Friday, July 30, 2010

Jennifer's Funeral

“We are the world” was playing from a teenage boy’s cell phone. Local Ghanaian music was blasting from the speakers. The guests were dressed in red and black, traditional funeral colors here in Ghana. We were secluded from the rest of the funeral guests, sitting under a canopy as one of the family members introduced the other family members and important guests.

As Alex was extremely busy with stuff at the orphanage, Roland, one of Alex and Raymond’s brothers traveled to Ho with me for Jennifer’s funeral. Funerals don’t always occur so quickly after a death here in Ghana so I felt lucky that Jennifer’s was taking place so quickly after her death. I felt this way selfishly as I knew that attending her funeral would bring me some closure.

As the man was talking, the guest sitting to my right whispered that he was talking about me. I was told to stand up as John, the father of the family further introduced me and told the family members how this white girl, the only white person of the hundreds of funeral attendees was associated with their family. As he talked in Ewe, I couldn’t understand most of what he said, but it really didn’t matter. I understood when he introduced me as Nicole Pampanin and then proceeded to tell everyone that I am also Nicole Dogbey, part of their family. I was then told that they wanted me to come and see the corpse. I had been doing pretty well until then and suddenly burst into tears.

Prior to arriving at this compound where all the guests were gathered, we went to Klepe, the village where the family lives. As we arrived in Klepe, I noticed huge groups of people on the side of the road dressed in black and red. The children were dressed in their green school uniforms and had red scarves and cloths tied around themselves. We were in a pick up truck and went to pick up some of the guests so that they didn’t have to walk. The scene was overwhelming. I had attended funerals in Ghana before but this one was different because I actually knew the person who died. It meant so much more to see all the people standing out there, dressed in black and red and it touched my heart to see that so many people cared about Jennifer and were mourning her loss. One of the things I have learned in Africa is that if something happens, whether good or bad, positive or negative, it affects the whole community. When a marriage occurs, the community celebrates together and when a death occurs, the community mourns together.

When I was told that I was to go and see the corpse, I turned to Roland and asked him if the casket would be open or closed. He told me that he was not sure as this practice varies from family to family. I was nervous, scared that the casket would be open. I was hesitant to go into the room where the casket was but I was pulled in regardless. Once again, I burst into tears. The casket was open. Jennifer was lying there, dressed in a beautiful dress. I turned away after about two seconds. I couldn’t look at her. It was real. Seeing her body laying there in the casket made it real.

Being in Hohoe, while Jennifer’s family was in Ho made it difficult for me to really comprehend Jennifer’s death. I cried when I heard the news of her death but I was alone. I had support here in Hohoe and from home, but no one else knew Jennifer. It was something that really only affected me. Therefore, it didn’t really seem real. I didn’t see anyone else crying over her death, I was distant and it made it easier for me to pretend that it wasn’t really real. Even as Roland and I traveled to Ho on Friday morning, I was still hoping that I would arrive and be told that it was all a joke. Seeing all the people in Klepe mourning Jennifer’s death began to make it more real but it wasn’t until I saw her corpse that it became reality. It finally clicked. There was no turning back. Jennifer’s death was real and I just couldn’t handle it.

I turned and was hugged by Peace and Dela, two of Jennifer’s siblings. They walked me out of the room as I cried my eyes out. I was walked back to my seat and just sat there, unable to think, move, or do anything. I watched Jennifer’s biological parents, whom I had never met before as they cried and wished that I could just give them a huge hug and wipe their tears.

I don’t remember what happened next. I was in such a daze. I tried to be present but it was so difficult when all I could do was think about the fact that Jennifer, the bright, somewhat quiet but funny girl whom I had gotten to know and love over the past few years was gone. I thought of her as one of my sisters. And now she would no longer be there when I came to visit, I would no longer be able to talk to her on the phone, or play Uno with her and share laughs with her. I thought about the fact that I was so lucky that I had never before had to attend the funeral of a child because I did not know any children who had died (besides Nyanuie, the child from Christ Orphanage who died last year while I was in East Africa) and hoped that this would be the last funeral of a child that I would have to attend. But with doing work in Ghana and knowing so many children and people here, I have to be realistic and realize that however sad it may be, I might be living in a dream world to think this way.

