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Published: October 16th 2005
Village Kids and Kate
Typical night in the village surrounded by my little village friends
I've made it back to the city in one piece!! I left my village 2 days early in order to attend my sister Abina's wedding yesterday in Kumasi and meet with a professor on campus about my independent research, but I had a few other hidden motives for coming back too. I was in desperate need of some protein and a real bed! Despite thinking a few times that I might not make it, I survived living for 12 days in the Ashanti Village of Dunkuraa! It will be a miracle if I can possibly even come close to being able to put to words my experiences these past two weeks, but here's my attempt.
Ahhh the village life!! I have spent the past two days reflecting, refueling (eating 2 well balanced meals of "international cuisine") thinking alone, and sleeping in an air conditioned hotel room with running water, and a real bed. After these two days of recovery, I have come to the conclusion that I just accomplished the greatest challenge of my life. Similar to the rest of my time here in Ghana, my village experience was the most extreme case of highs and lows with every event
Kate and Baby Kwame
My closest friend in the village. Pretty hard to say good bye. Carried him on my back most of the time (those pictures to be added soon)
and emotion happening so fast that there was never any time to process or reflect before another situation or emotion took over. One second I would be feeling horribly homesick and want to escape from the village screaming "I'll never come back, I hate it here!" and then the next second I'd be in love with village life, want to embrace it fully, and never want to leave for the rest of my life. But, in the end, all the highs outweighed the lows by far and it was an overall amazingly positive experience.
I was thinking the best way to describe this experience would be to separate it into the lows and highs of village life, but when I think about it everything combined and fused together and an aspect of the village that was a low one day could have been my favorite part of the whole experience the next day. So I think, with time against me, I'll try to describe everything as it come to me and kind of in a stream of thought format. I apologize if it's hard to follow. Believe me, most of my thoughts and emotions these days have been hard
Kwame on my back
Best feeling ever! One of my top 5 favorite things I've done in Africa! I'm definitely carrying my babies like this.
enough for my self to understand and follow.
So, I have never lived a more laid back relaxed pace of life and after traveling for a months straight this was a much needed rest. The first 3 days my self and my village mates just sat around wondering, "What exactly are we supposed to be doing here?" We were not used to relaxing and not following a schedule. Compared to the polluted cities, Dunkuraa was in the middle of the tropical bush and had incredible night skies and clean air to breathe. There was no running water or electricity and after a while I opted to not brush my teeth or take a bucket shower more than once every two or three days due to lack of easily accessible water. I didn't have a real bed and I slept on a thin camping pad on a cement floor which led to some rather restless nights and pain in the morning. Even though an SIT staff member cooked 3 meals a day for us at our "village headquarters," there was a major lack of protein and absolutely no variety. 12 days of bread for breakfast and yams or plantains and canned tomato paste or palm nut stew for both lunch and dinner led to constant fatigue and uncomfortableness. I continue to lose unusual amounts of hair due to lack of protein, which is concerning, but my mom assures me that it will grow back! It's not like I had thin hair to begin with or anything (joke). I don't think I have ever been more fatigued for such an extended period of time in my life. Just walking from my house to the village "headquarters" made me feel like I could not go on with out a 4 hour sweaty nap. The lack of fans and no AC for hundreds of miles made it harder to be outside in the intense heat and sun for extended periods of time.
All of the living conditions aside, the cultural and economic differences are what were most challenging. The last time a white person visited my village was 5 years ago, so all the little kids under the age of 5 had never seen a white person before myself and my 3 village mates arrived. One of the girls on my village team came down with her second case of Malaria and had to leave after 2 days to go to the hospital in Kumasi. Shockingly enough, because her parents were still freaking out about her first malaria hospitalization, they irrationally withdrew her from the program with out her consent and sent U.S. embassy officials to bring her to Accra and put her on the first flight home to the States. She came back to the village to pack up all her things crying the entire time wishing she could stay. I felt so horrible for her and so mad at her unbelievable parents. This made me feel so lucky to have understanding and rational parents who support me whole heartedly as I fulfill my dream of an African adventure. (Thanks Leo and Kath!)
