Travel

Impossible? Never.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”-Anais Nin

Can you tell we were both very excited that Julie finally made it to Accra?!

Can you tell we were both very excited that Julie finally made it to Accra?!

Wow. Last week was probably the most exciting week of my life. Julie Spaniel, DDS landed on Saturday night and right away VEG was bursting with energy. I haven’t laughed more in 7 days than I did last week. On the first night Julie showed me the movie collection she brought, and one was Kung Fu Panda…Uh oh, I thought, that is for little children. Julie assured me I was mistaken.  Sure enough she was right. The movie was filled with phenomenal and inspirational quotes. Our favorite, which we lived by for the entire week was: “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than who you are.” This is similar to my long-standing perception of myself (accurate or not) that I am an “impossibilist.” For me, this means that I strive to do the impossible (even when others tell me “no” or that it can’t be done) and I push myself to the best of my abilities and actively enlist others to help me, as well. It turns out Julie shares a similar outlook. After our first night watching Kung Fu Panda, laughing and eating beef jerky and protein bars we hit the ground running and did the things that we had previously thought impossible.

Big smiles all day long

Big smiles all day long

Some of the kids at Sunday School before we got started

Some of the kids at Sunday School before we got started

Sunday morning, we got up early to start our day. We organized two of the five huge bags of supplies Julie had brought over, filled to the brim with tooth brushes, fluoride varnish, toothpastes, floss, toys, and surgical equipment. Kofi got to the compound early and we set off to our first location of the week. A local church. It was Sunday morning and a church in Africa… The music was loud and people were dancing, dressed up in beautiful dresses and the men in colorful button downs and suits. The children were all in a building in the middle of their Sunday school classes. Julie and I set up shop outside the Sunday school building, organized our tables with all the supplies we would need and set up all the chairs for the patients. Then we started. Our original plan was to see no more than 40 people a day.  Quickly that idea vanished. Over 200 children came that first day. Julie showed me the proper way to brush, floss, and fluoride the patients and she sent me off to work while she got started on some of the more technical issues (like extracting teeth). I learned how to treat gum infection and the difference between plaque and tartar. I had thought that teeth would gross me out and I would not really be into this, but I was hooked. By the end of the day Julie and I had successfully treated every single child (and some community members) that were in line for our services.

I walked away from that first day with a new sense of purpose. This was the first time on this trip where I was able to see a physical acknowledgement of the work I was doing. Every child walked away with a better sense of oral health, smiling with gleaming teeth and completely pain free. It was the same feeling I had last time I was in Ghana as I shoveled cement to make bricks for our library. It is nice to see the product of your labor. That night as we were going to sleep, I listened as she told me stories about her experiences and how she found this work so rewarding. Inspired by her story, I’m seriously contemplating becoming a dentist.

Who has the biggest smile out of us four?

Who has the biggest smile out of us four?

Our set up under the trees

Our set up under the trees

Monday and Tuesday we spent at one of the schools in a rural community called Gbogame. Kofi and I start our program here this week. Julie, Kofi, and I set up in the shade underneath some trees in the back of the property. This is exactly what I picture as a “rural dental clinic”. The school is a junior high school and has about 170 students, but the entire community had also heard that a dentist was coming to town. The first day Julie and I had got through most of the adults in the community and about half the school. The adults kept on coming. We had to ask people to please come back the next day because we needed to focus on the children in the school. It was interesting because these children had different problems then the children back at the church in Ho. Back in Ho there were a lot of cavities and decay, while in Gbogame there was more gum infection and tartar. In Ho the children have more access to sweets (toffee is what it is called here) while the children out in the rural communities don’t, but they aren’t brushing either. By the end of the second day we had treated the entire school and almost all of the community members that came to the clinic (the remaining adults came to our clinic at VEG Friday).  It was a very long two days. Julie and I both fell asleep as soon we lay down.

Wednesday and Thursday we spent in Have. Have is one my favorite places, primarily because the Headmaster Felix, is so sweet. We were able to meet and treat every student in two days without having to rush.  Only a few community members came with extreme tooth pain and Julie helped them out, of course. I will be working with Have for the next few weeks with Kofi and our programs. Felix already considers us all family.