Peace and Roland sat with me. Peace put her arms around me. And I put my arms around her. I knew that I needed her love and support just as much as she needed mine. I felt sad for Jennifer’s parents, for John and Annie who had cared for Jennifer for longer than I had known her, and for her other friends and family members, but I felt the most pain for Peace. Peace is 17 years old and is the other teenage girl in my adopted family. Although Peace and Jennifer were not biological sisters, they were ‘sisters.’ They grew up together, lived together, played together, and loved each other’s company. Although Peace was staying strong, I knew that it must have been very difficult for her, something that became very evident at the gravesite.

I was escorted to the pick up truck and told to get inside as about 20 men jumped into the back. The men sang in the back as we drove to the cemetery. The weight of all the men began to take a toll on the vehicle. We eventually had to stop at a gas station and put more air in the tires but that did not fix the squeaking and other noises that the vehicle was making.

We arrived at the cemetery and had to walk past a number of graves to get to the gravesite. As we were walking, we witnessed a fight which had broken out between some of the family members. Apparently one of the men was upset that he did not get to help carry the casket from the truck to the gravesite and decided to make a scene. I know that he wanted to be a part because he loved Jennifer but it saddened me that they were fighting and making such a big scene at her funeral, at the gravesite.

The casket was laid on top of the burial plot as some words were spoken in Ewe. Amidst my crying, I tried to comfort Forgive and Peace who were also crying. The casket was lowered into the grave and the tears escaladed. If seeing the corpse didn’t make it real enough, this did. And the thumps as the dirt was thrown on top of the casket made it even more real. She was gone. She was really gone. I was a mess. Hearing the dirt pound on the casket killed me inside. I was pulled away and taken back to the pick up truck. The men were already crowded in the back of the truck and I was seated inside. The ride back to the family’s home in Klepe was quieter than the ride to the cemetery although there was some singing.

We arrived at the family’s house in Klepe. The compound had been rearranged to accompany three large tents and dozens of plastic chairs. The elders who could not attend the actual funeral were present and the events of the funeral were described to them in Ewe. Melody and Richmond were both there and I just held them when they came and sat with me. Alcohol was served and some other proceedings that I did not follow took place.

When there was a break in the proceedings, I talked to John to try to fully understand how Jennifer died. I was confused and had questions that I wanted answered. As I knew, Jennifer was taken to the hospital on Sunday night. She was given an IV and died when receiving the third bag of medication. She had been to the hospital earlier that week and received medication for the malaria but apparently she was very stubborn about taking medication and had to be forced to take it. I am not sure if she actually ended up taking the medication as she was supposed to or if that is the reason she ended up getting worse and had to go back to the hospital. No one seems to be very sure. However, they know that Jennifer began loosing a lot of blood during the IV and became anemic. Apparently it is very easy to get blood from the blood bank (something that Jennifer’s parents investigated after her death) but the doctor was upset with his nurses and did not order the blood. It is due to this that Jennifer ended up dying. Hearing this made me upset. How could the doctor neglect to do something as simple as order some blood for this young girl? This blood would have saved her life. I turned to Roland and asked if anything would happen to the doctor due to his negligence in this case. He just shook his head and asked if anything would happen to the doctor if this happened in America. I couldn’t believe that the doctor would be able to continue practicing medicine as if nothing had happened, as if he was not at all responsible for this death, as if he had no role in Jennifer’s death. I know there is a lack of doctors here in Ghana but this was upsetting. I wished there was something I could do, but I know that I can’t fix everything. I can try my best to make an impact here but there is only so much one person can do.

