Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ghana Trip, Day 4

We woke up this morning very exhausted and je-tlagged. There was a goat that seemed to be having its way with a chicken near the back of the hotel, and the roosters seem to be crowing every two or three hours all night. I'll need to work on positioning my earplugs so they don't fall out at night.

Breakfast was omelets again with the best toast in the world. The butter was even different from what we were used to at home. We gulped instant coffee mixed with Milo, and headed off to the school.

We scurried up the hill to be presented to the students and teachers on their first day of school. R- came out to greet us dressed in beautiful, formal Ghanaian outfit with an American flag scarf pinned around her neck. Curry told us that she was wearing it to show respect to us 9 visiting Americans. We were amazed and very touched. She gave us some warnings about appropriate behavior and cultural differences (for example, not to be upset to see the kids moving about their chores, as the school upkeep is partially their responsibility and they are learning life skills hat they'll need when they leave the school). She also cautioned us not to be shocked or upset when we saw corporal punishment used in the school, as that is something that occurs in Ghanaian culture and that they weren't "beating" the kids, but would use physical discipline in some cases to keep them in line [editor's note: after a week in the school, I can attest that what she said is true. Their discipline methods are far more "hands-on" than our generation is used to, but it is nothing different than our parents would have experienced in school, and the kids were not abused or injured. It is a large part of the culture shock, however]. Discussion cone, she dismissed us to the quad.

We lined up to the right of the students while R- welcomed them back for the Winter Term, reminded the students of the rules, and introduced the 9 "obrunis" to the kids, signing the whole time. I was thrilled and amazed that she was signing so well, and that there was no voice interpreter (except for Ronai and I furiously filling Jen in on the proceedings), as this is better than the situation I’ve seen in some of our schools for the Deaf at home.

She then called a boy forward who had been caught with a contraband phone. He was forced to hand over the phone and brought to the front of the gathering, and I was afraid he was going to be physically punished in front of us. We all steeled ourselves, only to have the boy simply chastised and shamed in front of all the visitors. ::whew:: Shame we can do!

Once the assembly was over, the junior secondary students headed over to their classrooms and we were herded over to the Primary Ed building, and assigned classrooms. Before we headed out, Rachel found herself immersed in conversation with H- a woman who she had met on the last trip, and had been dating M-, the Deaf Ghanaian who had gone on to college. H- had seen Rachel, and had told Curry “that woman looks like Rachel!” Curry, mischievous as ever, simply encouraged her to go ask the nice obruni what her name was. Their reunion was very, very touching.

Ronai and Elly got a room full of first-graders, Rachel, Aaron and Leah got sent somewhere else, and Pabs, Jen and I got sent to the last room on the row.

hen we entered the room, I was thrilled to see it was full of older students, some in their early teens. I like working with older children much more than I do kindergarteners, so I was overjoyed. We worked with rush-brooms and then carted water in from the pumps to wash the floor and windows for the first day of class. Floor and windows clean, we then set up all the desks and cleaned them as well.

We were being very productive, but I was struggling to communicate with some of the students. I thought it was just my unfamiliarity with the language, and all the regional variations in their signing style (they ostensibly use ASL, but there’s some GSL in the mix as well). It wasn’t until the end of the day, when a random adult brought in a new kid that I found out we were in the older-kids-who-can’t sign/special education room. My heart broke, as I knew this would be a challenge for me on many levels, but after some consideration, I decided I could, and would stay in that room.

Work at the school completed, we headed off to town in a cab (for more on how one should always travel with Curry, check out Jen’s blog here) and started the hair process. Leah, Ellie and Jen got their hair done first, and it was a relatively quick and painless process (especially given what we were expecting from reading about Leah’s adventure last time. We watched Curry play with babies, chatted and goofed off, and eventually Jen left with the girls.

However, Ronai and I had “hair” added to ours, and it took 7 some odd hours for hers to get done, and 8 hours for mine. We were gone FOREVER.