Form 3 at Have

Form 3 at Have

Felix, Julie and I (plus Champ)

Felix, Julie and I (plus Champ)

Friends around the world

Friends around the world

During our long car rides to the different villages Julie and I had the opportunity to talk more about being a professional service provider to underdeveloped areas. Last summer at a horse show (her daughter and I rode together) we started talking about her desire to come to Ghana with me as I was already planning my trip. When I arrived, she texted me and asked if she could come do a free clinic.  I checked with my VEG partners, and within a day she was booked and ready to come over (with extra food supplies for me).  It turns out we had been working on parallel projects back in Vermont. She had been working on organizing a health program for refugees in Vermont, specifically regarding dental care, while I had been starting R.O.C. Inc. It makes total sense to join forces! She had extensive experience working on international service trips where she would bring dental clinics to the developing world, including a prior trip to Ghana and she wanted to come back too. Our new goal is to work together back in the U.S. on providing dental and health care to refugees in our own community, as well as helping start this dental program here in Ghana. The idea we are working on is to create a dental clinic for each place we have established a cultural exchange R.O.C. school. Julie is a woman who gets things done! I was so glad she was here.

My favorite sisters (and patients)

My favorite sisters (and patients)

Friday was our final day of clinics. We set up shop at Village Exchange, in the shade in the batik making area and got started early in the morning. By noon we had finished all the women who worked there along with their children. Julie had done all the difficult extractions of the community members who had come from Dogame (they were the last few that hadn’t been worked on before) and others from around Ho.

Learning from the master

Learning from the master

After we had cleaned up Julie, Kofi, and I went out into town exploring the art galleries and walked around taking pictures. It was the first day we finished early and we were able to go exploring. That night as our final night Julie and I stayed up late munching on snacks and talking about our dreams and goals for future projects. Julie was my live-in mother for the week, and happens to actually be quite similar to my own mother. We got along like we had known each other for years. On Saturday we went to the market in the morning to take some pictures and explore a little bit more before the long drive back to the Accra airport. I know that it won’t be the last time we are here together.  We are already planning our next trip back later in the year.

Energized and ready to take on the next 3.5 weeks :)

Energized and ready to take on the next 3.5 weeks :)

This was a week filled with learning about an entirely new area of how important dental clinics are, and I was able to do things I had never done before.  I have gained many new insights into my passions and goals for the future. I saw first-hand how rewarding it is to be in a profession to provide high quality health care and experience the positive outcomes and happy clients. This week was a great interlude between the work I had been doing (laying foundations for building relationships over time) and has reenergized me to keep going for the next few weeks. My time here is more than half way done and we still have a lot to do, but I know that nothing is impossible and it is all worth it.

Natalie

Something Small is Better Than Nothing At All

Kids peaking out of the windows in Have

Kids peaking out of the windows in Have

Last time I was in Ghana we visited a place called Father’s House, it was a boys’ home for children that had been rescued from slavery in the Volta Region.  Jeremiah was the man in charge and he completely dedicated his life to providing opportunities to these young boys. We went to the home once to meet him and the boys and he came to our guest house to talk with our group. I was going through my old journal and found a quote from Jeremiah in 2014: “If you want to make a change in the world, you end up losing the status of being ‘cool’. You lose friends and luxuries and also parts of your old self. It can get really hard at times and sometimes you feel hopeless or like you aren’t making a change, but any little thing makes a difference.”

I have been thinking about this and it feels quite applicable to what is going on in the United States at this moment in time.  I have tried my best to stay out of politics, but there is no denying the fact that I am working with people who may have had dreams to come to the United States to better their lives. Working with refugees and fighting for internationals causes is now being looked at as anti-American by our own President. This is baffling to me especially as I am in Ghana watching what is happening at home, from afar. I am so proud to see the resistance against these extreme policies against refugees, but I am also feeling heartbroken about Americans who are actually supporting these “bans”. Now is a time in history where we have to stand up for the vulnerable. It may not seem “cool”, and there may be some serious back-lash for standing up, but we cannot back down. Jeremiah was right, any small act of change, does in fact make a difference.

