By Jennifer de Azevedo Suttner
Culture Shock in Ghana
On the morning of January 13th I boarded a plane heading to JFK with four other people. My cousin (Rachel), her husband (Aaron), their daughter (Leah) and the founder of SIGNS OF HOPE INTL (Curry). Five hours later we met up with the rest of our party: two from Portland (Pablo and Carissa) and two from Minnesota (Ronai and her daughter Ellie). Our group of nine then boarded a plane for Ghana, Africa. After landing, getting through customs and collecting all our luggage we headed outside to wait for our ride. My first impression of Accra was that it looked dirty. The sky was dark with haze and trash seemed to be everywhere. Our Drivers Don Kwa and Emmanuel loaded us up in a tro-tro which is a type of van/bus and we began the hour drive to Mampong. We weaved through tiny towns of shantys filled with women carrying goods on their heads and with babies strapped to their backs. The air here is thick and full of smoke from fires burning trash throughout the towns. It seems there are no trash cans here in Ghana. We passed a few men urinating unabashedly along the side of the road. Curry explained that this is pretty common in Ghana. There really are no public restrooms so you go when and where you need to. As we wound our way up a mountain we passed Bob Marley’s old recording studio. Our group was getting more and more excited.
We finally made it to a small town called Tutu. The house we’re staying in is called The Courtyard and we have to drive up a long dirt path to get there from the road. It’s quite large and has many bedrooms but is not really up to American standards. I don’t care. I’m grateful because I was expecting the absolute worst. When we checked into our house a beautiful woman named Joyce welcomed us and showed us to our rooms. She wore a long, white tunic over matching white pants and had long braids that fell down her back. She has a gap between her front teeth but it suits her. I think she’s lovely.
Ronai and I share a room. It has a big balcony but the bathroom is a mess. There’s no light and right now our toilette won’t flush. We also have no warm water and the water is not safe to drink. All of the rooms have moth balls sprinkled all over the floor and in drawers. At first we thought it was to keep bugs away but Curry told us they use them to make the rooms smell nice. The scent was giving everyone headaches so we collected them all and put them in a ziplock bag in a closet.
After we checked in we decided to walk up the road into town. We seem to attract a lot of attention here…nine obrunis (white folks) walking along the side of the road. Drivers were honking as they drove by (they also honk to let you know they’re coming because pedestrians do NOT have the right of way here). As we headed up the road we got our first glimpse of the school we would be working in. I felt a little uneasy. My signing ability is VERY basic. I clung to the hope that what Curry told us before we left was true. “What these kids need more than anything is the language of love.” Please let that be the case.
When we got to town Curry bought us all oranges. They cut the top off and you just squeeze the orange and suck up the juice from the top. I was not good at it, but it sure was tasty. I had juice all down the front of my face and my dress. The shops in town are mostly made out of storage pods or small shacks and they sell everything from fake hair for braids to dried plantain to homemade bread to fabric to bushmeat (whatever dead thing they found on the road that can be cooked and eaten). It’s so different from anything we know in the states. There are big open sewers/gutters that run down both sides of the street. Curry told us never to step or fall into one of them. That became my mantra…”Don’t fall into the sewer! Don’t fall into the sewer!” As we walked home in the dark a little boy came running toward us and shouted “obrunis bye bye!” It was a perfect start to our adventure. He melted all of us.
We got back to the house just in time for dinner, which was a spicy rice, fried chicken and pineapple. To drink we had bottles of sprite, orange fanta and coca cola, then we retired to our rooms and tried to get some sleep. There is a 7 hour difference between Utah and Ghana. It was an interesting night filled with a reggae-type music coming from a nearby house and a squeeling pig in the very early morning. I took two benadryll to help me sleep. It didn’t work.
January 15, 2012 Cold Showers and Church in Ghana
Curry woke a few of us up early because we wanted to attend church. We still had no hot water so I put my head under the shower and washed my hair. I then jumped quickly into the cold water and rinsed off. Thoroughly refreshed (and only slightly clean) we headed downstairs for our breakfast of eggs and bread. I’m not particularly fond of eggs so I gave mine to Pablo (the husband of this adorable hippie couple in our group). Our nearest church was an hour away in Koforidua so Ronai, Ellie, Curry and I headed north in a taxi. It was the most amazing drive through a completely unfamiliar landscape. We passed houses made of sticks, shops that looked like huts, children playing with pieces of rope and grass, chickens roaming free through villages and women cooking over fires. I saw naked children pouring buckets of water over themselves to get clean. The conditions in which these people live is mind-blowing to me. They have nothing and yet they seem so content.
