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Thank you.

It’s difficult, after so many experiences, to find a fitting conclusion to my blog, but a conclusion must come. This evening I will be making the transition from the humid, hot air of Accra, to the controlled and conditioned air of the plane. It is a transition that I am looking forward to. Though four months isn’t the longest time I’ve been away from home, it certainly feels the longest, and now I can look back at such a huge range of experiences, emotions, and achievements, ready to go home.

The few experiences I have shared here in the past few months are there to inspire those of you who hesitate to travel, and to experience. It’s those experiences that make us grow, whether you do it on your own, with your friends, with your family, or with an organisation, try to experience as much as you can. In new experiences come new challenges and we are forced outside of our comfort zone. Don’t worry, I know It’s difficult.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you all for your comments and support in the last few months. It’s been an incredible 4 months in Africa that I’m not likely to forget. Thank you.

YSI – CPYWD 2011

I didn’t know how to express the gratitude I felt towards my host family and the CPYWD staff on the night before I was to leave them. I have received so much in this four month experience that any small gesture of thanks I give cannot come to compare. So, I decided to give them pineapples. I thought, if they taste these pineapples they will understand how sweet my time here in Tamale has been and I would like to share that sweetness with them.

Unfortunately, I am now experiencing the same dilemma in expressing how incredibly enriching these past four months have been for me. Each month brought with it its own character; its own challenges; and its own rewards, and as I sit here, at the end of the four months I can say “Wow, what an incredible experience!”

The last month has seen the arrival and departure of the YSI team 2011 here in Ghana. They were only around for two weeks, but I have to admit they were the hardest two weeks of my stay. I could see the fruits of my efforts. Some fruits were ripe and juicy, while others were sour, and unpleasant to taste, but each and every fruit left an after taste of experience and growth, and for that I’m grateful.

The project consisted of After School Programs, construction of the Discovery Centre (which YSI  had begun last year), forums with youth on character development, and a trip to Mole National Park. I’m sure you’ll be able to read a report from one of the team soon enough on the YSI Utrecht blog. As for my own experience, I felt a certain personal providence that I had to overcome as I fell sick on exactly the same day, with exactly the same sickness as the previous YSI Ghana project I attended in 2010. It was from that sickness one year ago that the idea was conceived to spend a longer time here. Following me, it was Christian and Hauke’s turn to be sick, and their sickness turned into a day in a hospital on the drip. Welcome to Africa!

As our program developed I came to understand some of the challenges faced when trying to organise things in Africa. You can set dates, make appointments, and schedule activities weeks in advance only to find that when you arrive there is nothing prepared. It’s these challenges that make you doubt, but through the forums on character education I learnt a very useful concept, the influence zone. As much as I may desire to control everything and influence everything, there are things I cannot influence, and rather than constantly frustrating myself in trying to control them I should focus on what I can influence. I should focus on what is in my influence zone, and not let what is outside bog me down.

I am currently in Accra, with only a few days left before my journey here in Ghana comes to a close. After all that I have experienced, I am happy. Almost three years ago I finished high school, with little to stand on. Since then I have travelled, opened my mind, and nurtured my dreams. Now, I stand on all of my experiences, and with this extra height I can see further.

…and the winner is!

So 7 days have passed. First of all, thank you for all those who voted. Overall we received 54 votes, and the winning picture is my personal favourite as well. In third place with five votes is picture number 9, second with six votes is picture number 16, and finally, with sixteen votes, I declare the winner as picture number 2!!! Wahay!! Big applause, big applause!

Help me choose!

This past week has seen some kind of transformation take place in me, I’m feeling…well, I’m feeling African. My English is taking on an African twist with sayings like  ‘small small’ and other African variations. These little changes in the language are becoming the first things coming to mind, and I’m increasingly accepting of the aspects that were most alien to me. The weather is something that doesn’t affect me as much as it used to, and as we’re preparing to welcome the next YSI team I am constantly reminded of the difference I feel now to the time I came with YSI almost exactly one year ago. When I came before I was afraid to go to a roadside store for fear of being ripped off. I judged everything from a perspective completely different from the perspective I have now. I look forward to exploring these concepts with the YSI guys. Nine days until they arrive.

Well this week I received an email from Service For Peace, an NGO I did a project with in Cote d’Ivoire. It’s National Volunteer Week in the US, and to celebrate it SFP are hosting a photography and short story competition. So I figured I’d send in a photo that I’ve shown here on the blog before, but I’m struggling to decide which one. So I’ve set up a little poll so you can vote for the picture you think I should send in, now considering it’s for an NGO about volunteering and service, when choosing which picture you’ll vote for, think about what the picture says, but whichever gets the most votes will be the one I send. You can have more than one vote if you can’t decide yourself. Happy voting, and enjoy my collection of photographs. I’ll announce the winner in 7 days.