I am always one for huge (sometimes too huge) ideas that later work themselves into a concrete plan. The past few days have been wonderful. I feel lighter and it seems like our original ideas are now falling into place. On Wednesday Kofi and I traveled to a rural town to visit a school called Have. It was about an hour drive (on pretty scary roads) and we had time to talk and reflect on the past few weeks. We both agreed that the cultural exchange program has taken hold better than we both had imagined. So far, it has proven itself as a modern, cutting edge way to establish international relationships. We spent the entire drive talking about how we both want it to continue, grow and thrive. Over the next 6 weeks we will work with the schools we have to set up a sustainable weekly connection, while we also start networking with other schools in the area to help set up the program. Once the virtual connection is strong, then our long-term vision is to set up an actual high school exchange program where students in Ghana can go to a R.O.C. high school in Vermont, and vise versa.

A view of Have and the lunch time huddle underneath the trees

A view of Have and the lunch time huddle underneath the trees

The bathroom...

The bathroom...

When we arrived at Have, the school was tiny compared to the other ones we had visited. It was up against a dense forest backdrop. Everyone was outside eating lunch when we arrived. The headmaster, named Felix, had a huge smile on his face as he went around introducing Kofi and I to the rest of the school staff. Kofi and I originally planned to take a picture of their toilet, which we did, so that we could send it back to someone in the U.S. who is raising money to help install a compostable toilet, with an organization called Dream Big Ghana.  Such a small world, because I actually met the folks from Dream Big Ghana the last time I was here! As we were talking to Felix about what we had been up to the past few weeks he asked us if we would be interested in doing our program at their school. Of course we were thrilled and we decided on Fridays, around midday. This will be the partner school with CVU R.O.C. and we will start the video-calls next week! After we toured the classes and met some of the kids Felix took Kofi and I to meet his daughter who is 18. We exchanged numbers and I know that I have a new friend that I can count on here in Have. Kofi and I also organized for Dr. Julie Spaniel’s visit here for the dental clinic in two weeks!

When we got back to VEG we had another Skype call with the VEG students and SB R.O.C., it went great. We were able to talk about some deeper things this week instead of just basic introductions. The South Burlington students ask fantastic questions and I think they are a wonderful match for the VEG students.

Deep in conversation with South Burlington R.O.C. students

Deep in conversation with South Burlington R.O.C. students

Thursday and Friday were a bit of a blur of programs with MadamFo Ghana and lots of work preparing for next weeks’ lessons. Friday Kofi took me to a local art gallery and I was able to find some beautiful paintings that were made right there in the shop. I also had the opportunity to FaceTime with a group of CVU Freshman this afternoon to talk about my experience here in Ghana. A bunch of the students were excited to start getting involved. They will be the next generation of R.O.C.  :)

The past few days have been exhilarating with so much going on and so much excitement. I realized that Ghana will always have a special place in my heart and any new projects I work on, I want to start here. Just like Jeremiah said, start with one thing at a time. I will start slow with the cultural exchange program, with a vision of it getting bigger one step at a time. My passion and spirit for this type of work has only grown stronger over the past three weeks and I am sure that will continue for my stay.

Natalie

Turning Points and Opening Up

Everyone experiences turning points in life where you start to feel settled in. Like going back to school after a long break, starting a new job, or traveling to a new place. Yesterday, day 10 of my trip, was a turning point for me. I was finally able to break out of the thin, but notably there, shell that I had made around myself. Yesterday and today were the first days I actually felt like a part of the community here, not just the young white girl looking into the lives of foreigners. If I think about it, it’s really not that surprising that it took a while to finally get settled.

