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  • Jen de Azevedo

10 Years since Ghana

Updated: Feb 20, 2022

10 Years ago I had the opportunity to head to Ghana, West Africa to volunteer in a school for deaf children. I posted some photos on social media to commemorate the occasion and got so many questions and comments I thought I'd re-post my journal from the trip. Here ya go!

(You can also watch short video on the trip on the experience on my YouTube channel )

January 14th 2012- Culture Shock in Ghana

Yesterday morning I boarded a plane heading to JFK with four other people. My cousin (Rachel), her husband (Aaron), their daughter (Leah) and the founder of Signs of Hope Intl (Curry). Five hours later we met up with the rest of our party: two from Portland (Pablo and Carissa) and two from Minnesota (Ronai and her daughter Ellie). Our group of nine then boarded a plane for Ghana, Africa. After landing, getting through customs and collecting all our luggage we headed outside to wait for our ride. My first impression of Accra was that it looked dirty. The sky was dark with haze and trash seemed to be everywhere. Our Drivers Don Kwa and Emmanuel loaded us up in a tro-tro which is a type of van/bus and we began the hour drive to Mampong. We weaved through tiny towns of shantys filled with women carrying goods on their heads and with babies strapped to their backs. The air here is thick and full of smoke from fires burning trash throughout the towns. It seems there are no trash cans here in Ghana. We passed a few men urinating unabashedly along the side of the road. Curry explained that this is pretty common in Ghana. There really are no public restrooms so you go when and where you need to. As we wound our way up a mountain we passed Bob Marley’s old recording studio. Our group was getting more and more excited.

We finally made it to a small town called Tutu. The house we’re staying in is called The Courtyard and we have to drive up a long dirt path to get there from the road. It’s quite large and has many bedrooms but is not really up to American standards. I don’t care. I’m grateful because I was expecting the absolute worst. When we checked into our house a beautiful woman named Joyce welcomed us and showed us to our rooms. She wore a long, white tunic over matching white pants and had long braids that fell down her back. She has a gap between her front teeth but it suits her. I think she’s lovely.

Ronai and I share a room. It has a big balcony but the bathroom is a mess. There’s no light and right now our toilette won’t flush. We also have no warm water and the water is not safe to drink. All of the rooms have moth balls sprinkled all over the floor and in drawers. At first we thought it was to keep bugs away but Curry told us they use them to make the rooms smell nice. The scent was giving everyone headaches so we collected them all and put them in a ziplock bag in a closet.

After we checked in we decided to walk up the road into town. We seem to attract a lot of attention here…nine obrunis (white folks) walking along the side of the road. Drivers were honking as they drove by (they also honk to let you know they’re coming because pedestrians do NOT have the right of way here). As we headed up the road we got our first glimpse of the school we would be working in. I felt a little uneasy. My signing ability is VERY basic. I clung to the hope that what Curry told us before we left was true. “What these kids need more than anything is the language of love.” Please let that be the case.

When we got to town Curry bought us all oranges. They cut the top off and you just squeeze the orange and suck up the juice from the top. I was not good at it, but it sure was tasty. I had juice all down the front of my face and my dress. The shops in town are mostly made out of storage pods or small shacks and they sell everything from fake hair for braids to dried plantain to homemade bread to fabric to bushmeat (whatever dead thing they found on the road that can be cooked and eaten). It’s so different from anything we know in the states. There are big open sewers/gutters that run down both sides of the street. Curry told us never to step or fall into one of them. That became my mantra…”Don’t fall into the sewer! Don’t fall into the sewer!” As we walked home in the dark a little boy came running toward us and shouted “obrunis bye bye!” It was a perfect start to our adventure. He melted all of us.

We got back to the house just in time for dinner, which was a spicy rice, fried chicken and pineapple. To drink we had bottles of sprite, orange fanta and coca cola, then we retired to our rooms and tried to get some sleep. There is a 7 hour difference between Utah and Ghana. It was an interesting night filled with a reggae-type music coming from a nearby house and a squeeling pig in the very early morning. I took two benadryll to help me sleep. It didn’t work.

January 15, 2012 Cold Showers and Church in Ghana

Curry woke a few of us up early because we wanted to attend church. We still had no hot water so I put my head under the shower and washed my hair. I then jumped quickly into the cold water and rinsed off. Thoroughly refreshed (and only slightly clean) we headed downstairs for our breakfast of eggs and bread. I’m not particularly fond of eggs so I gave mine to Pablo (the husband of this adorable hippie couple in our group). Our nearest church was an hour away in Koforidua so Ronai, Ellie, Curry and I headed north in a taxi. It was the most amazing drive through a completely unfamiliar landscape. We passed houses made of sticks, shops that looked like huts, children playing with pieces of rope and grass, chickens roaming free through villages and women cooking over fires. I saw naked children pouring buckets of water over themselves to get clean. The conditions in which these people live is mind-blowing to me. They have nothing and yet they seem so content.

As we continued to make our way to Koforidua we heard a loud “POP” and our car stopped moving. Our driver got out to take a look. Two other men from a nearby village came over to help. With the help of a knife, a screwdriver and some masking tape (not duct tape…masking tape) our car started back up and we went on our way. We could not contain our laughter. When we got to the city our car broke down again. While our driver got out to fix it a little girl in a beautiful white dress carrying a bucket of water on her head stood outside my window smiling at me. In a matter of minutes our car was fixed again and we continued our journey.