Choose Your Favourite Picture, and use the poll to vote. Click for a larger version.

On Faith and Friendship

It’s always great to do some hard physical labour and feel satisfied when the task is complete. With sweat on my brow I can look upon the completed task with satisfaction. Today that task was cleaning the home YSI will use during their stay. It was a chance to bond with my fellow African brothers. My patience was tested as I was constantly told how I’m holding the broom wrong, or I’m sweeping the wrong way. I can already sense that when I leave this place the thing I will miss the most is the friendship I have made to some people here, the CPYWD staff and my host family. Friendship is an understatement, as for some I’m beginning to look up to them as uncles, aunts and brothers and sisters.

The relationships I have made have been strengthened by one thing which ties us all together very strongly, and that is faith. Ghanaians, particularly those who I am interacting with the most, are very religious, and I often hear songs of praise being sung around the house, and television shows with preaching and passages of scripture. It’s amazing that faith is so alive here, and when people are free to share their faith, they are free to interact on a deeper level. It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve learnt that there is a lot of respect to be gained when one shares that deeper aspect of  oneself. I remember when I was on a bus with my good friend Patrick Hanna in London. We were having a conversation about God in this bus, without thought of who could hear us, and as we talked a lady in front was turning occasionally to see our faces. Finally, when we arrived at her stop, she turned and said, ‘It’s great to hear young people talking about God like that!’.

My time with the children will also be something I will miss. Sometimes they can be little monsters crowding around you, making the air hot and stuffy and difficult to breath, but other times they make me laugh and make me smile. Anyway, still plenty of time left to enjoy everything, and I hope that all of you can feel connected; through these photos and through these words.

The Half Way Hump

I typed ‘Weather in Tamale’ into google today, and just laughed as it said 43 degrees C. We are now at the hottest time of the year, and it seems that every task produces bucket loads of sweat. I’m grateful that after two months, I’ve discovered that the fan in my room has 5 speed settings instead of just 3, and also grateful that the mangos growing on the trees around me are beginning to ripen. I heard money doesn’t grow on trees, but when you peel open the skin of a mango, and bite into its golden interior you immediately question that thought. It’s become routine for me to sit in my room, with towel, water and knife at the ready, about to begin the adventure of eating a mango. Juice covering my face and hands, and now my fan on speed 5, keeping me cool. Sounds like heaven.

Well, writing blog entries has become harder these past few weeks, and I do apologise for that. In every experience I have in a foreign land there is the ‘half way hump’. It is the part of my stay where time goes through a transition, and in the course of a few days, home seems so far away and then, a few days later, suddenly seems like it’s so close. With that half way hump comes the homesickness, which can sometimes be worse that the occasional stomach pains, and the effect is made worse by the larium, controlling my emotions and moods. Now I have passed over the hump, and each day comes and goes faster then I can think.

With less than four weeks until the next YSI – CPYWD Ghana project, I am beginning to feel excited. This past weekend has seen the project go from concepts and ideas on paper, to a structured schedule, with logistics running around in my mind, and project ideas having dates. We were joined by Mr. Philbert Seka, regional director for Service for Peace, who will be welcoming the team, guiding them in Accra, and also joining us here in the north. He organised the project I was involved with in Cote d’Ivoire back in 2009. I’m really looking forward to seeing some more familiar faces when the team arrive.

I’ll try to get posting more regularly again, but my goodness, time goes so quickly now, and my list of things to do doesn’t seem to be getting smaller.

Beyond Words and Numbers

Well, what have I got to say this time. First of all, I think all of you should check out the blog of Toby Suda. He is my cousin (kind of), and he’s also having his fair share of culture, but in an entirely different context. I think what he is doing is amazing, and it is a testament to the will of a human being to achieve his dreams. His football dreams. It’s inspiring to see people living their dreams and fighting so hard for them, and now I see Toby, working his way on to the big stage. I regret ever doubting him. Go on Toby! As for my own dreams, I once had a dream to travel to every country in the world and I still hold that as my goal for life. To not just touch down and take off, or dip my small toe in the shallow end of a culture, but to dive straight in, and experience it all.  I sometimes find myself day dreaming of home and all the comforts that go with it, but what’s the point? I know when I get home, I’ll be day dreaming of somewhere else again. I’m happy here.