The last time I was in Ghana I was surrounded by a group of 35 Americans-- students and mentors. I was one of the youngest on the trip. I had just turned 15. The group shared the same experiences-the first time this far from home living in a culture completely foreign to us. We had each other to rely upon and a staff of people working with us who knew how to deal with a group of teenagers who were either homesick, and for some of us, me included, actually sick. Now I am here alone, without anyone else my age. I am almost completely immersed in a culture that I still don’t understand. Yes, I am able to talk to the girls living here and talk to my family and friends at home, but it was starting to get a little bit lonely.

Ruth and baby Esther in the nursery next to my room

Ruth and baby Esther in the nursery next to my room

Yesterday Kofi was finishing up work and didn’t come to the office. I called Stephen and he was planning to come, but at the last minute canceled for lack of transportation. I spent the majority of my day in my room working on French, typing up notes from the weekend with MadamFo, and working on a few essays. Around 5 o’clock I was so tired of being cooped up all day I decided I would go for a run. I knew I couldn’t go alone so I set out to just run sprints up and down the hill in front of the compound. When I went outside Senyo, who is the director of the Vocational School here at VEG came over to me and we started talking. He noticed I was in running clothes and right away called over one of the girls living here (Ruth) to see if she or one of the others wanted to go running. I guess he didn’t think that running sprints up and down the sandy hill would do me any good. While he was waiting for one of the girls to come back he reminded me about how the journalist was coming tomorrow and that he would be staying late to clean everything and make sure it was all organized. I promised to help when I got back and that tomorrow I would make sure I set up a desk in the office.

Francis running along side us

Francis running along side us

Running buddies

Running buddies

Ruth didn’t want to go for a run (I don’t blame her), but Anita volunteered. Anita is always laughing and talking (I asked her today if she could quiet down a little at 6 a.m., and she laughed saying “I don’t know why, but I love to shout!”). She has a great sense of humor. She came back down in a brightly colored outfit and a pair of ballet flats! I said I had an extra pair of sneakers, but she said “no, no this is fine.” So off Anita and I went, down a road the locals refer to as “River Road” (not sure why, I didn’t see any rivers…) and we ran all the way to another local town. Yesterday I saw my first real African sunset. The sun was a huge ball of bright pink so big hanging low over the mountains off in the distance. All the children in the local village followed behind us tagging along. One boy named Francis asked if we were “training” and I said, “yes!” We said we’d come back tomorrow. Anita and I ran down the dirt road laughing hysterically to ourselves at the sight we must have been.

After returning from our run we came back and helped Senyo clean up the classroom. I love organizing. My OCD tendencies come out strong. I organized a huge pile of books into different categories. Akpene and I made the book area spotless! The classroom looked great by the time we had all finished.

For dinner I went out on the porch and sat with the other girls. At first it was just a girl named Rosemary, and myself. Finally she started to talk to me (after I asked a million and one questions) and she started telling me about her family and her boyfriend. Apparently she met him when she was in Form 4 in Senior High School and he was her teacher…. He is 35 and she’s 23. Apparently he is not a teacher anymore. This story reminded me of what Kofi had said to me earlier in the week that a lot of girls just expect to find an older man to marry so they wouldn’t have to worry about finishing school or getting a job. I wondered if that is what happened with Rosemary. After Rosemary (Rose for short) finished showing me a bunch of pictures and videos from home she asked to see pictures I had of my family! So I brought my computer outside and all the girls crowded around and I went through some pictures with them. They were fascinated by the idea of prom and why we got so dressed up? They asked for my dresses and for me to bring them to America.

R.O.C. stickers with Sokode Senior High School

R.O.C. stickers with Sokode Senior High School

Today I got up early and went down to help Julian, the other volunteer, set up his classroom. I cut up bottles and made signs to represent the different elements for his science class. Then I went into the office when the other staff members got there. They brought me over a desk so I could sit with everyone. Now I have a place in the office and I feel like a real member of the team. Kofi arrived and we made our lesson plan for Day One of Relationships at Sokode Senior High School. I cut out more R.O.C. stickers to give to the kids.

