Ghanaian Children > Everything Else

Sorry about the delay in updating, but honestly, I didn’t have much to say and I have a feeling nobody wants to read about me having 5 days off from class and doing basically nothing, and then having 2 days of class where virtually nothing happened some more. I’m ready to learn whenever you’re ready to teach, University of Ghana professors. Seriously. In one class the professor didn’t even show up and his Teaching Assistant just read the syllabus to us. In case we couldn’t do that ourselves. Oh, and my laptop broke. Who knew Accra had an Apple Store?!

I was really starting to feel restless, and to be honest, a little miserable. When I didn’t do much for so long my thoughts turned towards home and how much I’d rather be doing nothing there. At least there are pizza and bagels at home!

But then Thursday August 23 happened, and now my life is being taken over by the children of Beacon House orphanage.

Beacon House from the outside. So beautiful.

Those who know me know that I’m not one to speak highly of youth. And truthfully, some kids really are assholesintolerable. But some of my most cherished memories are of me working with kids at summer camp (Coleman Country <3). It’s been almost exactly 5 years since I’ve last worked there (August 22, 2007), and I’m not going to get into the reasons for why I left, just that I couldn’t see myself ever going back without certain people being there too. Also, I spent 10 summers there. I’d say I was justified in wanting a change. And I wouldn’t have been able to do all the amazing things I’ve done these past 5 summers if I hadn’t left.

Me at 15 during my last summer working at camp. Those kids are now 15. Boy, I’m old. I also look exactly the same, just without braces. Yikes.

 To say I’m bit a rusty when it comes to dealing with kids would be an understatement (not that I was really any good to begin with).  I also only have experience with 9 and 10 year old boys, and while Beacon House has a few of those, there are also much younger boys and girls there. And babies. Babies! I had never held a baby before, and that was giving me the most anxiety.  Some thoughts included: “What if I drop him/her?” “Babies are gross!” “I better not have to touch their poop!”

I was once kid-like! My cuteness level peaked at age 6.

 No babies were dropped, they were the complete opposite of gross, and no poop was touched. On the contrary (I’ve always wanted to write that), I surprised myself with how much I loved interacting with them.  I hadn’t really considered myself a paternal person, but I found myself, instinctively I guess, picking them up, spinning them around, and even held one up like Simba (he begged me to).

Look at the cute babies!

Alright. Enough about babies for now. The kids. Man, only cute children and puppies have the ability to melt my heart, and for the 18 hours I’ve been at Beacon House so far, I was complete mush. I’m sure a psychologist would enjoy figuring out why usually the only people I like dealing with are 12 and under, but I think what it comes down to is their simplicity; Their problems and requests are so basic, it takes so little to get them excited (and sad). They aren’t burdened with miserable, silly adult problems that make me cringe. And selfishly, it felt amazing to feel completely wanted and appreciated.

I decided to break up my experiences into different categories, starting with “Awww! Y’all Are So Cute!” Here are some highlights:

  • When I first arrived on Thursday, the kids were starting snack-time.  This began the first of many instances of hearing “You’re invited!”, which seems to be the universal Ghanaian way of saying “Come eat this with me!” After squeezing myself onto a bench at their table not meant for someone of my physical stature, I was offered crackers. From everybody.
  •  There’s a trampoline outside that is the main source of entertainment for the kids. And boy, do these kids love their trampoline. They all wanted me to “jump them,” probably because I’m one of the largest people they’ve encountered in a while, so my ability to launch them into the air is unparalleled. Unfortunately, I don’t have the energy of a 5-9 year old (I’d say it’s closer to that of a 68 year old), so that trampoline left me winded really fast. But do those kids care? Nope!

    Really hard to say no to these faces

  • My shoes, watch and hair really fascinated them. I never realized how large my feet are until I saw a 4 year old attempt to walk in my shoes. I’m also not sure how many Jews these kids have encountered, so my so-called “luscious” (to me, unruly) locks were a source of awe. They want me to let it grow forever. Yeah. Sorry kids, don’t think so!

    Gah. So cute. Also, my feet are huge.

