cultural exchange

Kicking Off the New Year in Ghana

As I sit in the town Ho of Ghana, almost a year after my last trip here, I was reflecting on my old journals and blog posts.  I cannot believe how much has changed, and at the same time how much is still the same. On January 13th, 2017, I wrote: “The people of Ghana are said to be some of the kindest and most heartfelt people in the world.” One year later, I can confirm this statement is absolutely true. This year I came to Ghana with a group of 14 people to run medical, dental, and education programs for two weeks in collaboration with Middlebury College’s Global Health Department. I feel so fortunate to be the director of an organization where I am able to bring students to a place that I am able to call home.

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Last Wednesday night Aiden Shumway, Graham Byers, Anna Rowland, and I traveled to Accra with 12 checked bags total (as of right now only one is missing). Getting to Ghana was a little more hectic than we had anticipated, since we missed our Burlington flight and had to drive to JFK in a snowstorm to catch our flights. Kofi Nyalimba, our in-country director, was thankfully there to meet us at the airport in Accra and then we met Alison Parker at the hotel.  

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Thursday morning was a very eventful day! We got up early and set out to meet the General Secretary of the Ghanaian National Football Association with Samira Gaherty (whose sister currently lives in Vermont). The GFA is our newest in-country partner for R.O.C. Inc. As we connect our students through the world’s game (soccer!) we will be able to use the GFA as sponsors and ambassadors for our R.O.C. Ghana programs. In return R.O.C. is providing dental care to all its players. In the afternoon we traveled to the Football Team’s Soccer Camp where we met the U17 Players and provided dental hygiene clinics. Alison, Aiden, and I did the cleaning while Anna, Graham and Kofi conducted interviews! We even got to watch their practice. Thursday night Dr. Julie Spaniel and Dr. Maja Zimmerman arrived at the hotel.

Friday the Middlebury College students and Dr. Andrea Green and her son Callum Mahoney arrived in Accra and joined the rest of the group. We picked everyone up and headed back to the hotel where we ate lunch and then set out on our journey to Ho where we will be spending the next two weeks together.

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On our way to Ho we stopped by our partner NGO, Day’s for Girls, where we were able to tour the facility where the sanitary materials were made by women in Ghana. We are incredibly excited about this partnership as we will be able to provide non-disposable sanitary materials to the girls at different partner schools throughout the Volta Region. When we finally arrived in Ho we had a late dinner and went straight to bed.

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Saturday was our official “day of welcome” in the Have community with Felix (the headmaster who you might remember from last year’s blog).  This day of welcome consisted of a blessing ceremony with the paramount chief, and other chiefs from the region. We learned about the traditional hierarchy of the chief system in the Volta Region. The paramount chief, for instance isn’t allowed to be talked directly to, and has to first talk to their linguist. The paramount chief’s name was Caesar and he gave all of us a huge hug at the end of the day… and added us on WhatsApp.

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From the chief’s house we set off to the Have Junior High School where we were greeted by the entire student body, faculty, and several community members for a traditional drumming and dancing ceremony. I think it is fair to say none of us had ever seen women dancing with fire on their heads. It was also the time to introduce ourselves to the school and explain our medical and educational project plans. We all got a chance to practice our drumming.  Aiden and Alexis seem to have natural talent. Anna and I on the other hand do not… It was a fantastic day.  

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Sunday the whole group was able to sleep in (until 9:00AM). We spent the entire morning med packing bags of all the penicillin, amoxicillin, clindamycin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and all the other supplies that was donated generously by Patterson Dental, Delta Dental, and UVM Medical center. Once we finished med packing we went back to Have to meet Felix and took a tour through the entire community.  We visited families in their homes. Felix welcomed us into his home and showed us his yam barn. It was the hottest day so far-around 100 degrees with direct sunlight all afternoon. Water became our best friend. I spent Sunday night trying to get a handle on all of our technology programs (thank you Dani, Lee and Joe for the hours of FaceTiming support). Once that was situated, the whole group packed up for our next adventure.  

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Monday morning, we went back to Have Junior High School for our first day of medical and dental clinics. We knew that the day might get a bit hectic as it was the first time the majority of volunteers had ever run a clinic. We set everything up and we were able to get through almost the entire school! Everyone got a chance to work in a new field. Patients first went to intake where we got basic medical history and information.  Then they moved on to triage and then to specific areas (dental or medical). By the second half of the day the mood of the entire group (students and our ROC group) had shifted and lightened. Everyone seemed to finally connect and form a mutual understanding of trust and respect with one another. Even though I was there for 9 weeks last year, this was the first time I felt like we had a real connection with the students of Have Junior High School. By spending the first three days acclimating to their culture and being introduced to their community through the welcoming ceremony, it just made a huge difference this time. It was clear to everyone that we are all more similar than different.