Ginanne Brownell, the freelance journalist, arrived around 10:30 and we all went to greet her. She wore bright pink lipstick and eye-shadow (the only reason this stood out to me is no one here ever wears makeup, so I thought: a girl after my own heart…). We all sat down together for introductions and talked about the plan for the day. She then went off to do interviews for the solar and technology school and most of us went back to the office to work. Julian and I were fortunate enough to be able to have Ginanne sit with us at lunch where she shared her stories of what it was like being an international journalist. She has a strong focus on education for women and girls and helping break barriers for them to access education. Based out of London, but originally from Flint, Michigan, she wrote for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal covering pieces on arts and culture. She was in Accra covering a piece for the Times in the arts, and then she had heard about the Solar and Technology School with VEG and decided to come check it out and write about it. She was writing the piece for NPR’s program called “Goats and Soda” a page of articles on development. Ginanne had just launched a website called She-Files.com (launched this Saturday to go along with the Women’s Marches) where women can submit articles about arts, education, development, and health. She was intriguing to talk with.

In the afternoon, Kofi and I went to Sokode high school to start our Relationship Unit. The students were hesitant at first to talk to me, but Kofi helped them open up. We were able to have some great conversations about what it meant to have a healthy relationship. We spoke about students dropping out of school because of relationships -- either getting pregnant, or starting to have to pay for the boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s school fees. Kofi reminded the group that “You can only help people with what you have.” We gathered questions to ask the R.O.C. students next week when we Skype. These questions were so much more serious than the questions we received from the group at MadamFo. I wonder why?

Writing down for the Know's and Want to Know's at the start of class

Writing down for the Know's and Want to Know's at the start of class

Kofi leading the class in a group discussion

Kofi leading the class in a group discussion

Goodnight Ghana

Goodnight Ghana

By the time we got back everyone in the office had gone home for the day. I asked Anita if she was up for another run and she said yes!!! I brought her a pair of socks and converse sneakers. We set off on the same route as yesterday stopping to say hi to the children we had met before. Francis ran with us again for a portion of the route. And we made it home just in time for the entire sky to light.

Natalie

Marching into Ghana

One of the leaders of the Women's March in Accra on January 21st, 2017

One of the leaders of the Women's March in Accra on January 21st, 2017

Today I woke up to pictures and videos of Women’s Marches around the world. It was an absolutely beautiful thing to see how many people got up yesterday and marched with millions of other women to stand for equality and social justice for all. Although I was unable to attend the march here in Accra, I have been able to witness a powerful march of my own. I have seen the male leaders of the communities I am working with here in Ho: the headmasters, NGO directors, village elders, and other school teachers, all of whom have been working diligently to promote the fair access to education and materials for women and girls in this community. The societal norms where women are solely the head of the household, used only for cooking, cleaning, and having babies, is slowly starting to shift. This shift that I am seeing here is due to the influence of strong and compassionate men in the community. As the men push the girls to achieve more for themselves it seems to create a domino effect.  The girls then bring everyone around them up to fight for equality. It may be awhile before we stop seeing 16 and 17 year-old girls here having children and getting married,  but it is changing. A change, even a small one, is still a change. One step at a time.

K and W of the KWL Chart on Relationships (Unit 1)

K and W of the KWL Chart on Relationships (Unit 1)

Yesterday was a good day. It was a leisurely start, like most days are here in Ghana, and then the pace picked up. Stephen came to the VEG compound around 2 o’clock and we went to Madam Fo Ghana, the home for enslaved children. We had not realized it was a Game Day for Football here in Ghana, so it was a good thing we got there early. We rounded all the kids up and met in the auditorium room. Since Kofi was not there today and the first Unit for our Reproductive Health Unit is technically “Kofi’s Unit” I did not want to start it without him. I remembered back to my middle school social studies classes where we practiced KWL charts-Know, Want to Know, and Learned.  I thought we should make one for the Relationship Unit, so Kofi would have a baseline for next class. It was hard to get the class talking at first, but Stephen (thankfully!) was able to get them excited and comfortable sharing.  The list was not too long, so I guess we will be learning a lot about relationships next week! It was interesting, because the majority of the responses had to do with “How do you maintain a healthy ‘boy/girl’ relationship?” The students seem conscientious about cultural norms for unhealthy relationships and are eager to learn about what a healthy relationship looks like in these modern times.

