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I explained to Sister Bernadette who  heads the Jirapa Town Kindergarden that I was also interested in visiting the orphanage across the road.  She walked over with me to introduce me the head nun there.  I wanted her to understand my motivation for visiting.  I shared that my daughter, grandmother and mother-in-law had each spent time in children’s home and how I wanted to understand the circumstances of the children.  My daughter had spent the first few months in her life in a baby house in Kazakhstan, my grandmother had spent at least a year of her life in a children’s home after her mother died in childbirth with one of younger siblings and my mother-in-law escaped Germany during the war and spent several years in children’s homes in France.

There were 15 children being cared for in the Jirapa orphanage I visited.  The primary reason for a child being taken in by the orphanage was loss of a mother.  Most of the children there had fathers and family still living and there was some hope of eventual reunification.  I asked if some of the children stayed there due to being born to single mothers, but that seemed to be much less common in Ghana than in other places.

What the children lacked in material goods, they made up for in love.  The head nun exuded kindness and the children struck me as exceptionally happy.  The head nurse and discussed the importance of early attachment, which she fully appreciated.  They make a special effort to hold the babies as much as possible.

The orphanage is primarily supported by the local archdiocesse with occasional donations from visiting church group.  They receive little or no money from the Ghanian government.


Children of Jirapa Town Orphanage


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Take a beautiful old tree.

Amputate its limbs.

Women carry tree limbs on their heads for miles to earn about 70 cents a trip.

Wood lands in a pile.

It is used as fire wood for cooking or to make pito, the local beer.

The Jirapa Town Kindergarden is located right next to the guest house.  One morning I peered through the chain link fence to watch the children at play.  I didn’t stay incognito very long as the children ran towards me shouting “Masala” (white person).   I caused quite a ruckus as the nun who ran the school approached me with a stern questioning as to what I was up to.

After a few minutes of profuse apologies, I explained to Sister Bernadette that I was the mother of kindergardener myself and was interested in seeing a Ghanaian kindergarden and that I also had some school supplies to donate.

I returned 10 minutes later with some assorted pens and colored pencils and was invited to spend some time in the classroom.  The children sang some songs to me, I sang to them and I gave them the chance to ask me questions about life in the U.S.  I could tell from their questions that they were curious and clever. The teach admonished them not to keep calling me Masala, but instead to call me “mama Genice”.

I was struck by the complete lack of resources.  There weren’t more than five books in the room.  The children used blackboard slates and chalk for writing practice.  When there aren’t enough slates to go around, the children write on the floor.  Some parents help out by purchasing small essay books for their kids to practice on.  But, most families can’t afford the 20 cents for the books, so their children do without.

I regreted not being able to bring the books I had collected from Jiana’s school.  I simply couldn’t carry them along with my backpack and other donations.  I felt compelled to do something and so I went with one the teachers to buy some school supplies.  We went to a nearby stationary store and book store and was dismayed by the empty shelve and lack of available school supplies .  I found only two books appropriate for kindergardeners and the essays books available were of inferior quality and expensive even by U.S. standards.  I bought what I could and was left wondering how I might get some quality school supplies to this remote community.

dressmaker in Jirapa

I didn’t have to go far to find a seamstress.  I just walked down the main road in Jirapa and found 20 or so store fronts with women sitting around with hand cranked sewing machines.  It’s common for Ghanaian women and men to have their clothes made.  Making and selling Ghanaian-made fabric and imported fabric (mostly from China, Holland, England and Togo) is common way people make a living.  You walk in to a road side stall and there are various pictures of dress styles to choose from.  You hand over your fabric and select a design and can have a dress finished in 1-2 days.  The going price for having a skirt made is about US $2; $3 for a dress. Given that it can take a full day to make a dress, I began to understand the challenge of making a living for the women I met.

two dressmakers

Day 6 – Following our adventures in the Weiche Hippo Sanctuary.