Life here in Ghana is so simple and beautiful. Riding through the countryside gives a glimpse into the past; clean savannah land with the occasional lady carrying logs on her head, and children in the fields tending to the families crops. Sure it’s a hard life, but being able to observe it is just beautiful. I’m also getting my fair share of the simplicity of the life here, especially when it comes to laundry. My soft European hands can’t even cope an hour of hand washing which usually leaves  sores on the back of my fingers. My host family seem to find it funny…I don’t. It’s a nightmare trying to get the stains from the red dirt out of my whites. Anyway, with each wash I’m getting better, and my whites are getting whiter.

My work load has certainly increased these past weeks. I’m doing some research for CPYWD into how we can improve the performance of the community facilitators. Basically in each community that CPYWD has after school programs there are facilitators who volunteer their time to help organise the children. It appeared that the quality of facilitation went down, and my job is to find out what we can do to motivate the facilitators again. To do this I’ve been interviewing all of them to get a picture of how they feel. It was through these simple conversations, lasting just twenty minutes, that I can see the vision of CPYWD coming to life. It’s not just about learning literacy and numeracy, or improving English, but I could see these youths having developed their character through volunteering with CPYWD. All of them saw themselves as very important for the development of their communities, and they spoke of this with passion. Considering that the number of educated people in these communities barely reaches a dozen it really means something when those who are educated want to help the community develop into tomorrow. The future can be brighter, and easier for those entering the world today. The work of CPYWD goes beyond words and numbers, it reaches the heart, and I’m very glad to experience that.

As was requested, here is a picture of my room. Rather nice if you ask me!

The Calm Before the Storm

The sound of rain has driven me out of my bed and onto my computer this evening. What sounds like a torrential downpour is made worse by the corrugated iron roof above my head. I would have to shout to communicate to anyone in all this noise. Winds blow, trees sway, rain falls, and I’m grateful I’m in the safety of my room. Only an hour before, I was out with my camera admiring the distant lightning. I experienced the calm before the storm, and now the storm is thick around me. Somehow, with all this noise, I’m reminded of the Ghanaian church services I’ve been experiencing every Sunday, except in church I experience the storm before the calm.

As worship begins, the MC leads the way, screaming into a microphone that is already too loud. The bass player tries to follow, pressing his fingers along the neck of his guitar searching for the right note; by the time he finds it the MC is singing a different note. The same can be said of the pianist, while the drummer is playing a song of his own, or so it seems. Arms are raised as people start praising the lord, and I have to admit, the spirit is infectious. When taken seriously, it’s a time of sincere prayer, but when just observing, it’s complete chaos. Yet, somehow, out of all the chaos the choir joins, the bass starts getting the notes right, the piano follows suit, the drummer gets the rhythm, and before you realise it the ‘storm’ turns into a harmonious melody with the whole congregation dancing, clapping and singing along. By the time worship is over, I’m exhausted, and then I still have to sit through the sermon!

One month down, three to go.

One month goes by very quickly, and I have to be honest in saying that I have not done much. I have been told that a volunteers most productive time is in the second and third months of their stay, so I have optimism that I will still be able to bloom here in Ghana. Although my contributions have only been, and can only be small, the amount I can learn is huge, and already my perception of Ghana, Africa, and developing countries has completely changed.

Following some light meditation and reflection (see image above), I’ve realised some things. A short service project gives you enough time to identify the aspects of a developing country that you most expect; the poverty, the barefoot children, the mud huts, and the supposed inability of people to take care of themselves. Yet, to experience a country as I have this past month, in a slow and reflective way has enabled me to identify other aspects which we don’t hear so much of in our daily lives at home. The word I hear most frequently here is development. I hear it on the radio, on TV, I hear it in passing conversations and see it on many sign boards. Development is an issue which all Ghanaians are facing, albeit at different speeds and with different effects, and a short stroll along the road will give you an insight into how many development organisations there are.

I came to Ghana with my own definition of poverty, and somewhere in that definition was the idea that mud huts equalled poverty, but on closer inspection I noticed my own definition of poverty was something that didn’t factor in the human. The human has pride, and emotions, desires, and lifestyle choices, and all of these things affect poverty. I have learnt that poverty is not whether you live in a mud hut as opposed to a brick house, but it is the inability of the person to control their environment to cater for their basic needs. A person living in a mud hut can have the ‘resources of mind’ to feed the whole family, provide medical needs, and send the children to school. The fact that he lives in a mud hut, and wears flip flops, and works long days in the field is then a lifestyle choice, and who am I to judge such a choice which follows on from the lifestyles of his ancestors and of tradition. At least this is one aspect of poverty I have come to recognise. I know that there is still a lot to learn on this matter.