Giving out R.O.C. stickers (only half the room pictured, boys got them too!!)

Giving out R.O.C. stickers (only half the room pictured, boys got them too!!)

Once we finished our KWL chart, we started to generate a list of questions for when we Skype with the R.O.C. kids in Vermont next week. This got everyone excited. The majority of students spoke up and asked questions, which was fantastic. A lot of questions in fact had to do with our new President Donald Trump, one girl straight up asked “Will President Trump ban homosexuals?” I didn’t know if I should be alarmed and worried but I had not expected a question like that. I try my best to stay out of politics and everyone at R.O.C. Inc. does the same, but I think it is astounding how the Presidents we elect can completely reshape the identity of the United States to other nations. I told the girl that I certainly prayed that would not be even be an option, but that we could certainly discuss those types of issues.  After all the questions I gave all the students a R.O.C. sticker! They loved it. 

We left promptly at 4 o’clock so that all the kids could watch the game. Stephen wanted to watch it as well so we set off to find one of the local restaurants that had open seating and a television to watch the game. I sat in with all the local’s intent on watching the game and cheering right alongside them. The entire town shuts down for the 90-minute game as everyone scrambles to find a seat. I watched as Ghana won with a 1-0 victory against Mali. They play Egypt next.

Today was quiet, there was a huge thunderstorm so I stayed inside for most of the day. It was a nice change from the heat, everything cooled down finally. I was working on writing up notes from yesterdays class, reading, and working on French. When the rain had subsided, I went outside to eat dinner with the girls next store and listened to them sing in their native languages and cook their dinners over charcoal fires. We don’t have to talk for there to be a connection between us.

Tomorrow is another new week and I am excited to see what new adventures it will bring. :)

Natalie

One and Done

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.   

VEG headquarters and my home for the next 8 more weeks. It is a new building so they still have to finish the roof!

VEG headquarters and my home for the next 8 more weeks. It is a new building so they still have to finish the roof!

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.

My new favorite neighbor

My new favorite neighbor

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.

4 of the girls in the VEG program-also my neighbors in the compound :)

4 of the girls in the VEG program-also my neighbors in the compound :)

Augustina, one of my students, but also the mother of my favorite baby!!!

Augustina, one of my students, but also the mother of my favorite baby!!!

Pink sky over Madam Fo Ghana

Pink sky over Madam Fo Ghana

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.

It was hard to get a picture of everyone sitting still! But here is Kofi doing introductions infront of the class at Madam Fo Ghana

It was hard to get a picture of everyone sitting still! But here is Kofi doing introductions infront of the class at Madam Fo Ghana

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.

When we introduce ourselves to the students we use an adjective first and he is Knowledgeable Kofi. It fits him well :)

When we introduce ourselves to the students we use an adjective first and he is Knowledgeable Kofi. It fits him well :)

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 :)
Natalie

The First Weekend in Ho

Most people who know me, know that I am always busy and I am always doing something. Well yesterday was the first time in probably two years where I had absolutely nothing to do. I woke up to Akbene, a student of The Village Exchange, knocking on my door. She brought breakfast with her. She was in the middle of doing laundry so I came outside and sat with her for about two hours talking here and there while she was working and I was eating. I learned that she was 21 and in school with The Village Exchange in a 2-year program where she would learn how to make batiks, jewelry, and learn to sew. She lived quite far away so she was one of the few VEG students who actually lived on the compound at all times. We were the only two people on the compound all day yesterday so we spent the majority of the day together, I mostly just sat around and listened to her tell me stories. After some time she went back to her room and I went to mine to read and work my French language practice.

Smiling faces of Ghana

Smiling faces of Ghana

I realized that this would be how most of my weekends would probably be as my Village Exchange program was only Monday-Friday. I needed/wanted to get out on the weekend and work with kids. I decided I would try to reconnect with an orphanage I had visited last time I was in Ghana.