The city was filled with people and the sidewalks were covered by lean-to businesses and folks hawking their wares. Dirty does not begin to describe the state of this city. There was trash and chaos everywhere, but in the midst of all the “noise” there were tons of adorable families all dressed up and walking to their Sunday services. They seemed so out of place in the city haze. I loved it.

We made it to our church a few minutes late and walked in during the opening hymn. I’ve never felt so white. Part of the service was in English and part of it was in Twi (their native language). I really enjoyed sitting and listening to their accents. It was beautiful. When the service concluded everyone welcomed us and shook our hands. They were so warm.

On our way home Curry introduced us to Fan Ice. It’s ice cream in a plastic pouch. You bite off a corner of plastic and squeeze the ice cream into your mouth. It’s really quite tasty. We also stopped at a little stand on the road to buy some bread for lunch. The 4 of us sat in the front yard and made sandwiches with the peanut butter and honey we’d packed in our suitcases. Then we tried swinging from a vine that was hanging from a tree in the front yard. Ronai swung into the trunk of the tree. I think she might be bruised tomorrow. We then woke up the rest of our party and got ready to go see the kids at Demo Deaf. We walked up the road to the school and went to the head mistress’ house to introduce ourselves. She seemed a very proud and proper woman. After we chatted with her a while about the school we were able to go see the kids. We walked over to meet them and it was like a swarm of bees to honey. We were surrounded. It was overwhelming and sad and joyous and fun and frustrating all rolled into one. I needed someone to interpret for me but I sure could finger-spell my name well by the end of the day. I think I spelled J-E-N a hundred times. Some of the school workers gave us a tour of the grounds. We saw the classrooms first. They were simple and very grungy. We then were showed the boys dorms. The rooms are filled with wall to wall bunk beds with filthy mattresses and sheets. It was heartbreaking but the kids are so proud of their space. They were excited to show them to us so we put on happy faces even though we were all dying inside. The boys and girls aren’t allowed in each other’s dorms so the boys taunted the girls from the second floor because they couldn’t follow us up. Then we went to the girl’s dorms and they took their turn teasing the boys. Their sleeping conditions were killing me. The beds are smaller than the single beds we used in the states but they sometimes sleep 2 to a bed. One of the girl’s dorms houses 44 girls in a room a little bit bigger than my bedroom. Their living standards are so completely different than ours.

After our tour we got to play with the kids. What an incredible experience! They are starving for attention and love. They touched and examined our white skin our hair our hands. Pablo has a shark tattoo on the inside of his arm. The kids LOVED it. They were signing shark for days. The kids were fascinated with my blonde hair. I was petted like a dog for about an hour before a group of boys surrounded me and started braiding it. How could you not love all of these beautiful children just wanting to know your name, to hold your hand, to touch your hair, to give you a hug? All of the kids were incredible, but two girls immediately moved into my heart. One was named Bernice. She had one brown eye and one blue eye and I think she’d been teased for it her entire life until we got there and told her how beautiful she was. She kept telling us, “but they’re two different colors…” We told her that’s what made her so beautiful. I (and I know others in our group) immediately fell in love with her. The other little girl that struck me was new at the school so she didn’t know a lot of signs. Perhaps that’s why she and I became so close. We had that in common. She couldn’t finger spell her name. She just kept signing that her name was the letter U held up to her chest. She was shy and sweet and clung to me the entire time we were there.

I piggy-backed some of the little kids around the dining room. The little ones loved it, but the older kids were not happy. They told Curry I should stop because the little kids would wear me out. They eventually stopped the piggy back rides on their own by shooing all the little kids away. We eventually had to leave so they could eat dinner, so we made our way back to the Courtyard and enjoyed our own dinner. Same thing…Chicken and rice. It still tasted great! The dinner conversation is always hilarious with this group. I’m really enjoying getting to know my new friends. Showers…bedtime…and another horrible night’s sleep.

January 16, 2012 – First Day Pep Talk for the kids at Demo Deaf

It was the kid’s first day back at school so we got up early. We didn’t want to be late so we walked double time up the road. It was fun seeing them again. We met up with the headmistress who wore an American flag scarf in our honor. It was a very sweet gesture. I think she’s a good headmistress. Curry seems to think the same thing and he would know better than I.

The children and staff all lined up in the morning for their “first day” pep talk. We stood off to the side and watched their morning activities and then they introduced us to everyone. We all wanted to be on our best behavior. In Ghana it is an insult to use your left hand when interacting with people. It is considered your “dirty” hand. I was so afraid I’d make a mistake and wave or gesture with my left hand. I held on to the strap of my backpack so I would remember not to use it.

