Sunday, June 21, 2009


Of course, our trip wasn't all work and no play to make us dull girls. We went to the market, Kakum National Park, and Elmina Castle, to name a few.

The market was definitely an experience! I'm not good at bartering and am definitely not a bargain shopper, but I found myself having a great time shopping at the markets! You certainly need to know a few things prior to entering a market. First, put on your tough, I'm not interested exterior and get in your "no" place. Being a white western female, I stood out like a sore thumb and was descended upon by the shop owners when I entered the market. Do not agree to pay more than 50% less than their first offer and your best bet is to start the process by offering between 30-35% of their first price. No matter what they say, they will not give you a "small price" at first. Look around at other booths, while most of them have the same stuff you're likely to find some hidden gems all over the place. But, have fun! The shop owners are extremely nice and will help you find whatever you're looking for...remember, they're trying to make a sale and a living.

Kakum National Park and Elmina Castle are at Cape Coast, a three hour drive from Accra. Kakum is a rain forest with a canopy walk and a nature walk. Probably not anywhere close to U.S. safety standards, the canopy walk was fun if not a little terrifying.

The 1st of 7 bridges spanning the canopy

View from the top

Don't look down!

A sigh of relief upon reaching the end

George, Felicia's brother and our driver for the week

Elmina Castle sits on the Gulf of Guinea and was a major stop on the Atlantic Slave Trade route to the States. This was another instance that I'm still having trouble processing and effectively reflecting on. The conditions were of course horrifying, especially when compared with the director's quarters, which were amazing. I found this video on YouTube that follows the road along the coast and through the town up to Elmina Castle. I think it does a much better job of capturing the castle and at least some of the feelings tied into it than I could express in words.

On our last day in country, Lea's friends invited us to their house for a home-cooked Ghanaian meal complete with fufu, fried plantains, jolloff rice, lamb stew, and of course, pineapple. It was a wonderful cap to our trip and they were amazingly welcoming and hospitable.

New Horizon Special School, Echoing Hills, and the ARC

Mid-week during our second week in Ghana we went to the New Horizon Special School. This is a school for children with special needs which transitions into a vocational school for adults. We were all but blown away by this school and the programs and classes they have in place. There are 6 classes with students divided by age, disability, and severity of disability. There are 2 classes for individuals with Autism where students are taught one-on-one, 1 classroom (where Lea and I spent most of our time) with older students with Cerebral Palsy, 2 general classrooms, and 1 where new students are placed to assess their needs and abilities before being placed into a classroom. Behind the school is the vocational center where adults are taught skills such as basket weaving, doll-making, fabric dying, and jewelry-making, to name a few. There is a shop attached to the school where their goods are sold so students can earn a little money.

We came to Ghana with "MacGyver Kits" that had anything from duct tape to pvc pipe. While at New Horizon, we split up between 3 classrooms to do a sort of needs assessment to see what we could provide the students and teachers with in terms of adaptive equipment a la MacGyver. So, that night we had all sorts of fun creating long-handled sponges out of pipe, long-handled spoons out of paint stirrers, built-up handles out of pipe insulation, sock aids out of water bottles, built-up pens with tennis balls, and lots more but you get the gist. The next day we went back to give out the goodies and do a short seminar on how to use what we made along with performing safe transfers with students. This was an extremely fun and rewarding day and I was very sad to leave our classroom and the friends we made there!

