M’adamfo (My friend)

Day 10 – January 7th

We woke up early in order to interview Nana, the chief of Kobina Ansa. The interview had to be handled carefully because while a handful of children from Kobina Ansa attend the Akoanso school, Kobina Ansa has its own school that we were not planning on supporting. Nana, however, is good friends with Isaac so we weren’t too concerned. Unfortunately, the meeting was crashed by the Financial Secretary of the community, who was a bit less welcoming than Nana. We asked many questions about school in the area in general, prompting the Financial Secretary to ask us what we were bringing to the Kobina Ansa school and their community – a question we had no good answer to. Explaining that we were interested in speaking to with them because we wanted to thoroughly research the Akoanso school project was not an adequate answer for him; and would have been quite offensive in

After that somewhat stressful interview, we went to Akoanso to interview the chief of their town as well. His interview went spectacularly well, unsurprising as the school is being built in his town and the woman building it, Faustina, is his niece. He answered all our questions and told us he could “continue until the sun goes down” if we thought of any more questions for him. We didn’t continue for nearly that long though – we had our third and final interview for the day to complete, with the Queen Mother of the area. The Queen Mother helps to support the women and children of 64 communities that make up the Anomabo Traditional Area. Queen Mothers do everything from coordinating family planning training to helping to set up a school in one of their communities. Nana Sakyiwaa spoke to us about the problems of teen pregnancy, the barriers to education, and the girl to boy ratio in schools, among other topics pertinent to our project. After her interview, we went back to the eco-lodge, where our favorite chef had yam chips with tomato sauce and chicken awaiting us for lunch.

In the afternoon, some of us joined chef Fausti for her usual trip to the market in Cape Coast. It was quite a maze – Paul, Jiwon, Yaa and I bumped in to everything and were pretty much constantly in the way, but Fausti was patient with us. The market was a somewhat overwhelming cacophony of sights and especially smells, particularly the butcher shop. We searched unsuccessfully for mozzarella cheese for the mud-oven pizza we planned to make the next day and ended up buying cheddar instead. We also finally got to experience a tro-tro on our way back the Kobina Ansa. The tro-tro is a super cheap form of transportation: a van with a driver and a fare collector, all of which have different destinations that are yelled out of the window by the fare collector. They tend to be crowded and falling apart – our particular tro-tro had a side door that was so rusted through that there were holes in the metal and it refused to close without serious effort from the collector.

Just before dinner, Isaac surprised us with visitors from the refugee camp, including two men who we were beginning to consider friends.  He also brought two new guests, including a refugee who was incredibly musically talented and played a few of his own songs on guitar while singing for us. We ate dinner with them, groundnut (peanut) soup by the ever-talented Fausti. Unfortunately, the peanut fumes in the air kept Zoe from eating with us (she’s extremely allergic), but she was able to join later when we taught the refugees a few American card games, including BS and King’s Cup. After a long, lovely evening, we reluctantly went to bed, knowing we had to be up early the next day to continue our work.

Becky

Akwaaba! (Welcome)

We arrived in Ghana at 5:30am, and were greeted by festive green and red arches as we made our way through the airport towards immigration. Christmas music played as we wait for our baggage, which came shrink-wrapped by the airline for reasons unknown. Yaa picked us up from the airport, along with Isaac and Yaw, a Ghanaian man who will be accompanying us for most of the trip. We headed to Yaa’s house to pick up JP, who had arrived the previous day.

From Yaa’s house we drove about three hours to the eco-lodge we’re staying at in the central region of Ghana. The lodge is located right by one of the villages that the school will serve, specifically Kobina Ansa, the village that Isaac is considered a member of. The huts we are staying in are simple, clean, and pretty, built sustainably from mud with thatch roofs. We eat lunch at the lodge, cooked by Fausina, who will be making all our meals while we’re here. It’s delicious – chicken with veggies and jaloff rice.

IMG_0666

After lunch we headed to the village to meet with the chief of Kobina Ansa, called Nana. The meeting was formal and we had to speak through a linguist (Yaw), who speaks to the chief’s linguist. Linguists are not simple translators, which would be unnecessary as the chief speaks and understands English quite well. Instead, they are meant to make our words cleaner, and put them in language appropriate for the chief’s ear. Occasionally, Isaac did cut in to speak directly to the chief, which seemed to be deemed acceptable since they have been friends for over a decade. After we informed the chief as to why we are there, the chief’s linguist poured out a libation in the courtyard, calling on God, Mother Earth, and the ancestors. We then passed around a cup of liquor to symbolize the connection between everyone in the room. Everyone drank from the cup (though declining was not frowned upon) and some poured a little on the ground for the ancestors.

All of us headed back up to the lodge after that, as we were all pretty jet-lagged and in desperate need of a nap. We met up again for dinner, another tasty meal cooked by Fausina of groundnut soup with beef and rice balls and kenke (the staple food in the region made of fermented corn dough).  After dinner we headed to Yamoransa, a nearby town, with Nana to attend a traditional religious celebration. We visited the shrine of the  traditional priest hosting the event, and gifted him a bottle of schnapps.  The meeting was quite similar to our visit to the chief’s palace in the afternoon – linguists, libations, etc. Since the religious celebration had not started yet, we walked over to a nearby outdoor dance club. Most of us sat, talked, and sipped soda, but Paul eventually got up to dance and completely blew everyone in the club away with his break-dancing. We left a bit after 10 to see if the celebration had begun, but were told the drummers necessary for the celebration had not yet arrived. We sat in a courtyard and watched some of the children from the town drum instead – not a bad substitute, as the children in town are incredibly good a drumming despite the fact that some looked as young as 5 years old. Sadly the ceremony ended up starting too late for us to participate, so we left around 11pm to go back to the eco-lodge and off to bed.

