Sunday, October 16, 2011

"The Stranger looks with bulging eyes, but sees nothing." Northern Ghanaian Proverb

Today I experienced one of the most interesting, exciting, frightening, and sad days of my life. Since I arrived in Ghana, I have been working with the NGO CHALLENGING HEIGHTS, interested in their work in eradicating child slavery in the fishing industry in Ghana, and keeping kids in school. In fact they say that their chief interest is in “keeping children in school. “ And their founder, James, believes that the key to solving the problem of child slavery is improvement of the education system.

Lake Volta, the world’s largest man-made lake, was created by the damming of the Volta River at Akosombo dam in the 1950s. Since that time, as you can well imagine, a huge fishing industry has opened up on the lake. The new opportunities in employment also created a labour shortage, so what do you do? It is a common practice for the fisher-people to use their own children on the boats, but it is also a common practice for fishermen to coerce families and children into coming with them where they are used in slave labour to work for them fishing on the lake. Sometimes they tell false stories and lure families into thinking that the child will receive an education and trained in fishing for a small fee paid to the master. Other times the children are abducted from a parent.

When I first met James Kofi Annan, the founder and director of Challenging Heights, I was immediately impressed by his humility, his passion, his love of the children he rescues and his life-commitment to such an important cause. Immediately I wanted to join with him in his efforts and so I placed two Calvin students to work with Challenging Heights during this Ghana Semester 2011. But I also wanted to learn more and become personally involved in some manner. My plan is to come to Ghana for a full year on a Fulbright fellowship to write a piece of theatre for development about child slavery in Ghana and to take this piece on tour so that we can educate communities about the effects and wrongdoing of child trafficking.

To that end, James and the team from Challenging Heights graciously allowed me to come along to Yeji, on the Western side of Lake Volta, to witness their operations there and to see the fishing villages where they rescue children. I have learned so much on this trip about human trafficking in this country and how they conduct investigations, discovering where children are being held and by whom. Today I honestly thought we were just going to travel to the villages, witnessing some of the investigative practices. Much to my surprise, we went on the attempted rescue of six boys in one village! After much negotiation with the chief, argument and anger erupting everywhere, we were allowed to take three of the children, but the chief would not release the other three who were sent into hiding. Tomorrow, the Challenging Heights social workers will locate those three children and rescue them as well.

We travelled to a second village where supposedly two more boys were being held, but they too were sent into hiding, even though the fisherman master had agreed to release them to Challenging Heights. The fishermen know, clearly, that they could be imprisoned for a minimum of five years for the crime of human trafficking, but in these cases, the children were kept anyway. The social workers will have to return to those villages tomorrow to find the children and take them into custody.

When a child is taken into custody, as the three who are with us now, the child is re-socialized and rehabilitated with careful attention paid to the whole being – psychological, physical, social and cognitive – all parts are given attention. And then the child will be reunited with his/her parents and allowed, probably for the first time in their lives, to go to school.

So, today we rescued three brothers Ko (6), Otu (8), and Kwesi (10) who will be returned to their mother in Winneba. They are such beautiful children, and we learned upon interviewing them, that they had been sold into slave labor by their father to over 10 fishermen on the lake. They worked from 2 am until 3 pm every day and received one meal, at best. They also had to mend nets in the evening, and received little more than 6 hours of rest per night, if that. After they were safe in James’ SUV, on our way back to Accra (a seven hour drive), their first questions were asking if they were going to Winneba. They told us stories about being hit on the head with oars as discipline and abused by pounding on their bodies, telling all of this with great bravery and a stoic sense of self. We can only wonder how much psychological abuse topped off the physical abuse. James estimates that they are verbally abused once every five minutes as part of the warped disciplinary culture of slavery.

