Weekend Getaway in Paradise

Wow, what a week! We have all survived our first seven days of volunteering in Kumasi and its been amazing. This past weekend though, we took a trip to the coast where we visited one of Ghana's infamous slave castles. I will be doing a separate blog post on that experience though. After seeing the slave castle, we did a canopy walk high above the trees at Kakum National Park before heading to a best kept secret lodging called The Hide Out.

On our extremely bumpy ride to the Hide Out (because no paved roads this far out), our program director made us all sing along to the Hie Out Song. It goes:

The hideout, is a paradise. The hideout is a paradise. Everybody. Everybody. Should be happy. Should be happy. Wala-wala-ee coco. Wala-wala-ee caca. Everybody! Everybody! Should be happy! Should be happy!

And on and on it goes.

Finally, we got there and I was captured by the serenity of it. We were in theWestern Region now. What I loved about this place was that it was very "off the grid." There was no cell phone reception or wifi. No hustle and bustle. Just clean, fresh sea breeze air. And the boisterous sound of the ocean waves. Myself and two other volunteers were lucky enough to get one of the cabins that were beachfront. Literally, if we opened the door we were right on the beach! We fell asleep to the waves every night and I've never slept better. Not to mention waking up to a beautiful sunrise in the morning. 

Right outside our cabin door.

Right outside our cabin door.

On our second day, we took a short drive to Busua Beach and we were all impressed. It was really beautiful and I couldn't stop snapping pictures. 

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This little girl's family worked on the beach. She was so adorable and fearless!! She loved the water.

This little girl's family worked on the beach. She was so adorable and fearless!! She loved the water.

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We got private surf lessons too. I was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but it was so much fun! Would definitely love to try surfing again. Unfortunately, after 100 plus tries, I still didn't stand on the board. But I was close!

My instructor cheering me on in the background ^^

My instructor cheering me on in the background ^^

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Our surf instructors. 

Our surf instructors. 

After an exhilarating day of surfing, we headed back to The Hide Out to eat and relax before our next activity which was to visit the people in the village across the bridge from us. I really enjoyed this part, because I got to see how they live and even had some great conversations with these two young men around my age. They told me about life in the village and their hopes and dreams for the future. Both sons of fishermen, they told me they hope to not follow in their father's footsteps. 

John and John, Age 24.

John and John, Age 24.

I also enjoyed taking pictures of the kids who at first were a little skeptical of the camera, but then started following me around for more pictures! Too cute. 

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After visiting the village, we ended our weekend getaway with a bonfire and drum circle on the beach. As I danced away at the sounds of the beating drums, I couldn't help but smile. THIS is Africa, I thought to myself. And then I danced the night away.

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Meet our baby girls

Since being at the orphanage, Eboni (another volunteer I met here) and I have seriously bonded with the baby girls. We have truly fallen in love with these angels. There are seven in total that are in the nursery. What I find amazing is that even at such a young age, they all have their own distinct personalities and quirks. Let me tell you more about them.

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Rose

Rose appears to be the oldest by only a few months. My guess is that she is about 18 months old. She is also the bossiest and most cross baby I've ever met. Eboni and I joke that she is a teenager in a baby's body. However, when she is happy, it is the cutest thing. Her laugh is infectious and so so adorable. She did not like me in the beginning. She would give me the meanest looks! But after a few weeks, she literally would not leave me alone. Never thought I'd see the day that Rose would cry if I put her down! Oh, she also adores food. Any sound of a wrapper crinkling and she comes running!

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Ataa

 Ataa is the second oldest. She may be about 16 months old. Eboni nicknamed her 'Dora the Explorer" because she was always off doing her own thing. In the beginning, she was sort of shy, but after only about a week or two, she warmed up to us so nicely. Ataa actually means "twin" in Twi. She isn't a twin though- she is a triplet! Her brothers are also nicknamed Ata (spelled with one "a" at the end for boys) and live in the boys' house. Eboni and I made it our personal mission to reunite the Ata's before we left. Ataa is just the cutest little thing. When she smiles, you see all her little baby teeth and it lights up her whole face. Her walk is super adorable too. Her little feet pitter patter and she scrunches up her shoulders. I love it!