True, it looked amaz-za-zing when we were finished:

But by the time we got back, around 9pm, (after Ronai killed her SECOND taxi (although this one did smell like fish)), I was tired, cranky and wishing I had brought either music, earplugs or a book for the 12 hours I’d spent at the hair salon. Combined with the jet-lag and the sounds of Africa at night, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to get up in the morning.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ghana Trip, Day 3

So, the Mormons went to church, and Ronai killed her first taxi.

Pablo and I had a nice leisurely morning filled with coffee and Milo and mate.

This whole place looks and feels like something out of a movie, especially given that we are taking our breakfast, of an omlet and the best toast ever, on the veranda. Breakfast completed, I filmed homework for my ASL class and took pictures of the hotel and its grounds while we waited for the others to return.

Pablo would not allow me to play Tarzan on the vines hanging from any of the trees (something to do with the huge bugs, I guess).

(I was not allowed to do this)

When they got back, we got ready to head over to the school, DemoDeaf in Mampong, for the first time. The walk there is long, especially in the heat, but we did notice the sign warning drivers to slow down (not that any of them would have seen it, covered in leaves as it was, or that they would have slowed down anyway).

We arrived, and met the librarian, S-, and he greeted us with much fanfare, and teased Curry mercilessly. One thing I thought was particularly funny was that when he realized how many of us didn’t have sign names (me, Pablo, Jen) he chastised Curry and told him to name us already. Curry then informed him that was a job for a Deaf person, and so that S- should go ahead and name us. S- then laughed so hard he almost had tears running down his face. Then he told us he’d take us to see the new headmaster, and we went off through the back of campus.

Throughout the conversation with S-, I was amazed to find out how much I knew. Ronai was voicing for him to Jen, but when she got stuck, I sometimes found I was able to feed her words or phrases as I caught them, and so Jen got a rough idea of what the conversation entailed. Of course, I missed much of what Ronai was catching, too, but I was just happy that my receptive skills were sharpening up to where I can be a 3rd party to a conversation and still understand it. Usually, I need to be talking one-on-one with someone, them right in front of me, to understand.

The headmaster wasn’t home, so we wandered over to the school’s central courtyard, and were attacked. About 100 kids just ran at us, asking our names, giving us theirs, and asking where we were from. Once a year, a group of volunteers from Signs of Hope International comes to their school for a few months, but it is a rare-enough occasion that the older children were excited (especially those who recognized Rachel and Leah) and the younger ones were absolutely astonished.

After more introductions than I will ever remember, we were told the headmaster had come back from church, and so we headed to the house. Curry had to tell all the kids to WAIT for us, and to STAY in the courtyard.

This whole time, for some reason, I’d been thinking the headmaster was a man, but when R- came out to meet us, she was a striking woman in jewel tones and gold. She signs, which is a wonderful thing as the last headmaster apparently did not, and she welcomed us warmly, if very formally. I forget how casual American culture is until I am in the presence of someone like this woman, and then I realize how much of a jeans-and-a-tshirt kind of place we’re from. After talking to us a bit, R- told us we could go back to the school and look around, get a feel for it and tour the buildings, and then go see the kids in the cafeteria. So, we headed back, past the chickens and homes of the teachers.

Since it was the Sunday before school was starting, none of the classrooms were open, but we were able to pop into the seamstress’ room (where E-, the woman who made Rachel’s dress, teaches vocational classes) and see the dorms.

The dorm mothers were very nice, and let us go in and look at where these children live 3 months out of every 4. We hit the boys’ dorms first. There were usually 11 bunk-beds with thin mattresses to a room, so 22 boys to a room, and a stack of boxes in one corner were each labeled with a boy’s name. Those 20 inch cubes held everything the children owned. The girls’ dorms were filled with the same amount of beds, but we are told that many times, the girls sleep 2 to a bunk, so that the room can house up to 44 girls. Seeing as the mattresses, such as they were, are about the width of those cots children in daycare use, I couldn’t even imagine how that was possible. My heart was just breaking for the children, who were thronging around us, even as they were so proud to show us their rooms and their beds. Given that this isn’t too different from how most people in the world live, I can remind myself that the living quarters are probably quite similar to the Presbyterian school down the street, but it was still a lot to take in.

The girls couldn't come into the boys' dorm building, and the boys couldn't come into the girls', so they took turns teasing each other and tossing stuff off the balcony at one another while we were dorm hopping. It was very cute, and the children were just so unbelievably playful.

