Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My 7.5 Month African Adventure Comes to an End

I’m sitting at a restaurant called giraffe in the Heathrow airport in London, ordering breakfast. It is 8:25 am and I am on my way home. These past few months have been the highlight of my life and I am not exactly ready for it to be over. I still can’t come to grips with the fact that I am no longer in Africa. Why do we love this commercial, materialistic world that we live in so much? Well, the truth is, I don’t.

I am sure that from reading about my experiences, and just from knowing me, you probably know that I have every hope, dream, and desire to move to Ghana after I finish my college education.

Ghana is where my heart is and I can’t deny that to you or myself. But I know how important my education is so I must complete that first. I know that I can’t just move to Ghana without a plan which is why I have local people currently helping me to research various business options. I love the orphanage and will continue to help the community and the children but I know that I too am a human and I will need money to live on and to survive.

Raymond, the director and founder of the orphanage, his family, and I have become very close. Raymond and his brothers are like my brothers now. A few weeks ago, I was asked how many siblings I had. I answered that I had one sister. Raymond was quick to correct me and explained that I have both a brother and a sister. Raymond considers me part of his family and I too consider him part of mine.

Living right next door to Raymond for these past few weeks was an amazing experience. I loved being right there, in the midst of things, with the local people and the children and not escaping to a hotel. It also helped strengthen my relationship with the local community. I could spend more time with them but if I needed a break, I always could just go into my room.

My room had a front room where I kept some toys and markers for the kids who would come over to play and draw. They loved the mini Etch-a-sketches and on the first day that they used them, they taught themselves how to write my name on it. There was a door behind a curtain connecting that front room to my bedroom. When I first arrived, the room only had a bed frame, a light hanging from the ceiling, and a new paint job. With the help of my brothers, we transformed the room. Wisdom installed a ceiling fan, Raymond helped me with the mosquito net and brought in a comfy chair from his house for me to use. The guys helped me buy a mattress and sheets, lay down linoleum carpet, had a window screen and a screen door made, and put up curtains. In addition, I put up some artwork that I had gotten in East Africa. The room is pretty simple but it became my home and I love it.

And when I return to Ghana, my room will still be there, exactly the way I left it besides the fact that Raymond will definitely use some of the room for storage while I am gone.

I have recovered from my mysterious illness and am doing much better now although it is still hard on my stomach when I eat. They did blood tests as the doctor told me it was malaria but of course, I wanted to confirm that. They found that it was not malaria nor typhoid so we don’t know what it was. What I do know though is that I had to take a break from doing anything and lay in bed for a few days, hooked up to an iv.

By Tuesday, I was pretty much all better and joined the two oldest classes at the orphanage on a trip to the waterfalls. Due to the fact that I was still recovering and did not want to get sick again, I choose not to swim in the water although I had fun just watching the children swim.

On Thursday evening, Christmas Eve, celebrations were held in Wegbe. The children were running around outside, throwing fire crackers and other things that light up. Music was blasting and people were happy, yelling out Merry Christmas to me as I walked by. I gave out glow sticks to a bunch of the kids and they loved them. The men were drumming and everyone was in such a joyful mood.

The following morning, we celebrated Christmas at the orphanage. It was such a lovely day and I was so happy to be there to celebrate this holiday with them. All of the children came to school in their best dresses and, I must say, they all looked adorable. They sang and danced to Christmas songs, put on a Christmas play, and enjoyed sodas and a delicious lunch. After lunch, we separated the children into their classes and handed out Christmas presents which Mark had brought from Ireland. The children were supposed to wait until they got home to open the presents as the teachers thought that the children might loose some of the pieces if they opened them at school. But, children will be children, and eventually the suspense got to them and they all started opening their presents. They were so happy. It was such a touching moment to see the kids ripping the wrapping paper, some of them ripping such paper to find a gift inside for the first time in their lives. The girls loved their dolls and bracelets just as much as the boys loved their cars and sunglasses.

Although Christmas Day was a very enjoyable day, it was also my last day with the children. Of course, it was a sad day for me and I cried my eyes out. My brothers tell me that I shouldn’t cry when I leave because we all know that I will be back soon but for some reason, I just can’t control the tears and somehow they magically appear in my eyes.