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Adepah

Adepah, aka 'Fatty Boom Boom' (because she's just the cutest little chunky baby ever) I believe is about 14-15 months. She's a bit quieter than the older two, except for when she's in one of her crying moods where she'll literally just throw herself on the floor, lay there, and cry non stop. But when she is happy, you can't help but to feel happy too. Whenever I called her name in a singsongy voice, she would start laughing and run (as close to running as her little chubby legs could get) in the opposite direction. I always said Adepah looked like a Gerber baby and should be on a pack of Pampers or something. 

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Nkansah

Nkansah my baby. The first baby I held at the orphanage. The first one I fell in love with. She is about 6 or 7 months old. She has these big curious eyes that almost look too big to be on a baby. I love them. She is my little busy body. When I first arrived there, she could not even crawl yet, but was crawling all over the place and even pulling herself up to stand by my third week. Eboni and I call her our twerking baby because she loves to rock back and forth on her hands and knees when she's happy. She also loves to climb on people. Literally has no regard for her little fingers poking you in the eye, slapping another baby in the face, digging her little foot into your chest.  I got a ring made that has her name engraved on it. I'm sure when she gets older, people there will tell her about me, as all the staff and house mothers refer to me as "Nkansah's madda." 

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Rahel

Rahel aka Joy. This little girl right here stole my heart right along with Nkansah. Eboni and I call her Joy because she is the most content baby. She would literally just sit and nod her head from side to side and smile and babble. I will admit, I overlooked her in the beginning (I was so obsessed with Nkansah). But this one. If I were able to adopt right now, I could not take Nkansah and leave behind my Joy baby. She is just the sweetest thing ever. She loves to cuddle and just stare and smile her gummy smile at you. When Joy smiles, that is exactly what you feel - Joy. It takes over her whole face and you can't even see her eyes when she smiles, it's that big. She learned how to clap and loved to clap and sing. And dance too. Joy is just the best. 

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Ifea

Ifea aka 'Aunty." We called her this because one of the first things I said was that she had a grown woman face. Which I did get to see her grow into, and when she did, she was just the prettiest little thing. We also called her aunty because she was pretty miserable, crying all the time, even when you finally took her out of her crib. I did notice though, towards the end, she didn't cry as much. I think she was just craving human touch and affection. Aside form fussing, she loved to stare at you and laugh. She was a little less than two months old and got adopted during my fourth week. I had no warning or notice that she was leaving. So when I got to the orphanage one day and her crib was empty, it felt like a loss to our little group, but I was also very happy that she had (prayerfully) gone to a loving home. 

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Mahama

Last but not least, Mahama aka "President" because that is the name of one of Ghana's former presidents. She was one month old when we arrived and so small. She slept pretty much all day long at first. But towards the end of my time, I saw her grow so much. Instead of being sleeping beauty, she was wide awake and looooved to be held. She liked when I stared back at her and talked. She would just laugh as if she understood exactly what I was saying. Her favorite thing besides spitting up all the time, was sticking her hand in her mouth and smiling. I really hope she gets adopted before she gets to the age where couples feel she is too old. 

These are our baby girls. Our Forever tribe of Seven.

Saying Goodbye

Saying Goodbye

 

Yesterday and today were so hard. I knew the day was going to come, but what I didn’t realize is that it would all happen in a blink of an eye. Thursday morning, I woke up with my stomach in knots. I could barely eat breakfast because I was thinking about what I would have to do later on that day - say goodbye to my babies. I took the tro tro to the orphanage. One last time. Reminding myself along the way that this was the last time I would be passing this shop and that building. The last time I would be on my way to see my girls. For a long while anyway.

