is plantain, pineapple, oranges, jollof rice, red red, fish, and chicken.
Africa is Ghana, and Ghanaians, and my children.
To me, Africa is heaven.

Some people don't like it when others use the broad, continental term "Africa." Well, I know that Africa is not a country. I know that Africa has more tribes, customs, languages, and countries than almost anywhere else on the planet. But why should we not use the word Africa? I was in Ghana, yes, and that is the only part of Africa I know-- but it is still a part of Africa. It is one of the only places in the world where people are proud of being part of multiple things: their tribe, their country, and their continent. They are Ghanaian, and they are African.

Someone once asked me what it is about Africa that captures nearly everyone who goes there. I have pondered on this often, and I'm still not sure. All I know is, it captured me. Something about the people, the cultures, the very land you walk on seems captivating and majestic and somehow more real than anything else in your life has ever been.

My host father once laughed and told me, as I stood wearing a Ghanaian slit and kaba, that I was "A real African now!" I would never want to lessen the dignity or honor of being African by laying claim to the title after a paltry four months of living there. But somewhere inside me is a corner of my heart that has become African, simply out of love for Africa and her people. That is what Africa really is to me; despite the hunger, the disease, the fear, the war, and all the atrocities the continent seems capabale of, there is more love than I have ever known in my life.

Pictures from top to bottom: 1. A street in Abura, a suburb of Cape Coast. 2. Women in the Kejetia market in Kumasi. 3. Children on the street create their own toys. 4. Small Phillip and Precious, showing their love.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

I Want: Dreams of Ghanaian Orphans

There is a game in Ghana called "I Want." It's very simple, and we played it at New Life all the time. The children gather in a circle, and one goes to the middle. They begin to sing, "I want...I want...I want (insert name, i.e. Gifty), I want Gifty, I want Gifty to come and dance with me." And then Gifty comes from the circle and the two in the middle bump hips and do various dance moves as the rest of the circle sings the ditty. The first child then goes back to the circle, and Gifty begins the song again. It is generally cause for a lot of laughter as the circle watches the antics of the dancers in the middle.

Of course, we all want things-- whether it be a friend, like in the game, or a new X-box, or something much more basic. Right now, I want Gifty. I want Benjie, and Michael, and Ophelia, and Pernel, and Belinda, and Emmanuel, and all my children, new and old, at New Life. I want to see them, to hug them, to dance with them. I want them to go to school, and I want them to have the things they want.

Last summer, a volunteer in Ghana asked the children what they wanted, and wrote down their replies. This is what they want-- these are their dreams. (Note: all ages given are very approximate.)

Ruth (age 7): I'd wish for a ball because I can play with a ball. I'd wish for a school bag because we need school bag to go to school.

Comfort (age 8): First, I'd wish for rice because we don't have rice. Then, I'd wish for socks. Then, I would wish for a camera because I want to take pictures.

David (age 10): I wish for a shirt. I wish for soap so I can bath.

Amos (age 8): I wish for an airplane beause I can go to America. Then I'd wish for a Bible because no Jesus no life. I wish I could be a doctor.

Belinda (age 10): First, I'd wish for my own bed because now I share a bed. I wish that I can be a bank manager.

Pernel (age 10): First I'd wish for food because I can fill my stomach. Then I'd wish for an airplane because I want to sit in an airplane.

Ophelia (age 11): I'd wish for Madame Jacklyn, Madame Ruby, and Madame Grace [the directors] to get money because they will use money to look after us. Last, I would wish for people because the people will help Madame Ruby to build a house for us.

Emmanuel (age 11): I wish that God should bless me to have a long life on the earth. Then I would wish to be a big man because I would love one to another. Last, I would wish I should be a good person and God should take me to heaven because I would be a good person.

Agnes (age 12): I would wish for shoes. Then I would wish for sugar because we need some sugar.

Mary (age 9): I'd wish for a pen and pencil because we can use it to write.

Grace (age 13): I wish for work because I want to help my country. I'd wish for work at a hospital because I want to help other people.

Abraham (age 13): I will wish to become an astronaut because I can be the first Ghanaian in space.

Michael (age 12): I'd wish for plaster [bandaids], because when people get sick I can pray so that person get well. I would wish for money because I can help people who are poor. After that, I would wish for love because when people do a bad thing I forgive him. Then I would wish for a mind because I can use my mind to help people when they are in big trouble.