Jennifer’s death inspires me to keep working hard and serving the community here in Wegbe. I know that my presence here brings joy and hope to the locals and right now, that is all I can do. I will do my best to continue making their lives a bit brighter with my presence, help to provide food, education, and healthcare to their children at Christ Orphanage, and work even harder to keep raising funds back home so that we are able to continue providing for these children. They are the future of this country. They are the hope of Wegbe, Ghana.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

And life goes on

It’s Tuesday evening and I am sitting outside enjoying the sounds and smells of the village. The young kids quickly figure out that my face is lit up due to my computer screen and come over to check it out. Essie, one of Raymond and Alex’s cousins is preparing my dinner, potatoes. We quickly ran out of the potatoes we bought in Accra when I first arrived, so, I sent Godwin with some money when he went to pick up Brother Mark yesterday so that I could stock up. As the people like sweet potatoes, yams, and cassava, potatoes are not really a part of their diet and as a result, they are practically impossible to find in Hohoe. However, potatoes and rice are what basically make up my diet here so I am very happy to have more potatoes.

Essie is only 22, her birthday was just a few days ago, yet, she does practically everything for me. She buys and cooks my food, sweeps my room, washes and irons my clothes, makes me traditional clothing, and heats my water. I don’t like having to be so dependent on another person to do what seems like such basic things for me, but I have to admit, she is truly amazing and she makes my life here a lot easier and more manageable.

The kids run around the compound, attempting to avoid the laundry that is hanging from the lines. Essie puts the coals on the fire. I listen to the conversations that are taking place in Ewe but although I am trying to learn the language, I don’t even recognize a single word. The older kids are playing jenga. I taught them the game a few days ago and now they come to me asking to play it. When the get tired of playing jenga, they use the blocks and build houses, using the extra pieces as people.

My legs itch. I try not to scratch the millions of mosquito bites that cover them but it’s so difficult. I truly don’t understand how I have gotten so many bites and how they manage to multiply every single day. It truly amazes me.

I received a phone call this evening. The arrangements for Jennifer’s funeral have been set. Just hearing these words shocks me. I still can’t believe that she is no longer alive. It is too difficult for me to truly comprehend. I will be traveling to Ho on Friday morning to attend the funeral. As this funeral is for a child, it is not as long and intensive as the 3 day funerals that are usually held for adults.

The children are growing anxious. They want me to play with them. I will write more later.

Monday, July 19, 2010

RIP Jennifer

As tears run down my face, Alex tells me how in Africa, things are different than in the Western world and death among children is much more of a reality. The sound of his words bothers me. The fact that they are so used to the idea of children dying bothers me. It is not fair. It shouldn’t be that way.

On Saturday, I boarded a tro tro headed to Ho to visit my adopted family there. Forgive, Melody and Richmond’s mother had moved to Accra a few months ago with Richmond, but upon hearing of my visit, they traveled to Ho. They arrived shortly after I arrived on Saturday and Richmond was warmly greeted by everyone. It was the first time he had been back to Ho in quite awhile and all the kids and adults had missed his presence in Ho so much. I was quite happy to see him as well as he was the baby that I fell in love with and spent most of my waking hours with during my first trip to Ghana.

I spent the day with my family; talking, playing, and showing them the photo album that I brought for them full of photos from last year. The photo album was quite a hit and was passed around as friends and family members arrived at the compound throughout the day. That photo album must have been flipped through at least 50 times just during the few hours I was there.

Genevieve, also known as Jennifer, the 13 year old girl in my family was laying on a bench in the family’s compound. Her eyes were very puffy and this reserved girl who usually enjoys my presence did not say a word to me. I asked what was wrong with her and was told that she had malaria. I enquired as to whether she was being treated and was told that she had been taken to the hospital and given medication. She spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping but as I know from experience, that is pretty normal for someone who has malaria. Although she was quite sick, she was being treated, so I didn’t think much more about it. She was asleep when I left that afternoon so I left without saying good bye, assuming that she would be better the next time I visited.

