The local ‘education system’, death of a chicken, and my last supp

After we adjourned, Meshach was adamant about me visiting the three schools in town- primary, secondary and the recently built high school. Apparently a former parliament member came from a neighboring village and so began devoting a lot of funds and energy to this region, thus the construction and funding for the high school. Unfortunately, he died suddenly and so the funding and development stopped. So although there are teachers there paid by the government, there are very limited and outdated school supplies, very few desks, no computers, etc. Most of the youths’ parents cannot afford the fees and the head master doesn’t have the heart to turn them away, so he just lets them continue for free. His passion and dedication to the school is inspiring. He takes money out of his own pocket to buy extra books for the kids who cannot afford them, asking them to repay them when they can- most of them never do. He as requested the funds necessary to provide the youth everything they need from the government. He never receives a response.

The same goes for the primary and secondary schools.

But it was enlightening and a gift to visit all the schools and see the children. It is always fun to take pictures and then show them themselves in the photo. They go crazy, laughing and screaming and begging me to take more…it just melts my heart.

We walked about a mile in the midday heat and I thought I was going to pass out. I don’t know the exact temperature, but it is scorching. By the time we got home, it was all I could do to take a shower and pass out. I woke up and I asked Meshach to go with me for a final walk along the beach. We continued to talk about the challenges and brainstorm ideas to provide the help necessary to make this work. I asked question after question and he patiently answered what he could. How do the women get any money at all if they have no income? What do the men do to earn income? Do people get enough to eat? Are the children malnourished? Where do the farmers sell their produce…on and on.

Wow, reality check. Just had to watch a young boy grab a chicken, accompanied by shrieking protests by her and her surrounding pack.  The boy disappeared inside his shack…and then silence. Yes, I eat chicken, yes I know they have to be killed, but that might have just converted me back into a vegetarian.

Meshach promised me a local favorite for my final night in Ekumfi-  Fufu with a type of chicken soup (which I might have forwent after that whole incident) in a spice tomato broth (holy crap, was it spicy). Fufu is made out of plantains and cassava and beaten down into a very dense paste. The broth is poured over with pieces of chicken included. They were surprised that I didn’t eat the bones of the chicken as they crunched away. We ate at the house his father owns, where his brother and he are staying, We enjoyed our meal in silence (me sweating from the heat of the dish…but when was I not sweating, really) listening to traditional Ghanaian music. After we finished, Meshach treated us all to sugarcane. We each got a stick and they chopped it up for me so I could access the juicy center. It was delicious and successfully countered the heat of the broth. As usual, I couldn’t finish mine, knowing that I could give the leftovers to someone around me that was truly hungry. This has been an issue for me throughout my stay. When I am among such extreme poverty, it is so hard for me to indulge in a full belly. I have given away most of my meals every night. (I say this not to seem pious, just to convey how difficult it is to maintain boundaries or distance yourself for the sake of self-care or preservvation in these situations).

After we finished, we all set our chairs outside to catch the breeze coming straight from the ocean. We sat there watching the villagers headed home down the main street, the ocean breeze keeping us ‘cool’ and Ghanaian music providing the perfect soundtrack as we watched the sun set over Ekumfi-Akra: the perfect ending to an unforgettable experience in this little village that has captured my heart.

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Day 3- Meeting the Women, the reality of their situation

No sleep last night- hotter, stuffier- I began concentrating on the intervals when the fan was going to hit me with a tiny reprieve as it rotated back and forth, just counting the hours until the rooster outside my window would give me the signal that I could end the torture and face my last day in Ekumfi-akre. Today I will meet with a handful of women who the leaders have chosen to be the first women trained (I am very curious about the selection process, I have to say, their wives? Women they perceive to be ‘leaders’ in the community?) We shall see. I am somewhat anticipating that there will be more than a handful of women in attendance. I am sure word has spread and all the women who are curious about the project and eager to be a part of it. Again, I just hope we can somehow make this happen. The thought of going through all of this, giving them hope, justifying our efforts to the leaders, who are clearly skeptical of yet another empty promise.