MacGyver Kit

Trying out the scissors

Tennis ball pen

Teaching team transfers

The next day we went to Echoing Hills, which is a residential school and adult home for individuals with special needs. There was only a small group of students at the school when we visited because most were out working, so there was very little for us to do. But, we were given a tour of the facility and spoke with the director, a good friend of Eric. The teachers at this school were 2 individuals involved with the Peace Corps (I think...). According to the director, they rely on volunteers to teach year-round. The facility was very nice and had a medical clinic (used only once per year by a group of volunteers who provide care for anyone who shows up) and two huge rooms FULL of refurbished wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and crutches. The equipment is free for everyone and is sent to Ghana from a company in the States who then goes to Africa once a year and distributes them in villages around the country. But, we were absolutely astounded to learn the hoops people had to jump through to get equipment from Echoing Hills during other times of the year. First, a person has to learn about the resource, they then must visit a doctor (which requires transportation and money) who will determine whether they *really* need the equipment and then write them a script. Then, the person has to get themselves out to Echoing Hills (about a 30-45 minute ride depending on traffic) to retrieve the equipment. This was one of our "fix it" moments...what if we hire a doctor, rent a tro-tro or van, drive around Accra and find people in need of equipment, have the doctor write a script, and then carry everyone out to Echoing Hills to receive their equipment? I think it's genius.

Holding class

Wheelchairs and more wheelchairs

Our last center visit was to the Accra Rehabilitation Center (the ARC). To be honest, this facility held the most promise for me personally, but upon arrival I found that I was extremely disappointed. The facility's goals and mission are wonderful. Individuals must apply to attend through Ghana's equivalent of the Department of Social Services and have a physical. Accepted applicants (apparently anyone who applies generally is accepted) attend ARC daily for 3 years and live on the facility grounds where they are taught a trade such as shoe-making or woodworking. Then, they are given a small amount of money to purchase materials and start their own business. Now, in theory this is a wonderful thing. But, as with all wonderful things, there must a funding source and follow-through, which at ARC, there is neither. We walked around the facility and met some of the gentlemen who attend, most of whom had little to do because of the lack of materials. I would absolutely love to think that when I return to Accra, this facility will meet my expectations for the wonderful thing it could be...we'll see. On the up side, the instructors and attendees were very welcoming and willing to talk to us and answer all of our questions. Ghanaian hospitality never falters. You've gotta love it!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

That's what I love about Sundays...

Our first Sunday in Ghana was spent at Reverend Eric Annan's church (Shepherd Baptist Church in Accra) and then working with Sovereign Global Mission's feeding program for street children. Attending church services in Ghana was a wonderful experience. Shepherd Baptist Church is a growing church and its permanent building is under construction, so services are held under a tent next door. Aside from the heat (but, when was I not hot and sweaty while in country??), the service was amazing! It was three hours of music, singing, and preaching...but not once, did anyone consult their watch. They were there simply to praise and worship together. Needless to say, it was very different from my Methodist hour for service, hour for Sunday school upbringing.

After church we went to help with the weekly feeding program for street children. Beforehand, Felicia (Eric's wife) took us into an area of shops closed on Sundays where people who are homeless are allowed to sleep. We spoke with a few people on the street with disabilities to get an idea of what sorts of things we could do for them therapeutically on future trips.

The first woman we talked to was unable to walk. She came to Accra from a village in hopes of finding more opportunities to make a living in the city. This seemed to be a common theme as far as learning how people end up living on the streets. Opportunities, especially for those with disabilities, are not available to everyone and people are more or less forced into a life of begging for alms or working for next to no money selling items for someone else. If being forced to live on the street and begging for a living is not bad enough, many individuals (especially children) are sucked into human trafficking, sustaining abuse, and prostitution.

We also had a very enlightening conversation with a gentleman who looked to have been paralyzed from polio in his lower extremities. When we first approached him, he was extremely offended by our presence. After a heated conversation in Twi with Felicia, where she explained that the Obrunis were not there to gawk at the homeless people but to offer help, he was very friendly and willing to talk with us. He explained that he was able to make more money to support his family begging than he would if he was able to sell items. Later in the week we were visiting the Accra Rehabilitation Center (ARC), a government run center where men with disabilities attend daily for 3 years and are taught a skill (such as shoe-making or woodwork) **more on a later post**. We asked him if attending ARC was an option and he all but laughed at the suggestion. He provides the main source of income for his family and this would be lost if he had to attend ARC daily. He also talked about the lack of follow-through provided by the program. Yes, attendees are taught a skill but they are not given materials or money to practice outside of the center. A lack of follow-through was another common theme we encountered while in Ghana. Yes, there are programs and bills in place to address the needs of individuals with disabilities, but if there are no means to monitor progress (or the lack thereof) then the problems will never be resolved. Very frustrating to witness as an outsider...the wheels were constantly turning in our OT brains to try and fix things.