On our way back to shore, after this dramatic rescue, we saw another boy Akwame whom we could not rescue because there was no social work investigation on him, but we learned, on interviewing him, that he was a trafficked child and he told us, we feared, too much about himself. Indeed, we learned, on our way back now, that the boy was severely threatened by his master and that the master had also made a death threat to the rescue team (specifically to James’ brother who conducts the investigations on the lake in Yeji). Luckily, James gave them instructions to go to the police, to report the death threats and to rescue Akwame TODAY! We have not heard yet, but we hope and pray it is happening right now.

It struck me, as we were driving away, that the brothers’ first questions were asking “will I have to paddle any longer?” and “will I hold a pen now instead?” They are beautiful boys, as you can see by the photos. Keep them in your prayers. And, if you’re interested, sponsor one of them at a rate of only $250 per year for their education. Save a child, give them a future.

To eradicate child trafficking in Ghana will take a ton of work, money and the re-education of a culture. So, I can’t wait to be even more a part of this!

One element that was disturbing to me was that I felt exhausted by the level of observation I had turned on all day, and yet I was still missing so much of the total experience. The title of this blog: "The stranger looks with bulging eyes but sees nothing," came to mind. Learning a culture is one of the most difficult shifts in seeing that one can experience.

Here's a photo I took of the boys' flip-flops which they held on to like teddy bears and gave them to me to hold while they slept. They have nothing but the clothes on their backs, but now they have safety and hopefully a future. You can sponsor a child at the Challenging Heights website.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Anoma antu a obua da. “If a bird does not fly it starves”

This Twi proverb: Anoma antu a obua da -- it has been in my hear and mind so much in the past two weeks as I watch my students here stretch their wings and learn to take baby flights in Ghanaian culture. They are taking risks -- pushing themselves -- both as individuals and in community.

It is long overdue for a blog, I am aware and more aware than you know! We have been completely busy for the past couple of weeks with the semester in full swing, lots of assignments due and service projects every which way you look. To begin, we’ve been having a great time at our weekly dinners, inviting guests to come and share food and fellowship with us, and making sure that we have at least one evening of communion together when the intention is just building community – nothing else.

We have also been enduring a large number of power outages, beginning last week when a major transistor blew that supplies power to campus. Since then, the power has been intermittent every day…on and off…off and on...on for five seconds, off for seven hours. We even had to move a lecture on High Life music by Professor John Collins because he couldn’t share his music and slides with us without power! It’s OK, he’s scheduled to return on Monday, and we’re all looking forward to it. If you want to hear an example of the kind of music he’s an expert on, click on this link, and you can hear him talk about it:

Last weekend we went on our Volta Region excursion, which we extended to two nights rather than one, mostly because of road conditions and some reports of armed robberies on roads that got us and our Institute of African Studies drivers a bit spooked (rightfully so) and we decided to be safe and only drive during full daylight. Well, this was the hope. However, our Volta Region adventure had other things in store for us

We left campus early on Friday morning, September 16th at 7 am sharp, boxed lunches in tow, and headed off first to CEDI BEADS, a bead manufacturing collective where they give you a tour and teach you the process of making the beads AND you actually get to make some. Basically, they crush glass into lots of different textures – some like fine powder and some in larger chunks and place the glass into molds. Now there is a very special process for some of the more decorative beads where colors of crushed glass are carefully layered in to make beautiful bead designs. All the glass types have to be compatible so that the glass will bond together, and over time Cedi (that’s the owner’s name given to him by his grandmother when Ghana switched from the British Pound to their own currency called the cedi) has figured out which glass types work together and which don’t.
They fire the beads in kilns that are made from old termite hills where the soil is dense clay (the termites had a chemical effect on the soil). And then they polish the beads carefully with water and sand and sometimes they paint them with paint made from recycled glass and refire them OR they simply string them. We had a great time purchasing beads for all of our loved ones back home after we finished the workshop!

All of us made beads and we would return on Sunday to collect them before heading back to Accra.

After our fun at the beadmaking collective, we headed the short distance to Akosombo Dam, built by Kwame Nkumrah's administration in the 1960s, it was his largest public works project when he was in office, and it created the largest man-made lake in the world -- Lake Volta. We toured the dam with a friend from the Institute of African Studies, Peter Atakuma, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis about women and children’s lives affected by the dam in the village of Dzemeni, just north of where the dam is built. Truly, the dam is a sight to see – the power of humanity to create something so vast that can hold back the might of so much water.