We headed into the cafeteria to get out of the sun, and were just enveloped in children.

Jen had her beautiful, lion-esque hair braided by fifteen sets of adoring hands, just as Ronai did. Ellie and Leah found a table to sit at and chatted away, and Pablo got to explain his tattoo. Having seen it, the children thought it was an airplane, and so I told them that the boy in the tattoo was Pablo’s best friend who had died two years ago in the ocean, and then I tried to explain the shark. Neither the fingerspelled word shark or sign “shark” meant anything to them, so eventually, I described it as a huge fish with a mouth like a crocodile. They took this to mean that Tony had been eaten by the big fish, and Pablo and I shrugged and let it go. It was much closer than the airplane version of the story, and Tony would have loved knowing that somewhere in the world, 200 kids think he was eaten by a shark.

The kids found some of my tattoos, too, by pulling up my long pants to see my ankles, and dragging down the back neckline of my shirt to catch a glimpse of the tree. Like with Pablo, one I explained it to the satisfaction of the group nearest to me, I could see the ripple effect of it heading out into the mass of kids, as each one delighted in having information to pass on to the others. The nose-ring was also a source of mild fascination, but I explained I’d had it done once I’d finished college, and they seemed to find that acceptable.

As Pablo sat on a table, letting the kids pull on his curls and rub his arms, I wandered around away from the little ones until I found the high school boys. While any Deaf child with the funds or support can go to the Elementary or Secondary School in Mampong, only the top students can test into the high school, so these boys had the language down, and we could converse a bit, instead of every interaction consisting of the exchange of name signs, and my admission that I did not have one. These boys wanted to know who all the people in our group were (“Okay, so you know Rachel from Signing Time, right? Okay, that tall guy over there is A-A-R-O-N, A-twice-on-chin, her husband. Their daughter is in the glasses over there, L-E-A-H, L-twirled-by temple, etc) and why a bunch of white, hearing people knew how to sign. Then they wanted to know about each of our educations (2 year school or 4 year university? What did we study?) and which states we were from. I was embarrassed to find that they knew the vague placement of California (west and south), Oregon (above CA), Utah (in the middle) and Minnesota (north, center) better than most Americans, and certainly better than I can do with the African continent. They asked if Obama was really our president, and asked what he was like. I had to tell them I’d never met him in person, but that yes, he was the president, and that he was one of the most intelligent and educated men to hold the office in recent history, and much better than that last guy. They were thrilled, as Barack is apparently something of a symbol around here.

I get the feeling that married couples aren’t common among the volunteers, so when the kids found out Pablo and I were married, they wanted to know where and when we’d met, how long we’d been married, how many kids we had…everything. One preteen girl actually wanted a whole lot more information than that, but we managed to avoid the topic until it was time to go.

I broke up a few scuffles between the younger kids, and then noticed a little girl hiding behind Rachel and beckoning me over. When I approached, she got shy again, but mustered up the courage to point to Pablo and then make a P with her right hand, and poke her left palm with the right middle finger. I said I didn’t know that sign, and she smiled shyly, telling me she was offering him a name sign. Pablo had probably had 5 thrown at him already, but when he came over to talk to her, she was so sweet and so insistent that she’d found his name, that he took it as his own, and tanked her. R- (R on the wrist and then on the elbow) is just adorable.

Which is a problem. The kids are all so cute, and so starved for attention, conversation and love, that I want to “save” them all. One little boy, M-, from the first grade, dragged his best friend over, and told me that Pablo and I could be their parents in America, and that they would happily come with us. My heart just broke. Here are these kids, willing to give up everything they know and everyone they know, at 5, over a few minutes of conversation. I really wish I could take them home with me, all of them, but somehow I get the feeling that isn’t really going to be an option.

Just so you can see some of the beautiful children we met:

We left in the afternoon with promises to be back the next morning, and headed back to the hotel, stopping first for something called Fan Ice, which is like vanilla ice cream frozen in a bag. You tear the corner off of it and suck the ice cream out through the hole in the plastic. Odd, but very nice on such a hot day.