On Monday morning, I headed over to the school. The children were singing and praying, dancing and drumming. The children went to class and I taught a math lesson to Class 1 before Alex came to get me as we planned on going to town to run some errands. We walked to the house where, I took my phone out of my bag and noticed an unread text message. It read as follows: “Nic, good morning. Sorry to inform you that Genevieve is dead. Call you later”. Thankfully I was on my bed as I just collapsed. I immediately called John, the father of the family because I was in shock. I had just seen Jennifer two days ago, how could she now be dead? She was just a child, how could she now be dead? She had malaria, a treatable disease, how could she now be dead?

John told me that Jennifer’s condition had worsened on Sunday night. He told me that she was taken to the hospital and then died early Monday morning. I told him I was so sorry and he told me that he would alert me when the funeral arrangements had been made. After I hung up the phone, I laid on my bed, crying. It just didn’t make sense in my head. I know that death is a natural process but Jennifer’s death seemed so preventable. I cried for Jennifer, I cried for Jennifer’s family, I cried for the other children across Africa and the southern hemisphere who die every day due to a lack of good medical care, and I cried because I wished there was something I could have done to prevent her death.

I will keep you updated and let you know when details arise regarding the funeral. Thank you to those of you who have already sent your prayers and kind wishes. It means a lot to me.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Disciplining Children in Africa

After we send the kids home from the orphanage around 4:30-5pm, I go home and take my second shower of the day. The first shower is a bucket shower at the compound where I live at lunch time and the second shower is a western style shower at a nearby house, which means that I can actually wash my hair, something I have not yet learned how to master with a bucket shower.

After this second shower, I usually hang out outside with the local kids, many of whom attend Christ Orphanage. They love seeing me outside of school and the more personalized attention I can give them since there are not a hundred other children yearning for attention at the same time. Instead, there are only between 2-15 other children, which I have to admit is still a lot!

This evening, I was at the neighbor’s compound, playing with about 10 children, having a good time. All of the sudden, I heard a girl screaming and witnessed a woman beating the 12 year old girl who lives with her. I am not sure what their relation is but I know that they are related in some fashion. The woman beat the girl with the flat side of a machete as the girl screamed in agony. It killed me. No one got up. No one did anything. Everyone just turned and watched as the girl screamed and tried to run away. What killed me even more was the fact that I felt that if I did or said anything, it would just make things worse and possibly result in another beating of the girl. I felt so helpless and wished that I could have done something.

About a half hour later, when the girl had stopped crying and screaming, she came over and sat by me. I asked her why she was beaten but she refused to tell me. It saddens me that it was probably over something so small, something that doesn’t really even matter in the long run.

I left the kids for awhile to return home and eat my dinner before returning to play with them for a little longer. As it was dark and getting late, I told them that I would see them tomorrow and returned home to go to sleep. As much as I tried, I couldn’t get this incident out of my head. It breaks my heart to even think about it. Maybe it is ethnocentric of me to think this way. I realize that in America, parents used to beat their children too. But although we have become developed in America and now categorize such behavior as ‘child abuse,’ they have not yet gotten to that point in Africa.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Comforting Sounds

Back home it is a miracle if I am out of bed by 10am. It is currently 6:46 am and I have already been awake for 46 minutes. I know, this is something that is unheard of for me! Maybe its because I am more excited to get up and start my day when I am here, maybe it is because I go to bed at a more decent hour, maybe it is a combination of both of these things, but whatever it is, I somehow happily wake up at the crack of dawn when in Ghana. I wake up to the sound of my fan billowing from the ceiling, the cries of babies as they are bathed, the sound of people talking, the sound of roosters signaling the beginning of the day and the sound of goats crying out for their kids. Over time, these have become such comforting sounds.