  • They love to learn! Before class-time, the kids marched around the grounds of the house chanting “We Love Our Class!” while holding a poster that bears that mantra. I was lucky enough to help one of the kids, Ben, with his math. It was beyond cute when he would get the right answer but write the numbers in reverse (71 instead of 17). I would tell him he made a mistake and he would be so confused, and then embarrassed when he realized what happened. Aww!
  • They garden!! They help take care of tomatoes and other vegetables that are used for food.

    Ben ruining (or improving?) the picture

The next category is “Well, This is Overwhelming/Uncomfortable/Unsettling”:

  • My first overwhelming moment happened Thursday afternoon after their 2 hour nap. One boy wanted to play with me with a Frisbee, and one girl wanted me to go on the trampoline with her. I was standing in the middle with each holding one of my hands, trying to pull me in the direction they wanted. Patience isn’t something every 5 year olds possess yet, and when every kid wanted my attention at the same time, thoughts of running away/curling into the fetal position crossed my mind.
  • Kids scream. If they don’t get what they want, when they want it, shit really hits the fan. Having only worked with 9/10 year olds before, this wasn’t really something I had to deal with until now. And it’s really the worst. If I say “Don’t worry, you’re gonna jump in a few minutes” that basically means nothing to them. But hey, at least I learned I’m more patient than I thought I was!
  • Kids cry. See above reasoning.
  • Kids ask a lot of questions, and some of them can be really weird. Some examples:
    • From an 11 year old girl: “When are you getting married?” Me: “Uhhh…not for a while, I don’t think.”
    • From a few kids at various times: “Why are you crying?” Me: “I’m not crying. Just sweating.” Seriously, Ghanaians don’t sweat. We’re on the equator, guys. Give me a break!
    • From 11 year old girl again: “Do you go to church?” Me: “Not anymore.” Girl: “Why?” Me: “I don’t know…” Girl: “I want you to come with us.” Me: “Uhhh…maybe eventually.” Not sure how she would have responded to me saying “I’m Jewish!” If there’s one thing I know, it’s how to avoid conflict.
    • From Mary and Joshua, both about 5: “Will you teach us and the other preschoolers? Please? There’re no teachers here for us. We swear we’ll listen to everything you say!” Sometimes I forget that these kids are orphans. They play, they laugh, but at the end of the day, they lack things that so many people take for granted, myself included. I didn’t know what to say to them. The thought of not being able to go to school is something so foreign to me but is a real problem for so many kids. Really upsetting.

The final category, to end on a lighter note, is “Oh My God. Heart May Explode!”:

  • The kids begged me to stay for the night to watch a movie with them before they went to bed. On Friday I agreed (partly because the movie was Free Willy), and they were ECSTATIC. They all wanted to sit on my lap. I ended up with a sleeping 16 month old girl’s head on one leg and another baby trying to climb onto my back at various times.
  • When I came Friday morning, a few of the kids ran over and immediately hugged me. Aww! One of them wanted to be picked up (“I want to go on your stomach!”), and that turned into him sleeping on me for about 30 minutes. AWW!

    Well, this is cute.

  • “I want you to stay forever!” That was pretty wonderful to hear.
  • A few of the kids wanted me to read to them, so I ended up reading about 5 semi-ridiculous stories. I had never read to a kid before and one of them fell asleep on my lap during it! AWW!
  • Before the movie, prayer/singing happens. Irene, the house “Mother” is this really wonderful and religious older woman who made them repeat a few times that Faith, Hope, and Love are the three most important things. She ended with a prayer for ME, thanking Jesus for bringing me there and asking him to look after me on my way home.  I was really close to tears at that point. She had all the kids come over to me and say “Shalom!” (thought that was just a Jewish thing) and hug me/shake my hand. That was just the greatest.

I really can’t believe I’m getting college credit for basically playing with kids all day. Getting fed two meals by the really beautiful staff is an added bonus. And just to make things even more wonderful, there’s a dog! I really didn’t expect to love working there as much as I have so far. It might have taken 3 weeks, but for the first time since I left home, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

And that’s just swell.