The headmistress introduced us to the staff and the children then sent us to work in the classrooms. I went with Carissa and Pablo to the special ed room. The classroom hadn’t been cleaned or set up since their break so we went to work. We swept with little brooms they’d made out of thick grass. There’s a lot of dust and dirt in the classrooms because they keep the windows open for ventilation. Most structures are left very open because of the heat and moisture. When we finished sweeping one of the kids brought in a bucket of water. We dumped it all over the floor and then used our brooms to sweep it back out the door. Then we cleaned the windows and unstacked the desks. It looked pretty good so I went into the next classroom with Ronai and Ellie. First we played games with the kids. After a time they started getting restless so I took a small group over to the corner to visit. My beautiful “U” girl was there and another little boy who loves to follow me around. He’s very possessive and gets mad when other kids have my attention. I’ve nicknamed him “mischief”. We learned the signs for table, sit down, how to count to 10 how to finger spell the alphabet and on and on. They are so eager to learn. After a great day in the classroom it was time to go, so we caught a taxi to mampong and went to get our hair braided. Rachel, Ronai, Ellie and I got in the first taxi. Curry told him where to go and we were off! When the driver stopped to let us out none of us could see a hair salon. We stood on the side of the road while the driver told Rachel how much the cab fare was. It was our first taxi ride on our own and Rachel was pretty sure this guy was trying to get more money from us than we owed. She stood her ground. Pretty soon a group of men had gathered around us but Rachel didn’t budge. She told them when our second taxi arrived our friend would straighten everything out. We waited for the other taxi but it didn’t come. We were getting frustrated and our driver was getting mad. After, what seemed like 10 minutes of haggling, Rachel finally just paid the man and he went off, leaving us on the side of the road with no hair salon in sight. I have to say, for those few minutes, I felt more than a little intimidated. I was proud of Ray.

No sooner had our taxi left when Curry pulled up in another taxi looking for us. We’d been dropped off too far and he’d come to find us. As we walked back toward the salon we had to pass what we decided was the town drunk. He kept yelling at us for money. Curry is really protective of our group and is always making sure everyone is safe. He told us to keep walking and got behind us so the man could not bother us. Perhaps it was the heat, but our little adventure became comical. We couldn’t stop laughing.

When we arrived at the salon we decided what kind of hair style we wanted. I didn’t want any extensions added to my hair so I was the first to go and was done pretty quickly. Aaron, Curry and I caught a taxi back to the courtyard while the others continued to get their hair done. We cleaned up, had a snack and headed to the wood carving district in Aburri. Our taxi was half full so I had to sit on Curry’s lap. Poor guy. The roads in Ghana are a never ending line of speed bumps and potholes and driving them with someone on your lap could not have been fun.

The wood district is a street lined with shops filled with wood carvings of elephants, African masks, naked women, families, you name it…they have it. And if they don’t have it they will make it for you. I asked Sammy (one of the woodworkers) to make me a mother with three boys. He told me he’d have it ready in a few days. We looked around a while longer and Curry taught me how to haggle. The 3 of us had a great time.

We went back to the Courtyard to find Ronai and Carissa still hadn’t come home from getting their hair done so we decided to go back to the school and play with the kids. They were getting ready for dinner so we didn’t get to stay long. While we were there we met a master carpenter who was deaf and who had been hired by the school to build some furntiure for Dora (a woman who works at Demo Deaf). His work was beautiful! He made 2 chairs and a large sofa. Each piece took him 1 day. He was so proud to show us his work. It was one of those small but good moments.

We went home to have our own dinner. Ronai and Carissa still weren’t there. Curry decided to go into town and make sure they were alright. The rest of us sat down to dinner (plantains, a vegetable sauce and sausage). I ate the plantain and vegetable sauce, but there was no way I was going to eat the sausage. They looked more like american hot dogs that had been left out for a while. After playing musical chairs with the sausage we had another night of good conversation. A few hours later our friends still hadn’t arrived. We were getting really nervous but we didn’t want Ellie to worry about her mom so we downplayed our own concerns and kept Ellie busy playing card games. Our hostess, Joyce left with Kofi (a gentleman who worked at the Courtyard) to go look for our friends. At 9:30 Carissa, Ronai and Curry finally came home. It took them 8 hours to get their hair done. They were cranky and hungry and no one could blame them. I crashed in Leah’s room.

January 17, 2012 I’ve Been Wearing the Same Dress for 4 Days

Woke up early this morning again to work with the kids at Demo Deaf. I have been in the same dress for 4 days. The kids only have a few uniforms and we were advised to wear the same thing or they would think we were wealthy (which creates problems). I think I’ll wear a new outfit tomorrow because the dress I’ve been wearing is filthy. It has chocolate fan ice on it, orange juice, dust and more sweat than I should probably admitt. After we got up we all met for breakfast. Our beautiful hostess, Joyce serves us breakfast every morning. I love the chocolate Milo they drink down here. It’s like a chocolate nutrition drink we have every morning.

The road to mampong has become very familiar to us. We walked up it again to the school and went straight to the classrooms. Today we worked on some basics…colors, the alphabet and numbers. The kids are amazing! Some of their stories are so sad. Ghana places no value on its deaf community. My little girl (the one we only know as U) always looks so lonely and scared. She lights up when she sees me and she stays right by my side. I adore her and I can only imagine what it must be like to be dropped off at a school of strangers with no language to communicate. A little boy kissed my hand today and held it to his face. I nearly cried.

The teacher for the class I’m working in is named Hannah. She is adorable and spunky! She is hearing but can sign very well and you can tell she loves the kids. She is always happy and she encourages them. I think, if we were here longer, she and I would be good friends. When it’s break time we have to leave. If we didin’t the kids would just stay with us and they need to get out and play. Curry took us to meet Mr. Armoir (not sure if I’m spelling his name right). He taught at Demo deaf for 17 years and he is a very up-beat man. When he shook our hands he smacked them so hard mine actually throbbed for a while after. Curry had a meeting with him so the rest of us went back to the school for another half hour to work with the kids after their break. I showed my class a picture of me and my boys. They laughed at my little white kids. I don’t know if any of them have ever seen white children before…and my boys are quite fair. Blonde hair, blue and green eyes; the kids nearly tore the photo trying to get a look at them.

