Friday, June 17, 2011

The Site Visit to Ghana

Site Visit Report - Avedo, Ghana

The following is a journal of sorts from the site visit recently completed in Ghana.  Kristin Harper, Director of the Bunting Center at Birmingham Southern College (BSC), Louanne Jacobs, Assistant Professor of Education at BSC, and Amelia Spencer, Assistant Professor at BSC, traveled to Ghana, Africa, where they will return in January 2012 for a site visit.  In January, they will return with 20 Birmingham Southern students to work with the Amekor Foundation in a small village called Avedo.  The main goal of the trip will be to teach in the Bakpa Avedo School. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011 10:33 AM
Saturday school

Today most of the Amekor family took us to the Bakpa Avedo School in the villages of Avedo, Ghana. The villages have combined efforts to make a beautiful school among the most lovely shade trees. The classrooms are “open-aired” and equipped with true antique wooden desks and chairs and one blackboard each, but few other supplies. There are 6 classrooms and on a good day 5 teachers and 125 students ranging from first to eighth grade. This fact does not tell you the ages of the students, however, because students range in age from 5 to 20 years. 

             Several of the teachers live in nearby villages and must commute to the school by motorbike or bus.  One of the teachers is named Emmanuel. Our friend, John Rogers, a 2004 graduate from Birmingham-Southern, met Emmanuel while John was looking to purchase a motor bike helmet. After showing John the way to the place to buy a helmet, Emmanuel had heard enough about Bakpa Avedo School and asked if he might help by volunteering to teach in the school.  Two days later, Emmanuel showed up to teach and is, currently an amazing volunteer teacher of social studies in the upper grades. He is a very faithful young man, who never misses a day. He says he loves what he does and is currently applying to a local Teacher’s College.

Benjamin and Helen Amekor walked with us around the villages, introducing us to many of the elders. I believe there were six individual villages within walking distance of the school.  I cannot be sure of the population of the villages because we toured the villages on a Saturday and many of the villagers were working on the farm.  I would imagine the population of each village is around 100, so between 600 and 700 individuals living in the area served by the school.

On our village tour, I felt like we were on parade. The village children were simultaneously afraid and elated that we were there. They followed us around the villages and hid behind huts and other people when we turned to look at them. The very brave ones came up and held our hands and walked with us. Louanne had brilliantly brought with her individually wrapped lifesavers so the kids were interested in that as well. The children are incredibly beautiful with deep dark eyes that touch your heart from the outside in.
At each village there was a gathering of the elders of the tribe and a formal greeting in “ewe”, pronounced “eh way”. Of course we didn't know all they said but we have practiced saying “thank you” and “you are welcome”. They had also warned us that we might be asked to share in some festive and celebratory libations.  Most of these libations are homemade whisky. We did get to participate in the ritual, which entails pouring offerings of the moonshine in several different spots in front of the leader of the village, in honor of their ancestors.  One of the villages brought out an unopened bottle of gin!  After they paid homage to the ancestors, the elders passed a glass around the circle and all had a shot.  I don't believe anything dangerous to our intestines could live in that!
After our day of shaking hands and smiling, we returned to Sogakope and relaxed at a beautiful restaurant beside the Volta River. The weather was beautiful and the breeze calm and delightful. The best thing ever was the cold gas station coke we had for lunch!

Sunday, May 22, 2011 7:59 AM
Bongos, water pouches, and live chickens!

Today is Sunday so everyone is all about gussying up and going to church.  The Amekor family, plus five guests, crammed into 3 cars and drove to their beautiful breezy Catholic Church. The choir had already started when we got there around 9 am. You could hear them from a mile away, accompanied by deep, rhythmic drumming.  There were people walking to the church from every direction. The commotion reminded me of someone kicking an ant bed!  There were only about 5 cars parked in front and about 300 people inside the church.

I love the Ghanaian saying, "You are welcome!" They use this as a greeting when a visitor enters an unfamiliar place. As we stepped out of the car several people gave us that greeting. It means that you are welcome - in my home, in my church, in my town. I loved receiving that welcome.  It is so sincere!

Because the familiar language of people in Sogakope is Ewe, but the official language is English, the liturgy, scripture, and sermons were repeated, once in Ewe and once in English. This was nice for those of us who did not know Ewe, but it made for a long service- two sermons, two priests, and two different languages. The service ended after noon.