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I cannot believe it has been nearly a week since we arrived. Our group has amazing chemistry and talents. We are all learning from one another and growing as a whole. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week brings. This was the first time in all of my trips where we have spent a lot of time in one community learning about their cultural.  It has really given me a new perspective about quality over quantity.  Thinking about the future, I realize how vital it is to create a safe environment where we can learn from one another. I think that this is exactly what we are doing here, right now.

More Alike Than Different

My first trip to Ghana taught me that we are all more alike than different. The main priority my teacher partner and I had was to show the students that we were quite similar- we were all young people (for the most part in high school) and we all wanted to make a difference in some way or another in the world. Tres (who was my teaching partner from GLA) and I spent at a lot of our classes immersed in round table discussions about different issues we faced in our own communities and how exactly we could solve them. Upon my return home and the start of R.O.C. my main goal was to help show high school students that we have a lot in common, and that just because the color of our skin or the country that we come from, or what our parents did for work (or not) should not limit our opportunities as students. The goal was to break cultural divides and allow people to make friends with and learn about someone else’s culture and community, whether you are a white suburban teenager living in South Burlington, VT,  a Burundian teenager who had been resettled to Burlington, VT after years in exile, or a student in the Senior High School in Ghana. We realized that everyone does have different backgrounds, but that difference is a great place to start learning and growing from each other’s experiences.  I urge young people everywhere to keep on working towards the goal of equality and to check yourself if you find yourself scared, or pointing unkind fingers at other people who are our peers, our friends, and our community members.

Finally getting connection with SB R.O.C.going through introductions and asking about what we all do for fun.

Finally getting connection with SB R.O.C.going through introductions and asking about what we all do for fun.

Wednesday was the first day of our official R.O.C. International video call day with the South Burlington R.O.C. chapter. The class we had in Ghana was here at VEG and it was a small group of students. This group was part of the Lady Volta Vocational School, the women (and two men) were older who are not in high school anymore, but are between 20-26 years old. This is the oldest group of students we are working with here in Ghana. Suffice it to say, after about 40 minutes of technical difficulties, (the SB R.O.C.  leader and I were both texting each other that we were each having problems with the HDMI cord to connect to their project in school and Kofi and I were laughing because we were having the exact same problem.) Kofi and I told the students “See it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can still have technical difficulties.  They are having the same problems there as we are having here. ”

New R.O.C. stickers!

New R.O.C. stickers!

Trying to get everyone in the computer screen-showing our R.O.C. stickers here in Ghana as SB students show theirs in VT

Trying to get everyone in the computer screen-showing our R.O.C. stickers here in Ghana as SB students show theirs in VT

We finally connected with SB R.O.C. through improvising and using a student’s phone in Vermont. The connection was weak, but we finally got it! Students in America were actually talking to students in Ghana. Although we weren’t able to talk for long, we did some introductions. Then the R.O.C. students asked us “what does everyone do for fun?” Some of the girls here said singing and dancing. It turns out that two of the SB R.O.C. leaders are big time dancers themselves. One of the girls in Vermont said she runs for fun. Anita is in the class at VEG and she I started laughing since we have been running together the past couple of days. Although this was a short interaction, we showed students everywhere that we are more alike than different. Young adults in Ghana have made their first friends in Vermont, and vice versa. Our next video call will be with the Mount Mansfield Union High School R.O.C. chapter on Saturday with our students at MadamFo Ghana.

Yesterday was a more laid back kind of day.  I was recovering from some food poisoning (not a good idea to eat “sweet water-rice” with non-bottled water from my kind neighbor who offered it). The only class we had was at MadamFo Ghana in the evening. Kofi and I went around 6:30 and we talked about relationships. Kofi did most of the talking. He was able to answer the student’s questions that we had come up with the Saturday before.  He encouraged everyone to speak up and ask new questions on their own. It was a very productive class which was fantastic. One of the house mothers came in at the end of our talk and made a quick presentation in front of the class saying that she expected everyone to be engaged moving forward, and that she will be checking everyone’s notebooks to make sure they are remembering things. I think she scared everyone into submission :)  Hopefully, they stay as engaged for my class with them on Saturday! I know they are looking forward to talking with our friends at MMU R.O.C.!

I am learning more every day that I am here. The country is wonderful and the people are kind and beautiful. Two weeks down seven more to go.

Natalie

P.S. Everyone needs to check out this video done by our CVU R.O.C. members about our refugee community here in Vermont (who are all now U.S. citizens). The video was put together by Charlie Bernicke, Cole Bartlett, and Kiera O’Brien.