Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Brigade: Day 2 - First Day in Community

I woke up to Anthony's breakfast bell the next morning with a sore throat, but I took some transfer factor spray and continued to enjoy my tea and oatmeal and meet my fellow brigaders.

It was breathtaking to be able to see the view from our lodge in the day light. The tables we ate at are all on a patio with a beach-front view, and views of local villages and the salt mine. There was also this smell that was just spicy and foreign that helped signify I was in a different world.

We spent a long time at the breakfast table this first morning. We got to know each other better, as well as get to know our program leads. Mersh taught us some basic Fanti phrases (none of which I remember) and taught us our Ghanaian names. In Ghana, your name is based on the day of the week you were born and your gender. Being a Saturday-born girl, my name is Amma. Gordon explained that Saturday and Thursday borns were the trouble makers. He introduced himself as a Saturday born because he was born between Sunday and Monday. When asked further what that meant, he explained his leg was born on Sunday, and the rest of him was born on Monday.... so he was a Saturday born because he wasn't either Sunday or Monday.

Gordon also explained that the fishing boats we saw along the coast didn't fish on Tuesday because he had crazy parties on Tuesday and didn't want anyone to be too tired to attend.

It didn't take too long for us to figure out that Gordon lied about everything. Other Gordon-isms included lying about how he couldn't dance at all, and only remembering Parker's name as "Player".

We finally left the lodge around noon to head to the community we would be working in for the rest of the week, Ekumfi Ebiram, for the opening ceremonies of the brigade.

It took about an hour to get to the community and it was the bus ride that made the whole idea of working in an impoverished African community become real and immediate. It also was my first glimpse at how welcoming the people were, as people young and old were excitedly waving at our bus of foreigners as we passed by.

We pulled up to a group of about 50 kids cheering on the side of the road. As soon as we stepped off the bus, at least 2 children each threw themselves at us, grabbing our hands, jumping into our arms and on our backs, and playing incessantly with our cameras (taking selfies mostly).

A drum line of elder men from the community also welcomed us by putting a rythmic soundtrack to our entrance to the opening ceremonies. It was approximately a half mile walk to the center we had the welcoming, and the excitement and openness of the community just built the entire walk.

We finally arrived at the community center, where we danced with the kids for a few minutes to some Ghanaian tunes spun by a DJ. We then took our seats and the opening ceremonies began. Mersh told the community what we would be doing during the next week. This was followed by a dance competition of the young children, a dance competition among a few of us brigaders (I got 2nd, NBD), and then a dance competition for our interpreters. After all the dancing, the elders and leaders of the community addressed us and told us that we were no longer from Texas or California, but that we were from Ekumfi Ebiram as of that moment and we were always welcome back. This incredible gesture made us feel so accepted and excited, yet nervous, for the work we were about to do. They were so excited for our help, and we just wanted to make a positive impact on their lives.

Other side observations about the opening ceremonies: 1) The kids' dance competition was by far the best thing to watch. They danced their hearts out, and people would come up and give them a cedi or so for their efforts. They would get SO excited with each donation. 2) Everyone there was dressed to impressed, without a doubt. The clothes were colorful and fabulous, and I want to dress like that for the rest of my life, yet even in Austin that might turn some heads.

After the opening ceremonies, we met with the loan applicants and Community Development Fund (CDF) leaders for the first time. We learned that former microfinance brigades promised loans in the past, and we were here to evaluate the loan applications. At this point, the effect we would have on these people's finances and lives and the importance of the quality of our work finally set in. On one hand, we wanted to grant loans because that's what these people wanted and felt they needed to grow. On the other, though, we wanted to ensure the loans were paid back so future brigades could continue to bring further economic benefit to the community.

It also became pretty clear, to me at least, that some of the loan applicants thought we would just be handing out money, or that we were just yet another hoop for them to jump through to get the money they were formally promised. Then again, that might have been my insecurity at being in a culture and position completely outside of my comfort zone.

Overall, it was a great day, but there were definitely some undertones reminding me of the seriousness of the work ahead.

We came back to the lodge, and that night at dinner, we were introduced to another Ghanaian tradition: ponding. It was the birthday of one girl on the brigade, Suchi, and to celebrate Gordon poured a huge bucket of water over her head during dinner. Best birthday tradition ever, I would argue.

Later that night, we had our reflection for the events of the day, and Katie (a fellow brigader) made a good point when I voiced my nerves for the week. She brought up that this decision for issuing a loan isn't an us versus them kind of decision, but is us working with the applicants to help them grow their business. Whether or not a loan would best help them grow their business was just a side issue. We were there to help them in any way we could, whether that included a loan or not.

Today (Dec 30) was also my parents 25th wedding anniversary, and I couldn't help but be extremely proud of them and everything they have accomplished together. Although we definitely have our differences, I am very grateful to have such a positive relationship to look up to in my life.

Other general reflections relating to the opening ceremonies is that at this point in my life I have traveled to a number of different places in the world, but I have never felt so incredibly accepted and welcomed by a community of strangers before. These people are so caring and brave that they let cycles of college kids come into their communities and homes and poke around their personal lives and analyze their private decisions all in the hope to provide a better life for themselves, their kids, and their community as a whole.

I personally have a lot of fear in getting help from people on such personal aspects of my life because I don't want to face their judgement or hear things I know are true deep down but that I have been trying to self justify. It hard enough to go to life-long friends for these kinds of things, but to allow a stranger to ask such personal questions and want their help was very inspiring to me.

Their openness, acceptance, and courage definitely struck me and caused me to ask a lot of questions about my own life. Also, their eagerness to have us share our knowledge with them and the gratitude some of the families expressed was truly humbling. They were so grateful that we are investing our time with them, and so grateful for everything they have in their lives despite having so little to themselves and the hardships they face.

Brigade: Day 1- Arrival in Africa

The journey was a long one: Three flight, three cities on three continents within 30 hours. We finally made it to Accra, the capital city of Ghana, around 7:30 at night there. It took forever to get through customs and to get our bags. So long, in fact, we didn't even leave the airport with everyone's bag (minus one brigader's bag the airline lost) at 10:30. The main bright spot of this incredibly long wait in the baggage claim of the Accra airport was that we had ample time to get to know each other.

It was after collecting our bags that we met the others on the brigade from UT, UCLA, and LSE. We also got to meet our program leads Mersh and Gordon. Then we had a two and a half hour drive in a cramped bus to the lodge we were staying at in Anomabo. At the beginning of the drive, we were introduced to arguably the most delicious treat on the face of the planet: fan ice. It's this type of ice cream in a pouch that tastes like marshmallows, cake, hopes and dreams, and happiness combined. As we were driving, we were stopped at multiple government security checks that were absolutely terrifying because the government officials had huge machine guns. Luckily, I had my fan ice to remind me of happier times. In this scenario, the government officials were the dementors on the train to Hogwarts, and fan ice was the chocolate that made everything ok.

We arrived about 2:00 in the morning and were guilted into eating dinner before we went to bed by the super nice chef Anthony who cooked a huge meal for us. I ate my rice with tomato sauce and passed out.

The room we were staying in had 7 bunk beds, filled with 5 girls from Indiana University. The bunk beds were actually incredibly terrifying because the whole bunk rocked with every slight movement, and there were no side railing on my top bunk. Our room did have air conditioning, though, so I was super grateful.