The music was beautiful. The accompaniment was several types of bongos. Everyone danced and swayed with the 25ish songs we sang. Even mothers with tiny babies bounced to the music with their babies on their backs. One little boy in front of us was about 5 months old. He was sucking his middle and ring finger as he tried desperately to fall asleep. I have only seen one other child suck those fingers as a baby and that was my son, Graham.

I did take notes on how they arranged their service. You give thanks, (also called taking the offering) at least twice and sometimes three times. This is how it works:  Each person dances during a song to the front of the sanctuary to put money in the basket, like we, Methodists come to the front for communion. The ushers take the offering baskets to the back of the room and lead a procession to the front of the sanctuary to present the offering.  This is not so uncommon, but the parade following the ushers is a sight to behold.  Random people with gifts, including a homemade load of bread, a basket of mangos, a large basket of water pouches (which are like water in a bottle but in a plastic bag and cheaper), and a live chicken!  Yep!  They took a live chicken to the altar. Though we tried desperately to see, we didn't see what actually happened to the chicken. When we asked Mrs. Amekor, she told us that the boy gave the chicken to God!  We just aren't sure how!

Monday, May 23, 2011 5:50 PM
Off to school

Today we had a full day at Bakpa Avedo School. We were up and out of the house by 7. We arrived at the school to children running along beside the car. They were so happy to see us!  The school uniforms are brown pants or skirts and orange tops. They look so handsome on those beautiful children. All the girls are required to have short hair. I find it amazing that they are all so naturally beautiful even with no hair!  The school day begins with the children lined up in classes, singing songs, reciting verses, praying prayers, and the pledge of allegiance to Ghana.

The classes are divided into P1 thru Form4 which is first through 8th grade. There are many older kids who are in the younger grades. I went to the P1 class and watched as they worked on addition with counters. Their counters were coke and beer bottle tops. The teacher was good and the students so eager to learn. They are learning English but are not yet able to communicate with those of us who don't know Ewe.

I also went to the Form 4 class, which is 8th grade. They were learning science and our new friend Emmanuel was teaching.  He volunteers as a teacher but comes to teach every day.  He is a natural.

One young boy who is waiting on the results of his exam to get in to secondary school took us see the village water source today. It is a mile long walk from the furthest village.  It is a small pond, about one eighth the size of the Birmingham-Southern lake. It is not fresh water, but stagnant and yet the villagers bring huge containers and fill them with water.  This is their water to drink, bathe, and cook.

 The school-aged boys and girls performed a dance and drum show at the close of the community meeting. It was so much fun. As I watched 4 or 5 little girls came and stood close to me. One climbed up in my lap and went to sleep. She slept soundly until Mrs. Amekor came and took her to her mother. She said "she is troubling you. I will give her to her mother". I told her I was fine but she arm wrestled me to the ground and took the baby away. So another jumped right up in her spot. The trust in those children is touching to see. 

Most of the village people came to a meeting under the big shade tree to welcome us to the community.  John had an opportunity to talk about the purpose of the Amekor Foundation.  Kristin talked about the trip in January and the hopeful partnership between Bakpa Avedo School and Birmingham-Southern. If the interim trip in January works as we hope, we will bring students every other year in the future. Our education students have never been offered a service in learning course related to education.  We are certain the trip in January will go well.
The village then served us lunch which was very kind but somewhat difficult to stomach. It was goat and peppers over rice.  They served watermelon for dessert.

Tonight, after a rest, Mrs. Amekor took us to get fitted for traditional Ghanaian dresses for "grown women". I'm thinking she thinks we dress too young!  She should see how we dress at home (Dr. Jacobs!)

I'm so tired from going and going!  We are sleeping well and resting in the late afternoons but the heat is crazy hot. Our big treat tonight was a cold coke and a really cold shower. I used to think I hated cold showers but I was wrong!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 7:47 AM
Head, shoulders, knees, and toes

Breakfast this morning was amazing fresh bread and fresh avocados. The avocados were delicious- one of my most favorite foods. I had to share with the family of course ;) but I could have eaten four avocados by myself!

We left at 7:30am today and got to the school right as they were beginning assembly.