I spent one more night in Wegbe before leaving for Accra. On Friday evening, we had a celebration, blasted the music from speakers and danced the night away. The children who were there were surprised that I, a white girl was dancing and just stared at me for awhile before I made them dance with me. They think it is amazing anytime I actually do anything on my own. Dina, Raymond’s wife always wanted to sweep my room for me. I told her that even though their brooms are not the same as ours, I could do it. The children, Dina, and my brothers would just watch me as I swept my room and even applauded the fact that I could do it. Even though I am a guest in their community, I am not helpless and I don’t feel right letting other people do everything for me. The other thing that they thought was amazing was the fact that every once in awhile, I would shower at the house, instead of going over to Raymond’s uncle’s house. They have an outdoor shower that you take a bucket shower in and were so impressed that I actually could shower this way. The children would just stare at me as I walked across the compound to the shower with my towel and soap. It was quite funny.

On Saturday, I had to say a final good bye to my community. It was not easy for me nor for some of the children and that just made me cry even more. Raymond’s brothers packed the tro tro and we drove a few hours, past Accra, to Budaburam. Budaburam is a village about 45 minutes outside of the capital city. This village is a refugee camp but is not your typical refugee camp. There are no tents or anything like that because the refugees, the Liberians, have been there for so long that they have built homes. We visited an orphanage in the camp that was started by Raymond’s aunt, Deborah. She has turned her home into a school for 100+ children and houses only two of them because she does not have the space to house more than that. The children as well as the staff at the orphanage were happy to see me and I spent the early afternoon on Sunday and Monday morning playing and interacting with them. The oldest children, who are about seven years old, told me that they were going to come to America with me, but first they needed to paint their skin white and green. The green comes from the fact that on white people, the veins are much more viable than on darker skinned people. I tried to explain this to them but I don’t think they fully understood the concept.

Raymond’s aunt explained to me some of the challenges at the orphanage and told me that just visiting them and spending time with the children meant a lot to them. Deborah informed me that one of their goals is to start a website. I told her that I would try to help her with that task. I am now reaching out to you. I have no clue how to start a website or what starting a website even entails, but if you personally know how to start a website or know someone who can help with this and would be willing to lend their talents, please let me know. This is a simple way to really make a difference at this orphanage and to help people across the world learn about the orphaned children in Budaburam.

We moved from the orphanage to Raymond’s uncle’s house and spent the afternoon there before departing for the airport in the evening. Sammy, Raymond’s nephew who lives at his grandparent’s house was happy that I had returned and even asked to see the photos of his truck that I had taken. Now, let me tell you that Sammy is a four year old boy and these pictures that he was asking to see were from the day I arrived in Ghana, seven and a half months ago. I was so impressed by his memory that I went through my bag to pull out my computer and show him the photos.

I will leave it to you to figure out how the rest of my evening went after departing for the airport.

That’s the end of this trip. Thank you for following my adventures in Africa over the last seven and a half months.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kenya --> Ghana

On December 5th, at 6:30am, my Riruta Satellite host father, Moses drove Kai and I to the Nairobi Airport. I had my big suitcase, full to the brim with stuff and a duffle bag which I carried on as well as my backpack. Before checking in to my Kenya Airways flight, I had to weigh my bag. I guess this is how they keep people like me whose bags are too heavy out of the way of the check in counters. The man told me that my bag was 8 kilos overweight and I needed to take that weight out and put it into my other bags. Luckily, I had my duffle bag and there was still a bit of room in it – enough to fit 8 kilos worth of stuff.

After I finished the difficult task of rearranging my stuff, I successfully checked in and proceeded to the gate. The flight was a bit longer than I expected – about 5 hours until we landed in Accra, Ghana. I was lucky enough to have a seat in the exit row but unlucky to have the dreaded middle seat. After everyone boarded the plane, we were told that we would have to wait awhile as the technicians tried to fix one of the toilets. I was so tired that I fell asleep during this time and woke up just in time for take off.

We touched down in Ghana a few hours later. The minute I exited the plane, I could feel the sticky heat on my body. It was crazy because we were further from the equator in Ghana than we were in Kenya but it was so much hotter.

I went through passport control and customs without any problem. I usually get stopped in customs and have to open my suitcase but this time, the man asked me who I was staying with in Ghana and I said…”do you want his name?” he said, “him?” and waved me off. It was kinda funny but I was glad to get out of the hot airport as soon as possible.

As I walked out of the airport, I was approached and hugged by Alex, Wisdom, and some other guys who are related to Raymond. I knew them all and was happy to see them. They took my luggage and told me that Raymond was in Wegbe waiting for us.