Ahoofe (Beauty)

Day 8 & 9- January 5th -6th

Saturday

It is officially the one week anniversary of the beginning of our trip!!! Woke up to another beautiful African sunrise. Ahhh I don’t think I can ever get sick of the cool breeze that sneaks into our hut every morning for a brief time, then leaves. With nothing pressing on our schedule, I managed to take it slow, breathing in the smell of fresh grass and stopping to listen to the birds while brushing my teeth. I know… it sounds cheesy but try it sometime. It’s nice 🙂

Saturday was our first opportunity to stop and take a breath after a few consecutive days of nonstop interviews and note-taking. Fausti treated us to another scrumptious meal of toast and veggie omelets before we all hopped into the Hulk and headed for Cape Coast. The 30 minute drive to the beach was reminiscent of California… and I don’t even live there. The palm trees lining the coast screamed everything about L.A. We’d all take turns sticking our heads out the window while the Hulk zoomed down the highway at 200 mph. Man.. the Northeast really pales in comparison to this place, and staying here longer and longer makes me realize this more and more.

Cape Coast truly is a place unlike any other. We had been there before, but each trip there reveals something new about its novelty. The tight, narrow, dirt roads are lined with endless shops selling purses, designer shirts, cell-phones, snails, etc. On top of that, there are thousands of vendors walking around with ginormous bowls of water bottles, candy, and other goods on their heads. It’s nearly impossible to squeeze the Hulk through the narrow openings. The entire market is also a maze of swerving roads that cut in and out of each other. Hopefully, the pictures that we upload will do some justice to what it’s like to actually stand there.

We stopped at a literal hole-in-the-wall Internet cafe. For the first time, we all had simultaneous access to decent Internet speed. Of course, it was all business. We wouldn’t dare waste time checking our inboxes for emails that ominously reminded us of our impending return to school, or checking our Facebooks to make sure our loved ones  hadn’t forgotten about us. Instead we worked our butts off during that hour to keep this blog beautiful and informative for all of y’all reading.

Then it was finally off to the beach!!!! This beach literally looked like something out of a Windows desktop background. The turquoise ocean water and bright yellow sand were preceded by hunching palm trees overlooking the coast. We found a nice little table with chairs underneath a huge tree for some good shade. We got everything we needed from a typical beach day. Swimming in the water (well, at least those of us who were brave enough to do so, including Jiwon in full clothing LOL), INTENSE beach volleyball (Isaac doesn’t get to be competitive very often, so he took this opportunity to fully unleash his rage… our team motto became “SHOW THEM!”), and good beach food. We satisfied our Western appetites with things like sandwiches and hamburgers, which tasted good despite waiting for the longest time for the meals to come out.

It was already getting dark, and we hopped into the Hulk to head home. We stopped by the refugee camp and bought some more orgasmic Ivorian bread fresh out of the oven. We indulge ourselves waaaaaay too much. It’s all good, we know we’re fat.

The rest of the night involved even more winding down. We sat around the couches in the common room gobbling down the loaves of bread with cheese, and had a very late dinner of pasta with tomato sauce prepared by Fausti. The rest of the night was a blur of card games (Speed, Spoons, Bullsh**, Chinese Bullsh**, etc…) and jumping from one non-sequitur topic to another. I could really get used to this. I <3 Ghana.

Sunday

Speaking of “I <3 Ghana”, you should all see Clarey’s batik cloth. Sunday morning was definitely the day for creative expression, and for those of us who are artistically challenged beyond repair, we were happy to hear the words of our Batik teacher, Kokroko. Kokroko is Yaw’s brother and before we began to work on our cloths, he gave us a very inspiring message that linked beauty directly to the eyes of the creator, there was no other route.

batik workshop

With this new confidence to produce a beautiful print, we all took turns on about two metres of cloth and created various designs with Adinkra symbols, shapes, letters and patterns. By the end of the day there was a long line of purple, orange, yellow, red and green cloths drying out.

Still in the creativity mode, we moved on in the late afternoon to help Isaac re-plaster a mud oven that we would eventually slide in some pizza pies, as promised by Isaac.

 

This weekend was very relaxing and by the looks of all we had accomplished, well deserved. We enjoyed every moment but were starting to wonder how we would be coerced to leave when the time comes.

Paul and Yaa

Mensuro!

Day 7 – January 4th

Finally, the day is here—I will be crossing a suspended bridge in the rainforest today! Besides being excited, I was frankly a little bit worried as well, as I usually get scared so easily. But it’s going to be fun, right?