Our pictures do not do it justice.

After we toured the dam and heard all about the good things it does for Ghana, Peter showed us around the village of Dzemeni (pronounced Germany with a Ghanaian accent) where we witnessed children who should be in school, fishing on the lake or working at the harbor, learning about how their mothers (most of whom are fishmongers) have trouble keeping the children, especially when their fathers are absent, heading out onto the lake or way upstream for more lucrative fishing grounds. The people displaced by the dam are estimated at over 300,000 by the government, but in actuality it’s probably far more. The building of Akosombo sent people scattering, ruining their family lives and leaving impoverished people in its wake. Now there are people doing good on Lake Volta, like Sister Eva here who has won Ghanaian Fisher of the Year for Two years straight and she does not let children onto her boats. Child labor
and slavery is a real problem with the fishing industry in Ghana. The fishermen believe that only children can do certain jobs with the nets and handling of the fish, but many people are working to re-educate the fishermen with new, better techniques that will eradicate the need to bring children onto the boats.

Here are just some of my pictures of what the lake Volta harbor in Dzemeni is like.

We had some leftover lunches after we finished touring Dzemeni and shared our food with the children of the village.

From there we headed to Ho. Originally we had planned to visit an Ewe Kente Weaving Village, but it was already beginning to get dark, and so we decided to wait for the next morning. We learned that there was a big festival and Durbar at the Kente village, so it would be better to wait anyway (at least this is what they told us at the tourism office).

On our arrival in Ho, we stayed at the Bob Coffie Hotel (formerly the Freedom Hotel) where we ate good food, swam in the lovely pool and just basically relaxed the evening away. Lovely.

Early in the morning, after a quick hotel breakfast of eggs and toast, we headed to the Kente Weaving village where we ordered the special Calvin Stoles that graduates of the Ghana semester get to wear when they graduate form Calvin. Peter met us again and helped us to negotiate a fair price of 16 Ghana Cedi per special stole. And we also learned, on arriving in the village at the weavers’ collective and training center, that we had indeed arrived ON the day of the festival and no weavers were available to teach us or give us a tour! However, the owner, recognizing that he had a lot of student tourists on his hands, quickly opened shop and a few young boys began weaving while we bartered for Kente cloth. A few of us had special pieces made and will head back to Ho to pick up our pieces during the free of week of travel.

Then, after a very late start, we headed to Wli Falls for a hike and lunch, only to learn that the restaurant at the falls was closed and we would need to order lunch to go. So, we had to stop and wait for an entire hour for a lunch to be made for us in Hoehoe at Taste Lodge. I so appreciated the students’ patience here while they either sat quietly reading or playing games (I made my personal best at Bejewelled!) OR the boys started a game of football with the village boys. We finally boarded the bus and headed to the falls for a very short hike and a swim.

That evening we were supposed to stay at the Mountain Paradise Lodge, reaching our accommodation in time for music and supper. However, there was a massive gulley in the dirt road and our bus could not make it through so we turned around and headed up the back side of the mountain for a three hour detour. It was dark, we were on mountain roads, it was raining and we were all still in good spirits. Thanks be to God! The students were playing games (some strange word game) and our driver finally got us to Mountain Paradise in time for a lovely supper and an evening of feeling the cool mountain breezes. It was a wonderful spot and I am so sad we didn’t get to spend more time there.

In the morning, cool as they come in Ghana, we saw the glory of what we missed the night before, climbing the mountain in darkness. We shared breakfast together, had a prayer and worship service looking out at the mountains, and headed for our last official stop – the MONKEY SANCTUARY!

All I’ll say is, WHAT FUN to have monkeys hopping on your back and arms, eating bananas from your hands. We had a blast. We gave Emmanuel, who runs the NGO at the monkey sanctuary a ride back to Accra with us too – nice to be of service when we can.

