Over the past 48 hours, while I have attempted to re-cooperate from our journey home, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the once in a lifetime experience of traveling to Ghana. Admittedly, before we left the U.S. I was quite nervous about what to expect. Venturing to a foreign country with no true understanding of the culture is a scary thing; however, once we touched down in Accra, and later Kumasi, I began to feel right at home. Taking in the scenery on our drive from the Kumasi airport to KNUST I felt as if we had been infused into a scene from Slumdog Millionaire. One of the main things that stood out for me however was the number of people; there were people EVERYWHERE! And it seemed as if each of them had something on top of their head in their bowl that they wanted to sell to you: bags of water, plantain, tangerines, bread, cookies, and coconuts. And the energy? The energy of the people was contagious! After being in Kumasi for only a few hours, I knew that it would be a memorable trip.
Interacting with children from Our Lady of Apostles’ School the first day was heart-warming. From teaching the 3 & 4 year old classes the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes”; to signing our “A,B,C’s” and giving each table of children a set of the alphabets that we collected during our fundraiser; to feeling like an absolute ROCK STAR once the children saw us approaching; it was a wonderful experience. When we went into the older classrooms and began to talk with the students about what they wanted to be when they became adults, I was shocked by the number of students that wanted to be engineers and doctors. Out of the 60-plus students that were asked what they wanted to be, only ONE said that he wanted to be a football (soccer) player. What a difference an 11-hour flight can make in the attitude of a young person! Amidst all of the happy memories however was the reality that these children did not have access to many of the common staples that American children have in their schools. Some of the children went without food because their parents could not afford to send them to school with a lunch in addition to paying their school fees. Some of the children sat two to a desk. Many did not have writing instruments and there was not a library available for them to utilize to expand their mind. Simple things that we have (and take for granted here in America) would mean the world to some of these children.
On Saturday we visited the market. Before we could park the bus however, we saw a baby boy (about one year old) and a little girl (about 6 years old) sitting in front of a church. This little girl, we would come to learn, had been “given” to various people (some family members, others complete strangers) and she now was responsible for taking care of this baby boy. During the week she was able to find refuge from the street at the Street Girls Center; however, because the day we saw her was a Saturday, she was on the street…alone. Her name was Maria. To look in that little girl’s face and see the innocence of her childhood fading as she picked up the little boy and wrapped him on her back touched me deeply.
What could I do?
How could I help?
Unbeknownst to us, Maria was just a small sample of what we would see and learn that day.
Once we got inside the market area and met some of the Kaykayei girls. These are girls that work in the market carrying items for other people. Many of these girls are sent to Kumasi from the northern areas of Ghana by their families to make money. There were at least 60 girls in one area that we went to. Many of them had babies or small children that they cared for. At first I was unsure on how to approach the girls. In one regard I did not want to essentially “buy” a girl to carry my things through the market area, yet in another regard I wanted to help the girls…even if it was only one. When we began shopping the group that I was with decided that we would carry all of our items ourselves. Eventually that became too much and we had to seek additional assistance. We got one of the kaykayei girls to assist us with carry the excess amount of toilet paper that we purchased to donate to the various orphanages and refugee camp that we planned to visit. When we got back to the bus, each of us gave her 10-15 cedi (the Ghanaian dollar); she walked away with an excess of 60 cedi. She bowed and I could sense tears in her eyes. We would later learn that this was the largest amount of money that she had ever seen in her life. We also learned that she was pregnant. For the kaykayei girls, if they made 1 cedi a week they were doing well, the 60 cedi that we paid to this girl was equivalent to the amount of money that she would make in a year.
Our first two full days in Kumasi were rewarding, educational, and humbling. Little did we know, things would get even more rewarding, educational and very humbling as we spent time at a government-run orphanage, a privately-owned orphanage, and then at a UNHCR refugee camp. Those reflections will be posted soon.