I hated to say goodbye to Pam at the bus depot in WA.   We were having too much fun and I know I won’t be seeing her for at least a year.  Several hugs and pictures later, I settle into the back of the bus and bury myself in my Brandt Ghana guide.   Next thing I know, the little girl sitting next to me pees on the floor. I quickly move my luggage away from the stream.   I give an understanding motherly smile and attempt to make some friendly contact by offering the girl’s mother a handiwipe.

An hour and a half later, I arrive in the town of Jirapa where I had arrange to meet up with Toby and company.

Maddie and Dorina, two Toby’s students met me at the bus stop and showed me to the guest house.  Toby who is wearing a traditional Ghanaian smock greets me with a cold Star (local beer) and introduces me to the Cooper students he is supervising.

Besides working with Dave, Wendy and me on SociaLite, Toby is overseeing various student projects.   Dorina and Maddie are working on a fuel (wood) energy audit and promoting energy efficient cookstoves to women’s organizations in Jirapa.  Julian and Leila are building a house of bamboo and mud in Jirapa.  Jess and Billy (who I didn’t get to meet) are working on the water audit in Bongo in upper East Ghana.  Two other students, both named Karen, had already left Ghana after coming down with bad cases of Malaria and Typhoid.   (Helen and an another student also had bouts with malaria, but they are sticking it out.)

Dinner that evening was a local dish called Fufu– mashed cavasa rolled into a gooey ball and served with guinea fowl in ground nut sauce.  After dinner we watched the U.S.-England World Cup match on a 14 inch TV that kept losing reception.  Friendly rivalry between us Americans and Toby, the sole Brit in the crowd.

While everyone else was focused on the game, I was preoccupied by the potentially malarial mosquitos buzzing around the dining room.   Even with malaria meds and being covered in deet, there is no guarantee that you won’t catch malaria (dusk to dawn mosquitos) or dengue (daytime mosquitos).   What’s more, I was troubled by the mangy dogs and cats who roamed freely around the guest house and kept begging for my attention.  I’m not sure which caused me more angst– the pesky mosquito or the friendly dogs.  Toby and Helen tried to reassure me that the dogs were mostly likely not rabid.  Nevertheless, I wanted nothing to do with them.  The travel doctor had warned that you absolutely had to get to Europe or the U.S. for treatment immediately if you received any form of a bite or scratch.  Without testing, you can’t know for sure and rural hospitals may or may not have current and proper rabies vacines.   If proper rabies treatment is not administered within 24 hours of a bite, exposure can become fatal.   It’s nothing to mess with.  Death by rabies is so brutal that they virtually have to chain you to the bed.  I set up my mosquito net and retired early.

Up at 6am the next morning for Sunday mass at the Catholic church across from the guest house.  While I’m not a church goer, it seems like a good way to experience the culture.  Sunday in Ghana is something to experience.  The mood is festive with all the women dressed up, everyone is in leisure mode.  The church was packed.  Toby and I were the only two foreigners and I was most likely the only non-Catholic.    The services weren’t much of a culture shock… Curiously, I found them to be remarkably similar to the Jewish renewal services I attend in Berkeley…. clapping, drumming, endless sermons, women in bright African prints.  It was very Berkeley.

Sunday was market day in Jirapa and after church, Toby and his elderly friend Quochent took me around the market.    Quochent was Toby’s family’s gardener when they lived in Jirapa 50 years ago.  We stopped for some Pito (homemade local beer).  Wanting to be a gracious guest, while also trying to avoid swallowing the dead fly swimming in my bowl, I pretended to drink my pito.  But, it was a losing battle.   Quochent kept filling up my bowl and I was making no progress.  I eventually found a graceful way to share my portion with Quochent.

The Jirapa market was typical of those you see in developing countries with a wide assortment of goods… food stuff, spices, unidentifyable fruits and vegetables, cookware, soap, toothbrushes and other personal care, tools…  There are virtually no tourists in Jirapa (just a few Peace Corp volunteers and others on humanitarian missions).  For me, this makes Jirapa all that more appealing.  On the flip side, there is very little for the shopper in me to buy.  I took home a mango, a ceramic pito jug and some hand-waxed batik fabric to make a dress.  This led me to my next adventure which was to find a seamstress.