The two taxis we had called arrived at around 10:30. The taxi that JP, Clarey, Yaw, and I chose to board turned out to be the troublemaker, as our ride was interrupted twice along the way. First, we had to get off and push the car together when the engine suddenly stopped in the middle of the road (literally, we were blocking the traffic for at least ten minutes). Later on, we were stopped again by the police and our driver had a little quarrel with a policeman. What was going on? I was not so sure because they were speaking in Fante. But during the course of this trip I developed a sense of composure to believe all is well even when we meet an angry, intimidating policeman. After all, we did arrive safely at the Kakum National Park in the end, although there were some complaints from the other cab which I later found was waiting for us whenever we got stopped.

After buying the student-discounted tickets at the Park’s entrance, we looked around the visitor center first to get some background knowledge of the Park. The area that is now the Kakum National Park was not always a protected area; it became a forest reserve in 1931. Now it plays a crucial role in preserving numerous forms of wildlife as well as in developing the local economy. It is especially known for the 350-meter canopy walkway which is the first one ever built in Africa. (The canopy refers to the second top layer of the forest where the majority of rainforest species live.) And the walkway is the suspended bridge that we were about to cross ourselves!

With a cold water bottle in each of our hands, we began our journey into the forest by hiking up a little bit until we arrived at the canopy walkway. According to the guide who gave explanations to us and a bunch of other tourists, there were seven bridges in total, each connected by wooden platforms. Whoa, seven of them! Soon we headed over to the first platform where we waited in lines like people waiting for a roller coaster. When it was finally my turn, I carefully stepped on the wooden panel, holding tight onto the ropes on my both sides. Honestly, it was better than I thought, but I still couldn’t help screaming now and then whenever the bridge was shaking or tilting. But kakraa kakraa, I made it through each bridge with the help of other members. I also got to see beautiful trees, which look totally different from the height of the canopy. And at last, we completed the mission!

Along the way down, we became very environmentally conscious and JP picked up some Wtrash on the ground. At the end of the pathway, we saw some men selling coconuts. Paul and Zoe didn’t miss this chance to try the coconut water, which they said tasted like sweet water. After they finished drinking the water, we had the coconuts cut into pieces and ate the white inner layers. We also tried the seeds of a cocoa pod, of which we licked the sweet outer layer and spat out the hard seeds.

The coconuts were only appetizers to our fancy lunch coming up next. We had actually stopped by the Hans Cottage Botel (a really nice restaurant with a big pond and flags of many different countries hanging from the ceiling) on our way to order food ahead, so the food was ready when we got there! We got very nice dishes including a fish dish, a seafood dish, and red beans with plantains. I ordered the Chicken Khebab with Yam chips, which was incredible. I especially fell in love with Yam chips. Hmm yum! After our late lunch, we all stood by the pond of the restaurant and stared at the crocodile that was resting on the shore as if it were a statue. One other thing we noticed was the restroom which had signs “Adam” and “Eve” for male and female. It was so interesting to see so many Christian references wherever we went.

On our way back, we stopped at the gas station where Clarey bought her chocolate ice cream again. Lol We bought some snacks to keep for the night, and came back to our eco-lodge. After some good three hours of nap, we closed our day with another fun night—we really got to know each other better through games and chit chats every night.

Looking back, there was really nothing to fear about the suspended bridge; everything just turned out to be amusing as long as I was with our team.

(Mensuro means “have no fear” in Fante.)

Jiwon Lee

Gye Nyame

Day 6 – January 3rd, 2013

Ghana is considered a beacon of democracy for West Africa. But when the December 2012 Ghanaian presidential elections went to court based on allegations of fraud, Ghana’s Ivorian population began to panic.

Supporters of the National Patriotic Party (NPP) candidate Nana Akufo-Addo are claiming National Democratic Congress (NDC) incumbent John Mahama, who will be sworn into office Jan. 7, had not garnered a majority among Ghanaian voters. The electoral dispute spoke to the people from Côte D’Ivoire of another defining moment in recent history, a conflict that would displace and claim the lives of many citizens of the world’s leading cocoa producing nation.

Rather than see Ghana experience turmoil similar to the elections aftermath in Côte D’Ivoire, many of the refugees living in Ghana’s United Nations refugee camp decided to risk returning to their homeland, even though their friends and family remaining had warned them mass killings of young men, students and members of the Bété clan (former President Gbagbo’s group) were still rampant. A refugee we spoke to claimed that hundreds left the camp last month, but a UNHCR representative told us that in the entire history of the camp, they had officially discharged only two refugees.

In 2011, Côte D’Ivoire was divided in two over a disputed election; the northern rebels recognized Alassane Outtara as the president while the south recognized Laurent Gbagbo — whose 2011 platform included a project to bring chocolate factories onto Côte D’Ivoire’s soil. Gbagbo had served 10 years in office, the maximum allowed under the nation’s constitution, but because the country had been in conflict during the last election cycle, he had never been elected to his second term. Gbagbo decided to run again with mass support from Côte D’Ivoire’s student population. Meanwhile, according to the refugees, Outtara, whose economic plan would maintain the country’s relationship with and dependence on France, had come to Côte D’Ivoire from Burkina Faso to aid a development programme and quickly fixed his eyes on the presidency. Quite vehemently, the refugees accused Outtara of finagling his way onto the ballot despite his country of origin. When Outtara, who had garnered support from France and the UN, was declared the winner, thousands of Côte D’Ivoire citizens screamed fraud. Young men holding student cards were denounced as militants and killed on the spot, and those lucky enough to make it across the border into Ghana took up lives at UN refugee camps. The Egyeikrom refugee camp was the site of our trip’s visit for the day.