I am hoping today is a bit less intense as yesterday.


 

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Meeting with the women completely invigorated me. As expected, we asked to meet with 5-8 women and about 30 started pouring in. I requested that all the men leave so that the women felt like they had the freedom to speak freely and we began asking them the questions I had prepared based on Rachel’s list (my partner from Women’s Partnership Market). They were all very eager to talk and answer, meanwhile I was trying to select the woman who seemed to have the authority, who everyone stopped to listen to when she spoke. I chose two women who were older than most of them (probably in their 40’s). Joyce and Mercyaban. It was Mercyaban who showed the most initiative though, she came to speak to Meshach after we finished and seemed really interested in leading our/their efforts.

The things we learned didn’t surprise me but were still heartbreaking nonetheless. Out of about 30 girls/women, only 2 were ‘married’. All but 2 had 3-7 children and most were between the ages of 13-18 when they first gave birth. Out of all of these women, none of them had a partner, none of them had an income and none of them received support from the ‘fathers’ of their children. After the women knew they were pregnant, the men would say it wasn’t theirs and disappear. There is not family planning, no sex education and no birth control available to them, so this is their fate.

Only 3-4 of the women/girls had any education and only 11 of the women sent their kids to schools. The rest simply could not afford the fees. The amount of money they had to take care of their 2-7 children ranged from 5-40 sedis/day….that is approximately $1-$10 dollars/day. Can you imagine?

A few hours later: Desperately seeking internet, Meeting with the Elders/Leaders of Ekumfi-Akra


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I spent the majority of the morning solo. I never saw Meshach and felt like a bit of a fish out of water going to explore without him (language, directionally challenged issue) He finally came around at noonish to tell me the leaders wanted to meet at 3:00. We are ‘required’ to meet with the leaders/elders of the village for permission to move forward with the project. We walked around for a bit and I requested that we go use the internet. In my mind I thought it was about a 20 minute ride in a cab….reality was we had to wait about 30 minutes until a car showed up, agree on a fare and then stop several times to let 5 more people in..that’s right, 7 total in a tiny car- of course all men. A constant series of full on acceleration, followed by an abrupt stop, as we navigated the huge potholes that riddled the so called paved road. After letting most of the 5 others out, we were dropped off in a chaotic cluster of countless buses, taxi cars (barely shells of their former selves from what was most likely another country in a former decade far removed from the present) We then flagged down a bus; you can only imagine- countless Ghanaians crammed into a small bus way beyond capacity, going what seemed to be 80 miles/hour. Thank god the windows worked and I could at least catch the breeze and ‘fresh’ air to keep me sane.

We finally arrive, about 45 minutes later, with about 20 minutes to spare before we had to turn around and go back to meet the leaders. About 10 minutes later we arrive at the ‘internent café’, which consisted of about 3 computers. I told the boy, surrounded by a group of other boys his age, that I was here to use the internet…hardly looking up, he informed me that it wasn’t working today…didn’t even phase me, to be honest, but I did wonder what they were all looking at that did not require a wireless connection.

SO off we went, back to the village, no internet fix to be had.

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I came back hot, tired and frustrated with the knowledge that I now had to go sit in front of the tribal leaders to justify my presence. I was already a bit apprehensive about this, which worsened significantly when I saw about 20 men had gathered to hear my ‘testimony’. Meshach gave me the go ahead and I began explaining in English what our mission was as Meshach translated. The main leader began to tell me the history of Ekumfi Akra…which skipped around from centuries back to decades back to centuries…none of which I could understand. Then came the discussion regarding our project plan and next steps. All the men became very animated as Meshach tried to counter their arguments and translate to me what the hell was happening.

