Some of my more impatient readers have pointed out that I am remiss in updating my blog. So here comes a long new update …enjoy!
Last week I traveled to Nkwanta, in the Upper Volta region. Located at the very northeast end of Lake Volta (the largest man-made lake in the world) and not far from the Togo border, the area is not only much poorer than areas around Accra, but is reached by far fewer NGOs than other areas of Ghana. Even some of the Ghanaians I work with said they would not go there because it’s so remote and hard to get to! I traveled there by myself on public transport, and rather than describe the whole trip, I thought I would sum up the experience with a list of what it’s like to travel in a tro-tro (a 10 15 passenger van).
What to expect when traveling by public transport in West Africa:
– unless you’re traveling from one major city to another on a charter bus, there’s no such thing as a set departure time. You show up at the station, buy your ticket and then wait for it to fill up. I waited 3 hours in Accra for my first bus to fill up, and another 45 minutes in Hohoe for my second bus to Nkwanta.
– you can buy everything from water to fried yam to leather belts through the window of the bus while waiting for it to leave.
-just when you think the car is full and ready to go, they will force you to scoot over to fit one more person. You are now sharing the row with 3 adults, 2 kids, and a kitten.
– you most likely won’t be able to move your legs for the entire trip, and you may consequently lose feeling in your toes.
– if you are fortunate enough to be in a vehicle that does not break down, you can expect to stop at least once to help one that has.
– you will marvel that the flatbed trucks, piled so high they look like santa’s sleigh from the Grinch, are able to even get started, never mind navigate narrow dirt roads.
– you will feel like a player in a video game as your van weaves across the entire road, trying to avoid potholes the size of craters. You may also be concerned that the driver seems more concerned about avoiding said potholes than oncoming cars.
– you will pray (ironically) not to have a priest in the car, or you may be treated to a 3 hour sermon.
– you may or may not rekindle your lifelong love for Bob Marley. It is just fits, you know?
– if it is NOT rainy season, you will be covered head to toe with a not-so-thin layer of red dust. For once, this is more noticeable on the Africans, whose eyelashes now appear golden yellow.
– if it IS rainy season… well, God help you (see September 12th post from Mali blog for a full description).
Despite all of this, traveling in a tro-tro can be FUN! You develop a certain camaraderie with your bus mates (I mean, how can you not, after spending several hours sweating and napping on each other?). And best of all, you arrive at your destination with some serious street cred, not just among other white people but among Africans as well. “You went where, in what kind of vehicle?!” they will say. “It wasn’t too bad,” you’ll respond as you shrug your shoulders nonchalantly. Inside, though, you’ll wonder if you really have another round trip journey in you.
Once in Nkwanta, I was met by Gill, an older British woman with whom I’d be staying. She runs one of the only nonprofits there – an education program. She’s lived here for 9 years, owns a nice spacious house on the outskirts of town, and knows all the ins and outs of the education system. I’d be tagging along with her for a few days to visit some schools, talk to teachers and headmasters, and find out what other organizations in the area are doing.
The first day we went to a primary school where Gill spent the morning leading special activities for a group of girls ages 12-14. She had them play games, do ice breakers to practice their English, and express the idea of girls’ empowerment through poetry, dance, art, and drama. I worked with the art group, and it was rather sad to see how they struggled with the activity. While schools start teaching English from the first grade, in rural areas most families don’t speak it at home, and it was clear that most of the girls could barely read and write. Additionally, they had rarely if ever had the chance to draw, and really struggled to draw simple things like people, cars, and trees. Finally, the idea of thinking creatively and coming up with their own ideas was the biggest struggle. Most of what they do in school is just rote memorization, and you can tell that many children are afraid of being punished for getting the wrong answer. Despite those challenges, it was fun to see them let loose a bit when we did some sports activities.
Two other mornings I helped her lead a health day at the community center for junior high school girls from 4 different schools. These girls were aged 14-18 and it was not clear that their English was that much better than the primary school girls from the day before. It’s very hard to tell because you will ask them if they understand, and they will say, “Yes ma’am,” but you have a feeling they don’t really understand. We had them list out diseases that they or a family member had experienced and then talk about ways to prevent them. I have to admit that this activity made me feel rather ignorant, since I couldn’t really tell you the exact sources and symptoms of diseases like TB, typhoid, and cholera. Still, it was really interesting to hear what they knew and didn’t know. In most cases, they had heard of diseases but didn’t know much about them. Some even had misconceptions about malaria, which they learn about from a very young age.
Most of the disease prevention came down to keeping a clean environment and practicing safe sex. The latter proved particularly problematic. First of all, many girls had very little knowledge about their own bodies and what was normal or not normal. In addition, they receive conflicting information about how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Nonprofits will tell them to use a condom, but the Church (and some teachers, we found out!) will tell them that using a condom is a sin and that they should only practice abstinence. Compounding these problems is a culture in which girls often have little control when it comes to sex. We had one girl approach us after the session because she is living with a family member in town so that she can go to a better school, and he has been making advances on her. And this was after she had to leave another place she was staying because the man there was also sexually harassing her! What’s sad is that some people would say that it’s clearly her fault, since it’s happened twice and no one else in the family has complained. In addition, we had a number of girls ask if it was ok to have sex with a boy if he offers to pay for school fees, if they don’t have parents or their family is not supporting them. We tried our best to explain that a young boy may say that he loves her and is going to support her, but in reality only wants one thing and she has so much to lose from a situation like that.
All in all, the trip was fascinating, if a little depressing. I guess I never really stopped to think about how much the odds really are stacked against these kids in rural areas. Some of the teachers really are great, but others just see the job as a necessary step to a better career. Teachers are frequently absent, and in all of the schools I visited I only met a couple of female teachers. Children too face pressure to help around the household and sell goods at the market, even if it means skipping school. Something like 97% of the government’s education budget goes to salaries, and corruption is rampant, meaning that materials are virtually nonexistent. Can you imagine trying to teach ICT (Information Communication Technology) to a group of students that has never seen a computer?! Ghana has prided itself for instituting universal (free) primary education and development agencies love setting enrollment targets, but when kids show up to a school building with 100 students in a classroom, no teacher, and no teaching materials, you have to wonder if the situation is really that much better than it used to be.
Girls’ empowerment day
Fun and games