OH. I also went on a day trip to Boti Falls and hiked to Umbrella Rock. I’m kind of tired from writing all this, but I’ll just say that the falls were beautiful and the hike was…kind of treacherous. I’ve talked about my borderline-hatred of hiking, and this was really a doozy, but miraculously I didn’t suffer any injury! That’s pretty astonishing, I’d say. And wearing a white shirt? Not too bright.

Our 10 year old guide had us walk around the rock perimeter of the falls. Still not sure why…

Umbrella Rock! We finally made it!!

Alright, sorry for the length. I guess I got a bit carried away while gushing over cute kids! Next weekend we’re traveling so my next post may take a while. Thanks for reading!

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Me Din De Matthew!

Week Two of my Ghanaian escapades commenced on Friday August 10th with a workshop that I knew would be traumatic, yet proceeded to attend anyway: African Dance. Look. I have a lot of traits working against me that hinder my ability to dance properly, including but not limited to: self-consciousness, awkwardness, low confidence, and being a white boy. All of that combined resulted in so much limb flailing, stepping on people’s feet, and a general transformation into an impossibly gross-looking boy. But I guess everybody came out of it looking like we just attended a Hot Yoga session. I mean, at least I can say that I did it, that I didn’t hide/run away like I normally do when faced with an uncomfortable situation. Progress!

Also, Ghana has a really sick and twisted version of the “Trust Fall” that is beyond dangerous. Just don’t do it.

We were taken on a “tour” of Accra the next day. I put tour in quotes because we didn’t actually see much of the city other than Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park where we were led by a highly passive-aggressive lady through Ghana’s first post-independence leader’s final resting place. Seriously. The dude’s had like 3 burial sites. That’s about 2 too many.

Dr. Nkrumah’s Mausoleum. Not sure why his body had to be shuffled around so much before being laid here.

After being swiftly led through the museum we boarded the bus to the W.E.B Du Bois Center where we saw…nothing. We got off the bus and back onto it within 5 minutes. Not really sure what the deal was with that. Along the way we were taken to Osu for lunch. I and a few other people ended up eating at a Thai restaurant where we met this wonderful man, Daniel, who’s from the U.S. but moved to Ghana so he could retire earlier. He believes in “following the wind.” I really like that. He also drove us back to the bus! I’m not used to randomly coming across great people, so that lunch was really refreshing.

That night was our official “Welcome Dinner” at Chez Afrique, a really fancy restaurant that serves chicken gizzard on a skewer. Yeah. I ate that. Cause I’m so adventurous and all. But if you’re wondering, it’s kind of nasty. I was also coerced into dancing again. This is probably the first and last time I will dance two days in a row. Nobody should be subjected to that.

The gizzard.

My lazy Sunday started with me attempting to do laundry. Having never hand-washed clothes before, naturally I Googled “How To Hand Wash Clothing” and just followed the directions provided by WikiHow. Probably not the wisest method for acquiring instructions, but after 2.5 hours I’m just happy my clothes came out of it relatively unscathed.

At this point I was really concerned that I had ruined half my clothes from too much detergent.

Afterwards a few of us boarded a Tro-Tro to a market where we thought we could bargain for some fruits/vegetables. To our horror we were forced to spend the abominable price of

My mango that I thought was overpriced. This was also my first time using a knife of such a menacing size.

about $1.50 for a few items (mango and apple for me). We were so pissed, thinking those evil ladies overcharged us. We later found out that we were charged a reasonable price. Oops. Sorry ladies!

Monday was the Big Day! Classes were finally beginning, and I was really excited that morning ahead of my first class, Politics of International Economic Relations. I was even alright with the professor showing up 20 minutes late. After we all introduced ourselves the professor ended up just reading the course description and syllabus, and…that was it. Except for the fun moment when the professor called on me to answer a question, a really easy question that I would have been able to answer if I had any communication skills. Here’s how it went down:

Professor: “Matthew, what is a multinational corporation and can you give me an example?” Matthew (in thought): What? He already has my name memorized? That’s crazy! Why is he calling on me out of everybody here?? Wait, what did he ask? Oh God. Help. Why can’t I open my mouth? Professor: “Matthew? Can you just give an example?” Matthew: “…………..Nike.”