In a similar way, the sounds of the kids at Christ Orphanage crying, laughing, talking, and singing has become something I am used to when approaching the compound. And of course the chanting of my name as I approach never gets old although it starts to die off as the children realize that I am here for a prolonged amount of time.

The first question the kids at Christ Orphanage asked me when I returned to the orphanage about a week ago was where my elephant was. Since returning home from Ghana in December, I had replaced my elephant necklace with a necklace I had purchased in East Africa. The new necklace is of Africa with a small elephant on it. Even though this new necklace has an elephant on it, it is not the same as the previous necklace that all the kids had grown used to and remembered me wearing every day. I couldn’t believe that the kids remembered what my old necklace looked like and asked about it. And it wasn’t only one or two of the kids that asked about it but a great number of them inquired about it. They now come up to me and point to my necklace, “Africa AND elephant.” Maybe its one of those things you have to be there to understand.

This past weekend, I stayed in Wegbe as I love being here (and because I feel like I have been to most of the tourist places in Ghana and because I do not feel like I am a tourist when I am here). Saturday was spent getting some work done and resting from the week’s activities. On Sunday, we followed the sounds of singing til we reached the church (which is across the street). The children, including a number of Christ children, were ecstatic that I was at their church. They would stare at me and wait until I made eye contact with them. At that point, they would laugh and turn away. It was somewhat like peek-a-boo but across a large distance in a church, and played with more than just one child. As the service went on, children came and sat with me. One young girl whom I don’t even know came and sat between Alex and I. She proceeded to lay her head in my lap and sleep for most of the remainder of the service. Other children came to sit with me and wouldn’t stop talking so it became my task to quiet them as the pastor was giving his sermon. This task was not quite as easy as it may sound.

Following lunch, Alex and I as well as a number of other family members went to visit the home of a cousin who had just given birth to a baby the previous week. It is tradition to keep the baby inside for the first week of life so this was the baby’s outdooring ceremony, meaning it was the first time the baby would be brought outside. The baby was fetched from its bed and somehow immediately ended up in my arms. The baby, so small and light in color just slept in my arms as the family chatted in Ewe. Of course I was in heaven and had absolutely no issue with holding the newborn until I was forced to give him up.

Later that day, I was taken to a birthday party in Wegbe for a girl who was turning 14 years old. I did not know the girl, but her and her family were happy to have me there. They were so happy to have me there that they brought me a cold drink and biscuits which I was instructed to finish before getting up to dance. I danced for hours with the other guests and kids, some of which I knew from Christ and from around the neighborhood. At one point, the mother of the birthday girl even brought out a beautiful fabric which she wrapped around me. Then, I was instructed to stand with family members and be part of practically all of the ‘professional’ photos that were taken. They were so excited to have me in their pictures yet they didn’t even know me. After a few hours of dancing and taking tons of photos, I returned home to help prepare dinner and get some much needed rest.

It is now only Tuesday, but this week has been very productive thus far. I have been working on taking new photos of all the children at Christ for the website and collecting data for my research. Hopefully the rest of the week will continue to be as productive.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Although I have to do my research and a ton of stuff at the orphanage during this trip, my number one goal was not to get sick. Last year’s malaria and typhoid was enough sickness for me for quite awhile so I have been doing everything possible to avoid getting sick this year. It is only day 4 and that plan has already failed. Granted I only have a cold, the fact of the matter is that I am sick and I didn’t want to get sick. I have already been to the pharmacy and have begun some medicine and will hopefully be fully recovered very soon.

After arriving in Wegbe on Saturday evening and briefly visiting a few friends, it was time for bed. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was dark outside and everyone was already asleep, I would have walked around the village right then to visit my kids. But, instead, I saved that for the next morning when I awoke at 4am. I waited til 5am to actually get out of bed and leave the house before walking around the village and causing chaos. I tried to quiet the kids and other people who saw me and started to scream but it wasn’t as easy as it may sound. By this point, I had a whole group of kids following me and mimicking my every move. I think it is fair to say that they were beyond excited to have me back in their village.