Four hours later, we arrived in Wegbe. I couldn’t have been happier. Alex saw the smile on my face and said “welcome home.” I said hello to Dina, Raymond’s wife and Anderson, Raymond’s son and went to say hello to some of my friends who live nearby. They spotted me before I even approached them and yelled out at the top of their lungs, “SISTER NICOLE.” They all ran towards me and hugged me and then proceeded to ask where Sister Melissa was. They were not too happy when I told them that she was home in America and that she would not be meeting us in Ghana this month.

I spent my first few nights at Raymond’s uncle’s house which is less than a five minute walk from Raymond’s house. I had decided that I was not going to stay in a hotel this time and had asked Raymond for suggestions regarding where I could stay. He told me that I could stay in one of the rooms in the compound where he lives. We had to get the room set up before I could actually sleep there so we spent the first few days buying a mattress, putting up the mosquito net, installing a ceiling fan, and putting the plastic tile looking floor in place. Since I have moved in, we have also put up a screen door and a screen for the window as well as curtains and a mirror. Godwin, my taxi driver came in to my room a few days ago and told me that it was just as nice, if not nicer than the hotel that I had stayed in all summer. I agree and realize that it is much more sustainable and less expensive than staying in a hotel. Plus, I am right here, with the local people and the kids which is nice and when I need a break, I can just go to my room.

I really like my room and the fact that I can leave it and come back to it when I return to Ghana. It’s like I have my own place now! I am very lucky that Raymond’s uncle lives so close as he has allowed me to go over to his house (which he doesn’t live in as he lives in Accra) and use the flushing, Western style toilet and the running water shower whenever I want. This is very important as the toilet at Raymond’s compound scares me and I just can’t use it. And also because it’s nice to have running water and not have to take a bucket shower.

This first week in Ghana has been so hot that I have been somewhat lazy as it is at times, too uncomfortably hot to do anything. It is especially bad when the electricity goes out and the fans stop turning for hours. Nonetheless, I have been doing a lot, from shopping for stuff for my room to taking tons of fabric to my seamstress, Beatrice for her to sew, to playing with and doing art projects with the children, to taking care of some business at the orphanage.

A few random things that don’t really fit anywhere in particular:

Our student leader, Alex who graduated from L&C in the spring decided that she wanted to acknowledge people who went beyond what was required and did something pretty special. So far, I have acquired three army men – which are what she gives out to acknowledge these actions. I believe that I have the largest collection of army men. My first army man was for coordinating and getting all the photos together from the students to send to our host families in Pemba. My second army man was for making it through a very strenuous hike even though I was having issues with the whole concept of hiking uphill and breathing at the same time. My last army man was to acknowledge the fact that I run the charging of electronics in one of the trucks every time we are on the road. It was nice to have something like this acknowledged because it’s not something that people really thank me for.

Also, Melissa, I thought I should let you know that our student leader said that she thought I was the one on the program with the best sense of fashion. On our last night together as a group, three other students were wearing my clothes. I need to thank you because you have played an integral role in inspiring my fashion sense.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Luxurious EA09 Retreat

Our retreat was short and sweet. On December 3rd, we arrived and checked in to the hotel which took an hour and a half. We were then shown to our rooms, which were mostly triples. As soon as we opened the doors of our rooms, all you could hear throughout the whole hotel were screams. We were not in any way prepared for what we saw. We knew that this was a nice hotel but the rooms were like fully furnished, beautiful apartments equipped with a living room, full kitchen, and two bedrooms. One of the bedrooms had a huge bed, adorned with tons of pillows and was the type of bed that you just want to jump onto. So that’s what we did! I ended up getting that bed which was amazing and was quite a change from the tents that we had been sleeping in for the last few weeks. Each bedroom had its own bathroom with hot water and tons of hotel goodies – shampoo, foot scrub, etc. We seriously felt like we were back in America.

The hotel workers came by our rooms to drop off our bags a few minutes later. I asked one of them how much this hotel costs per night. He said, “is there something wrong with the room?” I had to assure him that there was not a thing wrong with the hotel and that it was the nicest hotel I had ever stayed in before he would tell me how much it cost per night.

Dinner was buffet style and was delicious. We sang happy birthday to Peggy and ate cake for dessert before heading back to our rooms to finalize our presentations for the following morning.

After breakfast, we all met in the conference room and gave our presentations about our projects. Us, General Culture students went in the morning, followed by the Biology students in the afternoon. The presentations were quite interesting but it took so long to get through all of them that we started to loose focus by the afternoon.

