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Sunrise over the city

Sunrise over the city

I will try to put into words how I felt when I woke up to my final, beautiful Ghanaian sunrise from my friend Erica’s apartment in Accra. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude. I was thankful for everyone who believed in me to head out and start this epic journey. I was grateful to everyone who wrote to me, sent me notes of encouragement and to Erica for giving me a room in her home, an introduction to the life of an ex-pat, and my first hot shower in 9 weeks.

Machete in hand...

Machete in hand...

For my last Sunday in Ho, I decided it was time to get out of town and go for a hike to the top of the one mountain in the entire Ho area. I asked the French solar energy volunteer Julian, if he would go with me, since I knew he had hiked it before. He agreed, and picked me up on his motorbike (I can barely ride a regular bike, let alone a motorbike). I am not religious at all, but I think I started to pray at the moment I got on the bike until the moment I got off. This was not a Camel’s Hump hike like I was expecting (the main big mountain in Vermont). This was legitimately “let’s just machete our way through this lush jungle (no maintained trails here) until we reach a solid rock face cliff.  Then let’s climb that without any ropes until we get to the top”. We did eventually, only to get caught in one of the largest thunderstorms that I’ve seen this entire trip. At one point, we stopped at a spot where it seemed other people had been before, and someone had carved “Natalie” into the stone.  This was very odd because no one is named Natalie here, so I decided it was some sort of good omen that I would make it back to VEG alive, which I gratefully did. I felt like someone was looking over me during that experience.

My VEG home for last 9 weeks

My VEG home for last 9 weeks

Can't forget a smiling face like that :) 

Can't forget a smiling face like that :) 

Now, here we are at the end of this trip. I cannot thank Julie Spaniel enough for coming to visit me (and revive my spirit with protein bars :) ). We are going to start a new health project out of our time together. She showed me the power of how simply brushing a child’s teeth and giving them a toothbrush and toothpaste can be a seriously appreciated highlight in someone’s life. I am grateful for both of my parents who allowed me to complete the trip even when there was a point where it would have been reasonable and appropriate to have come home. I am thankful for Village Exchange Ghana for allowing me the opportunity to meet a community of beautiful women and children who now have a second chance at life by creating jewelry, batiks, and learning to sew. Finally my greatest appreciation goes out to Kofi who acted as my mentor, my brother, and my friend. Without Kofi none of these programs could have ever gone into effect and I will be forever grateful for the time he spent watching out for me this entire trip.

Little things in life

Little things in life

I am returning home with a new perspective on my life. I have a new appreciation for things I didn’t even realize needed to be appreciated. I have seen a part of the world that many Westerners do not choose to explore.  This is a world filled with unbelievable hardships and sacrifices that are difficult to write about, let alone witness or live. Yet, at the end of the day we are all more alike than different. No matter what the circumstance, we are all human.  Who is to say that a 17-year-old girl from a rural junior or senior high school in Ghana should not have the same access to education, healthcare, and a future like I have? We all have a right to these things and I will do everything in my power to make this happen starting in Vermont and in Ghana.

This trip was a bit of a “soul-searching trip” to help revamp my personal goals for R.O.C. Inc. and rest assured this trip accomplished that mission. I have a defined new goal for the organization as a whole and am beyond thrilled to come home start the footwork needed to make these new goals happen. We live in a globally connected world, so let’s start connecting.

Do not get me wrong.  This trip also had its share of difficulties that I did not always mention in this blog, but I can say that I made it a full 63 days in Ghana on my own, living in conditions most people could not actually imagine (I wasn’t quite expecting some of it either…), but nevertheless, I did it. I set out to Ghana with an open mind and open heart not knowing what to expect.  My only goals were to set up high schools in Vermont with Skype calls to students in Ghana, and to make bracelets for each other. That was really it. 

I want to end with a quote from a poster I saw hanging in the room of the Headmaster at the Anloga Hafikor Basic School: Eulogy to I Can't

 

“Friends, we are gathered here this morning, to bury the memory of I Can’t.

I Can’t was with us for a long time and he was especially present when things were difficult.

He affected the way we do things, the way we lived, and the way we worked.

It is not easy to let I Can’t go, but it is time for us to move on.

He is survived by his brothers I Can and I Will and his sister I’m Doing it Right Now.

Although his siblings are not well known, we hope that they will become more important as time goes on.

Today we lay him to rest.

Let us all try to get on with our lives without him, Amen”

 

I will continue to live my life by following my dreams and passions and believing that I Can do it and I Will do it.

I am home, safe, healthy, and happy. Thank you for following this this blog. It has been my pleasure to share a glimpse of this life with you.

Love always,

Natalie

Courage in Action

On my way into Accra, a slogan under a billboard caught my eye: “Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do”. This trip started as a dream that would require me to “do” something. On my final and 63rd day in Ghana, I sat and reflected that the work we did here was above and beyond all of my original dreams and goals. In 63 days Kofi and I established 5 concrete programs at two junior high schools, one senior high school, one vocational school, and one children’s shelter; we finished a 9-week curriculum on reproductive and sexual health; we connected each of these 5 schools with a high school Vermont R.O.C. chapter; with Dr. Julie Spaniel’s help we provided dental care to over 800 men, women, and children; we interviewed 10 children who were rescued child slaves; and we developed partnerships with local NGO’s, and companies. I am humbled. And, I am in complete awe of all the incredible people I have met along this journey.