When our time was up we walked back to the Courtyard and had lunch; Pro-bars and beef jerky (Thank You Pro-Bar for sending us with all of those wonderful bars. You kept us properly fed). Curry got back from his meeting and we loaded up into a tro-tro to head to the market in Koforidua. Another 1 hour ride in the tro-tro! I actually don’t mind the drives. The scenery is gorgeous and we usually wind up laughing pretty hard at each other. We have a good group. We are all so different but we respect each other and the struggles we’ve all been through that have brought us here. Curry decided to send us out on a mission. We had to buy supplies for the kids we sponsored so he split us into three groups and gave each group a list of items we had to buy. Our list had things like spoons, Milo (that chocolate nutrition drink) maxi pads, toothpaste, pomade for their skin, soap to wash their clothes, soap to wash them and a spicy sauce they put on their food called shito. We kept trying to pronounce it in a way that wouldn’t sound so naughty, but Curry told us the way it looks is the way it’s pronounced. SHIT-O! I couldn’t say it without laughing (sometimes I really am just a 5 year old little girl). Curry gave us money, taught everyone how to bargain and set us loose. We bought a ton of stuff for our kids, loaded it all into the back of the tro-tro and took off to wander through the market. The market is a never-ending maze of tiny shops filled with everything you can imagine (and a few things you don’t want to imagine). We walked past a man cooking some sort of meat on a grill. Carissa turned to me and said in a frantic whisper, “Monkey fingers! Monkey fingers! That meat has fingernails on it.”

We walked around for a little while and headed back to the tro-tro. A few of us split up on the way back. Ronai and I went to buy some fabric she had seen earlier. On our way there a group of ladies saw us walk by and shouted “Obruni!” (white person). In unison we shouted back, “Obibini!” (black person). They laughed hysterically. We stopped, chatted and took pictures with them. Racism doesn’t seem to exist here. Or, if it does…I haven’t seen it. I grew up in a very politically correct place…Southern California. It’s exhausting. Here in Ghana, it isn’t like that. There isn’t animosity or anger and when someone shouts “Obruni” they’re just shouting because they don’t see it often. It’s kind of endearing, at least that’s how I choose to see it.

Ronai and I ran into Curry and went to buy more water and oranges. This time I figured out how to get all the juice out of the orange without making a mess. We found the rest of our group, loaded up and headed home. It seemed like a long loud ride but it was fun. A soldier flagged our tro-tro over to hitch a ride. He climbed in with his giant gun and we went on our way. I think Pablo was trying to secretly snap a picture. The soldier was very polite and a few minutes up the road we dropped him off again.

When we arrived back at the courtyard we were all starving! We unloaded the things we bought for the kids and came down to dinner. Dinner was fried rice with a sweet Chili sauce, fried chicken and an Orange Fanta. We asked for seconds. Joyce was so happy!

After dinner Joyce took us to a store down the road that sold fabric. Joyce had the local Methodist preacher’s wife open the shop for us. After we selected our fabrics we walked back to the courtyard and they brought a seamstress up to measure us for dresses. The preacher’s wife came up too. She turned out to be an English and Twi teacher. She helped us with our pronunciation and gave us some Twi words to practice because I told her when I come home I have to talk to my son’s class about what I learned in Africa. Everyone has been so accommodating and wonderful. The people are amazing and it’s been another adventure-filled day. I’m ready for bed, but I can’t wait for tomorrow.

January 18, 2012 Lots to experience and learn today in Ghana

Started off today with another early morning and breakfast (I’d like to thank Pablo for eating my eggs every morning) then off to the school. The morning traffic is fast and crazy and every time a car passes you get honked at (either to let you know there’s a taxi coming if you need a ride or just to make you aware they’re coming and they’re not stopping…so stay out of the street!) We sat through the kid’s morning devotional. A young man who studied religion preached to the children (in Sign language of course). He was eloquent. At least that’s how Carissa made it sound as she interpreted for me. He taught the kids how to pray and how to be respectful and good. When he finished we went to our classes to teach. Ronai and I went back to Miss Hannah’s class. My girl (the one we call U) found me and hugged me to death; all the kids do EVERY day. They are energetic bundles of love. We found out from Miss Hannah that “U’s” real name is Theresa, signed with a T at your chest. She’s just starting to learn and misunderstood her sign. She learned a lot today. Ronai and I drew pictures on the board of fruits and veggies and taught the kids the signs for them. They were so excited! Theresa tried to get me to do her work for her by sticking out her lower lip and making a sad face. It totally melts me but I showed her how to do her pictures and let her do the rest. She did fine but she’s a little perfectionist. She seemed mad that her pictures didn’t look like mine.

Rachel had the brilliant idea to label everything in the special ed class so the kids could see how everything has a name and a sign. Curry went out, bought paper, glue and markers and we all went to work. WINDOW…FAN…CHAIR…DESK…DOOR…FLOOR…CEILING…BUCKET…CRAYONS…TABLE…WALL. We labeled everything we could find in the classroom and then we worked with each of the kids to help them understand. Rachel started it out. “My name is R-A-C-H-E-L. My sign is this…(and she showed her sign name). Everything has a name and a sign. Then she would finger spell D-E-S-K and then she would show them the sign. It was an incredible morning! We each took a child and individually went over the things we had labeled in the class. Miss Hannah decided she wanted us to label in her class too so we went to work next door. As soon as a teacher would see what we were doing they’d ask us if we could do it in their classroom, too. We didn’t have enough time to finish all of them so we told them we’d come back the next day.