The camp houses about 1,600 refugees according to the UNHCR. Some sleep in tents on site, while others have found homes elsewhere in Ghana but return to the camp for monthly rations of rice, soy and other mixtures of grain. Upon arriving at the camp, we learned from the UN representative that refugees can come and go as they please and are encouraged to find work outside the camp or establish businesses — such as a hair salon, a clothes shop, or a restaurant — on site.

Just as we were about to start a tour of the camp, Adolphe, the director of the camp’s unofficial secondary school decided to help show us around. Adolphe explained that the UN recognized the primary school, but his school received no aid, and therefore the students could not afford the examinations needed to advance their careers. He added that the school could not attract enough teachers, and language barriers meant most refugees would need to travel to Togo to take assessments in their native French. Adolphe said he would welcome help and oversight from the UN or the government to provide better opportunities for his students, who essentially attend school for personal enrichment alone.

We stopped at the camp’s health center and almost walked in on one of the nurses as she was about to inject a patient. We spoke instead to a child healthcare worker, who explained the camp’s largest health problem is malaria. The facility has two nurses, one doctor and 12 volunteers, plus an ambulance to transport patients to a hospital if necessary.

After the initial interviews and before we began construction work at Isaac’s housing site, our hosts took us on a tour through the camp’s communities to give us a sense of the culture and lifestyle. Many of the houses’ bricks were crumbling, and tents became so hot that most refugees preferred to stay outside during the day. As we walked around, children ran up to slap us high five or ask us to take their picture. They giggled as we showed them their image on the display screen. Becky brought along a bright blue Polaroid, so she could print images for the refugees to keep.

A highlight of our journey through the camp was when we stopped at the local bakery, where several apprentices who had allegedly learned from a master baker were kneading round pieces of dough for French style baguettes. We ordered five loaves and enjoyed hot bread fresh out of the oven.

UNHCR bakery (small)

We then headed to another tent for some entertainment. A group of about 15 men performed a few songs on drums while we sat sweating in a large tent that had cans of soda hanging from a string and a well-stocked pantry on a single shelf. The chanting and drumming was enthusiastic and impressive, and eager to share their music, the group begged us to listen to one more song. It was great to see the community come together through music, friendship and tradition despite the dire circumstances.

We ate a picnic lunch of Waakye (rice and beans with cassava) at Isaac’s construction site and enjoyed Fausti’s fantastic spaghetti with tomato sauce, dry cole slaw and various other delectables. We even had leftover food to share with some of the refugees, although we had to replenish our water as we went to work under the hot sun.

loading wheel barrow (small)

Our first task was to paint over a cement trim around a house Isaac was working on. We mixed the paint and applied it to the wall. Meanwhile, Yaa and Becky dug some holes in a plot, and we filled them with water to lay a moist foundation for the next structure. We then shoveled piles of soil to mix cement and removed organic debris. As we worked, Isaac explained he is able to keep the costs of his houses low by taking on young volunteers willing to fund part of the project, which aims to build 1200 houses over the next two years. Isaac’s business model shifts the burden of payment off the refugees’ shoulders as much as possible. Isaac is a regular Robin Hood: only instead of stealing from the more fortunate, he offers a life-enriching experience.

Yaa hydraform2

After mixing the soil, clay and mud with shovels — arduous work! (ipod speakers + Paul’s dance party playlist a necessity) — came the fun part. We formed an assembly line and operated a hydraform, a machine that transformed the mix into brick-shaped blocks, then passed the wet bricks down the line and stacked them. Often bricks would start to crumble, and we would send them back to be dissolved and reformed. Our group played a Ghanaian hand game in between passings, which the refugees seemed to get a kick out of. A small crowd gathered to watch us and admire Isaac’s workmanship and design.

passing bricks

T-shelter group photo (small)

Throughout the day, we talked with refugees about their lives back in Côte D’Ivoire and their hopes for the future. Something that struck me was how religious most of the refugees had become. Many of the tents bore graffiti signs to Jesus, and most of the refugees mentioned religion at one point or used phrases such as “only by the grace of G-d.”

“Since three years I’m waiting for G-d,” one refugee said. “I wake up and look at the sky and say ‘Where are you?’”

Gye Nyame – “Except G-d”. Gye Nyame is an adinkra symbol that means that “except Nyame (G-d)” nothing else can make or break us. G-d outlasts everything. Adinkra symbols are Akan traditional symbols that tell specific proverbs and messages.

Zoë Gorman

Akweley, Akweley

Day 5 – January 2nd, 2013

It was 6:45 a.m. when my cellphone rang to maximum volume right next to my ears. I mustered all of the forces I still had left from yesterday’s West African dance class only to realize that Part II awaited us in the common room. Sighs. I am really tired. But it will be fun!