They want necessities. They want a happy life. And they want not only to be loved, but to love others in return.

photo: from left to right: Dora, Pernel, Daniel, Ruby, Ruth, Ophelia, Grace, Doris.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

This is Real Life

Cape Coast, Ghana, 4/9/05: "For the last few weeks, I've been gaining a greater sense of reality, as though the adventure aspect and novelty [of Ghana] have given way to the dep, intrinsic knowledge that this - is - real - life. For the people that live here, it is all they know, just as, before I came, Utah was all I knew. For Michael [a student at the orphanage school, pictured above], his everyday reality is hunger and cramped quarters and sleeping on concrete and a bamboo roof that leafs in the rain and he knows nothing else. And in a month, I'll go back to my everyday reality of fast food and five bedrooms and a daybed and red brick and shingles, and I'm so afraid that I'll forget, amidst the glamour of $10 DVD deals and the pink skirt I'm dying to have, that there is a village called Efutu where a 10-year-old boy and his family are still living just where I left them. And there is a part of me that wants to forget, the same part that wants the DVD's and the pink skirt and doesn't want to think about the ones who have nothing so I can enjoy my comparative wealth in the bliss of ignorance.

So the question becomes, where do I draw the line? I can't subject myself to poverty merely to dole out money to a world that needs so much-- for Efutu is one tiny village in Ghana, and Ghana is one tiny country amidst all those suffering in poverty. I can't save the whole world, much as my idealistic heart wants to, and it makes no sense to deny myself the things I wish for others. That being the case, I can't do nothing, not when I'm in a position to give. So I suppose that means for me to choose-- choose one aspect of the world that is within my power to help bring about positive change and progression."

I wrote this in my journal as I was nearing the end of my stay in Ghana. I grew afraid of forgetting, of returning home and doing nothing further to help. But I couldn't forget, not completely. Not when I had found a love for these children so deep it felt like it couldn't come from my own small heart. And yet, sometimes, I do get caught up in the $10 DVD deals, because that is real life too. I've realized that part of my fear of forgetting was the fear that as I forgot them, I would forget why it was so horrible to forget.

Then I remember the last paragraph of that journal entry. DVD's don't mean I have forgotten my children. I can't do it all, and I can't do it all the time, but I can still choose to remember, choose to do something. I have chosen a part of the world that I have the power to help, something that I chose to love, and I give out of that love.

So choose something. Choose someone. It doesn't have to be New Life Orphanage, or Ghana, or solving world hunger. Just choose one thing, one person, and make a difference in that person's life-- because it is as real as yours.

Photo: Michael (age 10) at a volunteer's goodbye celebration.

Friday, June 8, 2007

New Life Orphanage, SOR, and FFCI-- Partnering to Help the Orphans of Ghana, West Africa

When I decided to volunteer in Africa over two years ago, I didn't realize that the continent as a whole takes hold of you once you're there. I was a teacher at New Life for the preschoolers, and was there for only a little over four months, but I developed such a deep love for Ghana and for the children I had come to know, I simply couldn't stop helping when I came home. At first, I worked on my own; I had traveled alone, and knew of no one else in my area who could help me. At the orphanage director's request, I began to set up a volunteer program, which I called SOR, a word in the Fante dialect that will be explained in a moment. As luck would have it, I met the wonderful family who runs Families for Children International-- an NPO in my city building an orphanage of their own not far from New Life. I found other volunteers through them who had traveled to New Life for 6 weeks just after I left, and a wonderful partnership has begun.

While SOR is still merely a dream under the umbrella of FFCI, many things have been done to benefit both New Life and FFCI's orphanages. Below, I have listed the missions of the organizations since all three are integral to this blog.

SOR International- Standing for Orphans Rights
No matter where I am, when I look at the sky, I feel at home. It is the one thing that is familiar wherever I am. This, to me is expressed by our motto. In the Central Region dialect of Fante, Nyame te amen beebiara (nee-AH-may tay AH-men BAY-bee-ar-a) roughly translates as “God hears amen wherever we are.” It is my belief that we are all connected together, and that whether we be in Ghana or the United States, there is someone watching over us all. That is why the name of our organization is sor, the Fante word for heavens. We are all united; the same heavens are over us all. We all have the opportunity to strengthen this unity by serving those in need. For this reason, our logo is the Ghanaian Adinkra symbol Sesa Woruban, the star within the sun. It not only symbolizes the heavens, but its meaning is “to transform or change life.” As we change the lives of others, we change ourselves as well.
SOR (Standing for Orphans Rights) is a volunteer-based student group fighting for the rights of orphans in Ghana. We believe every child has rights:
-The right to a home
-The right to a safe, healthy environment
-The right to an education
-And most importantly, a right to be loved
We support the children in Ghana, West Africa through our efforts. If you are interested in helping, whether volunteering here or in Ghana, or just in offering support, please do. These are not just faces in a picture or stories on a page to us; they are children we know and love, and we see those children in the faces of all others. Please help us stand for their rights.
FFCI is a Utah based non-profit organization dedicated to the belief that every child in the world has a right to an education, a safe environment, and love. Our mission is to provide loving care in a family setting for orphaned, abandoned, and destitute children in developing countries. We do this by:
• Nurturing the children in a family setting
• Providing education in a modern, well-equipped school
• Teaching life skills and preparing them to be productive members of their society
• Developing within them an appreciation for their heritage
Construction on an orphanage is currently underway in Elmina, near Cape Coast, Ghana. This orphanage will house children in a family setting, and provide schooling to the orphans and their peers in the surrounding community.
New Life International Orphanage
NLI provides shelter, food, education, medical care, and clothes for orphans, needy and abandoned children in the village of Ansapatu, just outside Cape Coast, in Ghana’s Central Region. The organization was established in 1997 and had been responsible for providing care and education for poor children ever since. The severity of the situation of orphans and needy and abandoned children in the rural communities is a result of poor parental control and a low standard of living due to poverty. Our objectives are:
• To increase and intensify the campaign of basic education by sponsoring more orphans and abandoned children and those who are talented and can not afford a basic education.
• To promote the rights and interest of children and to create a favorable environment in which children can realize their full potential. The preservation of children’s interest is in accordance with the UN convention on the rights of children.
• To build an ultra-modern orphanage which will be able to accommodate more children and will also have a school for the children and a vocational training center for adults
NLI currently cares for eighty-seven children. [Note: These numbers frequently change.] Forty-two of these children live in the orphanage while the other forty-five live outside the home with extended family members. They are usually living in extreme poverty and so are not able to take care of the children very well. Some of the children have to live away from the orphanage due to the size of the present orphanage building.

