By Jennifer de Azevedo Suttner

January 20, 2012 Rainforest Canopies, Slave Castles and Crocodiles

The canopy walk

The canopy walk

I was awakened by the sound of Carissa singing outside my door. “Jen….Crocodiiiiiiiiiiiles!” It was the happiest she’d sounded the entire trip. I put my clothes on, packed up my things and went down to the tro-tro. I threw my stuff in the back and headed to the restaurant for breakfast. We took pictures until Curry came down, ate breakfast out over the pond and then Carissa, Pablo, Ronai and I went out to the paddleboat to go for a ride on the croc pond. As we were sneaking out to the boat, (hoping no crocs were nearby) our guide, Don Kwa came up behind me and tried to make me think he was throwing me in. Nearly peed my pants.

The pond was beautiful and we laughed and joked the entire time about being stupid obrunis in a croc pond. While we were out on the pond, 2 crocodiles got angry in the water and we were up close. I think I got it on Ronai’s camera. After our little adventure we loaded up into the tro-tro and headed to the canopy walk. It’s a short hike up to the rope bridge and it’s so green and lush. Their lush is a different kind of lush than we have in America. Picture the Jungle Book but real. We sat at the front of the bridge and waited for our turn. Curry told us the bridge was built by the British but maintained by Ghanaians. Let me interject here just for a minute. Most structures in the Ghanaian suburbs look like they were built by children (I said most…not all). The shops look like a group of kids got together and said, “Let’s built a fort!” The entire country is jimmy-rigged. People fix cars with tape (oddly enough it works). Now…back to the rope bridge. I was the first to go out on the canopy walk. Whatever fear I had before walking out melted away pretty quickly. It was breathtaking. You’re 130 feet up in the air looking down on a very green world. I noticed tons of butterflies and we all took turns taking pictures of each other. On our way down our guide told us they’d found a spitting cobra on the trail eating a mouse and showed us exactly where they’d found it. I looked down at my very light-weight, mesh shoes (Do you think a cobra could bite through that?…..YES). When we got back down to the start of the trail we looked through the gift shop for a while and then boarded the tro-tro for our next stop…the slave castle. It was a bit of a drive before we got there and we stopped to exchange some currency but once we arrived I was surprised. It didn’t look at all how I’d expected. It was pure white and looked more like a military fort than a slave castle (whatever a slave castle looks like). I just imagined something different. This part of the trip was probably the most difficult for me. It was a dark and somber place. However shining white it was on the outside it was equally dark on the inside. They took us into a dungeon where the slaves were herded and kept. There was almost no light; just three small windows at the top of a very high wall. It was the most hopeless place I’ve ever been. The smell inside was so unpleasant and it was explained to us that feces and urine had been piled so high for so long inside that the limestone floors had soaked it up and you could still smell it all these years later. We saw the tunnel of no return, which they’ve bricked over to symbolize the end of slavery. It’s where the slaves would be marched through on their way to be sold and taken to the Americas. I felt disheartened after the visit. I felt sad for all the life that was wasted. We discussed the contrast between our experiences that day and the importance of visiting the castle. Yes, it was unpleasant but I think it was a necessary stop. We loaded into the tro-tro and drove back to the courtyard and our beloved Joyce. We had chicken and rice which Joyce made for us on her own, then we stayed up laughing about words people don’t like to hear. Curry’s words cracked everyone up and we spent the rest of the trip trying to fit them in whenever possible. Let me just say this…”I prefer a moist cake to a dry cake.”

So here it comes…again. One of the things I learned on this journey is that we have so much stuff it’s disgusting. These children have nothing. They wash their own clothes in buckets outside, they scrub and clean their own classrooms and the majority of them are or will be orphans in a country that doesn’t place any value on them. Will you please help me in my endeavor to make a difference. Donations are tax deductible and here is the link.

January 21, 2012 Back to Mampong, Ghana

It was our first morning to sleep in so of course we were all awakened at the crack of dawn by a chainsaw. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening and sleep through the noise but it was no use. I was trying to slip quietly into the bathroom when Rachel said, “I’m up!” I responded with, “How could you not be?” I think one of our grounds crew was using it in the backyard. Don’t worry about the roosters crowing at all hours of the night and day, (did I mention how there are chickens roaming all over the place in suburban Ghana?) I can sleep through the chickens…I’ve got that part down. It’s the chainsaw you’ve got to be ready for.