I finally got to the orphanage and walked straight to the girls’ nursery. I paused outside the door, preparing myself to etch every single detail into my memory. I opened the door, walked in, and there were my babies. All 6 of them (would be 7, but “Aunty” got adopted the week before). Starting from right to left, I went to take each baby out of her crib, picked her up, hugged and kissed her before moving on to the next. First was Ata. Before I even got to her, she reached her little arms up and gave me her baby toothy smile. Next was Rose. Seeing Rose smile is always a treat seeing as she gives the scariest death stare I’ve ever seen on a baby. Today though, she was laughing when I went to pick her up. Just cracking up! Next, I went to my baby Nkansah. She was rocking back and forth on her hands and knees as is her signature move. Eboni and I used to joke that she was our little twerkin baby. When I lifted her out of her crib, I held her high above my head. She did that adorable thing she does where she laughs while scrunching up her nose and breathing in and out really hard. I started laughing with her before setting her down on the floor to do her favorite thing- crawl around and explore. Adepah stood up as soon as I walked over to her. I picked up my fatty boom boom as we call her- and tickled her before letting her join Rose, Ata, and Nkansah. I finally got over to baby Rahel (aka Joy) who had been patiently waiting. She was doing her super cute thing where she shakes her head excitedly from side to side. I picked her up and she gave me the gummiest smile. The type of smile where her eyes look completely shut. I kissed her cute little cheeks about five times each. Last but not least, I picked up Mahama (aka President). She’s constantly spitting up as I guess most two month olds do. I wiped her up with a baby wipe and walked around the room with her in my arms.

The rest of the day, I soaked up every minute. Every smile, every laugh, every fight between Ata, Rose, and Adepah as they are always bickering. Mahama spit up on me four times within the first ten minutes. I think she was punishing me for leaving. I blew bubbles and we danced around the room, laughing. I fed them snacks. Rose absolutely goes crazy the minute she even thinks she hears a wrapper rustling.

I called in Comfort and Ama. I wanted to give these two a special gift for being such sweet girls. They never asked for anything like the older girls in the orphanage did. And when they did get anything, they were always very grateful. I gave them each a pair of earrings, a bracelet, some panties, popcorn, and ice cream. They were so ecstatic. Apparently, if one of the house mothers saw the things they had gotten, she would lock the gifts up in the store room, according to Comfort. So the two came up with a plan to hide it. Our plan was for me to hide the gifts in my bag, and go into another room. There, I would hide the gifts under some old blankets and they would come back for it later when the house mothers weren’t looking. As I walked out of the nursery and to this room, I looked back and saw Comfort and Ama hugging each other, quietly giggling, and jumping up and down. I will never forget the joy on their faces and the way they hugged and kissed me over and over while saying “Thank You, God bless you!”

Four o clock rolled around. Our usual time to feed, bathe, and put the babies down to sleep. The entire hour leading up to it, my stomach kept turning. Normally, I would feed whichever baby I happened to be holding when the house mother walked in and made the bottles. But today, I needed to feed Nkansah. One last time. I cradled her in my left arm and put the bottle in her mouth. She looked up at me with her big dark eyes. Eyes that almost seem too big to be on a baby. Eyes that I had stared into every day for the past five weeks.

Comfort and I helped with bathing the babies. I dressed Nkansah and Joy. Combed their hair. Joy would not stop crying. I stood up and rocked her. Sang “You Are My Sunshine” to her. I hugged and kissed her a thousand times. Prayed over her. Told her I love her and to never forget me. Then I put her in her crib. Instantly began to tear up.

I then picked up Nkansah. Repeated the same thing. Showed her the ring I got made with her name engraved in it. It’s almost as if she knew this was the last time. Since she learned to crawl a couple of weeks prior, she had gotten very independent and did not like to be held or sit still for very long. But today, she held onto me tight. Laughed and babbled. By now, I was so choked up. I let the tears flow. Every time I went to put her down, I just couldn’t. I felt physically sick.

Finally, I kissed her one more time and put her in her crib. Then I walked out.

It was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I cried the whole way home.