In Ghana if you meet someone once then you will most likely stay friends with them forever. I had let one of my old GLA (Global Leadership Adventures) leaders, Dodzi, know that I was coming to Ghana and I reached out to him yesterday asking if he would be traveling back to Anloga, which was the village I had stayed in before. I also asked him for the names of the orphanages we had worked with. I then found out the one I had in mind had been shut down. Dodzi said he would be going back to Anloga in the month, but that Stephen, who was another one of the GLA leaders lived in Ho and I should reach out to him to catch up and to find another orphanage. I called him, but there was no response so Dodzi called Stephen. About 20 minutes after this exchange happened Akbene knocked on my door saying someone was here to see me, it was Stephen and his brother.

Stephen is a goofy guy with a huge heart. He refers to himself as “Humble Lion”. That night as we were catching up on all the different projects we had been working on the past two years he brought up the idea that it was his “destiny” to do good work and that we all have a purpose. When I told him about my R.O.C. Inc. project of international culture exchange he was ecstatic, and right away knew what we should be doing. He arranged for us to visit an orphanage Sunday to start developing a program where in supplement to the work I am doing with VEG we could do a cultural exchange program together, with students at the orphanage.

Stephen (in the middle), his brother, and a little boy on the way to the orphanage

Stephen (in the middle), his brother, and a little boy on the way to the orphanage

Today Stephen came to meet me and we went to an orphanage called New Seed International, which is run by a man named Livinus Jackson. There are a total of 28 students, 18 of them are there because their parents died of HIV/AIDS, while 10 of the them were there because the police had rescued them from some sort of child slavery, mostly working in the fishing villages on the Volta Lake regions.

Livinus talked to us about his dream to empower the young boys and girls, specifically the girls to fulfill all of their dreams. And to push them to follow through on their education and to achieve their goals. He thought it would be very beneficial to have me there to work with the girls on the weekend (and sometimes the week days). He absolutely loved the idea of having a cultural exchange and Skyping with American students to start developing friendships around the world. Tomorrow I am going to go back with Kofi to see how we can also work on our reproductive health program here for the boys and for the girls.

When we went to introduce ourselves to the girl’s class we asked them what they wanted to be after they were finished with school, here were some the responses we got: a journalist, a nurse, a doctor, a professor, an accountant, a weather forecaster, a news anchor, and an actress.

The full class of girls at New Seed International

The full class of girls at New Seed International

New Seed International Girls (the one in front wants to be a journalist!)

New Seed International Girls (the one in front wants to be a journalist!)

These girls were between the ages of 11-15 and all were incredibly bright and passionate about learning. I am thrilled that Livinius will be allowing us to come and work with them.

Stephen is all about making up new sayings and one of his favorite saying is “the heart is like a two-way song”. He said that the only way I would eventually understand the saying is if your heart is in the right place, and that specific place has the be right for you. I think that over the course of these two months I will be able to learn and see if this place is truly “right” for me.

selfie with the boys :) 

selfie with the boys :) 

Natalie

Getting there...

The people of Ghana are said to be some of the kindest and most heartfelt people in the world. Today clarified this to be true yet again. The flight to Accra is direct from John F. Kennedy airport and is about 10 hours long.  I happened to be sitting next to a man who was originally from Ghana, but now worked as a doorman for the Marriott in New York City. He was returning back to Ghana for a vacation with his family. He saw that I was alone on the flight and after waking up from 9 out of the 10 hours he had saved me one of the breakfast boxes as well as organized all of my immigration paperwork. He claimed that I would be his “daughter” for the flight since his other children weren’t coming home with him. He preceded to tell me about how he loved Patrick Leahy (after I said I was from Vermont) and then showed me a picture with Hillary Clinton. When we landed he told me to follow him as he knew people at the immigration stations, he knew everyone there and and we walked through the door without any troubles at all. When we got through to the other side he had a boy waiting for him with two carts, another one of his airport friends, where they both waited with me until I had all of my luggage. As I was waiting though this little boy about three years old was looking for his mother and came up to me and wrapped his arms around me until I picked him up and held him, until his mother came back. We left the airport saying our goodbyes as I met up with Kofi who is my partner on the reproductive health project at the Village Exchange.