Day 3: Departing Tamale for Mole National Park.  I’ve been trying for two days to get my Blackberry to accept my new SIM card so I can use my phone here.  One final attempt… We go to the MTM shop (the local cell phone provider) and ask them to try.   They can’t get it unlocked either.  I resign myself to buying a cheap Nokia.  Next stop, an Internet café.  There is no air conditioning; the connection is slower than slow and with the music blasting, I can’t think.  I give up on the notion of real time blogging and resign myself to journaling.  Insult to injury: Facebook doesn’t recognize the network I’m on and locks me out.

We get to the bus station super early to buy tickets for the trip to Mole National Park sell out as we here they often sell out.  With all our luggage in tow we are not especially mobile.  It’s very hot, very humid and so I just camp out on a bench and take in my surroundings.  This is where I took the photo to the left. The bus depot/marketplace is packed with people everywhere selling stuff and waiting.

NOT to my surprise, the bus is close to an hour late.  The station is chaotic and it takes some time to find the Mole bus as parking is a bit haphazard.  It’s a frenzy competition to store our luggage and board the bus, plus we are standing in the blazing sun.  Finally aboard the bus, we are packed like sardines and there is no air-conditioning or circulation.   It’s like a sauna.  Make matters worst, our seats 56 and 57 are not next to each other.  Pam seat is in the back the bus and I’m several rows up.  Pam is not happy.  She says something about “hating this” and wanting to leave NOW.  I try to persuade her that seeing the Elephants in Mole will make this all worthwhile.  It’s a most uncomfortable, sweaty six hour ride.  The best part of which was getting to know Joseph, the 18 year old kid next to me whose father is a park ranger at Mole.

Day 2:  8am bus for Tamale (capital city of Northern Ghana).   Much like yesterday, it’s hot and humid and the ride is long and bumpy.  The bus is air-conditioned, so it’s not too bad.   Colorfully dressed women carry food and drinks on their heads to sell to travelers.  The North is predominately Muslim and you see more mosques, men in kaftans and women with their heads covered.  The villages get progressively poorer the farther North you travel.  There are no signs of electrification.  I keep looking for signs of people selling kerosene, but there aren’t any.  I did however, see one village with a solar panel.

The ride was uneventful until we stopped at Kintampo Market for the requisite “15 minute” mid-trip break.  There was a lot of commotion as Pam and I were exiting the bus.  We learn that a man had tried to steal someone’s laptop.  Five or six guys from the bus take matters into their own hands– roughing up and yelling at the accused and then escorting him back on the bus for a trip to the nearby police station.    Through the police station window we see the guy has been stripped to his underwear and is being loudly interrogated.  We are told that there is zero tolerance for such theft in Ghana.  After seeing this guy beaten up, this is strangely reassuring.  Crime rates are seriously low by U.S. standards and I can’t fathom such a unified vigilante in my home town of Oakland.

We arrived in Tamale  around 5pm—three hours later than we were supposed to.  We are met at the bus depot by Mohammed Adams, Executive Director of Grameen Ghana.  Grameen Ghana is a nine year old microfinance bank with 7,500 customers and a $500,000 lending portfolio.  No affiliation with the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, but the bank receives some funding from the Grameen Foundation.

Grameen Ghana serves women earning less than $2 a day in rural and semi-urban communities lacking electricity.   The bank makes collateral-free  loans to women who sign up as a group (usually 5-6 members).  Individual loans are guaranteed by the other members of the group—peer pressure is Grameen Ghana’s insurance policy.  It is an effective strategy as the loan default rate is less than 1%.  If only U.S. banks could claim such success.