When I got back to the volunteer house, I spent the evening sitting on the porch with three other volunteers. About ten children from the neighborhood were outside with us. Dancing, playing games, taking pictures on Rachael’s phone while Lizzie helped one with her homework. Heather was enjoying letting one of the little girls brush her hair. I just sat there taking it all in. When it was time for the kids to go home, we decided to walk with them, each of us carrying one on our backs. On the way, I told myself: “This is what you came for.”

These past five weeks in Ghana have entailed ups and downs. But mostly ups. It has been amazing. Life changing even. Those kids will always hold a special place in my heart. But all good things must come to an end. So today I say goodbye to Ghana, and make room in my heart for Tanzania. 

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What Ghana has made me appreciate

No one said it would be all rainbows and butterflies. Here's some things Ghana has made me really appreciate having at home:

  • Running water 24/7 - I've gotten used to and actually don't mind the cold showers since Ghana is so hot. But not having water to cook with, shower, or wash my hands really  bugs me. Especially being the germaphobe that I am and feeling like I need to wash my hands often. At least I'm able to take bucket baths since we collect and keep water for times like this. 
  • Sanitation/ Cleanliness- This definitely doesn't apply to all of Ghana, but in Kumasi, theres garbage on the ground everywhere you go. 
  • FOOD OPTIONS- although I don't mind and actually like most of the meals prepared for us in the volunteer house, I REALLY miss having options. I miss being able to eat out and have a multitude of cuisines to choose from. Being vegetarian/vegan also doesn't make it any easier, since all that is here from back home is KFC - probably the least vegetarian friendly place on the planet. Even decent pizza is impossible to find unless you go to the bigger city like Accra where they have a Pizza Hut in the mall. 
  • Snacks- basically the third point, but I had to mention it because the snacks here just aren't the same. I have resorted to stopping and buying a bag of popcorn every single day after the orphanage because it's the one snack that I find satisfying here. 
  • Chivalry- nothing crazy, but just the basic stuff like HOLDING THE DOOR OPEN for the person behind you. I noticed very quickly that the men here do not practice this. I've literally had men let a door slam in my face, cut me in line , and just plain behave as if they are superior. Culture or not, I definitely gave them all a piece of my mind. 
  • Customer Service- It just doesn't exist here. 
  • Washer and Dryer- I don't hate having to hand wash my clothes but that's probably because I know it's temporary. Definitely more appreciative of the convenience of being able to just throw a load in rather than spending 1-2 hours of my Sunday mornings scrubbing with my hands.

Nevertheless, it is all part of the experience and I'm just along for the ride :)

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I attended a traditional African Wedding

I Went to an African Wedding. Here’s What I Thought of It:

First, let me add a disclaimer saying that what I’m about to write is from a Western perspective and I in no way mean to offend anyone who may be reading this. Also, this is NOT indicative of all or even most African weddings, as every African wedding I’ve seen has been the total opposite of this experience.

So most of my closest friends know this secret about me- I used to really want to marry an African man so we could have this beautiful amazingly fun, bright, colorful, and festive African wedding. I’m a little past that now, but it was on my bucket list to attend an African wedding, so I was super excited when one of the teachers at the school that I volunteer at invited me to his wedding this past Sunday. I figured that if I was going to go to an African wedding, I had to dress the part. So I went shopping for some bright colored material and got this baby:

Feeling all queenly :)

Feeling all queenly :)

As soon as I put it on I felt very African Queen-y. I paid my 100 cedis (that’s’ equivalent to about 22 dollars) happily.

The day of the wedding, after I got dressed, I thought to myself: “Yeah, I’ll be getting one of these custom made again for my own wedding reception one day.”

Flo is from Ghana and lives in the volunteer house with us. She’s also one of the teachers at the school. You know we had to do a little photoshoot real quick because I mean, just look at us.

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On the way to the wedding, I was super excited, thinking about all the good music and dancing – the DANCING. I was so excited.

When we got to the church, the first thing I noticed was how laid back it was. It was definitely a no frills type of event. People were dressed nicely, but many wore their Sunday best. There wasn’t a bridal party. Just a maid of honor and a best man. Decorations were minimal – faux flowers at the alter and a few arrangements in between the aisles. And there were A LOT of kids.