Well since my last post, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy another ‘cultural feast’. I attended a traditional funeral, but this one was different from the last. There are many tribes in Ghana, each with their own traditions, but even further still, certain villages have different customs and traditions themselves. I attended the fourth day of the funeral where all the men from surrounding villages come and shoot a log with bow and arrow. If you are able to split the log then, as the tradition goes, you have to marry into the family. I was able to have a go myself and, thankfully, I did not split the log, but after a first attempt of the arrow falling miserably in front of me, I managed to get one in. Before all of this happens, the village comes with drums, and  of course, guns, carrying branches above their heads. As a group they dance around the hut of the family who is mourning, and hit the roof with the branches. It’s always interesting to be among these cultural celebrations, and this was in a community that I regularly facilitate an After School Program, so I was happily accepted amongst the members.

It was requested that I add some pictures of the food I’m eating here, and so here they are. Typical Ghanaian dishes are Fufu, Banku, rice and stew, Yam (similar to potato), and a dish mostly eaten in the north which they call T.Z. (pronounced Tee-Zed). Unless it’s rice, then the meal is always served with a soup. Last week, they even put smoked rat in the soup to add some flavour! Oily, greasy, heavy and full of carbohydrates is how I would describe the Ghanaian menu. On many occasions I have found myself day dreaming of a glass of cold fresh milk, or some Lasagne. A full English Breakfast, with extra breakfast, would be most appreciated.

More Guns, More Drums, and even more Dancing Horses!

When I heard the streets would be filled with twenty thousand people it didn’t quite register what kind of experience it would be. Twenty thousand almost feels like an understatement for the experience of the ‘Damba’ festival in Tamale. Celebrated by tribes in the northern region of Ghana, it is a time of music, dancing, gunshots, and screaming as all the sub chiefs of the surrounding villages come to greet the main chief of the city. Ghana still holds traditional chieftaincy positions which hold power similar to that of the local politicians. The chiefs respect the politicians and the politicians respect the chiefs, and my experience of this amazing day was a typical insight into the ‘raw-ness’ of traditional Ghana.

With the conclusion of the Muslim mid afternoon call to prayer, people started filling up the streets, attracted by the bangs of the guns and the rhythm of the drums. Fortunately I arrived at the Chiefs palace (mud huts in the middle of the city) early where I met one of the sons of the main chief. He was happy to give us a guided tour of what was happening, and even took us into the palace where we were sat in a small room to meet with the chiefs sisters and two of his four wives. It’s a real experience when you are sat in a small room, full of old Ghanaian women laughing at you, smiling at you,  and greeting you in their local tongue. You can smile back and even laugh back, nodding your head and repeating ‘Naaa’, which is a positive answer used to return the greeting.

Anyway, soon after we were amongst the crowds, watching these chiefs dancing, and musicians swaying with the music they repeated over and over. Guns started sounding, these huge rifles that shake the ground below you, and a man tries controlling the crowd, pushing them back, but the crowd kept on growing. Sub-chiefs entered the city on horseback, with their entourages of hundreds, all carrying rifles, and guns, axes and all sorts of things; screaming, shouting, laughing, dancing, the crowd swayed this way and that. I had never witnessed such a huge number of people. As far as the eye could see the roads were packed. It truly was an experience.

Among the entourages were the young, often with drums of their own, beating away. The old, wearing traditional smoks which when they dance it twirls and flicks into the air. The horses danced through the crowd, and occasionally jumped at the sound of gunshot, and it was more than once that I jumped at the sound as well. There were even some men carrying snakes over their shoulders.

A festival  is a great opportunity to witness the spirit of Ghanaian hospitality. I met a man and his brother, who with no reasoning whatsoever made it their mission to get me the best spots amongst the crowd, to ensure that I had enough space, and rite of passage through the masses. They guided me for about three hours, until the time that I had to leave. It is a common experience in Ghana, to be approached by someone who just wants to help you, to guide you, and sincerely be your friend. It’s my western mentality that puts the idea in my head that these people want to get something from me, but my experiences with people here, are teaching me to befriend first before I judge, and to speak to people with an open heart to receive what they want to give to me.

By the time the festival finished it was already dark, and now the sub-chiefs and their entourages were beginning the journeys back to their country villages. They all walked a few hours to get to the city, and now the journey back will see them home late in the night. But they continue to have their drums, their screaming ladies and the hundreds of followers to keep them company on the road. What a day!

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