Back at the hotel, we talked about the plans for tomorrow, showered, and came down for dinner.

At dinner, we came to understand that Curry’s son is adopted from a Deaf school here in Ghana. He is Deaf-Blind, in part because of a surgery performed here in an attempt to correct a lazy eye. While Curry’s adoption was successful, we were cautioned and warned against thinking we could literally take any of these kids home, through a series of truly depressing anecdotes, one of which culminated in the death of a child.

It is hard to have dinner over stories like that. I guess our only option is to go to the school and love the kids while we're here.

Ghana Trip, Day 2

The plane was huge. I mean, HUGE. I’ve never been on a plane that served real meals before, but our Nigeria Air dinner was nice, some sort of meat and sauce, and a yellow rice with mushrooms. I skipped the fungus. Then, I chatted a bit with Ronai, wrote up some of my ASL homework (not that I’ll be able to send it until I land in PDX) and watched the lights of New York disappear over the horizon. In the dark, thousands of feet above the ocean, I snuggled down under the blanket around 1am New York time, knowing we’d be woken for breakfast 90 minutes shy of landing.

Instead, I awoke to the start of a migraine, which I beat back with some Advil, and turned on the map-in-motion to see where we were. I could swear it said we were over Gambia, in Africa. Then I noticed the light trying to force its way in under the window shade. “No,” I thought, it can’t be.” Not a minute later, the cabin lights came on and the flight crew started waking people for breakfast. I snapped open the window shade and looked down onto a mountain range in AFRICA!

It was so red, and looked so dry! I ate the rice and corn filled hot-pocket-type breakfast, while staring out the window. We passed over the shore, and I realized I was looking down on the actual Ivory Coast, but as we descended we hit a wall of smog/smoke and humidity that blurred our vision. When it cleared we were only a few feet off the ground, over schools, tennis courts and homes, and I turned and kissed Pablo as we touched down in Accra. The plane erupted into applause for the pilot on a successful trans-Atlantic flight.

We exited the plane at about noon (local time) into a wall of heat, and I helped a nice grandmotherly lady in traditional Ghanaian dress get her oversized carry-on down the stairs, being careful to use my right hand. It was a long flight of stairs to the ground, and I wouldn’t have wanted my grandma carrying that heavy bag. I offered, hesitantly, and she told me “Thank you” in a very quiet voice. When we exited the stairs, she flashed me my first smile in Ghana, and she was off.

Once outside, I was overcome by how bright everything was. The very earth was an orangey-red, and the trees and ferns were huge, green and spreading. Some of the ferns were the size of Pablo’s first car, and we hadn’t even arrived at the airport yet!

Once inside, there was a multitude of unfamiliar ads, but the largest and most prominent restaurant promotion was an announcement that KFC had finally hit Ghana. Our group joked about how out of place the Colonel would look meandering through central Accra, and then we headed to baggage claim for that adventure.

After escaping the airport, we loaded into our tro-tro (think 9-passenger van with jump-seats and no seatbelts).

We loaded in, but discovered that our luggage didn’t ACTUALLY fit in the back, so our resourceful driving team pushed it in as far as it would go, closed the door as much as possible, and then tied the door to the bumper.

Then we were off. The girls and Rachel in the back; Ronai, Jen and I in the middle; Pablo, Curry and Aaron sat in the front passenger row. In front of them, in the drivers’…cabin?...was the D-, E- and another Ghanaian who I don’t believe I met again. We were off.

It took about an hour and 20 minutes to get from the Accra airport to Tutu, where our hotel was. We saw so much on the drive: Outdoor markets, people selling wares in the road, girls peddling bread from baskets on their heads and men on crutches begging in the streets. It reminded me a little of my trips as a youngster coming in from Tijuana, with all the people thronging around the cars.

Culture shock set in on the drive, probably more so because we were so tired. We saw first-grade aged children butchering chickens, the oddest knickknack merchants (both in stores made from shipping containers and in groupings just along the road). We all just gawked for miles.

Heading up the hill, we saw government palace retreats, Bob Marley’s Studio 1 (recently damaged in a fire), and some amazingly large buildings next to small homes with corrugated tin roofs.