Kofi and the driver helped me and all of my stuff into the car and off we went to Ho, which is suppose to be about 2 hours from Accra, but it ended up being more along the lines of 4 hours. The city was completely packed with a ton of people driving in all different directions, our driver was pretty aggressive and passed about every other car in front of us. We stopped twice once for the driver to eat lunch and another to get fuel. On the first stop at the food hut there were a few girls my age and one, Mariama, came over to me and started showing me around the area and talking to me about what she did everyday. She was 19 and had been out of school for 5 years. The idea of dropping out of school at 14 is such a foreign idea to us, that sometimes we forget that for most people in the developing world that is when education stops and working and/or caring for your entire family begins. Mariama gave me her phone number and made me promise to come back to her shop one more time before I left.

Finally, we arrived in Ho, which is up in the mountains. It is still quite dusty, but there are trees and it is a little bit more green than the other parts of the Volta region of Ghana. When we got to the Village Exchange compound we held a mini staff meeting with everyone that was there, just six of us, and went around giving introductions and then I was able to have a tour of the facility. The compound consists of two long structures, one that hold the office, a small sitting room, an upstairs guest room, a sewing room and a classroom for the science and technology school. The other structure holds the housing: my room, a baby’s nursery for when mothers are here working with their children, another guest room for the other volunteer, and an extra room for rural community students to stay.

 Kofi and I then went into town to get lunch and pick up a “Modem” which is a broadband internet stick that you plug into your computer. It’ll come in handy for our Skype sessions with Vermont. Kofi and I discussed our plan for the program and he explain how on Monday we would be visiting 3 of the schools we are working with to go over an introduction to the program and start organizing our material. He also told me that there would be several other schools that we would be going to just for one day programs. Whereas these three specific schools  would be the schools we taught at consistently for all 8 weeks of the program.

I forgot to mention that it is 95 degrees here, the sky is usually overcast, but it is a sticky and stifling heat. Luckily it just started raining so hopefully that will cool things off for tomorrow morning.

I am so grateful to be here and I cannot wait to see what the rest of this trip entails. 

Thanks for reading!!

Natalie

R.O.C. Inc. International with The Village Exchange-Cultural Exchange with Ghanian Students

Hi everyone,

As some of you know I will be traveling to Ho, Ghana for 9 weeks this winter. I am working with an organization called The Village Exchange International. I first learned about them when I traveled to Ghana two years ago.

After inquiring about volunteer opportunities I told the Founder, Christiane Milev, about R.O.C. and I realized we shared similar missions. I explained to her that I wanted to find a way to take R.O.C. international, but also work alongside another established organization and learn about other program areas. At this time The Village Exchange International was in the process of starting a program and curriculum that would be implemented in schools around women's empowerment with a focus on reproductive health. I happily jumped on board.

Over the past few months I have been working with Kofi Nyalimba who is a social worker and the head of the Sexual and Reproductive Health Department at The Village Exchange International. Kofi and I have been working on designing a curriculum based around leadership and reproductive health to teach at several different schools to girls aged 11-18. 

In addition to working on the program, I have been working on putting together a cultural exchange component, and a part of R.O.C. to take with me. The idea is to start creating cultural exchange between the students I am going to be working with in Ghana and the R.O.C. high school chapters in Vermont. Every week we will be having Skype sessions with the high schools in Vermont. In addition there will be a bracelet/pen-pal campaign that will be taking place to help connect the students around the world. 

This is the official blog page for my entire trip. I will be posting pictures, messages, and updates about everything including the program progress as well as the cultural exchange component. 

I am so honored to be able to work with such an incredible organization and I am so excited to be traveling back to Ghana.

Stay tuned :)

Natalie

P.S. Here is the link to The Village Exchange International: http://www.villageexchangeinternational.org