The feeding program was another eye-opening, amazing experience. I realize that I keep using the word amazing, but it seems to be the most appropriate word for our time in country! Upon stepping out of the van, we were ambushed by children all of whom wanted our attention. Stacey did a couple of evaluations while we played with the kids and did some minor first aid. I was taught all sorts of games that Ghanaian children play, including the Obruni dance (pictured below)! This group of street children are sponsored to attend school and Felicia checks up on each and every one of them weekly. The network of street children is huge and there is a definite feeling of solidarity and protection. We realized that while these kids have had to learn lessons well beyond their years, they're still kids and they all just want to be kids. They need love, affection, attention, and play!

It's very hard for me to put into words all of the feelings and emotions that washed through me while on this trip and to effectively reflect and sort through them and this particular day is especially difficult. As I've said previously, the American mentality (and that of the OT profession) is to try and fix anything that is broken. Overcoming that mentality and moving to one of understanding how and why things are the way they are has been a bit of a struggle for me. Again, the question becomes what can I do to help people help themselves? What can I help them put into place that will actually be sustained? Lots to think on...the mean time, here are some pictures.


Teaching the Obrunis to play

The Obruni dance!

Stacey showing off her dance moves

Kate practicing her water carrying abilities

Sunday, June 14, 2009


So, I've noticed since I've been back that there's a certain flow to the conversations I have with people when they find out that I went to Ghana...

"How was it?"

Me "Amazing. Different." --These are the words I use most, because what else is there? The trip was not what you would call "fun". Although we did have a great time (and we had a lot of laughs), we weren't there to do the usual camera around the neck, socks and sandals, sight-seeing Western traveler thing. We were there to learn, to help where we could, and to find our niche of where we can help in the future.

This is when I decide whether the person actually wants to know what it's like in a developing country and what we did there or if they're just asking out of courtesy. Do I tell them about working with street children and passing the people begging for alms on the side of the road on scooter boards because the can't afford a wheelchair? Do I tell them about some of the practices they have for children born with a disability? Do I bring up the fact that preventable diseases such as polio, malaria, and AIDS run rampant and kill and cripple people daily and the individuals we interacted with who are affected by these diseases? Do I talk about the schools we visited and the lack of materials we take for granted? Do I discuss Ghana's Disability Bill and how far they have to go to reach a level of acceptance of people with disabilities? Or, do I tell them about the canopy walk in the rain forest and how beautiful the beach is?

After avoiding making people uncomfortable the first few times I was asked about my experience, I stopped. The issues need to be addressed and now 9 times out of 10, I do talk about the actual experiences we had and the issues Ghanaians and others in developing countries face. I have come to find that these are the issues that people love to talk about fixing, but when it comes to the awkward conversation about what is actually going on the conversation is avoided. Not anymore.--

"Wow. --the general response, regardless of whether I choose one of the first topics of conversation or the last, much more pleasant topic-- Would you go back?"

Me "Yes, in a heartbeat."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Adoteimon Child Development Center

For the 1st few days while in Ghana, we worked at the child development center that Sovereign Global Mission and the social work department at VCU are building. In addition to learning about the disability culture in the country and working with various centers and schools, we painted at the center. Even though it was hot and tiring work, I wholeheartedly supported the decision to complete community service work while we were there.

Painting the outside of the classroom building

Stacey (the shortest person there!) somehow ended up with a long-handled roller everyday

Painting the inside of a classroom

Posing with the professionals...they kept us in line

The child development center will serve as a school when it is completed for children in the village of Adoteimon. Adoteimon is a developing neighborhood about an hour outside of Accra. The homes in the community were built by Habitat for Humanity for families who raised 200 cedis (about $140) for their homes to be built. This center is where the library we collected books and donations for will reside. Although our books and bookshelves were still en-route, the library already has some books and shelves that Cameron (a VCU social work master's graduate who was staying in Ghana for a few months with Eric's family) was working hard to organize.