I was eager to meet Mr. Adams as I heard he was seeking out solar lantern options for his customers and was working out the details of an energy lending program.   Aside from solar lighting, he was considering options for cook stoves and agriculture aids.   He had recently been visited by four Columbia University students to get their input on how to structure such a program.  Mr. Adams explained, “clean energy and cook stoves are a vital element to helping women gain more independence.”  He had read all I sent him about SociaLite and was excited to explore possibilities.  He shared his model of working with communities and we discussed potential financial models that could be used and how we might collaborate.  His parting words, “I’d like to try this out as a pilot with a couple communities.  It’s a crazy idea.  I’m not sure how I am going to fund it, but I’ll figure something out.”  The next step would be for him to visit our engineering center at WA Polytechnic in the coming months.

Mohammed Adam, Director and Founder of Grameen Ghana

Grameen Ghana HQ

(Accra 8am Monday) After traveling for 19 hours and being up for 48, I arrived, exchanged money, bought a SIM card and caught a taxi to the bus station.  Buses typically don’t leave on time here, which worked in my favor as I was able to catch the 8:30am bus to Kumasi at 9:20am.   The bus was clean than I expected, air conditioned and I scored a pair of seats to myself.  An English language Nigerian soap opera was blasting on TV, but I couldn’t understand a word of it.  I appeared to be the only non Ghanaian on board, but no one seemed to notice.

Accra is a large, modern city with lots of traffic, skyscrapers and air pollution.  It has a population of about two million.  Women wear brightly patterned dresses and carry stuff on their heads.  It is hot and humid, but not unbearably so.  Not even as bad as New York where I changed planes.  A few miles out on the main highway to Kumasi (Ghana’s second city), there is a dramatic scene change and you are reminded that you are in a developing country.    The countryside gets progressively poorer the further North you get.  Road are paved, but there are lots of pot holes.  It’s a bumpy ride.  Most everyone I’ve encountered speaks some English and the signs are in English.  Although, in spite of  a shared language, half the time you can’t understand what people are saying due their thick accents.  It’s like England in that way.

Halfway to Kumasi, our bus driver stops for a 15 minute break.  I soon learned that 15 minutes doesn’t mean the same thing in Ghana as it does in the U.S.  Fifteen minutes became an hour.  This is Africa time.

The bus quickly became hot and sticky with the air off.  But, I was reluctant to get off  for fear it would leave without me.   Besides my sunscreen was packed in my stored luggage and I wasn’t sure how much sun I could take being so close to the equator.    So I’m sitting on the bus drunk from lack of sleep and sweating like I’m in a sauna.  Never mind, I’m happy hanging out in the middle of nowhere people watching.  I’m more relaxed than I’ve been in days preparing for this trip.

Then the driver informs us of a problem with the bus and that we have to wait for another to come from Accra.  This could take another couple of hours.  So much for my luck making the earlier bus.  At this point, I get off the bus for a Coke with a Ghanaian women I’ve befriended.

Three hours later, another bus comes and we transfer our luggage.  Two more hours on the road and we make an unexpected stop at what everyone keeps telling me is a “workshop”.  Translation: time to do some bus maintenance.  Everyone else, except me, seems patient.

First impressions.  So far, I’ve found people here generally friendly and unlike many developing countries I’ve traveled– no one is harassing you to buy stuff or asking you to marry them.   Not at all intimidating.

I finally arrived at the Four Villages Inn in Kumasi at around 5pm, just as my friend Pam Hack was beginning to worry.  Four Villages is a comfortable guesthouse (with Internet doesn’t work), run by a helpful Ghanaian-Canadian couple. Chris and Charity who met 40 years ago while Chris was in Ghana with Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps. Pam and I caught up on the last year and half since she’s left for Eritrea (U.S. Foreign Service post) at an Indian/Chinese restaurant that is popular with visiting Embassy staff.  The food was good by Bay Area standards.  Pam thought that it was very funny that I had decided to become a temporary vegetarian in Ghana.   As if I have any more of a clue about the path to my mouth the meat I eat at home takes.

After dinner, a quick visit to an Internet cafe, more cold beer and a better nights sleep than I’ve had in months.