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Check out her dress!

Check out her dress!

After vows were exchanged, a box was brought out and everyone got up by row, danced to the front, and dropped some money in the box. I thought it was nice to have a part where people could gift the newlyweds with some funds to start their new life together, rather than the usual household item wedding gift that is typical of Western weddings. The thing is, I thought this was nice the FIRST time.

After the ceremony, we walked next door to where the reception was to be held. Again, it was simple, with lots of chairs lined up and a stage at the front where the bride groom, and closest friends and family were to sit. On the table, there were also about ten bottles of champagne, some bottles of water, and cans of soda. I thought, “Oh nice, they have champagne for us.” I also was curious as to where all the food was.

As the second part of the ceremony commenced, I was getting pretty hungry and antsy, but I just knew good food, drinks, music, and dancing was yet to come. As the wedding was all in Twi, I didn’t understand much of anything that was said. What I DID understand though, was every time the speaker requested guests to come up and give the bride and groom more money. Like I said, I didn’t see much wrong with that the first time, during the initial part of the ceremony. Then it happened again, and again and again, and again. Literally, I lost count after the 8th time that money was collected.

Mostly, it was done in a way where women were called up to “drop 1 cedi.” Then men. Then the bride’s friends and family. Then the groom’s friends and family. Then they AUCTIONED off the champagne bottles. And the cans of soda. And the water bottles. Yes, even the water bottles.

By this time, I was pretty put off by how the entire reception appeared to be only for the sake of collecting money and taking a few pictures. Where was the food? And the DANCING?!!

Well, finally it was food time. A young girl passed around a bag with a Styrofoam container filled with rice, a piece of chicken, and a soda can. I thought to myself, “hmm, this is very different, but hey, food is food and this is definitely a lot cheaper than a three course dinner. Ok well now we can get to the fun part.”

Except the “fun” part never came. Don’t get me wrong, there was fun at the wedding. People had a good time laughing every time the speaker said “you may kiss your bride” and the kids would run up in anticipation, then scramble away laughing after the couple had kissed. But it just wasn’t at all what I was expecting. After food was handed out and a few more pictures taken, the wedding was over. That was it. No good music, no dancing into the night, nothing. We headed home.

On the way home, I asked Flo how come there was no dancing like I had thought there would be and she told me that some couples choose to be more traditional by keeping the wedding and reception in the church only, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to have that fun music and dancing in church. Had this been a less traditional couple, we would have had the dancing and fun like in the African weddings I always see on YouTube.  Also, she said, some couples opt to keep it simple and inexpensive.

I can understand that, but then I don’t understand all the money collections. Because if people are paying money basically, I feel there should have been a bit more entertainment and some basic refreshments. And there was no wedding cake. Also, there were VERY little decorations so I’m confused what the – in the words of the groom- “SO much money” was spent on.

In the end, I had to realize that different people in different places do things differently. Fair enough. In all honesty, what matters is that this beautiful couple got married in the presence of family and friends, and they did it their way. And that is all that matters.

 

THIS is What I Came For

THIS is What I Came For

I’ve been in Ghana several days now. After arriving in Accra, the rest of the volunteers began to turn up and from Accra, we all got on a charter bus for a 5 hour ride to Kumasi where I will be volunteering for the next five weeks.

Like the rest of the volunteers, I was anxious (in an excited way) to begin placement. Some of us are signed up to work in the school, some will be in a hospital, and the rest of us will be in the orphanage.

On Tuesday morning, we did orientation where our program coordinator took us to each different site and made introductions. Our first stop was the school and oh my God the energy was out of this world!! We sat and talked with the principal first before he chauffeured us into one of the classrooms. The kids were SO ecstatic to see us, you would have thought we came in and told them we were taking them right away to Disney World. No joke. They started shouting and laughing and singing for us before they just couldn’t contain their excitement any longer and they all came rushing towards the front of the classroom, bombarding us with hugs and kisses. I have never had anyone so excited to see me before. Right away, I knew I wanted to spend some time volunteering in the school in addition to the orphanage. I think what made it even more adorable was all the little kids asking “Madam, what is your name?” And then after my telling them, they’d tell it to their friends and soon, about ten different kids were shouting “Madam Vanessa! Madam Vanessa! Will you come tomorrow madam?” It was the sweetest.

