This year the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office sent three office members, UU-UNO Envoy Coordinator Kamila Jacob, New York University Social Work Intern Jacklyn Booth, and Fordham University Social Work Intern Anida Fregjaj to Ghana for the annual Every Child is Our Child Program Site Visit. This site visit was a unique opportunity for staff and interns to engage the community at different levels, to learn from the experiences of community leaders, families and children, and to bring these stories home. Following is the beginning of a collaboratively written diary of the experience. Read more about the relationships strengthened and built, the challenges that exist in the communities and the lessons brought back to share by clicking on each day below.
The car ride from Accra to Odumase, where the Every Child is Our Child (ECOC) program is located, provided the first opportunity for us to observe our surroundings. As we moved from the urban region to more rural spaces, the potholes began to act as streetlights. Slowly, the poverty became more apparent and we were struck by the socio-economic disparity surrounding us as we drove through the landscape. A huge walled-in mansion on one-side of the road, what seemed to be a pile of aluminum and clay rubbish (but was actually a home) on the other. And yet, the marketing and display of the shops alongside the roads was impressive; it was easily accessible, organized, and aesthetically pleasing. Again our eyes traveled to the half completed construction sites, some looking abandoned (with plant life starting to take over) while others sheltered families. We couldn’t wait to start our journey in Odumase.
Our day by day diary:
Saturday, April 13, 2013 continued…
As we observed the environment around us, we spoke with Joseph and learned more about him and his life growing up in Ghana. He patiently took time to teach us Krobo words. (Abroni – Foreigner, Onye Samina– How are you?, Mohey/Nyehey – Hello to one person/Hello to a group, response: aaa, Akwaaba – Twi for You are welcome, Mochumu – Thank you. We also learned a couple of Ewe words). When we arrived in Odumase we went directly to meet Manye Esther and shared with her messages that were sent with us from the U.S.
At her compound we met two of Manye’s children, Emanuel and Benjamin, who joined us as we ate delicious sweet bread, tea, juice, and water. We also met Hanna, Stella, and Alberta, who live and work at the compound, and contribute to the daily activities. Alberta told us how she likes school and is looking forward to graduating and traveling. She showed us the wonderful handmade batik (which Stella taught us to make!) tie-n-dye fabric, bags, shawls and the colorful hand-painted Krobo beads. After leaving Manye’s compound we met with the Paramount Queen Mother and then drove to the office of the Krobo Queen Mother’s Association, where the Queen Mother representing each community in the Krobo District had come to meet us. “You are welcome here”, they said as they greeted each of us. They demonstrated soap making for us and shared some of their personal stories, appealing to us to help them find markets for their products. They also shared with us some of the challenges and successes they see daily in their communities. Slowly we began to understand the intricacy of the Queen Mothers Association, a structured system of strong women uniting to engage in active community work. It was a wonderful way to begin understanding this beautiful culture and the way in which the community lives.
We ended our day meeting Charlotte (ECOC program monitor) and a large group of the ECOC children. In a park at one of the schools, we had a short talk about the importance of school attendance and gained some insight into what the children envision for their futures. We played football (soccer), Ampe, skipped rope, danced, colored and talked.
By the end of the day we were all hot, hungry and thirsty. It resonated with us that if this were our everyday experience we would not be able to function at optimal capacity, and for many people in this community this IS the everyday reality. Yet still they are strong and they thrive.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
This morning, we went to an English church service. After the sermon, we were invited up to the sanctuary to introduce ourselves and the Unitarian Universalist UN Office. We were honored and expressed our deep appreciation for the Odumase community in welcoming with open hearts and open minds. We spent the second half of the day visiting families in each of the three communities. We were a small delegation so, although there were formalities, we were able to engage with families on a more personal level. Charlotte and Manye Makustu, who we met the day before, acted as guides and translators as we went from one community to another. We presented each family with a large bag of rice and a bottle of oil as of a token of our appreciation for sharing their time and stories with us. As we traveled between communities, we were amazed at the diversity of the culture and resources used to make ends meet. In the first community, Asitey, the houses were made of blocks with aluminum roofs. The community members cannot depend on the dry earth surrounding the village to survive. The caregivers spoke of supporting others who were selling goods, and receiving a small percentage of the profits. We spoke with a young boy in one family who wants to be a pilot. In another family a young girl who lives with her grandparents shared her dream of becoming a nurse. Her grandfather’s recent stroke has left the family living off of his small pension from his time working as a policeman. Okwenya, the second community, had very different housing structures: clay walls with straw roofs. Okwenya is located near a river, where we saw girls washing their families’ clothes while the boys swam and played. A mother and grandmother shared some of their challenges as they sat on the ground making pots – the source of income for the families in Okwenya. The women pointed to the men who sat in the shade, explaining that the men contributed to the daily family life by “protecting” them. How they did this was unclear. The last village, Yokwenor, was the only community in which men were present at our family interviews. We spoke with a family who shared with us the challenges they have experienced raising a young boy with HIV and the hope they have for his wellbeing. We heard many dreams and aspirations of the children and community members during the interviews. What is the journey for them to achieve their goals? What is the reality of these dreams being fulfilled without support for education and economic empowerment? The evening ended with a visit from a young man, Tetteh Noah, who has completed the ECOC program and is in the process of taking his final exams for secondary school. We were touched by his mental strength and perseverance in his studies even though he does not have all the tools he needs for school and he goes to sleep hungry many nights. We were inspired by his journey of success and after seeing so much poverty and struggle for daily survival throughout the day, it brings hope to see that with the right tools and support it is possible to accomplish one’s dreams!