So yeah. Not my finest moment, and probably not the most ideal first impression. Oh well.

We didn’t really do much in my other classes either, so I guess next week is the real first week of class. Also, Twi is going to be an issue. Why must there be 7 vowels? 5 is more than enough for any language.

I was in (extremely) rare form Wednesday night during the celebration of a friend’s 20th birthday. But hey, I have no classes on Thursdays and Fridays so I lacked any real excuse to not participate in festivities. I proved that I can be social and do normal young people stuff when I actually feel like it, which is basically never about 90% of the time. But I drank wine out of a random person’s bottle, took a shot of some poison vodka (Russian Bear? Seems like an odd beverage name), and had a beer at the beach while waiting for reggae to be played (never happened).

Sorry, but the world has to see this. Somebody had a rough night, and it wasn’t me!

The beach was really beautiful (and freezing). Being in the Atlantic Ocean from the opposite end was strange but I liked the familiarity of it. Also, I was offered some pot from a strange Ghanaian man. I only hesitated for about a second before turning him down. I’m not completely insane (yet).

All in all, this has been a great week. I’m looking forward to things picking up next week and hopefully starting my internship at the orphanage! Here are a few final thoughts:

  • Being perpetually dirty is something that I’ve had to quickly get used to.  It’s just unavoidable. Especially my feet. It also doesn’t help when the water isn’t working for an entire night. Thanks, Africa.
  • Speaking of feet, the inhumane amount of walking required to get to class at this massive school has left me with many blisters. I know you all wanna know that.
  • These water sachets are a life saver. And extremely cheap. 30 bags of these cost about the equivalent of $0.75. Mind-boggling.

    Once you get passed the somewhat metallic taste, these water bags are kinda great.

  • I really need to work on eating healthier. I’ll probably continue getting pizza every Tuesday, but maybe I’ll cut back on the amount I shove down my throat at one time.  And I’ll have to live without the chocolate crepes from CoffeeCue or banana chocolate chip muffins from the crazypossibly unstable muffin lady who more or less lives outside the dorm.

    We might have gone overboard on the amount of pizza we purchased.

  • It’s probably an issue that I haven’t officially registered for classes yet. I’ll get to it.

I really cannot stop listening to this song. Why is Beyonce so perfect?

Tro-Tro? More Like Uh-Oh!

I made it through my first week in Ghana! I’m just as surprised as many some of you  probably are, especially since a few people in the program have faced some…complications. Let’s just say there’s been a lot of trips to the bathroom for some people, but at least about half was just alcohol-induced! The other half (myself included for one day)…it’s been rough. But hey, as long as cholera doesn’t happen, everything will be alright. Right? Maybe.

I wasn’t really sure how I should go about writing about my experiences (daily summaries versus whatever comes to mind versus transcribing my journal verbatim), so I think I’ll try incorporating a mixture of everything and we’ll see what happens. I’m still new to this whole blogging thing. I thought I would start with the beginning, mainly the plane-ride from JFK to Madrid. I decided I’d start my journal on the plane since that’s what I did when I went to Botswana last summer, and this first entry is…a bit less enthusiastic and optimistic than last year’s first entry. Here’s a sample:

I’m beginning to think that I have completely lost my mind. I can’t think of any other explanation as for why I’m currently flying to Ghana where I will spend the next 4.5 months. Like…why can’t I just make my life easier and study abroad in Paris or Florence like a normal college student? Nope. Africa! You set these goals, you make these plans, not really thinking about the day these plans come to fruition.  Study abroad has been a goal/dream for as long as I can remember; I always thought of it as being the defining moment of my college career. After being accepted into the program I think I was in some state of denial, and because I didn’t let myself think about it too much, I’m probably not as mentally prepared as I should be for this.  I also can’t stop feeling like a selfish ass for leaving my family to do this for so many months.”