After we had lunch back at the courtyard (Probars) we all split up and went to do different things. Carissa, Rachel and Aaron went to the dressmaker (we all couldn’t get our done by the same dress maker because she wouldn’t be able to get everything done by the time we had to leave) and the rest of us went to Aburi to buy more wood carvings. I’ve become a pretty good haggler. I bought presents for all my boys. I bought a carved Mancala game for Cameron, a carved hippo for Ethan, a drum and a tiny wooden elephant family for Chad and a bunch of necklaces and bracelets for them as well and I did it all by myself! Curry told us if you don’t haggle with them they don’t respect you. Well I am all about respect baby! I was starting to feel pretty local!

We left the wood district in shifts. The Coleman’s stayed behind and the rest of us headed to the taxi area in Aburi. On our way there, Curry bought us all coconuts. The man cracks it open, lets you drink the milk, and then cuts all the chunks into a bag for you. Mine wasn’t super fresh, but it was still a fun experience. I kept telling everyone, “If I get diarrhea…it was the coconuts.”

It’s a short taxi ride from Aburi to where the courtyard is in Tutu. Everyone wanted some down time so those who wanted to rest stayed at the Courtyard while Curry, Ray, Ronai and I went for a walk into town. We ran into a woman Curry knew named Cynthia. She owned her own restaurant and catering business and she let us walk down to her home and meet her family. I chased her kids around their bright pink house and then we walked down to the water source behind the house. It looks like an underground spring that just bubbles up. They scoop the water into their buckets and carry them up the hill on their heads. When we got home the power was off so Joyce was lighting lanterns and candles all over the house. Curry had arranged for us to have a dinner guest; Samuel Asare who was the past president of the Ghanaian National Association for the Deaf. The moment he came to our table I was taken with him. I couldn’t understand what he was saying until Curry started interpreting but I had to try not to stare at him. He had a sweet face and a twinkle about him that I found whimsical. I wished I could better communicate with him because I was fascinated. I couldn’t get over his grin. We had a wonderful meal (chicken and rice…you stick with what’s safe) and then Samuel told us his story in American Sign Language. He was 10 years old when he lost his hearing. He chose to persue an education and became an advocate for the hearing impaired. He told us about the deaf culture in Ghana and how they struggle for support. It was an eye-opening and wonderful evening. I was grateful. We stayed up late visiting, laughing and joking around and then I CRASHED!

January 19, 2012 To the Cape Coast!

This morning was wonderful. We walked up to the school and finished labeling all of the rooms while Rachel got her hair done at the hair academy on campus. I stopped in to see how it was going and she seemed to be having a good conversation with the teachers about the differences in deaf communities in the U.S. versus Ghana. I think it was eye opening for them.

Curry had me teach our class for a few minutes today. At first I felt really intimidated and was worried I wouldn’t be able to communicate well enough with the kids, but once I got into a rhythm it felt good. I can see the kids are learning and I’m learning, with them. It was a pretty great day at school.

We were supposed to leave at noon for the Cape Coast but Rachel’s hair took longer than we anticipated. It looked fantastic! They did a really good job, but we ended up leaving late. It was the 6 hour drive from hell with 11 people crammed into a un-air conditioned tro-tro. We drove through villages and cities; markets crammed with hundreds of people. When cars are stopped here people flock to the windows trying to sell you whatever they have. You can buy water, plantain chips, souvenirs, and that’s just a little sampling. It’s like having your own private store at every stop light.

Most of the smells here are pretty obnoxious and the smell of diesel and dust and burning trash clung to our clothes and hair as it blew in through the open windows. We were able to keep our spirits high while laughing at our driver, Emmanuel’s dirty music. We’d finally convince Ellie and Leah that one of the songs was really about oral hygiene. Good grief!

We were all pretty grateful to arrive at the boatel. It’s a hotel built by a crock pond. We got there late that night so we couldn’t see anything. We did pass a sign that read, “ATTENTION! The management takes no responsibility for accidents. Parents are advised to monitor their children.” Well, that put me on my toes!

We ate at the boatel restaurant which is built out over the croc pond. Most of us ordered spaghetti and french fries (I was so grateful for some familiar food). Leah and I took our malaria pills before our food arrived. I managed to keep mine down but Leah ended up feeding the crocodiles. Carissa was so excited about taking a paddle boat out on the croc pond she was practically dancing in her chair. I told her I’d get up early and go for a ride with her. I couldn’t’ go back home and tell my boys I didn’t go for a ride in the croc pond.

We were all exhausted after the long tro-tro ride so we headed back to our rooms. They were…interesting. There were mouse pellets on our bed and Ronai and Ellie’s room also had bugs all over the shower floor. I unpacked the sheet I’d brought from home and put it on top of the bed. Honestly…I expected worse. There wasn’t any hot water but I was filthy so I took a cold shower. As soon as I turned off the water the power went out so I stumbled out of the bathroom naked while Ray and I tried to find our flashlights. Luckily Rachel and I were roommates that night because I was still in the buff when the power came back on. We chatted for a bit and wrote in our journals before nodding off to sleep.