After having another amazing breakfast that consisted of home made oatmeal (take that Yale Dining) and Ghanaian bread, our dance teacher, Christopher, had us present the dances we learned yesterday. While everyone danced Bima and Gota to their respective rhythms, I struggled a little – ok, a lot – until I managed to coordinate my hands and feet to follow the drums. We finished our workout session drenched in sweat and sat down in the couches feeling victorious. Christopher, however, quickly used the game of “Kofi says” (the Ghanaian version of Simon says) to inform us that we were learning two more dances. The first one reminded me of childhood games I used to play back in Brazil. It consisted of a clapping game that involved a lot of walking sideways and changing directions of hands. Needless to say, I also struggled through this one. The second one, called Gahu, was created to mock wealthy, pretentious West Africans who went to Europe and North America in the 1950’s. The dance sought to make fun of the condescending attitude the affluent demonstrated towards their own culture upon their return home. In Gahu, dancers imitate the movement of airplanes and dance wearing normal clothes and shoes (as opposed to dancing barefoot) to demonstrate that these wealthy West Africans were the ones who should be ridicule.

drumming workshop4 (small)

After dancing some steps of Gahu, Christopher, Mutala and Isaac taught us some basic drumming. Although the workshop was fun, it was short-lived, because it was soon time for us to eat the delicious food Fausti prepared for us. Under Yaa’s request, Fausti prepared us fufu (a starchy, elastic, puree-like mix of plantains and cassava) together with…(drumrolls)…snail soup. I must confess that the soup was delicious, though I wasn’t a HUGE fan of the snail I ate (sorry Yaa, snails are not my thing). This time Clarey – and not Paul – was the last one of the finish her Fufu. We later learned that Paul and Jiwon made an agreement not to be the last ones to finish their respective dishes again.

 

 

We soon departed for Cape Coast, a coastal city nearby the Sankofa Center. Cape Coast was a well sought-after colony by different European nations. Although the Portuguese were the first ones to arrive there, the British controlled the city for the majority of colonial history. Upon arriving in Cape Coast, Yaw introduced us to our guide, Mr. Blankson, who was also responsible for giving a tour to President Obama when he visited Ghana in 2010. We started our tour with a brief overview of the history of Cape Coast while overlooking the Cape Coast Castle. We then proceeded to see a memorial built for citizens of Cape Coast who fought in WWI and WWII. After that, we saw the memorial plaques for people who were important in Cape Coast history including Queen Victoria. We then saw the Wesleyan (Methodist) Church, that was responsible for a large part of the religious, economic, and political development of Cape Coast and Ghana. The reason why this church was so important was that after services, its members would meet in the plaza in front of it to discuss politics and whatnot. After passing through the tourist information center, we went up a hill to get to one of the many forts that exist in Cape Coast. From Fort Willian we were able to see the many phases of development the city has undergone. What was most shocking for me, however, was learning that although Cape Coast is one of the most important education capitals in Ghana, it still maintains its colonial architecture and lacks many “modern” buildings.

We proceeded to continue our walk through the city, and, after a much needed break for buying water, stopped in front of Chapel Square Mosque, a relatively modest building. Mr. Blankson told us a very interesting story about it: because of its size, when there was a large Muslim convention in the city, the worshipers were forced to celebrate in the streets. This worked fine until it began to rain, at which point they asked to seek shelter in the Methodist church across from them. The church decided to rearrange all of its seating and allowed the Muslims to pray there instead of having to do so in the rain. To me, this speaks a lot about Ghanaian culture and hospitality: Ghana is a lively, welcoming country; one in which all cultures coexist together peacefully and without prejudices. After hearing this story, we moved through the inner parts of town, visiting a fish-market and some popular shopping areas. Our tour ended when we met with Yaw once again. The crew then exchanged money at a Forex bureau and we all returned to the Sankofa Center pleased with what we had learned and experienced.

After dinner, I took a much-needed, invigorating, two-hour siesta while the rest played cards. We then welcomed three refugees from the Ivory Coast who live in the Egyeikrom camp where Isaac has been contracted build semi permanent shelters. While I cannot share their stories here for privacy reasons, I can tell you that it was truly touching to hear their first-hand experiences about the situation in the Ivory Coast and their lives in the refugee camp.

Sometimes unexpected things happen in life. And yet, these gentlemen demonstrated to us that despite the circumstances, they have been able to retain their hope and work towards establishing a better future for themselves and their families.

JP Drechsler

Akweley is a Ga name for a girl. Akweley, Akweley is the title of one of the games that we learned from Christoper. It’s a very interesting and dance-filled name game.

Afehyia Pa!

Day 4- 1st January, 2013

…here it is! 2013. And we couldn’t have chosen a more amazing place to be. Fireworks, a huge bonfire, the sound of crashing waves: it was spectacular. We all stood around and wished one another “Afehyia Pa” and then began the new year; breaking it down on the dance floor. Some Ghanaian people there taught us a bit of the local modern dance (Azonto). It was at this point of the trip that we realized we had become a family. In a span of 4 days, we had grown so close to each other and were having so much fun. I was happy to be starting a new year with amazing new friends.

On our way back from the beach, we encountered our first hitch of the year, and it was only 2:30am! We got pulled over at a Police barrier. At this point, we were not even sure what for; according to our guide Yaw, the police seemed to be looking for some New Year’s “bonus”. After being held up for a while, we were finally let go once our driver had bargained down to a “reasonable” bribe.