So yeah…it was rough at the start. But I think it would be a bit weird if I felt no anxiety at all. Knowing and understanding that something is going to be challenging and difficult means I’m more prepared to manage those moments. I hope. We’ll see.

Skipping ahead, we spent our first 3 nights at a hotel in Legon (where the University of Ghana is located) for Orientation.  There are (I think) 48 people in my particular program (CIEE), so those first couple days are a blur of meeting people, forgetting the names of those people, and awkwardly acting as if I remembered anything about the people I had spent a couple hours talking to. It really is fascinating, at least for someone like me, seeing how personable and socially…advanced? some people are.  Some friendships seemingly formed instantly which is definitely something that is beyond my comprehension.

Krystis Night Club, located just outside the hotel. Shockingly, I never entered this establishment.

But I think I did alright. At least I put in some kind of effort to talk to people, which for me is a victory in itself. Have I gone out to bars and clubs every night and thrown up on people like some people have? No. I’ve had half a beer and half a cup of sangria since I’ve been here and I paid for neither. But I have had dinner at a Ghanaian family’s home and saw The Dark Knight Rises tonight! So I haven’t been a complete recluse. I’d say that’s pretty praise-worthy.

To save some writing/reading time, here are some Highlights of CIEE Orientation:

  • Obruni=any foreigner in Ghana. I haven’t been called one yet (I think), but it’s supposedly not insulting, but endearing. Yeah. Not really convinced.
  • Apparently using your left hand (for eating, hand-shaking) in Ghana is a no-no. It’s associated with the bathroom. Great. As if I didn’t have enough social handicaps to worry about here.
  • Tro-tros are a major mode of transportation in Ghana. They’re basically these minivans that squishhold 15-25 people along fixed routes for extremely cheap prices. I spent the equivalent of $0.15 to get to the mall from campus today. Mind-blowing.

    Tro-Tros are pretty scary at first, but they’re an extremely efficient and cheap way to get around much of Ghana

  • Bargaining is extremely important for taxi rides and market shopping. I’m just not aggressive/persistent enough for this. But I mean, everything is so cheap compared to U.S. prices to begin with that I feel a bit silly trying to spend the equivalent of $0.90 for an egg/cheese sandwich instead of $1.00.  Or taking a taxi for the equivalent of $2.00 when it would have cost at least $12.00 at home. Whatever. It’s a skill I’ll hopefully improve on over time.
  • Cholera: If I experience “20 liters of watery stools,” I should probably be concerned.
  • We were taken to Accra Mall which is sooo nice. I got my phone/modem there, and it’s where the movie theater is. I’ve been there 3 times this week. That’s probably not okay.
  • We went on a scavenger hunt to get a feel for Legon, and since there are no maps and street signs this was pretty useful. Saw some goats/chickens, a burning tire, some beautiful Ghanaian children and gas stations. And a car with an Obama ’12 sticker. That about sums up Africa, I’d say.

    Just a typical thing to come across when walking the streets of Legon

  • There was a discussion on homosexuality, how it’s a sign of respect for Ghanaian culture to not flaunt/display sexuality. But how can acceptance and tolerance improve if people are encouraged or even forced to be silent? I don’t know. Something I’ll think about more as time goes by.
  • At one point everybody had to stand in a circle and massage the shoulders of the person in front of you. You can imagine how I handled that situation.

On Monday August 6th we moved into the International Student Hostel (ISH) at the University of Ghana and had 2 days of Orientation with the University, where we covered basically the same things that were talked about the days before. Some highlights include:

  • Don’t harass people sexually, emotionally, physically…basically just don’t be an asshole.
  • Don’t throw people into ponds.
  • “Sometimes you see mad men and women on campus.”
  • No smoking weed.
  • Don’t, under any circumstance, join a cult.

Once Orientation ended there was much more free time to get myself settled and explore the campus. I have a Ghanaian roommate who hasn’t fully moved in yet, and he seems really nice but after not having a roommate for over 1.5 years, I’m curious to see how this goes. I’m hopeful!