Part of the group just wanted to relax, but I wanted to see and experience everything I could while I was in Ghana so Ellie, Ronai, Curry and I decided to go on an adventure. We walked to the Cocoa Farm. Being a chocolate connoisseur, it was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Our guide showed us how the trees grow, how the fruit are harvested and how they ferment the seeds to turn them into chocolate. I got to suck on a cocoa seed before it was fermented and I got to eat one after it was fermented. There is a very distinct chocolate aroma. It’s crazy to see where it comes from. Ghana ferments all of its cocoa naturally in the sun under palm leaves, which is why it’s one of the more expensive chocolates. As we were leaving our guide asked if he could facebook me. How on earth does everyone here have a facebook account? I swear I’ve been asked 5 times! Most people don’t have running water, but they can all facebook!

We decided to walk through Mampong and go see our new friend Cynthia (the lady who owns the restaurant and the pink house). She taught us how to make a Ghanaian staple called Fufu. It’s a casaba root that has been pounded and pounded and pounded into a bread dough-like substance. We all tried our hand at pounding the Fufu. Cynthia and her helpers just laughed at us. Fortunately, Curry talked her into only preparing one bowl for us because I didn’t really love it (and that’s being polite). It’s like eating raw dough in a fish oil soup. I was really struggling to get it down but Cynthia had been so sweet to make it for us and show us how it’s made that we all tried to keep eating it for her. She sat there watching us take each bite. You eat it by pinching a piece of fufu off between your fingers and sopping up as much of the fish soup with it as you can. I kept thinking, “Heaven help me. Please make this bowl magically empty.” Then Curry (bless his heart) stepped in and told Cynthia that we had all just eaten lunch and were full. We thanked her for the cooking lesson and food and tried to pay her but she wouldn’t accept it. She invited us back the next day for some of her famous fried rice. We settled on 1:00 and left. I adore her.
(You’’ll have to forgive me for the next part of my entry. I went a few days without writing and could remember everything we’d done but not in the right order. So here are pieces of what we did in random order). We went back down to Cynthia’s house and walked down to the water source behind her house. Cynthia showed us how to carry buckets of water on our head. It is REALLY hard! Then she showed us all the different types of fruit that grew nearby. There was the casaba root, banana trees, coconuts, palm seeds (for palm oil), it was amazing and it was all down by the water hole. Then Cynthia walked on some back roads with us for a bit. We happened upon the headmistress of Demo Deaf at her family home. She told us she was picking up her mother to take her to visit her brother who was in the hospital. We told her we’d pray for him and continued on our way. We decided to stop at the school for a bit. I always have to see my girl, Theresa. She seems like she’s getting more comfortable at the school and she’s starting to hold her own. She’s already learned so many signs it blows me away and it makes me feel so good about being here. While at the school Rachel, Aaron and I decided to walk over to the classrooms and see how our labeling was holding up. I saw a little boy laying in the dirt by himself. I walked by him and when I came back he’d moved to the concrete. His little body was covered in dirt and he was just laying on the hard ground. I crouched down next to him and stroked his little arm. He just looked at me and then I felt his forehead. He was burning up. I lost all of my composure and started bawling. I sat there with this little boy just stroking his head and crying. I thought of my boys at home and all that I do for them when they’re not feeling well and I could not hold it in. Even now, just writing about it I’m WEEPING. Carissa came by and saw me bawling with this little boy. She scooped him up and took him to Curry while I tried to gain some composure. The kids kept asking me why I was crying and if I was OK. Ronai told them I felt bad for the little boy who was sick. No matter what I tried I could NOT stop crying. I finally left because I didn’t want to worry the kids.

At some point we went back to the wood district in Aburi to pick up all of the pieces we’d ordered. It was hotter than hell and we all dripping sweat (not that we hadn’t sweat everyday already, but today was exceptionally hot). Curry’s friend, Sammy had carved a mother with her arms around her three children for me and a nativity scene. They were exquisite and I was extremely please with them. We had a good time in Aburi and Curry and I spent a ton of time talking about life and everything in it. We’ve become good friends and I’m so grateful for him and what he does with his foundation.