We came back, and after what seemed like just a nap, we were up again to begin the day. The main agenda for the New Year was to visit the Akoanso school and see class in session. We were very thankful for the teachers and the children, who were giving up their holiday to help us carry out our research. They had also been giving up most of their holiday to prepare for our arrival, and it goes without saying that the gratitude we felt was mixed with a bit of guilt.

observing class

Our first impression of the school: tiny. The 90-something children that attend the school from Kindergarten to 3rd grade all have class AT THE SAME TIME in one room, partitioned only by sheets of ply-wood into three sections; kindergarten, class 1&2, and class 3. We were dumbfounded. We thought we were prepared for what we would see after our interview with Faustina a couple of days before, but nothing could have prepared us for what we met. Noise for each class flows into the other partitions and is very distracting, the rooms are poorly lit and ventilated, and there was the odd chicken and kitten wandering through.

serious little girl (small)

The most inspiring thing is that despite these conditions, the children apparently perform significantly better than all the other children in neighboring schools and evidently love to learn. Additionally, if the dedication of the teachers was not already clear from the effort that went into the show we received the day before, today definitely showed this.

After observing class for a while, we made some donations of books, stationery and other supplies to the school. We can never forget squeals of delight of the children when Paul pulled out a football (soccer ball). We finally allowed the children to go home and celebrate the well-deserved holiday, but not without a sugar high stimulated by Dum Dums, candy canes and chocolate.

We then interviewed some of the older children and were stunned by some of the things we heard. From their future aspirations to their requests for a better school, we were convinced now more than ever that this is definitely a project we wanted to be involved in. The children need this school. Our interviews with the teachers also gave us more information on the administration and potential development of the school.

Ji Won + Student (small)

Lunch consisted of fried yam chips and fish, and simply put, Fausti had done it again. The meal was nothing less than delicious and by this time we were all certain of “YIRA trip-15” (in addition to Freshman 15). After lunch, we were invited to a New Year’s gathering at the nearby town of Anomabo hosted by the Twafohene (a subchief) of the area. Our day had began with dancing, but there was clearly more. The delightful brass band at the gathering fed us with some catchy tunes which led us all to the centre of the park to break it down. While some may have gotten a bit carried away by the music (no one said it was Paul), we were having a wonderful New Year’s Day so far. But there was more to come.

We need not talk much about what was becoming a norm because I think we may end up running out of suitable adjectives. Dinner was all out scrumptious (or “um nom nom nom”, as we have settled on) -Fried rice and fried chicken.

Dance seemed to carry through as the theme for our New Year. The evening involved a traditional dance workshop with Christopher, a dance instructor from the Ghana National Dance Ensemble, and Mutala, a drummer from a long family line of expert drummers. We were also honored to have the Chief of Kobina Ansa (where we are staying) join us. Before he was ordained as a chief, he was very sought after as a master drummer. For the next 3 hours, we learned a Ghanaian children’s game and two traditional dances; Gota (Ewe) and Bima (Frafra). By the end of the night we were exhausted but also quite adept at local traditional dance, if I say so myself. With the rigor of the dance routines, I say forget about “YIRA trip-15.”

dance workshop (small)

It has been a great start to a new year and we wish you all Afehyia pa!

 New Year’s Greeting:

Person 1: Afehyia Pa!

Person: Afenko betoyen.

Literal Translation:

Person 1: A good meeting of the two years.

Person 2: May the year come back to meet us all again.

This is then usually followed by each person wishing something good for each other. Often said during new years, birthdays and other anniversaries.

*Ewe and Frafra are 2 Ghanaian ethnic groups.

Yedaase

Day 3 – December 31st, 2012

Amazing Welcome Event at Akoanso School

Official welcome address

Although today is New Year’s Eve and Akoanso School has been out of session for Winter Break for several days, we were invited to a special welcome event at the village square of Akoanso, which was well prepared by Faustina, teachers, and students from Akoanso School during the break. We were so amazed and entertained by the event and impressed by the hospitability that we didn’t realize that the programs actually took three and a half hours. When we arrived around 10:30 in the morning, about 150 people waiting all waved to us with huge, welcoming smiles. The kids were way too cute! They huddled together in neat, white school t-shirts -with matching socks. They looked at us, probably confused by these foreign-looking people, and I could see hope and curiosity shone in their big smiling eyes. “Yay, high five!” Then the kids all ran over and excitedly posed for our cameras. Some of them even took over my phone and camera to record the show for me.

Paul and Yaa enjoying the program from VIP section, seated next to the chief of Akoanso

 

The group dances, mini-debate (Who is more important: the farmer or the doctor?) A nativity skit, “quizbowl”, and spontaneous Azonto dancing by kids totally impressed everyone. Members of the audience came up to put cedis (Ghanaian currency) on children’s heads and tucked inside their shirts  as a sign of appreciation for their show. During the spontaneous dance session, we were coerced to come to stage to join them. People were all rocking out and dancing together bonded us well. After the event, many local people came to interact with us. Although the language barrier is a problem and we have a packed schedule, we will definitely want to get to know these lovely people better later! We will be wandering around for a while.

Yira group_Akoanso school community (small)

 

 

Food, Food… Fufuu!