The village became quiet as people started heading to church. I opted to stay home and use the time to unpack my belongings. Two of my favorite girls came over and quickly discovered that much to their asking, I had brought some story books for them to read. They were definitely a hit and kept them occupied while I continued to unpack.

On Monday morning, I finally got to see the rest of my kids whom I had yet to see. As I approached the orphanage, the chanting began. Seesta Nicole. Seesta Nicole. Seesta Nicole. A huge grin came across my face as I was greeted by the children and their open arms. They ran to hug me and stare in astonishment although I think that by now they are used to the fact that I am one of the volunteers who actually will come back when they say that they will. I quickly became a human jungle gym once again as the kids jumped all over me, tried to get into my pockets, began playing with my hair, and tried to climb onto my back. Nothing had changed. I was beyond excited to be back.

The children were soon escorted inside and began their devotion. It warmed my heart to hear those voices sing the familiar songs that I had not heard in seven months. They then expressed their gratitude to me and told me how joyous this day was because I had returned. I spent the rest of the day observing the various classes, impressed at how far the children had come since I left. In particular, I was very impressed with the level of mathematics that the oldest two classes were doing.

After eating lunch, I went into town to run some errands. Our stop at the bank took forever as a huge group of CCS volunteers had arrived at the bank just a minute or two earlier and made the line very long. It began pouring but we continued our errands which included making copies of the questionnaires and other forms for my study and buying water. Of course, I couldn’t visit Hohoe without visiting my friend and seamstress, Beatrice, so we stopped by her shop before returning home.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Seesta Nicole is back in Ghana

After a tiring, long day of traveling from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. to Accra, I finally arrived in Ghana. Although I had been traveling for many hours, it didn’t hit me til I was waiting for my flight from D.C. to Accra that I was actually going back. As I had been looking forward to this trip so much, it just seemed like a dream that would always be in the future. As much as it felt like a dream, I am so happy that this trip is no longer in the future and that I am finally here!

On my flight from D.C. to Accra, I met a 30 something year old woman and her adorable baby. I know, I know, nothing out of the ordinary. The mother was going to Ghana to visit her family for the first time since she gave birth to her 10 month old son, Wisdom. I told the mother that I would be more than willing to hold her baby on the plane if she got tired or needed to sleep or anything. As our flight was only about 65% full, she moved closer to me, which meant that I got to play with him when he was awake which helped make the super long flight a bit more fun.

When we arrived in Ghana, I couldn’t contain my excitement anymore. I knew that it would be hot and humid the minute I stepped off the airplane but I wanted nothing more to get off that plane. After gathering my bags, I was met by my welcoming party: Alex, Raymond, Wisdom, and a few other family members as well as the driver. We traveled about 30 minutes, through lots of Accra traffic to meet Alex’s mother’s at her house. After meeting her and spending some time with her, we travelled another 30 minutes through lots of traffic to Alex and Raymond’s uncle’s house. It has become like a tradition now that we visit him and his family every time we are in Accra so of course, we had to go and visit them upon my arrival. Sammy, Alex and Raymond’s nephew was excited to see me and even more excited about the photos that I brought of him from my last visit. He loved them so much that he held onto them and just looked at them for most of the time I was there.

We were served lunch and then got back in the tro tro and began out long 4 hour journey to Wegbe. As it became dark, I became sad that I would not be able to see my children until the following day. However, when we arrived in Wegbe, out neighbors, Yaira and her family were still awake and I just had to go over there and say hello. They did not know that I would be returning on this day and were so excited to see me that you could hear their screams from down the road. They ran to me and hugged me and were in amazement that I was back. After getting over their initial shock, they inquired as to where Sister Melissa was and when she would be coming. They were not very happy to hear that she would not be coming this time but I assured them that she would be back one day soon.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Back in my Happy Place

Just a short note to let you know that I have arrived safely in Ghana. Will post more later.