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First of all, I feel like a brat. I travel a lot, and that is kind of a bratty thing to do, despite that it’s often to learn and/or to teach, just the notion of traveling often, is a privilege. It can also become a mindset and/or a career, but it is a privilege nonetheless, and I can’t help but feel that I am a little bit of a brat for it. But regardless, here is an account of my time in Ghana.
I’ve been to and or through about 30 countries and most of them are pretty developed, as the majority of my time abroad has been spent in Europe and South Korea, with a short time traveling more touristed parts of Southeast Asia. This November I went to Africa for the first time, volunteering with an NGO in Ghana.
Before I went, I spent a few weeks in Berlin; visiting my dear friend, looking at masters programs and schools, and briefly volunteering with a refugee organization that in particular works with African migrants. This was an interesting introduction to the African attitude and work ethic in a western world setting.
There are a good deal of African migrants in Germany and my girlfriend and her friends all have dated African immigrants with varying degrees of legal status. The organization helped migrants and refugees understand the process and their rights, and would go out to refugee camps and counsel people, as well as manage internet cafes and meeting places. I was swept up with the idea of helping people that just wanted to be apart of this European world and didn’t know exactly how to enter it, but didn’t want to go back home, either. After a few meetings though, I started to wonder, but why do so many Africans want to come here?
And then I went to Ghana. Despite my meeting Africans, my readings, and even despite my sister being a missionary in Mozambique and her reports of it, I wasn’t really prepared for Africa, I don’t think. Accra is a large city, 8 million people, and was the most stressful-feeling city I think I’ve ever been to. I guess I didn’t think it was a real thing that cops pulled you over and wouldn’t let you go until you slipped them a bill. Or that roads in major cities could still be that majorly dirt or pot-holed. Or that public urination would be that common. Or that riding public transit would entail trying to decipher the shouts of a myriad of men flailing arms and hands out of vans on the sides of highways. Most of this I experienced within the first hours of landing.
That first weekend, we stayed with Christiane’s Ghanaian friend Sally, just on the outskirts of Accra. It was a nice middle-class house with a large yard and 3 dogs. Very few animals are actually kept as pets in this regard, and this points to how Ghana is economically doing better than some of its African neighbours. We stayed for a few days at Sally’s house, even though she was in The Gambia on business at the time. Her and Christiane were such good friends and Sally would open her doors to Christiane anytime she could.
After a brief time in Accra, we took a car to Ho. Christiane was glad that uber has become a thing in Accra, so that cab drivers couldn’t rip you off so easily, and she wished we could uber from Accra to Ho, as the drivers have made the trip more expensive than when she first started coming to the country. The ride was really pretty, the landscape was really just gorgeous. Driving through the countryside wasn’t that bad, the roads were pretty good. The mountains and greenery were remarkable, really. We would stop for fruit, pineapple and mangoes, and we passed more mango groves than I could count. Passing junctions, crowds of girls with treats or fish on their head would surround our car and we bought some bread to bring to Ho with us.
I liked Ho a lot more than I liked Accra. It was a busy town but much smaller, and had their share of bad roads or roads under construction that gave way to a lot of dust, but also had some good roads, and the people were really very nice. It was also in the valley and there were mountains all around us. I rented a two bedroom house for my stay and was guided by a local, Juliet, Christiane’s adopted Ghanaian daughter, who became like a sister to me throughout the duration of my time there.
The NGO I was working with there is run and owned by Christiane, a woman I have a family connection to. I met her last year in her home in France and was again welcomed warmly, this time to her organization’s compound in Ghana. I am very thankful for this chance and opportunity to volunteer with an organization I trust and that had real projects for me to participate in immediately. She also acknowledges her luck in having a reliable and intelligent staff to help her run the organization, but to her credit, she’s been working in the Volta Region for 15 years now.
I was to assist Kofi in his work with sexual and reproductive health in the surrounding villages. He really acts as a counselor for the kids in the area when it comes to these issues and helps educate about hygiene and, awesomely, what culture has to do with our perception of these issues, as well. I was also included on a trip to one of the villages we were conferring with about helping them acquire solar energy. Being included on these projects was a peek into how education, business, and relationships work within the Ghanaian culture. It was also great to observe the other projects they had underway on the compound in terms of fabric making/batik, the fashion design and seamstress work, and the training classes in electricity they had for women (who could dorm there), as well as for men. There was recently a generous donation of electric supplies provided to the school and it was cool to see the international support of local education.