We stopped twice for bags of purified water (first for individual bags and then for a pallet of 36 bags to take on to our hotel). The 36 bags cost about $3. We dutifully bit the corners off of the bags and drank the water (making a huge mess as we did so) and then looked around for a trash can. We were told we were supposed to just wing the plastic bags out of the vehicle, but neither Pablo or I could, and I started seriously considering how to pack all our trash back home.

The tro-tro was loud, so conversations were either shouted or signed. I had a chat in ASL with Ellie and Leah about a Dr. Who episode (“Blink”…the one with the weeping angels), and about fun ways to freak people out who have seen that show. It all seemed perfectly normal to be signing along in a bouncing vehicle, racing down the road to who-knew where.

We arrived at the hotel (a massively gated complex that used to be a single family home). Our room is probably the size of Pabs’ and my first apartment. The toilet and shower for each room are in separate rooms and Pablo and I get to share an amazing balcony with Jen and Ronai. There are also a few sitting rooms, the veranda (which looks like something out of Rikki Tikki Tavi) and a very pretty yard, filled with exotic purple plants and large trees.

We unpacked and resorted, and fueled up on Probars. Then we headed out to walk to mile into central Mampong. There are no sidewalks, so we just traipsed down the shoulder of the highway, tow by tow, passing the Elementary and Junior Secondary School for the Deaf, as well as the Deaf High School.

As we were walking, Curry gave us tips on how to spot the Deaf students by their uniforms, which meant that as we walked along to the strange looks of the general population, and the excited calling of the children (“Obruni!”, usually, which means “white person”), we were able to greet the Deaf high schoolers as we went by. Our first conversation was very “Hi, nice to meet you,” but the kids would tend to rush Curry and sign at him wildly. We were trying to keep up a good pace on the walk, but one little boy of about 10 waved me down. Our signed conversation is translated as follows:

“Hello. How are you?”
“Fine, fine. You?”
“The same. I’m happy and excited to be here.”
“Good. We’ll see you at the school tomorrow.”

Then he scampered off. The chat was brief, but was made awe-inspiring by two thngs. First, here I was, ten thousand miles from home, having a streetside chat with a child in my second language. Secondly, I can barely understand many of the hearing locals when they speak English, due to the thick accent (although their English is much better than my Twi), but I’m able to understand this little boy so much better.

Our quest to head downtown complete, we turned back and headed home the way we’d come. As we headed back, I noticed an older teenage boy staring at our group from across the road. When he realized I’d noticed him, he signed at me, asking if the man leading our little parade was Curry (using his name sign). I responded in the affirmative, so he gestured that I should get Curry’s attention for him. I called out to Curry, a good 30 feet ahead of me, that a boy wanted his attention, and Curry turned, engaged in a brief chat with the boy that lit up the youngster’s face, and then we were off again. As we walked, I pondered how simple and ordinary that exchange seemed for our fearless leader.

The quick exchange itself could have been an illustration in one of my school books on Deaf gaze and attention getting, acted out by Cinnie and company, and yet it was totally fluid here, without and stilted performance. I’ve attended Deaf events, and volunteered at WSD, but I’ve never seen the pieces of my ASL and Deaf Culture classes come together like I did during our little walk.

We arrived home to a fantastic dinner of chicken, rice and pineapple, and got to watch a few friendly geckos hanging out on the walls as they chased the huge insects.

Then it was off to bed, where I popped in my earplugs and slept like the dead, or the Deaf, for 5 hours…before waking up to a headache induced by mothballs and insect repellant. Ah well, when else would I write?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ghana Trip, Day 1

So, yesterday afternoon we finished our packing and were trying to get to bed early so we could wake up at 0-dark-thirty to get to the airport. As we went outside to feed and water the chickens, we noticed that our Buff Orpington, Edna (the sweet chicken), was dead on the ladder exiting the coop.

Horrified, I called Urban Farm Store, and I was told that unless I could see injuries (nope) or a stuck egg (nope) that she’d probably just had a heart attack. Those can happen with that specific breed. Um. Okay. I rechecked the chicken corpse (seriously, this city girl was never planning on doing any such nonsense) and found nothing, so we moved her out of the coop into a box, cleaned the coop out, and I went to pick up my daughter while Pablo dug a grave.