Juanuary 20, 2012 Rainforest Canopies, Slave Castles and Crocodiles

I was awakened by the sound of Carissa singing outside my door. “Jen….Crocodiiiiiiiiiiiles!” It was the happiest she’d sounded the entire trip. I put my clothes on, packed up my things and went down to the tro-tro. I threw my stuff in the back and headed to the restaurant for breakfast. We took pictures until Curry came down, ate breakfast out over the pond and then Carissa, Pablo, Ronai and I went out to the paddleboat to go for a ride on the croc pond. As we were sneaking out to the boat, (hoping no crocs were nearby) our guide, Don Kwa came up behind me and tried to make me think he was throwing me in. Nearly peed my pants.

The pond was beautiful and we laughed and joked the entire time about being stupid obrunis in a croc pond. While we were out on the pond, 2 crocodiles got angry in the water and we were up close. I think I got it on Ronai’s camera. After our little adventure we loaded up into the tro-tro and headed to the canopy walk. It’s a short hike up to the rope bridge and it’s so green and lush. Their lush is a different kind of lush than we have in America. Picture the Jungle Book but real. We sat at the front of the bridge and waited for our turn. Curry told us the bridge was built by the British but maintained by Ghanaians. Let me interject here just for a minute. Most structures in the Ghanaian suburbs look like they were built by children (I said most…not all). The shops look like a group of kids got together and said, “Let’s built a fort!” The entire country is jimmy-rigged. People fix cars with tape (oddly enough it works). Now…back to the rope bridge. I was the first to go out on the canopy walk. Whatever fear I had before walking out melted away pretty quickly. It was breathtaking. You’re 130 feet up in the air looking down on a very green world. I noticed tons of butterflies and we all took turns taking pictures of each other. On our way down our guide told us they’d found a spitting cobra on the trail eating a mouse and showed us exactly where they’d found it. I looked down at my very light-weight, mesh shoes (Do you think a cobra could bite through that?…..YES). When we got back down to the start of the trail we looked through the gift shop for a while and then boarded the tro-tro for our next stop…the slave castle. It was a bit of a drive before we got there and we stopped to exchange some currency but once we arrived I was surprised. It didn’t look at all how I’d expected. It was pure white and looked more like a military fort than a slave castle (whatever a slave castle looks like). I just imagined something different. This part of the trip was probably the most difficult for me. It was a dark and somber place. However shining white it was on the outside it was equally dark on the inside. They took us into a dungeon where the slaves were herded and kept. There was almost no light; just three small windows at the top of a very high wall. It was the most hopeless place I’ve ever been. The smell inside was so unpleasant and it was explained to us that feces and urine had been piled so high for so long inside that the limestone floors had soaked it up and you could still smell it all these years later. We saw the tunnel of no return, which they’ve bricked over to symbolize the end of slavery. It’s where the slaves would be marched through on their way to be sold and taken to the Americas. I felt disheartened after the visit. I felt sad for all the life that was wasted. We discussed the contrast between our experiences that day and the importance of visiting the castle. Yes, it was unpleasant but I think it was a necessary stop. We loaded into the tro-tro and drove back to the courtyard and our beloved Joyce. We had chicken and rice which Joyce made for us on her own, then we stayed up laughing about words people don’t like to hear. Curry’s words cracked everyone up and we spent the rest of the trip trying to fit them in whenever possible. Let me just say this…”I prefer a moist cake to a dry cake.”

January 21, 2012 Back to Mampong, Ghana

It was our first morning to sleep in so of course we were all awakened at the crack of dawn by a chainsaw. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening and sleep through the noise but it was no use. I was trying to slip quietly into the bathroom when Rachel said, “I’m up!” I responded with, “How could you not be?” I think one of our grounds crew was using it in the backyard. Don’t worry about the roosters crowing at all hours of the night and day, (did I mention how there are chickens roaming all over the place in suburban Ghana?) I can sleep through the chickens…I’ve got that part down. It’s the chainsaw you’ve got to be ready for.

Part of the group just wanted to relax, but I wanted to see and experience everything I could while I was in Ghana so Ellie, Ronai, Curry and I decided to go on an adventure. We walked to the Cocoa Farm. Being a chocolate connoisseur, it was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Our guide showed us how the trees grow, how the fruit are harvested and how they ferment the seeds to turn them into chocolate. I got to suck on a cocoa seed before it was fermented and I got to eat one after it was fermented. There is a very distinct chocolate aroma. It’s crazy to see where it comes from. Ghana ferments all of its cocoa naturally in the sun under palm leaves, which is why it’s one of the more expensive chocolates. As we were leaving our guide asked if he could facebook me. How on earth does everyone here have a facebook account? I swear I’ve been asked 5 times! Most people don’t have running water, but they can all facebook!

We decided to walk through Mampong and go see our new friend Cynthia (the lady who owns the restaurant and the pink house). She taught us how to make a Ghanaian staple called Fufu. It’s a casaba root that has been pounded and pounded and pounded into a bread dough-like substance. We all tried our hand at pounding the Fufu. Cynthia and her helpers just laughed at us. Fortunately, Curry talked her into only preparing one bowl for us because I didn’t really love it (and that’s being polite). It’s like eating raw dough in a fish oil soup. I was really struggling to get it down but Cynthia had been so sweet to make it for us and show us how it’s made that we all tried to keep eating it for her. She sat there watching us take each bite. You eat it by pinching a piece of fufu off between your fingers and sopping up as much of the fish soup with it as you can. I kept thinking, “Heaven help me. Please make this bowl magically empty.” Then Curry (bless his heart) stepped in and told Cynthia that we had all just eaten lunch and were full. We thanked her for the cooking lesson and food and tried to pay her but she wouldn’t accept it. She invited us back the next day for some of her famous fried rice. We settled on 1:00 and left. I adore her.