I also must say, it was very hot. I was always very warm. I thought I was good with the heat. I realized, maybe not as good as I thought. It was new, this African tropical heat, to me. I’m not even a person that enjoys air conditioning, and there were plenty of fans, really, but still. It was not easy for me to adjust to the temperature. If I had the fans on high at the house, Juliet was often cold, too. When it was cooler at night I would feel so relieved and Juliet would need to bundle up.
Although my stay was only a couple weeks, I went around to a few local villages with Kofi. I learned about how he schedules times with teachers and principals, the cultural steps really of navigating relationships and introductions, and then it was great to see him interact with the kids at these rural schools. We discussed how they’ve distributed sanitary materials to schools and how he was working with a woman in Accra that was trying to help install better bathrooms for girls, and that he always gives out his number so that the kids can call him and feel comfortable talking to him about whatever they can’t feel they can talk to their parents about. I really admire him for the work he’s doing with the youth in the area, and also that he’s concurrently going for two Masters.
We went to a few different schools and talked with mostly the girls, but sometimes with the boys, too, about the reproductive system. We also wanted to ask girls if they would be interested in trying the menstruation cup. A few people had already cautioned me that this would be a hard sell in Africa, due to the lack of access to water. Although the water does go out pretty regularly, there is usually a reserve of water, or someone going to fetch it, and there’s always soap, at least of what I saw. And although the bathrooms aren’t exactly what we in the western world would think as appropriate, a plus of the cup is that it’s possible girls wouldn’t have to deal with it at school, at all. So, if the water issue can be solved, what’s with the fear of the diva cup? I realized after just a handful of conversations with these students, that the girls are more hesitant because they’re terrified to insert anything into their vaginas. Very few women even use tampons there. I started to wonder if any of them had ever even touched their own vaginas. And why is it such a big deal, to insert anything? After more discussions with Kofi and confirmation from the girls themselves, it is clear that the importance of being a virgin for their future husband is heavy on their minds.
Ghana is a very conservative and Christian country… Also very patriarchal, (like the rest of the world). There’s a cultural tradition of respect for elders and respect for men in particular that is very much present here. For one, meeting with the village chief is very common for visitors to the village, as they would like to know your intentions, and probably offer you some of their farmed goods when you leave. But, if a man talks to you in the street, or in a cab, or wherever, he’s also very presumptuous about you giving him what he wants, whether its your time, your hand or your phone number, as if there should be no objection from the woman, regardless.
Kofi told me that throughout the villages, reproductive health is not really taught. There are huge cultural misconceptions about the reproductive system; women are thought of as evil or unclean when they are on their period and often aren’t allowed to touch food or cook for their husbands. Girls stay home from school because they are embarrassed or don’t have any sanitary materials. Boys and girls alike tease a girl if it is known that she has her menses.
So we talked to these young Ghanaian people about what is normal and healthy for the reproductive system, and the difference between science and cultural beliefs. I am not a professional social worker, I am just a volunteer, a friend of a friendly and helpful organization that isn’t trying to change anything besides inspire the belief that girls can do more.
In terms of visiting these schools, I want to focus on the personal cultural exchange. I didn’t feel like I was breaking new ground or doing anything amazing by going to Africa and talking about the cup. I don’t want to support the idea that any one white person or even a group can save any other person or group of people, or even that they need us at all. I just want to take responsibility in the sense of acknowledging my privilege, that education and migration have always been more available to me. I am choosing to use that to my own advantage in terms of learning more about the world first hand, and offering others a chance to learn about me. I was showing these girls an example of a young lady that may be different than their culture, but is also different in her own culture. And that is okay. I explained my travels and my tattoos, my desire to go to more schooling, my lack of desire to get married or have kids. They were something new to me, and I was something new to them. I was sharing with them how the cup changed my life, and if we’re anything alike, which we ultimately are, then it could change their lives, too.
For more stories of my time in Ghana, stay tuned.