The next stop was the orphanage. The energy there to be honest was a hundred times duller than the school. In fact, we didn’t even see any kids outside. The administration also, to my surprise, didn’t seem to be too thrilled to see us. We all gave each other confused and awkward glances as we sat on a small couch in her office. After exchanging (literally) only a few words with the head administrator, another, more friendly woman took over. She showed us the on site nursery school that is open to the public in addition to the children living in the orphanage. Next, she showed us what they call the Home unit where half of the boys live. This is also where disabled boys live. Finally, we went to the girl’s unit. We went straight into the nursery where the baby girls were sleeping or laying quietly playing with their feet. She explained that many of the babies had been abandoned at birth, or had parents that had gone to prison. Apparently, not all of the children are up for adoption though. If a child’s parents are still alive and just temporarily cannot afford to raise them or are incarcerated for instance, the child cannot be adopted. I think the most heartbreaking stories was the ones she mentioned about mothers giving birth in a hospital, telling the nurse she would be right back because she needed to go to the store, and then never returning. As she explained this, she reached down into the crib closest to her and picked up a beautiful baby girl and passed her to me. She told me the baby’s name is “Nkansah” and she is 6 months old. I held her in my arms and instantly loved her.

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After orientation, we were divided up into the different units. I knew I wanted to spend the majority of my time with the bay girls so that’s where I spent the rest of the day. I also just wanted to hurry and get back to Nkansah. Later in the afternoon, the rest of the children that had been in school earlier came home and the place became more lively and less depressing. They were excited to see us as well. I knew I would bond with them, especially the girls that live in the same house as the nursery. When I got home that evening, all I could think about was how much I couldn’t wait to go back the next day. I am so looking forward to getting to spend the next month here.

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I'm in Ghana!!!

Day 1

After a flight of 14 hours total, I have finally arrived to the beautiful country of West Africa- Ghana. I've not even been here 24 hours yet, but I can already tell I am going to love it. Just as I've heard, the people are very friendly and welcoming. For starters, here is my driver and the first interaction I had here. His name is Richmond. He insists that I have Ghanain heritage and that specifically, I look like I come from the Ashanti people. 

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Richmond picked me up form the airport and took me to the hostel where I stayed last night before meeting up with the rest of the volunteers today. He also later picked me up so that I could go find dinner and ended up staying and eating with me at this local Indian Restaurant (by the way, I had no idea so many Indian people live in Ghana). As we ate, I got to learn a little bit about his story. He is 24 years old and has been working since the age of 12 when he had to discontinue going to school due to the costly school fees that his mother could not afford to pay. Since then, he has been working relentlessly, trying to get ahead and help take care of his family. 

In talking with Richmond, I was reminded of the privileges I have, simply because of where I was born. I thought about all the kids back home that complain about getting up for school in the morning. I thought about the fact that every single child in America can go to school for free, all the way up to the 12th grade. 

On the way home, a little boy, about age 6 or 7 came up to my car window while we were stopped at a light. His eyes looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. I hadn't exchanged any currency yet, so I couldn't give him any money, although I know that's what he was asking for. I asked his name. He said "Abram." "What's the matter, sweetie?" I asked. He looked down. And then we drove away.

Richmond told me that the little boy isn't from here, and that he most likely came over from Mali. 

No child should have to be on the streets begging in order to eat. I will never forget that little boy. 

That was my first real "eye opening" experiece here and I'm sure there is much more to come. I was exhausted yesterday when I came in, so not many pictures or anything yet. Today, I will meet up with the other volunteers. We will be staying at another hostel tonight before taking the 5 hour bus ride to another town called Kumasi. There, we will stay for the remainder of the trip and work at the orphanage. I have to say, I am so excited to meet all the kids, I almost want to fast forward to tomorrow!