On our way back to the taxi area we stopped to say hello to Sammy’s wife, Olivia. She’s due to have a baby any day now. Her boys were sleeping on a mat on the ground. Life is so simple here…and I mean that in a very good way.

We had more chicken and rice for dinner and then had a hilarious sing-along in the common room. There was a lot of Lionel Richie and songs from our driver Emmanuel’s playlist. “My endless love” and “I need an African man” seemed to keep popping up.

January 22, 2012 It’s Sunday…Hallelujah! Ghana style

Sunday morning. A few of us decided to go exploring. Curry, Ronai and I walked up behind the courtyard where one of the staff took us back and showed us their pigs. We also saw some brand new puppies from one of their dogs. They were so tiny and sweet. After a few minutes we decided to head back to the courtyard so Curry could visit with his friend Marco. Ronai and I could hear singing coming from a nearby church so we decided to go take a look. Off we went to explore the back trails of Tutu. As we headed down a trail with tall grass on both sides of it, Ronai tuned to me and said, “Look at us…just two obrunis walking down this trail by ourselves on a new adventure.” We laughed about how intimidated we were those first few days and how far we’d come. Little did we know what was coming next.

Our trail opened up into a clearing and we could finally see where the music was coming from. It was a tiny open-air church. All of the children sat on the steps of an adjacent building. As soon as they saw us they started smiling and waving, “Obruni!” We knelt down and said hello to them before we continued on up to the church. We looked through the open walls at the small congregation listening to 4 singers, a drummer and a keyboard at a very high volume. One woman waved us inside so we entered and sat with them. They had tambourines and were dancing along to the music. It was a beautiful sight! We swayed through quite a few songs and even more “amens” before we decided we should head back to our group. We politely left between songs until the preacher followed us out and told us they were going to sing a song just for us. We told him we couldn’t stay long because our friends were waiting but we’d love to hear their song. We went back in and the entire congregation stood for us while they sang. It was loud and boisterous and the preacher came over and started dancing with us. We were dancing and laughing and trying to keep up with the preachers moves while dripping sweat. I looked up and saw one of the congregants recording us with his camera phone. I thought, “This will wind up on Youtube for sure.” When the song ended the preacher invited another man to come up and pray for us. They asked us to hold hands and raise our free hand in the air. He asked us our names (Ronai and Jennifer) and started the loveliest prayer on our behalf. In the prayer he said, “We ask you to bless Jennifer and her friend (long pause) whose name is so powerful it cannot be spoken.” At that point Ronai squeezed my hand. We were trying not to laugh. Then he continued and said the most beautiful prayer. He asked that everything we touched would be blessed and that our reasons for being in Ghana would be successful. We sat there holding hands while this little group of strangers prayed for us. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for everything; the people we’d met and the friends we’d made the beautiful children and the school, the sights, the laughter, the tears and for all of our blessing back at home. It was a brilliant moment.

After the preacher tried several times to get our facebook and E-mail addresses we walked home giggling like little girls about our experience. When we got back to the Courtyard Marco and his wife were there. We all sat and visited for a while and everyone laughed about our morning adventure. Then Marco, Leah, Ellie, Ronai, Aaron, Curry and I went for a walk way on the back roads of Tutu and Mampong. It was a beautiful day but I really had to pee. I was about to squat in a bush but Marco took me to the home a family he knew. They let me into their home to use the bathroom. They were humble and sweet and so very welcoming. Their house looked like it was crumbling inside and the floors were covered with dirt. I was led to a small room that was tiled like a shower but there was no shower head…just a small drain in the floor. I aimed the best that any girl could but it still wasn’t good enough (and that is all I’m going to say about that). All I could think of was how much we have back in the states. I thanked the family as I watched them scrub their clothes in buckets outside and we continued on our way. We passed some bright pink bouganvilla growing near a small house and then we found ourselves back at the cocoa farm. We took pictures at a beautiful, crumbling structure and of some people we met along the way. Then we made our way back to Cynthia’s for lunch. This time she showed us how to make fried plantains. Then she brought us plates of fried chicken, fried rice and fried plantains. It was delicious and Aaron said the plantain should have ice cream on it, so Ronai went down the street and found some fan ice (ice cream in a pouch). It was like a Ghanaian version of apple pie a la mode. Cynthia refused any money…again! She was so sweet and good to us. I will miss her.