I have a bit of an issue masking my emotions or hiding my disillusion with what was being said. I could tell that the conversation was not necessarily favoring the women and I had to do everything I could to force my expressions to stay neutral and not react to the seemingly condescending responses from my audience. Fortunately, the language barrier saved me and I just imagined them all doing nothing but singing our praises and celebrating the fact that ‘their women’ just might have a chance to learn a skill, earn an income and have a voice in their community. I smiled enthusiastically and graciously handed over the cash necessary to be granted their audience (50 sedis, the equivalent of about 10 dollars) and headed with Meshach to find a ‘cold’ beer to celebrate our success and discuss the reality of making this partnership work. His organization has been halted due to local organizations that were supporting him cutting off their funding. He is trying to keep it afloat but is earning no income and has his 3rd child on the way. I am not exactly sure how this will all play out and sincerely hope that my justification for pursuing this effort- to the leaders, to the women, to Meshach- will come to fruition and not prove to be yet another empty promise or reason to lose hope for a prosperous community.

Local language basics and my new normal

Local language basics and my new normal

Twi (local language):

How are you? (a group) Muhu te sen

How are you? (one person) ete sen

I’m fine- Mehuye

Thank you- Medasse

Welcome- akwaaba

What is your name- Ye fre wu sen

The norm here in Ekumfi-Akra:

  • Chickens pecking disturbingly close to my feet
  • Deets…lots of Deet
  • Goats everywhere, running about like domestic pets, crying constantly, awaiting their eventual fate of being someone’s dinner.
  • Children constantly following me, trying to get a closer look at the white woman
  • Eating one meal a day, eating as little as possible
  • Trying to navigate communication with people with absolutely no grasp of their language (at least in DRC I could fumble my way through French)
  • Sweating profusely ….all of the time
  • The whole bucket/flushing/showering process
  • Withdrawals from access to internet and all forms of communication with the outside world
  • Instant coffee (nescafe, of course) evaporated milk in a can (imported from France)
  • Sleeping 2-3 hours/night (combination of my deflated mat and the stifling heat)

Day 2: A run along the beach, charades and my first shower

Not a lot of sleep, as expected. The cool breeze from the ocean could not penetrate the cement walls of my room, although my fan managed to counter the stifling heat so that a sheet was needed and welcomed (a perceived barrier to mosquitoes). I forwent packing a mosquito net, as one was promised to be provided. I don’t know where it would have hung from in my little room though, the tin roof is just high enough to make it difficult to reach the floor, so copious amounts of DEET will hopefully suffice.

An enthusiastic rooster was my alarm at precisely 5:30 am (it’s amazing to me their ability to sync their crows with a precise hour, to the minute). I tried to ignore it, but the village started to wake up and begin their morning chores, the goats joining in on the soundtrack, running about and breaking the silence with their constant cries. I decided to put on my running shoes and attempt to run along the beach. Although of course I ended up getting turned around in the tiny, narrow walkways that weaved in and out of the little houses, which all looked the same, packed tightly together throughout the village ( I am admittedly a bit directionally challenged). I felt extremely awkward interrupting the morning baths and chores of the women on their porches, but I really had no other option…no main street or path to follow until you get to the outskirts of the village.  Most were very friendly, smiling back and shouting out something in Twi, of which I could not understand, so I just kept smiling and waving. Finally, knowing I was mostly walking in circles, I decided to stop and ‘ask’ a young women which direction the ocean was…which consisted of me trying to imitate someone rowing a boat and what I thought the pattern of waves might look like…followed by mimicking a person fishing. Other women started to gather around, all laughing at the funny looking white woman attempting to communicate, in what I would imagine was an absurd spectacle. The fishing imitation did it though, and they all enthusiastically pointed me in the right direction. It was literally a few steps from where I was but in the exact opposite direction that I was going, making me feel even more foolish than my pathetic attempt at my version of charades.