(You’’ll have to forgive me for the next part of my entry. I went a few days without writing and could remember everything we’d done but not in the right order. So here are pieces of what we did in random order). We went back down to Cynthia’s house and walked down to the water source behind her house. Cynthia showed us how to carry buckets of water on our head. It is REALLY hard! Then she showed us all the different types of fruit that grew nearby. There was the casaba root, banana trees, coconuts, palm seeds (for palm oil), it was amazing and it was all down by the water hole. Then Cynthia walked on some back roads with us for a bit. We happened upon the headmistress of Demo Deaf at her family home. She told us she was picking up her mother to take her to visit her brother who was in the hospital. We told her we’d pray for him and continued on our way. We decided to stop at the school for a bit. I always have to see my girl, Theresa. She seems like she’s getting more comfortable at the school and she’s starting to hold her own. She’s already learned so many signs it blows me away and it makes me feel so good about being here. While at the school Rachel, Aaron and I decided to walk over to the classrooms and see how our labeling was holding up. I saw a little boy laying in the dirt by himself. I walked by him and when I came back he’d moved to the concrete. His little body was covered in dirt and he was just laying on the hard ground. I crouched down next to him and stroked his little arm. He just looked at me and then I felt his forehead. He was burning up. I lost all of my composure and started bawling. I sat there with this little boy just stroking his head and crying. I thought of my boys at home and all that I do for them when they’re not feeling well and I could not hold it in. Even now, just writing about it I’m WEEPING. Carissa came by and saw me bawling with this little boy. She scooped him up and took him to Curry while I tried to gain some composure. The kids kept asking me why I was crying and if I was OK. Ronai told them I felt bad for the little boy who was sick. No matter what I tried I could NOT stop crying. I finally left because I didn’t want to worry the kids.

At some point we went back to the wood district in Aburi to pick up all of the pieces we’d ordered. It was hotter than hell and we all dripping sweat (not that we hadn’t sweat everyday already, but today was exceptionally hot). Curry’s friend, Sammy had carved a mother with her arms around her three children for me and a nativity scene. They were exquisite and I was extremely please with them. We had a good time in Aburi and Curry and I spent a ton of time talking about life and everything in it. We’ve become good friends and I’m so grateful for him and what he does with his foundation.

On our way back to the taxi area we stopped to say hello to Sammy’s wife, Olivia. She’s due to have a baby any day now. Her boys were sleeping on a mat on the ground. Life is so simple here…and I mean that in a very good way.

We had more chicken and rice for dinner and then had a hilarious sing-along in the common room. There was a lot of Lionel Richie and songs from our driver Emmanuel’s playlist. “My endless love” and “I need an African man” seemed to keep popping up.

January 22, 2012 It’s sunday…Hallelujah! Ghana style

Sunday morning. A few of us decided to go exploring. Curry, Ronai and I walked up behind the courtyard where one of the staff took us back and showed us their pigs. We also saw some brand new puppies from one of their dogs. They were so tiny and sweet. After a few minutes we decided to head back to the courtyard so Curry could visit with his friend Marco. Ronai and I could hear singing coming from a nearby church so we decided to go take a look. Off we went to explore the back trails of Tutu. As we headed down a trail with tall grass on both sides of it, Ronai tuned to me and said, “Look at us…just two obrunis walking down this trail by ourselves on a new adventure.” We laughed about how intimidated we were those first few days and how far we’d come. Little did we know what was coming next.

Our trail opened up into a clearing and we could finally see where the music was coming from. It was a tiny open-air church. All of the children sat on the steps of an adjacent building. As soon as they saw us they started smiling and waving, “Obruni!” We knelt down and said hello to them before we continued on up to the church. We looked through the open walls at the small congregation listening to 4 singers, a drummer and a keyboard at a very high volume. One woman waved us inside so we entered and sat with them. They had tambourines and were dancing along to the music. It was a beautiful sight! We swayed through quite a few songs and even more “amens” before we decided we should head back to our group. We politely left between songs until the preacher followed us out and told us they were going to sing a song just for us. We told him we couldn’t stay long because our friends were waiting but we’d love to hear their song. We went back in and the entire congregation stood for us while they sang. It was loud and boisterous and the preacher came over and started dancing with us. We were dancing and laughing and trying to keep up with the preachers moves while dripping sweat. I looked up and saw one of the congregants recording us with his camera phone. I thought, “This will wind up on Youtube for sure.” When the song ended the preacher invited another man to come up and pray for us. They asked us to hold hands and raise our free hand in the air. He asked us our names (Ronai and Jennifer) and started the loveliest prayer on our behalf. In the prayer he said, “We ask you to bless Jennifer and her friend (long pause) whose name is so powerful it cannot be spoken.” At that point Ronai squeezed my hand. We were trying not to laugh. Then he continued and said the most beautiful prayer. He asked that everything we touched would be blessed and that our reasons for being in Ghana would be successful. We sat there holding hands while this little group of strangers prayed for us. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for everything; the people we’d met and the friends we’d made the beautiful children and the school, the sights, the laughter, the tears and for all of our blessing back at home. It was a brilliant moment.

