Did you know that everyone in Ghana who graduates from an accredited tertiary institution is required under law to complete the “Ghanian National Service”? This is a year-long service project that takes Ghanian citizens all over the country. People work in schools, with local NGOs, orphanages, etc. I find this concept fascinating. The culture here is based around family and community. When you see someone on the street, no matter what you are doing or where you are going, you stop and say good morning (or good afternoon) and shake the persons’ hand. Always. There are no exceptions. On the other hand, I come from a cultural of individuality where the emphasis seems to be on yourself. and your own immediate family. Think about it, do you stop and wave or say hi to every single person you see going through your daily activities? Probably not (unless you live in Hinesburg, Shelburne, or Charlotte, and you literally do know everyone). I want to live in a culture that values service and doing work for others. That is one of the main reasons that I started R.O.C. I also wanted my peers to see how they could make a difference by becoming involved with students from different cultures. The mission of R.O.C. is working, and service opportunities are all around us, and it is starting to change our culture, one student at a time. I love the Ghanian practice of a year of service in our own country or a foreign one. This is such a phenomenal idea. I remember watching the Michael Moore movie last year “Where to Invade Next”, and I took away from that movie the idea of taking the best practices from around the world and bringing them back to the U.S. There are so many opportunities locally in the United States that we just pass over, but there is a very strong need to get out and do good work right in our own background. School and work are both very important aspects of life, but service is too. When I give back to a community, I think about how fulfilling it is to me. Yes, I am “helping” others, but when actually, they are helping me.
It has already been a week here in Ghana, which is shocking to me. Last time I was here I thought it went by so slowly, but this has gone by quickly. So much has happened. The Village Exchange welcomed me with open arms and Kofi and I met with 6 different school programs: 3 senior high schools, 1 orphanage, 1 group home, and our own VEG school here. We were able to start 4 of our programs this week, with 2 of the programs starting officially next week. We organized a schedule for all the R.O.C. high school (and hopefully college) chapters to engage in a weekly Skype session with one of our six schools here in Ghana. I got to watch how batiks were made and make new friends here at the compound and reconnect with old ones. I finished my first Unit of French, read a book, and wrote a lot. It was a week of learning and reflecting.
Yesterday was a very easy day. The only work we did was organizing and making our schedule for every day for the different schools. I spent last night outside with the girls living next door to me. One had the cutest baby ever who smiled and danced with me while her mother ate dinner. I have yet to encounter a baby as happy as this one was last night.
The girls were joking around with me asking why I had no husband and if I had any children yet? I laughed and said I was only 17! I explained in my culture, that is too young for me to have any children or to be married! They were confused. The norm here is to start having children young, and most of them had already had children. The oldest girl I met next door was 26. They asked me to help them find an American husband. They said they wished I had a brother. They were all very funny and we all got along well. I sat with Akpene and she helped translate anything that I didn’t understand. When I excused myself to get ready for bed there was a HUGE spider in my room. I’m quite terrified I am of spiders… Luckily Akpene, the goddess that she is, came in and got rid of it for me. I am starting to see how we all have each other’s backs. It is part of the culture to be there for one another no matter what (not just to get rid of spiders for the scared white girl!).
Today was the start of our program at two places. One was here at VEG. It was a small group of students, only 4. Apparently the other 10 had just not shown up today (but I recalled from my last trip, that they probably have very serious reasons why they didn’t make it to school). It turned out that some of the students were the girls that living next door that I had hung out with yesterday! Kofi and I gave our introduction about who we were and what we were doing. These girls are older than the other program we are working with. So it is going to be slightly different. Some of them have children of their own already and/or have been married. I think for the reproductive health side, we will have to adjust it a little bit to fit the needs of the group we are serving in this particular instance. But on the other hand I think this will be great for the R.O.C. side of things. This will be able to give American high school students the idea of what it is like to grow older (and after high school) in another country. There is more of a language barrier with this group of students so Kofi will have to translate, but I think it should generate some interesting conversations.
Next Kofi and I went back to Madam Fo Ghana, the home for children that were previously enslaved in some type of child labor. It was a beautiful night, not too hot, a nice break from the 100-degree weather. And the sky was pink. I can never actually see the sun set here, but with the haze at sunset time the entire sky lights up to a glowing pink. The children were all very lively and very responsive to our introduction.
On our six topics of our reproductive health program, one is called “Reproductive Health.” Originally the unit was going to be called “Sex”, but we changed it before we started because we felt it was more culturally appropriate to call that topic reproductive health and reproductive systems, and then cover sex within that unit. After we had finished presenting we asked the students if they wanted us to talk about anything specific and right away someone put their hand up and asked if we can talk about sex? We said yes, of course. After we had left, Kofi, the director of Madam Fo, and I laughed about it, because we had just changed the topic name! This just goes to show that when we work with teenagers on these topics, sex is a real issue and it should be addressed and talked about. I wonder if any of the other schools will make a similar comment.
After our introductions with VEG and going to Mama Fo Ghana, I had time to talk to Kofi a little bit and get to know him better. He is 37 years old, much older than I thought. But my age radar here is way off. I always think people are much younger than they look. Anyway, Kofi went to Polytechnic College and then completed his Bachelor’s degree. He then completed a year of service for his national service requirements along with being a country host for a Peace Corps volunteer. Now Kofi has two master degrees and is working on applying to schools in the U.S. to get his PHD in Public Health. He really is brilliant. Kofi has worked all over this area with different NGOs in the area of public health, with an emphasis on reproductive health and HIV. One of the organizations Kofi worked with was designed to help people living with HIV/AIDS and offer support groups for them. He still does some work in Hohoe, which is about an hour and a half from here. He said he would take me on one of our weekends to go visit with the group and go to one of the support groups.
Kofi believes that service is done from the heart and that you should not expect to be paid much for it. We then talked generally about karma and what you put out into the world comes back to you in other ways, not just financially. It is true. A career path of aid work does not usually have high monetary gains, but you live a life of fulfillment. In some way or another the work you do pays off.
Talk to you all soon. Happy early Inauguration Day :)