Last day at Madamfo Ghana :( 

Last day at Madamfo Ghana :( 

Courage in Action

Courage in Action

As our programs came to a close, I noticed the biggest change I had seen the entire trip, the students had become bolder and more inquisitive. No longer were they shy and holding back the answers to the questions that they knew were correct. They were standing up and speaking out about things that they had noticed or wanted to learn more about. On our final day at Have Junior High School we had our last Skype call with CVU R.O.C.  A group of girls came up to my computer and said they had some questions for the Vermonters. The first question they asked was, “Abortion is illegal in Ghana, but do you think abortion is bad? Is it bad in the U.S.?” We had just finished one of our units on culture. I was so proud of this girl for asking this question, however awkward it may have been for the CVU R.O.C. student who answered it. The point was that a 15-year-old girl in Ghana (where she knows abortion is illegal) was able to stand up in front of her class (including her headmaster, Kofi, and I) and ask a question like that to a group of American teens. She was confident enough and curious enough to do this. This was our goal in action. We wanted to empower students to stand up and ask questions and facilitate discussions around sometimes uncomfortable topics and listen, with an open mind, to other opinions. This is the cultural exchange of knowledge we wanted to see happen, and it did, right there in a rural junior high school in Have, Ghana, and Hinesburg, Vermont.

The original crew (minus a few)

The original crew (minus a few)

Faith (on the left) and Abigail (on the right)

Faith (on the left) and Abigail (on the right)

Deep in discussion with the kids

Deep in discussion with the kids

I spent one of my last days visiting a school in Anloga where I had worked before through GLA three summers ago. I had stayed in touch with some of the students and they knew I was coming. Last time I was there, I taught English in a classroom for 3 weeks. When I arrived they were writing mock exams to graduate from Junior High School and I learned they would all be attending Senior High School next year. I sat down with them and we talked about what had been going on the last few years.  We all seemed to have grown up so much! It was cool to see how the school I made bricks for has grown and flourished. The kids shared with me their plans for after graduation and their new future aspirations. Joseph, who was the main person I stayed in contact with over the years, plans to study politics and development and he wants to be President of Ghana one day. Kini became a well-known local artist and plans to go into graphic design. Abigail wants to be a doctor, and Faith wants to be a soldier. I remember a boy that was mentally challenged, but always tried his hardest and engaged in all of our activities. I still remember how we had asked students to write about world peace and the boy drew a heart on his paper. I remember almost crying with my teaching partner, Tres, as we picked up the papers and saw his. Well, I was able to see him again and watched how the other boys helped him and look out for him.  Again, this filled me with happiness and he, too, will graduate from school this year.  

The week before, Kofi and I had gone to Accra to the American Embassy to meet with the Mission Director of USAID.  We did not expect to meet the entire development team as well as a representative from the US Embassy/State Department, but we did. Turns out the connection between Vermont and Ghana had already been well established, as the Mission Director of USAID is a Middlebury alumnus.  He recommended that I try to meet Jon Isham, the Middlebury Professor who is living in Ghana on sabbatical with his family (whom I had already been in contact with).

Dr. Richard Selmorey and Kofi

Dr. Richard Selmorey and Kofi

The folks at the USAID meeting shared with us the names of other organizations doing similar work and how we ought to connect. One such organization is Oral Health Express, run by Dr. Richard Selormey, a dental surgeon in Kumasi and also a YALI fellow. I reached out to Richard right away asking to see if he would be available to meet in Accra on my last day in the country, and he said “Yes!”  We met and talked about his successful dental program in rural communities in Ghana.  It was an inspiring meeting. It reminded me of why we do this type of work. It is very satisfying to watch the positive impact on the communities we serve. As we move forward with planning future health programs I know that we have a team in Ghana ready to work with us to bring health care to everyone while we help educate and empower the students of Ghana.

Happy and confident Have girls

Happy and confident Have girls

If that wasn’t enough inspiration, we also arranged for a meeting with an investment manager who lived near the town of Have, one of the schools we worked at. Kofi and I wanted to meet with him to discuss any ideas he had for how to raise private funding for our cultural exchange program. He was enthusiastic about the idea and promised to provide financial support, personally, and to connect us with a network of other private individuals as well as companies who would be interested in funding the programs. While he has traveled the world, for some reason he had never come to America. In Ghana there is a saying that “the elder has to try something first before someone younger tries, to make sure it is okay”. I told our new partner that he had a complete and open invitation to come to Vermont to visit with us and meet everyone so he could see for himself where the students would be coming on the exchange program :) 

Refugee Outreach Club Inc. has officially launched R.O.C. Inc. Ghana.

Natalie