After lunch we walked back to the school and played with the kids until Carissa came and told us that our dresses were ready. Ronai, Ellie and I double-timed it back to the courtyard where we found our seamstress waiting for us on the porch. We were dripping sweat but we ran upstairs and put on our dresses. They were gorgeous. We went downstairs to model them and our seamstress tied up our hair in matching fabric and showed us how to tie extra fabric around our waist. We took a lot of pictures and then ran upstairs to change. Ronai and Ellie headed back to the school and I tried to pack up a few things. I sure do miss my boys, but I don’t feel ready to leave.

After another dinner of chicken and rice, Joyce, Ronai, Curry and I walked back into town for more fabric. Ronai and I managed to find some shorter pieces of batik fabric to buy for quilts. We chatted with a few people in town and then we bought sodas and walked back home.

January 23, 2012 Our last day in Ghana

Curry woke Aaron, Rachel, Leah and I up early and we took a taxi back to Koforidua to visit the school for the deaf there. The schools are different in that our school is more academic based and the one in Koforidua is more trade based. A few of the girls showed us how they make batik fabrics. It’s a long involved process where they melt wax and make designs on the fabric with it. Then they dip the fabric into a dye and wash out the wax. They keep doing this process until they have the colors and designs they want and their finished product is breathtaking. We went through all of their fabric and hand selected our favorites to bring home and make quilts. (By the way…the quilts I’m making will be auctioned off and all proceeds will go toward the funds I’ve committed to raise. So stay tuned).

We also were shown the leatherworking area. They teach the kids how to make sandals, belts, wallets, etc. I was so unimpressed with the quality of their work. I know their doing the best they can with very limited resources, but my very first job was in a custom leather shop. I can cut, tool, stain and properly condition leather. I do NOT profess to be an expert leather worker, but I wanted to sit down and show them a few things. I wanted to see their tools and their process from start to finish. I had to stop myself from being critical. I don’t know the quality and cost of leather in Ghana. I don’t know what their budget is or what the weather does to leather there but I really wanted to help. Despite that, it was a great visit. We got more smiles and hugs from the kids and had a nice visit with their headmaster. We learned that the sewing department was able to buy a new serger with the money they made from Curry’s last batik fabric purchase (that made me feel really good about the amount of fabric we left with).

We drove back home and decided to go to Cynthia’s for one last round of fried plantain and fan ice. This time she let us pay. While we sat there we visited with two teachers who were having lunch. We told them why we were there and we talked about some of the cultural differences between Americans and Ghanaians. Rachel told them about Leah being born deaf and Lucy having spina bifida and cerebral palsy. She told them that the only thing Lucy can’t do is walk. One of the teachers said, “In America you raise those with physical limitations up, here we do not.” It was as interesting and eye-opening conversation for both parties and I really enjoyed meeting them. I also made good friends with a little boy who lived behind Cynthia’s restaurant. He was very shy and wouldn’t smile, but he wanted me to sit with him. If I got up from the bench we were sitting on he’d come over by me and say, “Obruni!” Then I would go back and sit with him. He was adorable. We thanked Cynthia again and headed to the school to say our last goodbyes. It was difficult for me. My little Theresa was there…cute, little Clifford…Beautiful Bernice and so many others I can’t name them all. I cried again. Then we went back to the Courtyard, packed up the rest of our things, said our goodbyes to Joyce (I left the picture of my family with her) and loaded back up into the tro-tro for the last time. We flew from Accra to Amsterdam to New York to Salt Lake City. Those of us from Utah logged 27 hours of travel time.

It was so good to see my boys. I had really missed them but I’d go back in a heartbeat. I think next time I’ll take my oldest son, Cameron with me. I’d better get us enrolled in some ASL classes.