After our bumpy ride in the Hulk to the eco-lodge, we found something going on outside the kitchen. We were going to have fufuu: pounded plantains and cassava. It is a popular dish of Ghanaian cuisine.  It was the first time for us to see it. Some of us rolled up sleeves and tried the seemingly chill pounding chilling work, but sorry just epic funny fail. And it tasted so good! We cut some with our hands, dipped it in the delicious soup, and swallowed but not chewed. Yaw pointed out that we can chew if we want because “Nobody has any business in your mouth.” This meal totally made our day, but there is only more fun to come today! Also, we have discovered that food in general makes our team happy.

eating fufu2

Discovering the bliss that is fufu

Walk, interviews, and a welcomed stranger!

After lunch, we separated into two groups, took a walk around Akoanso, and conducted interviews with eight families. They helped us get deeper insight into what we can do for them, such as adding a playground and supplying textbooks. All the parents we interviewed believed strongly in the value of education. They were truly thankful and by the end of the day we had learned a new word: Yedaase (we thank you).

Yaa with parent (small)

Yaa interviewing the mother of a student at the Akoanso School

After a long day of interviews and surveying the area, we met a stranger! The important thing to note is that he was super drunk but very charming. He came up to us and followed us all around for hours until we finally agreed to sit down for a drink with him. Free Guinness, and premium local beer. In addition to the drinks, the generous stranger committed to paying school fees for several children in the community currently unable to afford it themselves. When asked whether it was okay to accept the gifts from the tipsy stranger,  Isaac commented  “a drunk man’s money is just as green as someone else’s.” True. “If you don’t tell the truth, I will catch you!” he warned as he asked around for where we are from.

New Year’s Eve!

With loud music booming from the Hulk (DJ Hanstar) all the way to Cape Coast, we are ready to welcome the New Year at the Oasis Beach Resort. Lively music, drinks, beach bonfire, fireworks, so many people, so much dancing, we are ready for the New Year and…

Clarey Zhu

(Yedaase: Fante for we thank you)

Agoo?! Amee!

Day 2 – December 30th, 2012

Day 2 in Ghana! Waking up after sleeping our first night here was AMAZING. The usually hot, humid Ghanaian weather was put on hold, and I woke up to a fresh, cool breeze. Even better, I discovered that the mosquito net is probably the greatest invention known to man. I slept like a baby, feeling secure and protected from mosquitoes and nightcrawlers. Take that, you freaking spiders.

Our wonderful chef Fausti spoiled us with a breakfast of champions: veggie omelets and toast. Afterwards, because it’s Sunday, we loaded up into “The Hulk” (the ridiculously old yet amazingly tough Land Rover with party bus seating in the back seat) and headed to church! We ended up crashing a service of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. It was awesome. Service was held outside on a piece of concrete floor with a roof along the side of a hill. Not only was the weather beautiful, but we also got to experience Ghanaian hospitality firsthand. It’s not just a saying either; Ghanaian hospitality is an actual, legitimate thing. As soon as we awkwardly shuffled into the benches and took our seats, the priest immediately stopped what he was saying to welcome us and reminded us, “You are welcome here. Everyone is welcome here.” For the next hour, we had a dandy time singing (well not really, because everyone was singing in Fante… it was more like mumbling and clapping our hands and swaying). They accommodated to our ignorance by alternating in English and Fante while delivering the sermon, despite the fact that the regulars at church would have to stay in service for twice as long. Then at the end of it all, we had the opportunity to introduce ourselves individually to the whole congregation. It was so great. I can’t get over how friendly Ghanaians are…you just don’t see that in America at all.

yira_church2

Attending Sunday mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church

 

When we got back from church, we met up with Dr. William Turner, one of Isaac’s good friends. What a boss. At the age of 70, after finishing his career practicing medicine in England, Dr. Turner decided to return to Ghana to help establish a health clinic and medical school at the University of Development Studies in Tamale (10 hours north of Kobina Ansa). Isaac gave Dr. Turner and his family a tour of Sankofa to show them the new construction projects, then we sat down with him and picked his brain about the primary health issues in Ghana, things that we need to consider as we plan the establishment of our school which could potentially tend to the health and sanitation of the children as well as educate them. Dr. Turner had one bottom line, and came back to this topic regardless of the questions we asked him: malaria is the major killer in Ghana, and yet it is largely ignored. Worthy of note: over 17,000 Ghanaian children (under 5 years old) die of malaria per year. Adults get it 2-3 times annually. His solution? Completely alter the cultural perception and attitude towards malaria. He also noted that it is important for clinics to have laboratories to test for malaria. An immediately applicable way to implement this into the schools is easy: school uniforms with trousers (pants) instead of nickers (shorts), and socks. According to Dr. Turner’s research, the vast majority of mosquito bites occur on the ankle, which can be avoided with proper attire. Sure, the kids might sweat a little more than they would wearing shorts, but in Dr. Turner’s words, “what would you rather have? One slap or two slaps?” (Honestly, I didn’t get this at first, so don’t worry if you don’t either). Health education and hygiene can also be a focal point of the classes being taught.

IMG_0476

Dr. William Turner with his wife, Dr. Patricia Turner

 

After another exceptional meal of fish stew and yams (you rock, Fausti), Isaac gave us a quick lesson in West African drumming. I don’t think we lived up to the skill of the drummers that he usually jams out with, but he taught us a pretty cool beat. We each had our own drum and we made beautiful (somewhat) music together. Hopefully he’ll teach us a bit more, then we can go on tour together. For now, we’ll stick with getting this school up and running.