After the presentations ended, I went to the Maasai Market with a few friends to spend the little bit of Tanzanian money I still had. As I didn’t have a lot, I figured that I should spend it instead of exchanging it and loosing money in the process. The fact that I only had a limited amount of money with me made it so much easier to bargain. The only negative thing was that it took me so many months to realize this. I ended up getting a bracelet for half as much as I had bought a similar one for a few days earlier. At least I have a technique which I can use from now on.

That evening, we had a nice dinner in a different dining room, set up just for us. We all dressed up for this event and enjoyed our last night together as a group. Some people were much more emotional than others but we all know that we will see each other back in Portland.

The following morning, about half of us boarded a bus to Nairobi. The other half of the students decided that they were going to stay in Arusha as they were traveling around the country independently from the program before returning home.

It was a long drive, especially when we hit traffic coming into Nairobi. A majority of the students stayed at a hotel while the rest of us went back to Riruta Satellite to stay with our host families. My host sister, Peris met me in town and took me home. I was so happy to see her and she was just as happy, if not more happy to see me.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Searching for Bush Babies

Wow! It’s December. That’s crazy! It feels like it was just yesterday when I was like, oh my goodness, it’s already August. Our semester abroad is quickly nearing the end and in 4 days…yes, 4 days, I will be back in Ghana! I am just a little excited about that in case you couldn’t tell.

Some of the other students on this program have asked me why I love Ghana so much and how it is different than Kenya or Tanzania. There are differences which I don’t really want to get into right now but the thing is that I love Ghana so much because that is where a bunch of people that I love with all my heart live. It’s not because Ghana is so much prettier or that life is much different there. It is because of the people. And yes, there are nice people here too, but I haven’t made the same kind of connections that I made in Ghana in East Africa (except with my 1st host family in Nairobi who I love and am going to stay with the night before my flight to Ghana).

They are amazing for many reasons but let me just fill you in on something they did for me earlier this week. Before leaving for Africa, my mom gave me my paper ticket from Ghana to Kenya and told me that I needed to keep my boarding pass from that flight so that I could get airline miles. So I did. And I sent it home with my sister, not realizing that my paper ticket from Kenya back to Ghana was attached to it. So I was in Kenya. My ticket was in America. My mother called the airlines and was told that it was no problem; she could scan the ticket and email it to me. So, I printed out the scanned copy of the ticket and stopping worrying about this issue for awhile. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I asked my mom to double check that I would be able to get on my flight with the scanned copy of the ticket. Of course, she was told that I needed my original ticket and that the scanned copy would do me no good. In an effort to get my ticket to me, my mother express mailed the ticket to the travel agent in Nairobi, Kenya.

This was great. My ticket was in Kenya. But there was still a little problem. I was in Arusha, Tanzania, at least 8 hours away from Nairobi and had no way to get my ticket. As I don’t return to Nairobi until the evening of December 4th, and my flight is early in the morning on the 5th, I was a bit worried about how I would actually get my ticket.

Then, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t hurt to ask my host family from Nairobi to arrange to get the ticket for me. They were amazing and a few days later, they had the ticket, safe and sound in their house where it is now waiting for me.

So, no worries, as long as everything goes according to plan, I will have my ticket and will actually be allowed to get on my flight.

Today was a really good day. Last night, I finished my paper which was due today and just had to print out the raw data to attach to my report. After doing this and chatting with my sister online, which makes my day, a bunch of us went to town to go shopping. I had a few last minute things that I wanted to look for before leaving East Africa and I must admit, I was very successful. The thing I was most excited about buying was a piece of artwork of elephants which my sister really wanted to find while she was here but had no luck with. I had been keeping my eyes open for something I thought she would like and today, I finally found it. I must admit, I really like it too so I hope she has somewhere in mind to put it up at home because it is something that I want to be able to see every once in awhile as well!

Tomorrow afternoon, we are leaving the campsite and the village which we have called home for the last few weeks and moving into a very nice hotel for our retreat which isn’t going to be much of a retreat as most of us will only be there for a day before having to leave to catch the bus to Nairobi. So tonight is our last night of camping.

Last night, realizing that our time at the camp was soon coming to an end, I went on a search to find and see at least one bush baby, I was I not having luck finding them in the trees, even though they would call out every once in awhile, I asked one of the night guards for help. We went on a walk behind camp, with big, bright flashlights, looking for bush babies. After half an hour of searching, we returned to camp. They told me that we should look in the morning but due to the fact that I love my sleep, I was not up early enough this morning to see them.

This evening, after dinner, I set out with James, one of our cooks to find a bush baby. Once again, we were unsuccessful but we did find some tree hyrax which have orange eyes and are quite scary looking when they are staring at you from above in a tree.