As we continued to make our way to Koforidua we heard a loud “POP” and our car stopped moving. Our driver got out to take a look. Two other men from a nearby village came over to help. With the help of a knife, a screwdriver and some masking tape (not duct tape…masking tape) our car started back up and we went on our way. We could not contain our laughter. When we got to the city our car broke down again. While our driver got out to fix it a little girl in a beautiful white dress carrying a bucket of water on her head stood outside my window smiling at me. In a matter of minutes our car was fixed again and we continued our journey.
The city was filled with people and the sidewalks were covered by lean-to businesses and folks hawking their wares. Dirty does not begin to describe the state of this city. There was trash and chaos everywhere, but in the midst of all the “noise” there were tons of adorable families all dressed up and walking to their Sunday services. They seemed so out of place in the city haze. I loved it.
We made it to our church a few minutes late and walked in during the opening hymn. I’ve never felt so white. Part of the service was in English and part of it was in Twi (their native language). I really enjoyed sitting and listening to their accents. It was beautiful. When the service concluded everyone welcomed us and shook our hands. They were so warm.
On our way home Curry introduced us to Fan Ice. It’s ice cream in a plastic pouch. You bite off a corner of plastic and squeeze the ice cream into your mouth. It’s really quite tasty. We also stopped at a little stand on the road to buy some bread for lunch. The 4 of us sat in the front yard and made sandwiches with the peanut butter and honey we’d packed in our suitcases. Then we tried swinging from a vine that was hanging from a tree in the front yard. Ronai swung into the trunk of the tree. I think she might be bruised tomorrow. We then woke up the rest of our party and got ready to go see the kids at Demo Deaf. We walked up the road to the school and went to the head mistress’ house to introduce ourselves. She seemed a very proud and proper woman. After we chatted with her a while about the school we were able to go see the kids. We walked over to meet them and it was like a swarm of bees to honey. We were surrounded. It was overwhelming and sad and joyous and fun and frustrating all rolled into one. I needed someone to interpret for me but I sure could finger-spell my name well by the end of the day. I think I spelled J-E-N a hundred times. Some of the school workers gave us a tour of the grounds. We saw the classrooms first. They were simple and very grungy. We then were showed the boys dorms. The rooms are filled with wall to wall bunk beds with filthy mattresses and sheets. It was heartbreaking but the kids are so proud of their space. They were excited to show them to us so we put on happy faces even though we were all dying inside. The boys and girls aren’t allowed in each other’s dorms so the boys taunted the girls from the second floor because they couldn’t follow us up. Then we went to the girl’s dorms and they took their turn teasing the boys. Their sleeping conditions were killing me. The beds are smaller than the single beds we used in the states but they sometimes sleep 2 to a bed. One of the girl’s dorms houses 44 girls in a room a little bit bigger than my bedroom. Their living standards are so completely different than ours.
After our tour we got to play with the kids. What an incredible experience! They are starving for attention and love. They touched and examined our white skin our hair our hands. Pablo has a shark tattoo on the inside of his arm. The kids LOVED it. They were signing shark for days. The kids were fascinated with my blonde hair. I was petted like a dog for about an hour before a group of boys surrounded me and started braiding it. How could you not love all of these beautiful children just wanting to know your name, to hold your hand, to touch your hair, to give you a hug? All of the kids were incredible, but two girls immediately moved into my heart. One was named Bernice. She had one brown eye and one blue eye and I think she’d been teased for it her entire life until we got there and told her how beautiful she was. She kept telling us, “but they’re two different colors…” We told her that’s what made her so beautiful. I (and I know others in our group) immediately fell in love with her. The other little girl that struck me was new at the school so she didn’t know a lot of signs. Perhaps that’s why she and I became so close. We had that in common. She couldn’t finger spell her name. She just kept signing that her name was the letter U held up to her chest. She was shy and sweet and clung to me the entire time we were there.
I piggy-backed some of the little kids around the dining room. The little ones loved it, but the older kids were not happy. They told Curry I should stop because the little kids would wear me out. They eventually stopped the piggy back rides on their own by shooing all the little kids away. We eventually had to leave so they could eat dinner, so we made our way back to the Courtyard and enjoyed our own dinner. Same thing…Chicken and rice. It still tasted great! The dinner conversation is always hilarious with this group. I’m really enjoying getting to know my new friends. Showers…bedtime…and another horrible night’s sleep.
January 16, 2012 – First Day Pep Talk for the kids at Demo Deaf
It was the kid’s first day back at school so we got up early. We didn’t want to be late so we walked double time up the road. It was fun seeing them again. We met up with the headmistress who wore an American flag scarf in our honor. It was a very sweet gesture. I think she’s a good headmistress. Curry seems to think the same thing and he would know better than I.