Louanne and I went from classroom to classroom hoping to observe teachers in action. In the first room we observed, there were students but no teacher. The kids were being quiet and sitting waiting. On the board was a written list of English vocabulary words including animals.  I pointed out the words, and the students read the words to me. I began to add words to the vocabulary list.  Many they could not read. We had no photos and certainly no live zoo animals to illustrate the meanings of the words, so I began to act them out. I acted out an elephant, lion, hippo, monkey, etc. My days working in preschools came in handy. The children laughed and laughed. Louanne and I started to laugh and Kristin, Tori, and John came to see what the commotion was all about. I really am not sure whether the children were laughing AT me or WITH me but I do know that we really communicated today!

We seemed to exhaust animal vocabulary words so we moved on to body parts. I drew a stickman and Louanne taught the body parts vocabulary to the students, which was fine at first until Louanne started teaching words like "chin" and "elbow". Those features do not usually come on a two-dimensional stick man. To reinforce our spontaneous lesson we taught them the "head, shoulder, knees, and toes" song. I'm afraid to say this was captured on video and may make it to Facebook!  The kids were hilarious and made for a fun morning.

We spent the rest of the morning roaming and watching teachers. Our students are going to have an amazing time as they work in these classrooms in January. I can't wait to see them!

We left school and went to the roadside market. Each stall has a unique function, like a snack place, a fruit stand, a chemical mixer (a pharmacy, which is very unlike CVS). We went to buy fruit for lunch. We also went to the book stall and bought text books for our students to review before coming back in January.

We arrived home to find Seyram, the second eldest Amekor daughter, watching African soap operas!  You have not seen drama until you have seen one of these shows. “All My Children” cannot compete with the dramatic interpretations seen in these shows!

We are resting while Evelyn, the eldest Amekor daughter, prepares for our celebratory meal, chicken and jolif rice. We will be saying our good-byes and leaving Sogakpoe tomorrow to head for the beach for a few days.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 9:47 AM
At the beach

We left this morning for the beach in Ada. We had bread and eggs for breakfast. Surprisingly, today is an African holiday, called Africa Union Day, so the entire Amekor family was at home to bid us farewell. None of the three of us (Kristin, Louanne, and me) slept well so it was a little difficult to get up this morning.

Mrs. Amekor had beautiful beaded bracelets to give us as we left. The kindness of this family has been overwhelming.  It was difficult to say good-bye.

Evelyn, the eldest Amekor daughter accompanied us to the beach. She is such a servant she continues to bring us drinks and think of us first.  I hope that she will relax and enjoy her holiday with us.  I was glad when she announced early in the afternoon that she was going to take a nap.

Ada is about an hours drive from Sogakope. On the way we were stopped by the border police. He wanted to see our passports and had us get out of the car. I was worried for about one second, until Tori began talking and laughing with the officer.  We were back in the car before we got out! I’ve learned a lot from my time spent with Tori.

The resort we are staying in is called Cocoloco Beach Resort. The rooms are small huts across the street from the beach. They are small and adequate, each with a private bathroom, separated from the sleeping area by a sheet-turned shower curtain.

We quickly clothed in bathing suits and hats and trudged to the beach for the day. There are thatch covered arbors to sit under so we are protected by the brutal sun.  The wait staff bring refreshments as quickly as we drink them. The breeze is cool and the waves are big.  The conditions are great for napping and reading.

As I was writing this email we began to hear a song that was like a chant and repeated over and over. Louanne and I went to find the source of the music.  We found a group of twenty people pulling in a gigantic fishing net from the sea. The chant was to keep them in sync.  We watched and snapped a few photos, when one young man began to gesture to us to come and help pull in the net. We laughed and then we went to help.  As we began to pull the net to the shore I realized that we were only one side of the net. There was
another group equally large group that was pulling the other end of the net down the beach. Together we were pulling the same huge net to the shore and we formed a horse shoe shaped net that was literally a mile long.  We spent about an hour helping to pull in the net. That was quite a workout in the hot sun.

The young man who invited us to help pull in the net told me his name was David. He was about 19 years old. He asked me to marry him and take him to the states.  From what I understand, it is very common to receive proposals in Ghana! I believe this to be true, because Louanne got a proposal as well!  Kristin was the photographer so she stayed at a distance. However we will not be bringing any new young men home!