My room in ISH! I finally managed to set up a mosquito net after failed attempts on past trips. There’s also a balcony!

Finding my way around campus has been…an experience. There are over 37,000 students here and the campus is HUGE. Walking to some classes may take over 25 minutes, and there aren’t detailed maps to follow. Thankfully there is the Night Market right behind ISH where you can buy literally anything, from calling cards to toothpaste to egg sandwiches. Seriously. Those egg sandwiches are going to make up a significant portion of my diet.  And rice. And mangoes.

Part of the Night Market, about 2 seconds away from being yelled at for taking this picture.

Needless to say, these first couple days roaming around campus trying to find academic departments has been an adventure. Especially in the rain.

In between campus exploration and figuring out what classes to take (Twi, Sociological Foundations for Development, Politics of International Economic Relations, and a toss-up between African Indigenous Religions or Colonial Rule and African Response), CIEE organized seminars led by university professors. Topics included Women in Ghanaian Development, Ghanaian History, and Ghanaian Politics.

Balme Library, the University’s main library. Much more visually appealing than George Washington University’s Gelman Library.

We arrived at an extremely interesting and strange time in Ghana’s political history because President John Atta-Mills died just a week before we arrived (burial is tomorrow), so the government is in transition with new elections occurring in December. I’m definitely looking forward to experiencing both US and Ghanaian Presidential elections this semester.

RIP President Mills. Not sure why it’s taken 3 weeks for you to be buried…

Tomorrow we’re having a dance workshop, which might apparently include butt slapping. I do not slap butts of virtual strangers. Or butts of people I know, for that matter. If I have to do this, it will instantly become the most uncomfortable moment of my life. And I’ve had dozens a few of those.

Some final thoughts and experiences:

  • I found out yesterday that I will be working at Beacon House orphanage to satisfy the internship requirement for Development Studies students.  I really cannot wait for this to start, and I have a feeling I’ll have no trouble completing the 135 required hours. Yay!! I’ve really missed working with kids.
  • Weather has been surprisingly cool since I’ve been here. I should probably enjoy the wet season while I still can, since the dry season starts in about a month and it will become extremely hot. Since we’re on the equator and all. There hasn’t been a lot of sun, but humidity has left me at my trademark gross at times.
  • Poverty is obviously an unavoidable presence, but it’s been amazing to see how the people aren’t just sitting around, hopeless and defeated. They are in the streets, attempting to sell various, often random, products (like bubbles) to people driving down busy highways. Parents have their young children (generally girls) walk up to people along crowded areas (like the mall) and literally latch onto you, tugging on your clothes, hugging you, doing whatever (they’re probably instructed) to do to get money from us. It’ll be hard for me to continue to ignore them.
  • I made it 5 days without getting pizza, which for me is pretty remarkable. There’s a place that has “Terrific Tuesday” 2-for-1 pizza specials so obviously that’s a deal I can’t pass up. We were also just sick of eating chicken and rice. Getting to the pizza also involved crossing a highway and climbing over a median.  Pizza is the only food I will put so much effort into acquiring.

    Every Tuesday. This is happening.

  • Having dinner with a few friends at a Ghanaian family’s house has definitely been my favorite experience so far. There were 2 homes (one for the grandparents) in a gated compound, and both are massive and beautiful. The family is so generous and kind, prepared a delicious meal and even baked us carrot cake! I also participated in saying Grace for the first time in my life. Not sure a few of my family members will be pleased with this.  We gave our phone numbers and were told to come back any time, so hopefully I’ll get to do this again soon. It was so great! The roads to get to the house, however, were not so great. I had a few moments of thinking we were about to get wrecked by a speeding car or our car would just break down from the extremely bumpy roads.
  • No mosquito bites yet! Some people are looking kinda nasty. Probably just jinxed myself.
  • Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were just as perfect the second time seeing The Dark Knight Rises.

I know this is a bit…wordy, but I didn’t want to leave too much out. Then again, I probably included a bit too many unnecessary sentences (like this one). I don’t know. If you managed to get through all this, thank you! Classes start on Monday and I’ll hopefully have another update a week from now!