We stopped briefly to pick up our beads from Cedi and made it back to Accra by mid afternoon!

Lovely trip. Exhausted, but worth it (even with delays and detours). We thank God for teaching us so much and bonding us together as a group.

One last thing -- every week students have been sending me photos from their service work locations and I LOVE this photo that Justine took at Challenging Heights in Winneba -- GORGEOUS! Captures the marketplace their beautifully!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

End of Ramadan, Visit to Cape Coast

We've had a busy past 10 days in Ghana, beginning with the Ghanaian celebration of the end of Ramadan last Wednesday, August 31st. Originally we were told that the end of Ramadan would be on August 30 and it would be a national holiday, but then the Ghanaians decided to celebrate it on the 31st and so the students had their national holiday on Wednesday instead! That's just how it is here -- declaring national holidays when you feel like it!
In anticipation of this day, we arranged to go and observe final prayers at Independence Square in Accra where more than 350,000 people gathered to pray together. The people were dressed beautifully and communicated with us, even letting us hold their children. It was just a beautiful experience. One of my favorite moments is when we were taking group photos and many Ghanaians wanted to join our picture and take pictures of us too! It was hilarious and so much fun! Here are some photos and a brief video of our experience there:

After that busy time, we spent an hour or so at the Accra craft market, exploring, bartering, and having interesting discussions with the oh-so-pushy merchants!

In the evening, as we do every Wednesday, we celebrated with a dinner together at my flat. This week we had Mr. James Kofi Annan and Jeffrey Boyd as our guests. We learned quite a bit about James' work as he spoke to us about the problems of child slavery that his NGO Challenging Heights is working to end. Two of our students, Justine and Kristin, are working with him this semester in the field. It's an exciting and important job to rescue children from slavery and rehabilitate them and return them to their families. James has a holistic approach and works extremely hard to be sure that the child is rehabilitated and re-socialized in a good way.

After that lovely dinner, the students always gather in my flat to sing songs and to pray together, which they did and I must admit this is the most refreshing moment of the week for me, when I am just relaxing in my room and listening to the prayers and singing and fellowship. This is a great group who are truly supporting and loving one another in Christ.

Later in the week we departed for Cape Coast. The students got to spend time touring slave forts, visiting one of the most notorious slave castles (Elmina castle), petting crocodiles at Hans Cottage, exploring the rainforest and canopy walk of Kakum National Park, and then finally enjoying a relaxing afternoon at the beautiful and untouched Brenu beach where we ate lunch, walked, swam and played. Pictures of all of this are below.

I should add that it is always a major stress to visit a site like Elmina Castle. 12 million slaves were shipped from castles like Elmina along the coasts of Africa to the rest of the world, with some 800,00 brought to what is now the United States. In the middle passage it is estimated that millions died of disease and dehydration. We should think of Elmina like or even worse than a Nazi death camp. It should have that type of impact on our imaginations.

I took many photos of Elmina just to capture the horror of the place, where the governor would choose a woman to fill his "needs" and rape her in the upper chambers above the dungeons; this is a place where the Dutch protestant church is directly over the torture chambers. It's such a difficult place to visit.

This door in particular, is called the door of no return where slaves exited to the boats and never came back to their homelands. In general, I found the doors of Elmina haunting and couldn't take my eyes off of them. They seemed to signify separation, access, fear, closure, and so many other elements of colonialism and pure human exploitation that I just could not take my eyes off them. One of the most upsetting moments for me was in the church section of the castle where I found this interesting inscription above the door. The Dutch protestants who came to occupy Elmina after the Portuguese were responsible for hundreds of thousands of slaves passing through the trade of the castle.

Psalm 132

For the LORD has chosen Zion,
he has desired it for his dwelling, saying,
14 “This is my resting place for ever and ever;
here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.
15 I will bless her with abundant provisions;
her poor I will satisfy with food.
16 I will clothe her priests with salvation,
and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.