As we pulled and pulled the net, many people joined our group. To our surprise, the net came to shore full of fish, shrimp, and other sea animals. People of all ages, sorted through the debris for fish to take home and eat or sell.  I was thrilled to see so many fish at the end of the net.  There were hundreds and hundreds of silver fish! Everyone who helped got a few fish as their payment (except for us, of course!).  It was a community effort. What a joy to be a part of something so simple, yet so important.Friday, May 27, 2011 3:03 PM
Amelia (and friends) terrible, horrible, no good, very bad more than a day

So, when you last tuned in we were at the beautiful beach in Ada spending the night at the Cocoloco "resort". I must put that last word in quotes and you will see why later.

As the sun began to set Wednesday night we gathered outside our huts at a picnic table, all relaxed and a few sunburned. We were
discussing the day and the rest of the trip when out of the corner of my eye I saw a mouse tight rope walking above Kristin’s head. I gasped and pointed out that there was a mouse above her head. Kristin just looked and went back to the conversation. She was really cool about it. But I knew it was a foreshadowing of the long night ahead.

As the day blended into darkness we talked and ate dinner at the restaurant at the Cocoloco.  We decided on chicken dishes after we discovered that they were out of all fish dishes- even at the beach.  However, the food was delicious. The ambience of the restaurant was not as peaceful as it could have been with both the television and the radio blaring! 

After dinner we turned in early. Louanne and I debated the intelligence of taking Ambien to make us sleep in a new place, sharing space with the mouse (mice). We decided we should if we were to get any sleep- and we did not know how right we were!

After taking my Ambien, I quickly fell into a deep sleep! Louanne was still awake when she heard a lot of commotion at the top of the concrete wall, where the thatched roof meets the wall.  It appears that two very large rats were having a territorial dispute. The mega-rats (about the size of a loaf of bread, one brown and one black) were only a few short feet from the bed. Amazingly, I only turned over briefly to see, exclaim, and fell back into a calm coma-like sleep! Sometime later, toward the middle of the night it began to rain.  Again, my Ambien-induced sleep allowed me to ignore the buckets of rain that were falling into our hut.  After trying to awaken me, Louanne single handedly moved the bed while I slept in it.  Before I realized what happened, she had moved the bed out of the rain. I did briefly wake up but only to ask her what the heck she was doing. I was, after all, trying to sleep.  As she patiently told me that water was leaking on our bed, a few raindrops fell onto my face and I thought how beautiful rain was at night.  Without a word, I retreated into my dreamy state. Early in the morning, as the sun was rising Louanne screamed that a rat had run over her foot. I barely moved this time and complained that she needed to go back to sleep so I could rest!

Thursday we went to look at a hotel for our group in January, go to the art market and eat lunch. We did these things fairly leisurely and enjoyed everything we saw. We met Amanda, an artist from whom we bought bracelets to sell.  She was a very talented artist and a joy to meet.  Our group will enjoy see her and her work in January. 

 The place we ate lunch was called Max Mart. It was a great place which served delicious food and allowed us to be in the first air conditioning we had experienced in a week. I believe this was the first time we saw any other “ya vus” since the beginning of the trip.  The Max Mart is amazing.  It is as if Whole Foods married a Costco!  You can get everything from fresh ginger to a 80 inch plasma TV.  Pretty interesting place.

We finally got on our way at about 3:30 in the afternoon. We had to get to Cape Coast to spend the night. John said that it would take about an hour and a half. So, crammed into a small car, the 5 of us (without Evelyn) began our journey. We moved about a block every 5 minutes. While we sat in traffic we we're bombarded with street sellers (called hawkers) selling anything you might desire, from batteries to fruit and large colorful braziers to dictionaries!  In the un-air-conditioned car it was necessary to keep the windows down, so the hawkers had easy access to our faces. They were never rude but persistent.  The two hour drive somehow turned into a four hour drive. With the heat, the air blowing only when we were moving, the exhaust from the cars and trucks, and getting lost, the trip went on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. We finally reached cape coast. We were scheduled to stay in visitor housing at the University of Cape Coast. Once we got there, at nine o'clock at night, they had given our rooms away because we were late. So we piled our hot, sticky, tired, and grumpy selves back into the car. The first hotel we visited had openings!  It was an adequate place but thankfully it had air conditioning and by the time we made it we would have been fine to sleep on a rock! To sleep in a really cold room is something you take for granted, but it was more than appreciated that night.
Friday, May 27, 2011 5:10 PM
The hard work of being tourists

Our mission today was two-fold. One, to tour Elmina Castle, the largest and oldest existing slave trade castle connected to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  And two, decide where we spend the days of reflection in January.