Monday, April 15, 2013
Today we visited each school. It was interesting to match the school with village that we visited the day before. The first school was Yokwenor, were we spoke at length with the Headmaster about the challenges of the girls and the possibility of beginning health clubs to provide guidance for the many young women who want to be nurses. In the second school, Asitey, we spent more time speaking to the teachers than interacting with the children. We learned about what resources are needed to improve education quality. We also learned that Asitey is the only school that has a feeding program. One of the classrooms at this school is labeled as a “death trap”, while 40 feet away there is a half finished classroom. This classroom-in-construction is a government project that has been abandoned due to funding cuts and it is unknown when it will be completed. The final school, Okwenya provided a space for in-depth conversations with some of the older children. A few of the children are ready to graduate primary school and shared some of their aspirations with us, to be nurses, football (soccer) players, teachers, one boy wants to be a lawyer, and another an artist. We talked about the process for reaching these goals and what the children’s daily lives look like. One of the girls, Grace asked us to support her going to secondary school. She also expressed to us that she has her Social Studies exam next week, but she does not have a text book to study from. As we were leaving we were stopped by the teachers who expressed their thoughts about us visiting every year but not providing them with enough “motivation” for their hard work with the children. It is clear that there are multiple factors impacting the quality of education received in these schools. We ended the day visiting the Kpong Dam which sells usable energy to electric companies. We posed questions regarding resettlement of villagers to build the dam, the lack of women in the workplace, and the reliability of basing projects off of a map that was made in 1915. This was a useful opportunity to gather information from another sector of the community.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
We woke up early this morning and traveled out to Grace’s house to participate in her morning routine as she prepares for school. There are 11 children living in the home and all have their own role in helping the home and family to function. Grace wakes up at 4 am just to get everything done and get to school by 8 am, we helped her wash dishes, sweep the house, prepare the stove, and prepare breakfast for her siblings. We ended up driving her to school so she wouldn’t be late if walking 30 minutes to Yokwenor.
After dropping Grace off at school we traveled to the hospital where we met with the ECOC Board, the meeting included the Director of Health, a nurse, the Director of Education, the Social Worker and Manye Makustu. We learned about how the local health system operates, what services are provided, and what some of the most pressing health concerns are for the children in the surrounding communities. It was also raised that the Global Fund is going to cut funding for the hospitals program because Ghana is now considered a middle income country. This will have an impact on the whole community, resulting in less resources for the most marginalized groups. The issue of reproductive health and sexual education was also raised and although the Board described comprehensive services, that is not the same picture we gathered from our meetings at the schools and speaking to the communities. After the Board meeting Manye Makustu took us to visit the Chairman of the Feeding Program in the Mayor’s office.
We appealed to him to include Okwenya and Yokwenor on the list of schools to have feeding programs. It was sad to hear that of the 176 schools in Ghana only 16 have feeding programs currently, but we are hopeful that number will be increased by at least two! We will follow up with him when we return to the States. In the late afternoon we said goodbye to Manye Esther, thanking her for everything and gathering messages she requested we share with everyone upon our return to the States. Saying goodbye to Charlotte was one of the hardest and most emotional parts of this experience. We were able to conduct a quick filmed interview in the van with her before she left and it ended with all of us in tears. We are committed to make use of her amazing insight and dedication to the ECOC program.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
We woke up this morning in Accra, somber at the fact that the experience was coming to a close and that we wouldn’t be returning to Odumase. We had a wonderful interview at the Ghana Aids Commission this morning. It was interesting to understand the structure behind their strategic plan and to explore some of the gaps between the macro and micro level, gaps that we had clearly seen just days before. We went into depth about how the Ghana Aids Commission works at the country, regional, district, and local level. We all shared a more silent demeanor (almost an absence of energy) throughout the majority of the day as we reflected on our experiences. Throughout this site visit the three of us have had amazing debriefing conversations at night about the experience. Many issues have been exposed, at many levels. Issues of racism, gender issues, leadership qualities, formal and informal government structures, hunger, health, education, economic activities, religion, etc. Again we hope we can do justice to bringing many of these issues into our discussions and reports when we return home.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Today we leave with a strengthened resolve to bring the voices in the community back to the States. Our stakeholders and donors need to understand that they are not just sponsoring a “child”. This “child” has dreams, things that make her smile and things that make her sad, her name is Jessica, Grace, and Mercy. Each face has a story behind it. We hope sharing that story will be a strong enough step to move forward in continuing to grow and strengthen the ECOC program. The people we met and interacted with during our short stay had such a powerful impact on us all. There is much more that we must do to support this community.