All of this was forgotten as I hit the sand and the familiar smell of the ocean. There were a few boys seated on the canoe by the water, but other than that, I had the beach all to myself. My ‘run’, however, was not as successful as I had hoped. The beach down to the water was at just enough of a slant to make it nearly impossible to run, in addition to the challenge of navigating the beach littered with piles of trash, seashells, crabs, and human feces. Things cleared up a bit as I approached the more isolated strip, and I was able to focus more on the surroundings; a tragically beautiful backdrop of the sun rising over scarce patches of coconut trees interspersed between thatched roof huts packed tightly together as the women began their morning chores of fetching water and firewood for the day. It was peaceful and beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time. But I have to remind myself, they are just living their lives, albeit a difficult one, getting through the day to day, most of them singing or humming a song with a smile easily provoked with a wave or a nod of the head. It strikes me how seldom I am greeted with a similar smile or singing back home.

I come back to my room and have my first go at a shower, which I knew would be an experience. A bucket sat in the middle of a small enclosed space, tiled with a small drain in the back. I managed to get myself to a state that I felt relatively clean, although I immediately broke out in a sweat the minute I got back to my room. I have yet to brave the toilet…pretty much a hole in the ground that necessitates a bucket to ‘flush’. At least it is tiled and enclosed…more than I was expecting.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I am complaining. The people here are extremely gracious and constantly cleaning up after me, fixing our meals and making sure I am happy. Now the challenge is to find a way to communicate with the women and find a way to bring them together to explain what we are here to do, and then make it happen. My next challenge is presenting our mission and intention here to the leaders of the village (all men) with Meshach translating…intimidating to say the very least.

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Day 1: Arrival to Ekumfi-Akra

We arrived in Ekumfi-Akra today after two days in Accra. I was admittedly nervous about the journey…leaving the ‘comfort’ of my hotel in Accra (meaning there was internet, a ‘proper’ bathroom and abundant supply of air conditioning). I had no idea of what to expect, except that I would be staying in the small, remote village on the coast. I knew it would be small, I knew it would be poor: both of those were accurate. Meshach assured me there would at least be electricity, but I would most likely be showering and using the toilet outside…no running water.

A few short years ago, I might have embraced this…sought it out, welcomed the opportunity to push my comfort zones. Now, I am just anxious, perhaps a bit traumatized by my experience in DRC…(although my accommodations there were more than luxurious compared to those of my neighbors in the surrounding village). We arrived and I was provided with my own room, a mat on the floor, a stand up (barely standing) fan, an enclosed ‘shower’ (with obligatory bucket of water) and a bathroom (a whole in the ground, but tiled floor and a door that locks) I am certain that is the only one in the village as they made sure I had a key and kept it with me at all times.

Meshach found a woman to cook for us (fried fish and plantains) and he and I mapped out our strategy for the next couple of days. The people here do not speak English, as I was hoping. Only Meshach, his brother and a couple of the elders. These women whom I am supposed to be empowering, or at least mobilizing on some level, do not speak the same language. I simply have to rely on Meshach to do all translating. (and genuine smiles along with my crazy gestures)

Tomorrow we will meet the elders/leaders of the community- a requirement for us to be able to proceed. Apparently there have been other NGOs visit and make unrealistic promises that were never fulfilled. They are justifiably cautious and I can’t say that I am not worried about disappointing them.

After (hopefully) gaining their approval, we plan on reviewing the questions for the assessment to get as much information as Meshach has at this point and then visiting 5 or so women from the village to ask them directly questions pertaining to the details of their lives and what they need and want to get out of this project.

Other than that, the people have been very friendly and welcoming. Meshach is truly an incredible man and has overcome many struggles in the name of helping struggling youth in Ghana and finding a way to empower women and men by providing skills training and education. I do hope this works, that we can find a way to build something meaningful and sustainable for his sake and the benefit of all these women I have seen cooking, cleaning, managing the household, fetching water, with at least one baby wrapped around their waist and 3 to 4 others trailing behind.