We began our day at Elmina Castle.  The castle is a huge structure situated on the beach directly beside the Elmina harbor. You can see the amazingly beautiful castle as you approach from Cape Coast. It was built by the Portuguese in 1482. The original stated purpose of the castle was to search for gold. Soon after the castle opened, it became a home base for a slave trade business where slaves were captured and sold. Separate dungeons for male and female slaves were simple, large rooms with poor ventilation and little light.  According to our tour guide Phillip, the slave traders treated the slaves poorly so only the fittest would survive and ship out.  Above the courtyard outside the dungeons was a balcony where rich slave owners could select the best slaves for their purposes.  The estimated sum of slaves captured was 60 million. Yet only 20 million slaves survived to actually make it to the ships alive. Walking through that place was an experience I won't soon forget. Though I have tried to describe it, I cannot convey the magnitude of this experience.

Our guide, Philip, a Ghanaian from Elmina, came and ate lunch with us at a restaurant by the lagoon.  Restaurants in Ghana are not recognized for swift service, so we had over two hours to sit and talk.  After Philip finished work at the castle, he also took several hours to take us to several places we might choose to stay with students in January. When I thanked him he said "you would do the same for me, my sister."  Over and over again, I am amazed at the generosity shown by the Ghanaians.

Back to our mission, we looked at 5 or 6 places and will decide later which of these places are right for our group. One is a beautiful beach resort where we opted to stay for the next two nights on this trip. The other is a collection of really cool bungalows that are bright and full of culture. This place is also on the beach. Either will be great.

Saturday, May 28, 2011 3:47 PM
The end of this story

Today, Saturday, has been a wonderful day. We had a delicious breakfast of fruit and toast with freshly squeezed orange juice. The open aired restaurant in the Elmina Beach Resort is about 50 feet from the ocean.  When the tide is coming in it is so loud that it makes it difficult to hear your table mates talk! We got to see the sun set tonight as we ate our last dinner in Africa.

Our plans today were to get cash to pay the hotel bill tomorrow (they take cash only!), and go to Kakum National Rainforest.   It was a stormy morning, which seems fitting for a day in the rainforest.  As we walked to the car at the resort, a woman called out to us.  She was traveling alone and wanted to know the best way to get to Elmina Castle. John offered to take her to the castle, as we were driving past on our way to the rainforest.  She graciously accepted his
offer. This is a beautiful thing about Ghana. People always have time to help others!  The culture supports cooperation rather than competition.

Once we piled in the car (which by the way was cool today because John got the air-conditioning fixed this morning!) we told Antoinette (our new friend, from Atlanta here as a volunteer nurse) that we were going to Kakum. She was thrilled with that plan and decided to accompany us! On our drive, it began to rain buckets! (Is that a surprise in a rainforest?) The road was a dirt road, full of holes so we sailed along swerving for most (but not all) holes in the road.

We sat in the open air restaurant at Kakum for about 30 minutes before we could go up the mountain at Kakum. At the top of the mountain, there is a series of rope bridges that hang at the canopy level,  150 feet above the ground  in the rainforest. In single file we walked across seven bridges to see a wonderful portion of the rainforest from above. It was an amazing experience. Antoinette exclaimed about every 10 feet about the view! Once she said "how could you NOT believe in God if when you look at this".  So we, in the middle of the rainforest clapped for God!

Afterward, we went to a local barber, on the campus of Cape Coast University, to have Louanne’s hair cut.  As you may know, Louanne thinks her hair is too long if it’s more than one inch long.  The barber did a great job, but thought we were nuts.

Since we hadn’t eaten lunch, we had an early dinner at the restaurant in the resort.  Antoinette joined us and bought is a bottle of wine to thank us for "an exponentially amazing day". She may join us in January as a nurse to Bakpa/Avedo. God works in mysterious ways.

We leave for Acra tomorrow to catch our 10 o'clock PM flight.

The above photos are of our new Ghanean friend, Amanda.  She handpaints beads and sells her jewerly in Acra.  We brought 900+ bracelets back to sell as a fundraiser for the trip.  If any students are close enough to campus to get some to sell during the summer, please contact Kristin Harper.

This report is taken directly from emails that faculty advisor, Dr. Amelia Spencer sent home to her family.  Thank you Amelia for chronicling our site visit!