Rory had lost a tooth at school, and she was devastated by the chicken’s untimely demise…until she found out she’d be getting a new chicken, and would get to have her very own little pet cemetery. At the chicken store, she helpfully explained the situation to the guy helping us, and we boxed up two black Autralorp pullets to take home (because apparently, you can’t introduce just one new chicken to a coop). We drove home just as the sun was setting, and had a somber little chicken funeral.

Once home, the kids helped unpack the box of chickens, and snuggled their new egg-laying pets

Then we tossed the young’uns in bed, and I prepped my homework for the trip, packing which books I could and massive amounts of pen and paper. Steve took our room, Pablo grabbed a recliner, and I hopped into bed with Jules (who sang/talked and signed in his sleep about Joanna, trains, Katie and the boys). Not a restful night’s sleep, but very sweet.

We were up and out the door at 4 this morning, with Melissa and Julian, and arrived at the airport by 5. We went to check in, only to be told by a blustering, self-important greeter that we couldn’t board the plane until he was holding the card that had purchased our tickets in his hands. Problem? That card was in Utah, where the two non-profits coordinating our trip were stationed, because it was Rachel’s card. Resolving the issue (frantically calling Rachel and Aaron, having her talk to Delta, explaining that she’d asked about all of this about 4 hours ago when she’d been at the SLC airport) took about an hour, and we were JUST able to kiss Jules, get through security and get a cup of coffee before we were boarded to JFK.

After an uneventful but turbulent flight, we rounded on New York. I tried to pick out any landmarks I’d recognize from movies, and was able to see a few bridges, including Brooklyn, and the Chrysler building.

JFK has no internet in much of the airport, so while some homework got done, none got turned in. Pablo and I happily ate and slept however, waiting for the Colemans, Curry and Jen to arrive. Pablo and I took the opportunity to voice-off for the time spent waiting, except when ordering food, and were pleased that we could keep a pretty decent conversation going. We were, however, avoided like we had something catching by those who saw us signing. When the Utah folks arrived, I had the wonderful chance to actually talk with Leah about her trip last time, my class and the interp program. The last time we met it was a rather hurried dinner, and she was buried in a book, so it was nice to get to talk to her.

The group then wandered around JFK until Ronai and Ellie arrived. Our party complete, we checked in for our flight on Nigeria Air, to Accra, Ghana. Rachel, Aaron, Leah, Jen and Curry were bumped to “Business Class,” and so boarded early, while Ronai, Ellie, Pabs and I remained in coach.

While waiting to board, I was chatted up by a very friendly Ghanaian from Accra, who asked where we were going, and why. He was less friendly once he discovered that I was married, but nonetheless cautioned me against going to Mampong.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s so very cold there,” he said about a place that is 85 in the winter, as we sit in 30 at JFK.

“Well, that’s where the Deaf school is, so that’s where we’re headed,” I chirped, trying to move on to the next topic of conversation.

“Why would you go there?”

“Well, I’m studying to be an ASL interpreter…”

“A sign language interpreter?” he interrupted. “Why? We don’t have any of those in Ghana.”

“Well,” I said, more coolly than I had before, “here in the US there are Deaf doctors, lawyers and teachers who need interpreters to help their patients, clients and students understand them. In the same way, there are Deaf students, parents and employees who need interpreters to communicate with the hearing world.”

“Deaf doctors?!? There are no Deaf doctors! How could that be?”

“Years of college, medical school, residency, and a super-human ability to deal with the ignorant?”

He laughed, dismissed me as a crazy person, and went back to his phone call while I signed angrily at Pablo about all the things that were wrong in that conversation.

Eventually, we all boarded the plane, and found ourselves sitting right behind Ellie and Ronai.

Sitting with the two of them was nice because it meant that we were able to chat even over the safety announcements, and while other people snuggled down to sleep. Despite the bad TV, the loud and full plane, and the desire to be respectful of our neighboring passengers, we could just gab away. It really is a phenomenal language.

Now, just a few hours before we touch down in Ghana.