I woke up to an email from Wendy Lee who has been in Ghana with the group from Cooper  since May 18.  She writes, “we’ve all had various bouts of illness”, which I take to mean of the digestive variety. She recommends that I pack oral rehydration salts.

One thing is certain.  I’m going to lose tons of weight on this trip — because I’m going to eat as little local food as possible.   In addition to the normal precautions (no salads, cold food, ice, etc.), I’m avoiding everything questionable — all meat, dairy, juice, street food and stuff that looks funny.   I have absolutely no desire to spend a disproportionate amount of my vacation in a rural outhouse.

On the bright side, I’m hoping to lose the 10 pounds I’ve gained since my wedding day two years ago.  I know I’ll lose a few pounds simply from being away from my gourmet chef husband.   I can do this.  I’ve stocked my pack with beef jerky, trail mix, bluegreen algae powder and high protein Cliff Bars.  In Nepal, Pam and I trekked for 9 days sustained by Powerbars, Cokes, beer and a few daily forkfuls of lentils and rice.   I lost 8 pounds quickly.  I’m going back to Trader Joe’s for more snacks, and then to the drug store to buy oral rehydration salts.

Being a compulsive non-procrastinator, I’m completely packed and ready to go one week before I take off.  I’m not sure which was harder — preparing for life in a remote village or handing over the reins of our six-year-old to dad.  I purposely scheduled my trip and around Danielle and Jonah’s vacation with their mom so they are not a worry.  There are enough logistics involved with leaving Jiana.  I’ve left Ron a portfolio with details for 18 scheduled play dates, camp, daily plans, back up plans, and back up plans for my back up plans.  I’ll be busy paying back childcare favors for next 10 years.

With family concerns handled, I turned my focus to not catching any funky diseases.  With a couple of trips to the travel doctor, my vaccines are now current for Hepetites A and B, Polio, Yellow Fever, Diptheria/Tetanus, Typhoid, Meningcocal Meningitis and H1N1.  I’ve got Malaria pills, emergency antibiotics, Imodium, Pepto Bismo, Tylenol, Advil, grapeseed extract, Neosporin, hydrocordison cream, Calamine lotion, sunscreen and band-aids.  All my clothes have been thoroughly sprayed with Permathrin, which is so toxic that directions say to call poison control if you get any on your skin.  I’ve packed ample Deet lotion and a mosquito net, which I will use religiously (whether or not there are windows screens in the hotels).  I’ll be tripling up on water precautions — Bottled water treated with a bleach solution, hand filtered and mixed with Crystal Light  to camouflage the bleach aftertaste.  Pam and I are old hats at this as we did the same routine when we traveled together in Nepal in 1999.

I’m girl scout ready for every possibility.  My backpack is stuffed with a flash light, Swiss army knife, neck thingie with safety wire to hide money in my bra.  I’ve also packed toilet paper, hand sanitizer, handy wipes, cliff bars, beef jerky, chocolate Altoids and a quick drying towel.  Then there is my Digital SLR and HD Video cameras, memory cards and spare batteries, a couple of books, a travel guide and a journal in case I don’t have Internet access for blogging.  There is hardly any room in my pack left for clothes.  I’m bringing the bare minimum– 2 pairs of pants, 6 tops, Wisconsin student bottle water company t-shirt, 1 shirt, 2 pairs of shoes — primarily unflattering high-tech travel garb that wicks moisture away, and something presentable to wear to church.  Not that I’m a church goer, but it’s supposedly a cultural adventure not to be missed.  Whatever space is left, I’ll stuff in all the colored pencils, pens, tooth brushes, kids clothes and children’s books I can carry for donations.

The only things left to do now is schedule a shuttle (I leave home at 3:30 am) and go to bank.  I will get 10 brand new $100 bills to store in my bra.  I hate the idea of traveling with so much cash, but the options are limited in Ghana.  Few places exchange travelers checks and the State Department warns against using credit cards even at upscale hotels.  Credit card fraud is a huge concern.  Hopefully all the cash in my bra will just make me a little more voluptuous, but not too sexy as to attract any unwanted attention.