The children and staff all lined up in the morning for their “first day” pep talk. We stood off to the side and watched their morning activities and then they introduced us to everyone. We all wanted to be on our best behavior. In Ghana it is an insult to use your left hand when interacting with people. It is considered your “dirty” hand. I was so afraid I’d make a mistake and wave or gesture with my left hand. I held on to the strap of my backpack so I would remember not to use it.
The headmistress introduced us to the staff and the children then sent us to work in the classrooms. I went with Carissa and Pablo to the special ed room. The classroom hadn’t been cleaned or set up since their break so we went to work. We swept with little brooms they’d made out of thick grass. There’s a lot of dust and dirt in the classrooms because they keep the windows open for ventilation. Most structures are left very open because of the heat and moisture. When we finished sweeping one of the kids brought in a bucket of water. We dumped it all over the floor and then used our brooms to sweep it back out the door. Then we cleaned the windows and unstacked the desks. It looked pretty good so I went into the next classroom with Ronai and Ellie. First we played games with the kids. After a time they started getting restless so I took a small group over to the corner to visit. My beautiful “U” girl was there and another little boy who loves to follow me around. He’s very possessive and gets mad when other kids have my attention. I’ve nicknamed him “mischief”. We learned the signs for table, sit down, how to count to 10 how to finger spell the alphabet and on and on. They are so eager to learn. After a great day in the classroom it was time to go, so we caught a taxi to mampong and went to get our hair braided. Rachel, Ronai, Ellie and I got in the first taxi. Curry told him where to go and we were off! When the driver stopped to let us out none of us could see a hair salon. We stood on the side of the road while the driver told Rachel how much the cab fare was. It was our first taxi ride on our own and Rachel was pretty sure this guy was trying to get more money from us than we owed. She stood her ground. Pretty soon a group of men had gathered around us but Rachel didn’t budge. She told them when our second taxi arrived our friend would straighten everything out. We waited for the other taxi but it didn’t come. We were getting frustrated and our driver was getting mad. After, what seemed like 10 minutes of haggling, Rachel finally just paid the man and he went off, leaving us on the side of the road with no hair salon in sight. I have to say, for those few minutes, I felt more than a little intimidated. I was proud of Ray.
No sooner had our taxi left when Curry pulled up in another taxi looking for us. We’d been dropped off too far and he’d come to find us. As we walked back toward the salon we had to pass what we decided was the town drunk. He kept yelling at us for money. Curry is really protective of our group and is always making sure everyone is safe. He told us to keep walking and got behind us so the man could not bother us. Perhaps it was the heat, but our little adventure became comical. We couldn’t stop laughing.
When we arrived at the salon we decided what kind of hair style we wanted. I didn’t want any extensions added to my hair so I was the first to go and was done pretty quickly. Aaron, Curry and I caught a taxi back to the courtyard while the others continued to get their hair done. We cleaned up, had a snack and headed to the wood carving district in Aburri. Our taxi was half full so I had to sit on Curry’s lap. Poor guy. The roads in Ghana are a never ending line of speed bumps and potholes and driving them with someone on your lap could not have been fun.
The wood district is a street lined with shops filled with wood carvings of elephants, African masks, naked women, families, you name it…they have it. And if they don’t have it they will make it for you. I asked Sammy (one of the woodworkers) to make me a mother with three boys. He told me he’d have it ready in a few days. We looked around a while longer and Curry taught me how to haggle. The 3 of us had a great time.
We went back to the Courtyard to find Ronai and Carissa still hadn’t come home from getting their hair done so we decided to go back to the school and play with the kids. They were getting ready for dinner so we didn’t get to stay long. While we were there we met a master carpenter who was deaf and who had been hired by the school to build some furntiure for Dora (a woman who works at Demo Deaf). His work was beautiful! He made 2 chairs and a large sofa. Each piece took him 1 day. He was so proud to show us his work. It was one of those small but good moments.
We went home to have our own dinner. Ronai and Carissa still weren’t there. Curry decided to go into town and make sure they were alright. The rest of us sat down to dinner (plantains, a vegetable sauce and sausage). I ate the plantain and vegetable sauce, but there was no way I was going to eat the sausage. They looked more like american hot dogs that had been left out for a while. After playing musical chairs with the sausage we had another night of good conversation. A few hours later our friends still hadn’t arrived. We were getting really nervous but we didn’t want Ellie to worry about her mom so we downplayed our own concerns and kept Ellie busy playing card games. Our hostess, Joyce left with Kofi (a gentleman who worked at the Courtyard) to go look for our friends. At 9:30 Carissa, Ronai and Curry finally came home. It took them 8 hours to get their hair done. They were cranky and hungry and no one could blame them. I crashed in Leah’s room.