Reading in the library

Cameron posing with her hard work

On Saturdays, the children of Adoteimon are invited to gather at the child development center to read books in the library, to do crafts and, of course, to play! We were invited to join on our 1st Saturday and were told that there would be a few families attending who have children with disabilities. Eric and Felicia are attempting to begin a network of families with children with special needs in the community. Of the 10 who were invited, 2 came; 1 boy with paralysis in the lower limbs and 1 girl with undiagnosed Down's Syndrome. We were warned that turnout might be low because these families would be walking (in some cases miles) to get there.

We did a basic evaluation and consulted with the families on different strategies to perform exercises and stretch, remain active, and to learn in the home as neither child attends school. I was baffled to learn that the girl with Down's Syndrome was asked to leave school after biting her teacher who thought she was going to "catch" her disability. Although I had expected to run into a lack of understanding of disability, I was still taken aback by this reaction. This was a time when I had to remind myself of the cultural differences that exist and that I was in Ghana to learn about those differences, not to judge them. In an effort to expand the family's understanding of their child's disability (though not to diagnose it - just to be clear!), we armed them with a basic understanding of Down's Syndrome so that they might educate others.

After the evaluations were complete, we were able to play with the children in the community and they even put a play on for us (Where the Wild Things Are)! This was a great way to top off our time at the child development center and gave us a great introduction to the kinds of issues we were going to run into while working with individuals with special needs in Ghana.

Children reading and coloring with Eric

Performing Where the Wild Things Are

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A few lessons...

"Akwaaba!" This was one of the words I heard most from the people of Ghana. Akwaaba means welcome in Twi (in addition to English, one of the more common languages spoken in the country). "You are welcome, my sister" to our country, to our facility, to the restaurant, to my shop. Upon arrival to Ghana, stepping off the plane, these are the first words you see written across the entrance to the airport from the tarmac. Throughout my 2-week stay, I never once felt that I didn't belong or was in any way unwelcome.

"Obruni", meaning white person or foreigner in Twi is another word we heard quite a lot. I was even introduced to an Obruni dance (pictures soon to come!) by some of the street children we worked with during the feeding program hosted by Sovereign Global Mission on Sundays.

"Ghana Time" is something we certainly had to adjust to while in country. Nothing is worth doing if it has to be rushed and multi-tasking is absolutely unheard of. We found ourselves having to make a quick switch from our go-go-go Western attitudes to sitting back and relaxing. It's much too hot and humid to get worked up about being on time everywhere. "The traffic is too much" and we're going to be an hour late to our 9:00 a.m. meeting time at a facility? No worries! Sit back, grab a Fanta and some sugar bread, and enjoy the time with friends. The great thing about running late in Ghana is that chances are, the person you were going to meet is running late too. Here is a conversion chart from Ghana Time to U.S. Time (taken from Stacey's blog) that we worked out - while waiting for our driver who was running late...

5 minutes= 15-20 minutes
10 minutes = 45 minutes
I am there = 20 minutes
I am ready, I am bringing it, or I will come = ~30 minutes
I'll be right back or I am just going to the next village = 45 minutes-1 hour
I am in the traffic or The traffic is too much = 10 minutes- 2 hours
I am fixing the car = you should probably take a taxi or tro-tro
It is finished = never

Although we laugh about it, there's something to be said about slowing down. Although it's hard to slow down too much for fear of being trampled in America, I think there are little things we can do. Stop and have a conversation with the person standing next to you (no doubt waiting for something) in line. Get off your phone at the grocery store and talk with the cashier or instead of balancing your checkbook and folding laundry while waiting for dinner to cook, just sit outside. There's much to be gained from sitting back a little.

We made it!

We made it back from our trip to Ghana! As the internet cafes in country were not stellar, I did not get the opportunity to update the blog while I was there. So, over the next couple weeks I'll be updating and talking about our experiences and what we hope to accomplish with future trips. Hopefully I'll be able to figure out how to post pictures and other fun stuff. Okay, so here goes...