We met with Faustina, an assemblywoman and current director of the school in Akoanso. For a good hour, we had the opportunity to essentially grill her with questions about the educational needs of the children in the village. She currently runs a school of 100 children in ONE classroom. No more complaining about final exams and “unfair” professors. Bottom line: there’s clearly a need for a bigger, more efficient school that can meet the needs of the children. The issue comes down to money: it costs a great deal to pay teachers and maintain the school, yet Faustina hopes to keep down tuition costs to make it affordable for a majority of families. Tomorrow, we’re planning to visit the school and check it out for ourselves. Can’t wait to meet the kids! This is a side note, but we talked about this yesterday, and the children here have this innocence and curiosity that makes us all melt due to an overload of cuteness AND reminds us that most kids these days have lost that for the most part, with their obsession with dating and Grand Theft Auto.

We finished off our day with an impromptu trip to a nearby beach. Aside from the fact that we found a dead dog in the sand, it was nice. We had the typical long walk on the beach, initially cringing and eventually sighing at the feel of wet sand in between our toes. We learned that we’re all terrible at gauging water level… high tide eventually overtook us all.

On the way back, we stopped at a nearby gas station to buy Ghanaian chocolate. Instead, we walked out with Salt and Vinegar and BBQ Pringles. Amurrica.

We just finished a delectable dinner of pasta with tomato sauce (we love you, Fausti) and now we’re sitting in the common area, lazily flat on our butts in the comfy couches talking about THE MOST random things. I’m typing this like 3 feet away on Isaac’s computer, and I’m hearing something about creepy taxi drivers. How did we get here?

WOW this is long. Kudos to you if you got this far. Anyway, I’m gonna get back to the weird conversation I left. Talk to you soon! Love and peace be with y’all 😀

Paul Han

(Agoo?!, Amee! : Fante and Twi call and response to get attention and gather a group/ team around. Person who wants everyone’s attention says “agoo” and people respond with “amee” to show that he/she has their attention.)

Akwaaba

Day 1 – December 29th, 2012

We arrived in Ghana at 5:30am, and were greeted by festive green and red arches as we made our way through the airport towards immigration. Christmas music played as we wait for our baggage, which came shrink-wrapped by the airline for reasons unknown. Yaa picked us up from the airport, along with Isaac Hirt-Manheimer and Yaw Gyamfi, a Ghanaian man who will be accompanying us for the trip. We headed to Yaa’s house topick up JP, who had arrived the previous day and had trouble waking up.

From Yaa’s house we drove about three hours west of the capital to the Sankofa Eco-Arts Village, our base for the duration of the trip. Sankofa is an ecologically sustainable guest house located in the village of Kobina Ansa, one of the communities where we will be conducting our research. The huts we are staying in are simple, clean, and pretty. Constructed of local, natural materials such as mud-brick, thatch, bamboo, and raffia sticks, the huts use solar power and composting toilets.  DSC_0411

We eat lunch at Sankofa, cooked by Fosti, who will be making all our meals while we’re here. It’s delicious – chicken with veggies and jollof rice (rice cooked in a tomato stew).After lunch we headed to the village to meet with the chief of Kobina Ansa; Nana Bediako Ansah XI. The meeting was formal and we had to speak through a linguist (Yaw), who speaks to the chief’s linguist. Linguists are not simple translators, which would be unnecessary as the chief speaks and understands English quite well. Instead, they are meant to make our words cleaner, and put them in language appropriate for the chief’s sacred ear. Occasionally, Isaac speak directly to the chief, which seemed to be deemed acceptable since they have been friends for over a decade. After we informed the chief and his elders about our ‘mission’ as custom demands, the chief’s linguist poured out a libation in the courtyard, calling on God, Mother Earth, and the ancestors for blessings. We then passed around a cup of schnapps to symbolize the connection between everyone in the room. Everyone drank from the cup (though declining was not frowned upon) and some poured a little on the ground for the ancestors.

All of us headed back up to Sankofa after that, as we were all pretty jet-lagged and in desperate need of a nap. We met up again for dinner, another tasty meal cooked by Fausina of groundnut soup with beef, rice balls and fermented corn squares, called Fante kenkey. After dinner we headed to Yamoransa, a nearby town, with Nana in the hopes of seeing a traditional religious celebration. We went to meet with the traditional priest of the town, a meeting quite similar to ours with the chief in the afternoon – linguists, libations, etc. Since the religious celebration had not started yet, we walked over to a nearby outdoor dance club. Most of us sat, talked, and sipped soda, but Paul eventually got up to dance and completely blew everyone in the club away with his break-dancing. We left a bit after 10 to see if the celebration had begun, but were told the drummers necessary for the celebration had not yet arrived. We sat in a courtyard and watched some of the children from the town drum instead – not a bad substitute, as the children in town are incredibly good a drumming despite the fact that some looked as young as 5 years old. Sadly the ceremony ended up starting too late for us to participate, so we left around 11pm to go back to Sankofa and off to bed. Zzzzzzz.

Becky Poplawski

(Akwaaba: Akwaaba means Welcome in the Akan Language)