Sunday, September 9, 2012
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
I'm back from a monthlong trip to Ghana which doubled as family time, an opportunity to participate in homecoming activities at my high school, a chance to visit the OrphanAID Africa Foster Family Center compound, and research for my next book project. I thought for sure 28 days would be more than enough, but of course it wasn't.
I got to Ghana a week after the abrupt and shocking death of the late President John Evans Fiifi Attah Mills. The entire nation was in mourning. News programs seemed to report only on the funeral preparations. (16 heads of state/dignitaries were coming, including Hillary Clinton.) And in the two days leading up to his August 10th burial, the entire nation was invited to file past his glass-encased body in a public wake. Every other billboard that lined the roads eulogized Mills as organizations and corporations publicly expressed their grief and condolences. Everything was draped in the red and black funeral colors reserved for royalty.
different versions of Mills' funeral cloth
I always learn something new about the culture when I visit Ghana, and via Mills' funeral, I learned just how much fashion "speaks" in Ghana. Perhaps I was just sensitive to it after reading Catherine E. McKinley's insightful memoir Indigo, which charts the significance behind the designs of many African prints and cloth dyeing processes. To commemorate Mills' death, several cloths were designed including different versions of a State Cloth, and a Party Cloth meant for members of his political party NDC. Being the fashion lover I am, I wanted to collect a few of the cloths as keepsakes of the historic moment (Mills is the only Ghanaian President to die in the middle of his term in office). But I couldn’t choose a cloth simply for aesthetics.
The Party Cloth, which bears the NDC insignia of a green, white, red, and black umbrella, was banned from the actual funeral so as not to promote partisan politics at the late President's funeral. (This is an election year in Ghana.) Of course some people wore the NDC cloth anyway, but I went with an all black cloth instead.
During that first week of mourning, I traveled to my alma mater Mfantsiman Girls' Secondary School to give a talk on creative writing as part of the Homecoming festivities. Every time I make the journey from Accra to Saltpond, I am 12 years old again. My stomach drops and my armpits start leaking the moment the car passes Mankessim, the market town less than 20 minutes' drive from the school. I make the journey every single time I go to Ghana. It's a weird pilgrimage for me.
Anyway, when we got there, the first thing my mother and sister chorused was: "The school looks so much better!" The fresh paint wasn't the half of it. The current Headmistress presented a progress report that moved me to tears. The PTA have donated 50 computers, and refurbished the computer lab. There is a new classroom block, ostensibly so students don't have to have class in outdoor huts anymore. The students no longer have to eat in shifts thanks to the new dining hall the PTA built, big enough to accommodate the total school population. The '85 Year Group refurbished the Infirmary and donated a tractor to the Agriculture Department. And the students are snagging prizes and winning competitions left and right. I didn't check for myself, but the students later told me, the water flows relatively consistently.
A few more reports followed with similar news of development as the Mfantsiman Old Girls Association (MOGA) shared all the initiatives they planned to take up to improve the Mfantsiman experience. And then I was up.
About 400 students who had stayed on campus to prepare for upcoming exams filed into the pews of the chapel which doubles as the school assembly hall. I felt my mouth go dry with nerves as I began to speak to the congregation. In the crowd, I could see myself at 12, sandwiched between my friends, frenemies, tormentors; and very quickly, I was crying. My mom started crying too. I saw some of my old school mates wiping tears as well; one graciously offered me a tissue. This last gesture generated a chorus of "AWWWWW!!"s from the girls. :-)
Once I pulled myself together, I spoke about the importance of seizing our own stories.
It was an experience I will never forget.
I got to travel around the country a bit.
A friend took us on a tour of Tema Harbor, the port where the bulk of goods shipped to Ghana passes through. Stupidly/glamorously, I wore heels, but, thankfully, I was able to maneuver the rocky gangplank without a tumble. Along the way we discovered a community of (cute!) rastas living in makeshift houseboats.
We later went to this amazing village called Nzulezo that literally hovers over a river--it's built on stilts! It was a six hour drive from Accra, then an hour canoe ride to the actual village, but it was worth it. The village of 450 men, women, and children are used to being ogled all day every day by visitors so they are prepared. The children greeted us at the canoe drop with post cards for sale, and when they saw no one was interested, they started dancing for money. I had this gross conflicted feeling watching these children--toddlers really--perform for cash. They were too young to be transacting for money. But I watched, riveted, and handed a few cedis over anyway because they were so damn good at the azonto, a dance craze that has totally taken over the nation. Right after they got their money, the smiles and dances were gone as the kids completely ignored us. It was funny and chilling at the same time.
We drove to a beach town called Ada Foah. This time the drive was only two hours' long. The beach, which is bordered by the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the peacefully still Volta Estuary on the other, was so gorgeous--even if a lot of it was littered with garbage. We walked for hours, passing the odd goat, fisherman, villager, and backpacking tourist.
Three days before I left Ghana, I visited the OrphanAID Africa Foster Family Center compound. Sitting on five acres of land in a small town called Ayeniyah, an hour's drive from Accra, it is an amazing eco village built to educate, house, and treat abandoned and special needs kids. I was so moved by the dedication of the founder Lisa Lovatt-Smith and staff members, and the thoroughness of the planning.
They have solar powered energy, trees that support the houses as beams. They collect and use "grey water" for washing to conserve the drinking water supply. They have a farm with plots for each family; and a physical therapy center for the special needs kids that is outfitted with exercise equipment and wheelchairs. They also have a library that needs books. You can post books to:
PO Box DD61
Dodowa, Dangme West, Greater Accra
Ghana, West Africa
You can also donate here.
|The OrphanAID Africa Library|
I read a short passage from Powder Necklace to a group of the OA high schoolers and shared a bit about my experience attending Mfantsiman. In the Q&A that followed, one of the kids asked me what legacy I want to leave on earth. After seeing all that Lisa has been able to accomplish in the 10 years she's been in Ghana, I lumbered under that question. Creating a body of writing that blesses people seems so inadequate.
But it's what I got, and I intend to use it. Throughout my trip, I wrote and have the beginnings of three projects to keep myself busy, in addition to my second book. I can't wait to share them all with you.