After the preacher tried several times to get our facebook and E-mail addresses we walked home giggling like little girls about our experience. When we got back to the Courtyard Marco and his wife were there. We all sat and visited for a while and everyone laughed about our morning adventure. Then Marco, Leah, Ellie, Ronai, Aaron, Curry and I went for a walk way on the back roads of Tutu and Mampong. It was a beautiful day but I really had to pee. I was about to squat in a bush but Marco took me to the home a family he knew. They let me into their home to use the bathroom. They were humble and sweet and so very welcoming. Their house looked like it was crumbling inside and the floors were covered with dirt. I was led to a small room that was tiled like a shower but there was no shower head…just a small drain in the floor. I aimed the best that any girl could but it still wasn’t good enough (and that is all I’m going to say about that). All I could think of was how much we have back in the states. I thanked the family as I watched them scrub their clothes in buckets outside and we continued on our way. We passed some bright pink bouganvilla growing near a small house and then we found ourselves back at the cocoa farm. We took pictures at a beautiful, crumbling structure and of some people we met along the way. Then we made our way back to Cynthia’s for lunch. This time she showed us how to make fried plantains. Then she brought us plates of fried chicken, fried rice and fried plantains. It was delicious and Aaron said the plantain should have ice cream on it, so Ronai went down the street and found some fan ice (ice cream in a pouch). It was like a Ghanaian version of apple pie a la mode. Cynthia refused any money…again! She was so sweet and good to us. I will miss her.

After lunch we walked back to the school and played with the kids until Carissa came and told us that our dresses were ready. Ronai, Ellie and I double-timed it back to the courtyard where we found our seamstress waiting for us on the porch. We were dripping sweat but we ran upstairs and put on our dresses. They were gorgeous. We went downstairs to model them and our seamstress tied up our hair in matching fabric and showed us how to tie extra fabric around our waist. We took a lot of pictures and then ran upstairs to change. Ronai and Ellie headed back to the school and I tried to pack up a few things. I sure do miss my boys, but I don’t feel ready to leave.

After another dinner of chicken and rice, Joyce, Ronai, Curry and I walked back into town for more fabric. Ronai and I managed to find some shorter pieces of batik fabric to buy for quilts. We chatted with a few people in town and then we bought sodas and walked back home.

January 23, 2012 Our last day in Ghana

Curry woke Aaron, Rachel, Leah and I up early and we took a taxi back to Koforidua to visit the school for the deaf there. The schools are different in that our school is more academic based and the one in Koforidua is more trade based. A few of the girls showed us how they make batik fabrics. It’s a long involved process where they melt wax and make designs on the fabric with it. Then they dip the fabric into a dye and wash out the wax. They keep doing this process until they have the colors and designs they want and their finished product is breathtaking. We went through all of their fabric and hand selected our favorites to bring home and make quilts. (By the way…the quilts I’m making will be auctioned off and all proceeds will go toward the funds I’ve committed to raise. So stay tuned).

We also were shown the leatherworking area. They teach the kids how to make sandals, belts, wallets, etc. I was so unimpressed with the quality of their work. I know their doing the best they can with very limited resources, but my very first job was in a custom leather shop. I can cut, tool, stain and properly condition leather. I do NOT profess to be an expert leather worker, but I wanted to sit down and show them a few things. I wanted to see their tools and their process from start to finish. I had to stop myself from being critical. I don’t know the quality and cost of leather in Ghana. I don’t know what their budget is or what the weather does to leather there but I really wanted to help. Despite that, it was a great visit. We got more smiles and hugs from the kids and had a nice visit with their headmaster. We learned that the sewing department was able to buy a new serger with the money they made from Curry’s last batik fabric purchase (that made me feel really good about the amount of fabric we left with).

We drove back home and decided to go to Cynthia’s for one last round of fried plantain and fan ice. This time she let us pay. While we sat there we visited with two teachers who were having lunch. We told them why we were there and we talked about some of the cultural differences between Americans and Ghanaians. Rachel told them about Leah being born deaf and Lucy having spina bifida and cerebral palsy. She told them that the only thing Lucy can’t do is walk. One of the teachers said, “In America you raise those with physical limitations up, here we do not.” It was as interesting and eye-opening conversation for both parties and I really enjoyed meeting them. I also made good friends with a little boy who lived behind Cynthia’s restaurant. He was very shy and wouldn’t smile, but he wanted me to sit with him. If I got up from the bench we were sitting on he’d come over by me and say, “Obruni!” Then I would go back and sit with him. He was adorable. We thanked Cynthia again and headed to the school to say our last goodbyes. It was difficult for me. My little Theresa was there…cute, little Clifford…Beautiful Bernice and so many others I can’t name them all. I cried again. Then we went back to the Courtyard, packed up the rest of our things, said our goodbyes to Joyce (I left the picture of my family with her) and loaded back up into the tro-tro for the last time. We flew from Accra to Amsterdam to New York to Salt Lake City. Those of us from Utah logged 27 hours of travel time.

It was so good to see my boys. I had really missed them but I’d go back in a heartbeat. I think next time I’ll take my oldest son, Cameron with me. I’d better get us enrolled in some ASL classes.

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