Though we are different organizations, our mission is the same: to bring peace, happiness and fulfillment to the lives of Ghanaian orphans.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

New Life Orphanage Ghana

This is just the first post about the kids at New Life International Orphanage. I don't know how to express the reality of who they are in any other way than through my own faulty attempts at the written word, but I hope that at the very least, this blog will spread the word about kids that need help-- and love.

Agekow's Story

Last night, I dreamed about Agekow.

He was only about three or four when I taught him at New Life two years ago, but in my dream, he was maybe ten. In my dream, I had gone back to the orphanage, and as I stood talking to Madam Grace, the caretaker, Agekow came through the door. I was surprised, because Agekow no longer lives at New Life; an uncle took him in. I cried in my joy to see him, and I cried because he spoke to me in fluent English. And I cried to see that he remembered me.

In my dream, he had grown and learned. In my dream he was healthy, and his little legs were no longer little, and no longer bowed with rickets. In my dream, I hugged my Agekow and he returned it fiercely, just like he used to.

But it was only my dream.

I haven't seen Agekow in two years. I will probably never see him again. Nearly all of the volunteers that have come and gone since my time don't even know Agekow, since he left just after I did. So many children are at New Life, and so many volunteers have come, and yet only a few of us remember this child.

He was the first to fall asleep in my arms, as I sat in a chair on my first day, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. Agekow cried, and I took him in my arms and sang to him until he fell asleep. He wore a little blue shirt that day, and I almost never saw him in anything different. As I began to teach the nursery class, I found that they still had much to learn. The day I showed my yellow flashcard and Agekow cried, "yellow!" I was thrilled. He was a sweetheart, and his face would light up in his angel smile to hear his work praised. He could also throw tantrums that put the devil to shame. Sometimes it seemed more than just normal child mood swings; he was teased sometimes because of his legs, and would sink into depression. It would sometimes be days between when I saw that angel smile.

I think of him when I look at the moon. When we read Where the Wild Things Are, he would shout out "Moon, moon!" at every page. I think of him when I see butterflies. He loved to count the butterflies on the flashcards, saying, "Butterfly!" and after ten, his counting would digress from actual numbers into "fourteen, seventeen, ten-teen..." I think of him when I have dreams of Ghana and hear his voice that isn't really his voice talking to me in flowing English.

It seems sometimes like no one knows Agekow, like he has been forgotten. One day as I crammed myself into a Ghanaian taxi and was berated by the driver for not greeting him, it occured to me that this taxi driver was once a child. I had a momentary flash of a would-be day twenty years down the road when I returned to Ghana and sat in a taxi without acknowledging the driver, and when he looked at me I saw that it was Agekow, all grown up, and that I hadn't even greeted this child I had loved so long ago. That sudden glimpse of what could be shocked me as I realized that these children wouldn't always be young and innocent. As they lost that innocence, the world that seems to care so much for them wouldn't care for them at all.

I don't know what will ever become of Agekow. He is with family now, where he should be, and where I hope he is happy. He is where someone knows him and will care for him even when he has lost his child-like ways. Though he is unknown by many who come to New Life, he is still loved by me and the few other volunteers who remember him. And there is a God who still hears when Agekow whispers "amen."

Playing at a nearby football park.

Standing on my shoulders-- he loved feeling tall!

Agekow and his good friend Phillip.

Agekow shows his angel smile with volunteer Becky.

Working hard at a puzzle next to his friend Elizabeth.