Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Dezra's first impressions

In every sense of the word, I feel as if I have entered a strange land, an alien culture, and life so abstract to my own, that it is almost incomparable.

This notion was not slow in coming however. Soon after our 25-degree welcome as we stepped of the plane (note: at 5am) we were struck by a more powerful and less natural force - the Ghanaian taxi service. Ambushed by 10 men in black and white uniforms, two months of luggage was literally prized from our clammy hands and catapulted into the back of a minivan that may have once featured on the Flintstones. Unfortunately for us, their first request for payment in chocolate was swiftly and conveniently changed to dollars due to the indelible word ‘mug’ that must have been scrawled across our faces somewhere over the Atlantic.

Yet, the feelings of slight violation quickly dissolved as we started the rickety journey through the streets of Accra, to a place many of us doubted even existed (The Rising Phoenix- enough said). As we neared, the rocky roads morphed into wet sludgy mud and it became clear that there was to be no differentiation between human, animal, or waste. Petrified at what we had got ourselves in for Cat, Jonny and I decided to ‘check out;’ what was to be our home for the next few days. Literally wading through people’s homes, it was hard to fight the reflex nose wrinkle as the stench seeped through our clothing. The hostel on the other hand, within a matter of seconds, had received a significant status update, as, despite its location- deep within the slums, lacking both electricity and running water…it was not a mud-hut.

Our first Ghanaian encounter appeared in the guise of a thirteen yr old boy. Admittedly this phrasing may be a little obscure but the truth is- so was the boy. Looking no older than nine, Felix spoke in the strong ascent of a thirty year old, whilst recalling the life of a man of sixty. A water seller on the streets, and starving, he had been abused by his mother – evident by the slashes on his arm- and a witch with whom he lived with (scarily they do still believe in them- I doubt he got this idea from the wizard of oz). Nevertheless, with conversations interjected with songs laughter and games including acrobatics from the locals on the beach it was almost impossible to feel sadness for any period of time. Cruelly creeping in later though was the harsh realisation that this story was not unique.

After our first (surreal) Shabbat - pitch black and surrounded by Rastafarians singing ‘raindrops on roses’ and a day of wangling my way out of a marriage proposal by one of the Ghanaians (by claming my fiancĂ© at home would not be happy!) we began the everlasting journey to Tamale – an experience to say the least. 250 stops later (although impressively only one breakdown) and having still not arrived, I was convinced a flight to England and back could have been a viable option- especially as they were by no means the M1 ‘welcome break’ we are accustomed to. Indeed, just by looking at the selection of children’s books being sold the contrast was clear - ‘Koffi has Malaria’ being one of the bedtime selections! Nevertheless the breaks gave us an insight into how the green north differed from the bustling south evident from even the people who although still rushed to sell, had softer tones creating a warmer atmosphere. However, the poverty intensified.

Clearly, bearing witness to this and the hundreds, maybe thousands of narratives similar to Felix that lined the streets of Tamale. A sensory overload, where women and children walk in a torrent of vibrant colour with their livelihood( nuts, fruit, fish, yams etc) balanced precariously on head. Where clean water sold can only be found in sachets and where children lay sprawled out helpless along open sewers, unable to escape open from the suffering that surrounds them. It is hard to believe that just last week I was happily walking down the streets of London, armed with a Frapachino, oblivious to the world so far from my own. Yet, my one realisation was the inability to respond to any of this with pity. Because, despite everything, these sellers still walk with pride, fight disease with dignity and display a kind of joy happiness and warmth that would put most of us to shame.
Our first couple of days in Tamale were spent finding our feet (in mud and dust), being jumped on by random children and just generally learning the lingo as not to get lynched by the locals for not replying correctly to a good morning/afternoon/evening. Though, superseding all of these ‘survival tips’ was the golden left hand rule. That is- you may as well forget this part of your body, it will get you nothing but evil looks.
Our next taste of Africa was a party thrown by the NGO’s that we are working with for the next few months. I have been given the Maltiti child foundation (MCF). Founded by one of the locals, passionate about bridging the divide between education in rural and urban areas, MTF works with some of the most underprivileged pupils in Ghana, finding ways to keep them in education, preventing child labour and giving parents the means to support on their own. As well as this my time will also be spent working with an organisation looking to eliminate child trafficking and abuse, tackling the root causes on the ground.
My first experience of teaching in Jana School was daunting, and that was before I even stepped into a classroom. As we walked past a field where men were using cows to plough, and women who were beating beans large ceramic pots I knew this would be a very different ball game what I was used to. Speaking as much Dugbani as they spoke English, I was almost immediately left to fend for myself in a sweltering room (well, area) crowded with forty children a piece of white chalk…and a cane. This was the point where I decided to abandon both the objects in my hand (one more quickly than the other) and resort what I knew best- freestyle. After about thee hours of flailing arms and laughing 6 year olds we successfully labelled head, hands, feet and legs (I knew all that anatomy at university would come in handy!) counted to 10 and remembered the ABC.
…I was going to post this blog today, but, after experiencing one of the toughest moments I have faced on this trip (albeit only a week), I decided to add a little more. Two young girls were dragged out of my class this morning- whipped, beaten and caned until sweat and tears drenched their clothes and masked their faces. There was little I could do as I stood stunned in font of their traumatised peers- this obviously a familiar occurrence but once which never gets less horrifying. I came home and cried. I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed, because I hope to God that there will never be a day where this behaviour does not provoke the same reaction. We should not become immune. To, accept or allow justification for this act- even from a culture that endorses it would be a disgrace. At home, we are taught that if first you don’t succeed try, try and try again. Here, their first attempt is their last. We are taught to learn from our mistakes, yet their mistakes are not accepted - and they learn nothing but how to shy away from a cane.

Refusing to return to school if things were not changed, Sophie and I spoke to the head of the program tonight (who was admittedly as shocked at this as we were) and managed to add a key principle to the rules that would abolish the use of the cane in the five schools that it works with.


  1. we feel that we are almost there with you! You journey seems to be a long and interesting one .... the road will be full of twists and turns but we know you will chose a good path!!!! Take care and we look forward to more. x x x x

  2. Sounds like the experience of a lifetime - take care!

    Lots of love.

  3. Absolutely fantastic - your writing is really beautiful and you have managed to convey your feelings so eloquently. Spelling might need a little work though (constructive criticism Babe!) Continue having an amazing experience.

    Much love x

  4. I admire your courage teaching in such difficult situations. I thought teaching in some schools in London were rather horrific for me, but after reading you experiences I am not going to complain anymore.

    Stephanie (Caroline's Mum)

  5. I really enjoyed reading your blog. Sounds like you're having an amazing and life changing experience.

    Lots of Love
    Michele Tenzer

  6. WOW. so beautiful and moving. i look forward to reading more. i'm sending love vibes!