The indescribable, horrible poverty in my village was another aspect that was hard to bear, much less understand. I had a frequent feeling of helplessness from just walking around my village which gave me that lump in my throat that I had to choke back and just go along with what I was doing. It was an invaluable experience to live among people who survive with a minuscule fraction of what I take for granted at home. I was blown away by how resourceful these villagers were and how they lived off practically nothing still smiling most of the time. "Childhood" is a non-existent concept (especially for little girls) and from the day children learn how to walk they are on their own with more responsibility than any American child could ever imagine. There were little 5 year old girls carrying their infant siblings on their backs while carrying buckets of water from the pump or fire wood from the bush a mile from their home. My friend Rachael and I tried running every day from our village to the only natural lake in Ghana which was about 4 miles away. Some mornings we would get up at 4:45 to start our run and beat the sun and we would still be out on the dirt trails with children and adults carry heavy loads to and from the lake and starting their work day in sandals while we ran for exercise and pleasure in $100 sneakers carrying nothing but our selves. The women and girls of the village worked from before sun up to after sun down with out a moment of rest. They practically cooked all day long just to provide 3 meager meals for they huge families with the little food they harvested from their bush farms. As we ate what we thought were small low-nutrition meals in the SIT headquarters, about 40 little kids would watch us who had never seen that much food in one sitting before. Talk about feeling guilty. We of course shared with them what we could, but it wasn't much. When the women weren't cooking, they were pounding foo-foo, scrubbing clothes in buckets, cleaning babies, or hauling food, fire wood and tons of water on their heads.
There were many men in the village who just sat and talked with each other near the town center and most of the boys played and followed us around conjuring up mischief. We met the chief who was 100 years old, but he didn't know his birthday, had 31 children, 6 wives, and 4 teeth and one eye. Unreal looking guy! His skin was unusually shinny and taught in certain places and than “wrinklier” than anything I have ever seen in all other places. He wore yards and yards of fabric as a robe with one saggy nipple hanging out on once side. We met him at 9am and presented him with a bottle of Schnapps as a gift (we were told by the SIT staff that this was the only acceptable gift). His head elder poured two shots for the chief, poured one shot on the ground for the ancestors, and then passed the bottle around the circle of elders and us 4 Oburunis. I asked the Serwa (SIT staff) next to me if this was a mandatory activity, and she said "you would insult the chief if you didn't." Taking a shot of Schnapps at 9am in 100 degree weather from the same bottle as a chief with 4 teeth and all 20 of his elders (10 of which also had about 4 teeth) was something I don't think I'll ever forget. My throat and stomach filled with yams burned the whole rest of the morning.
Our "SIT headquarters," which was the nicest structure in the village, we shared with a family of about 4 women and 8 children. It was built with a courtyard in the middle where everything from cooking to cleaning to dancing took place. Every one slept in 3 small cement rooms on the outside of the courtyard. There was one enclosed room with couches and windows to the outside and the court yard that myself and the other two Americans spent most of our time. Frequently we felt like animals in a cage at a zoo because anywhere from 10-50 little village kids (mostly little boys) would hang in the windows and just blankly stare at us all day long out of pure curiosity and intrigue. It was something that was very difficult to handle and greatly challenged my patience and tolerance. We tried all different tactics on how to either engage them or get rid of them just so we could gain a piece of mind and some privacy, but nothing seemed to work. Towards the end of the two weeks we just got used to feeling eyes multiple sets of little eyes on us at all times and our comfort level went up. I couldn't help but feel horrible as they watched us read books, write in our journals, eat more food than they ever have, and sift through our research leisurely while they stood looking in from outside wondering what we were doing there. We spoke Twi to them but there is only so much we could talk about. I knew all their names and ages by the time we left! One of my attempts to engage them was to invite them in the room to color and draw. It seemed like a great idea, but when over 50 children crowded around me needing a pen and paper the plan became over whelming. From the kids that we could provide pens to, I did get some awesome drawings that I plan to decorate my fridge with when I move into my new apartment in Evanston. It didn't help the situation that their village school teachers were on strike and the kids never went to school the whole two weeks we were there. What better thing to do than watch the Oburunis!
Every night the two SIT staff members organized activities with the village children like drumming, dancing, traditional African games, and story telling which helped bridge the gap between us and them briefly, but for the whole day before and for 4 hours after the activity we had an unbelievable amount of "window watchers." I became very close to a few of the children, especially the ones who lived in the headquarters and I miss them so much already. Every time I would leave the headquarters I would have a band of around 10-20 little kiddies following me like the Pied Piper. "Adwoa Kate, where are you going?" I would tell them and they would just follow me there. (Confession: most of the time they would lead me there because I was constantly lost!) One night dancing with the kids turned into dancing with 6 young and old women in the courtyard of the headquarters. They sang at the top of their lungs this fast rhythmic song in Twi while each woman took turns going into the center of the circle, shaking their hips for a few minutes and kicking their legs out sporadically and then hurling themselves at part of the women in the circle. The women in the circle had to catch the woman in the middle, grasp her under her armpits and launch her to the other side of the circle. Oh man was it wild. Before we knew it, my self and my two friends in the village with me were being launched by these old ladies and getting airborne in the midst of singing and clapping and dancing like hooligans. It was for sure a sight to see. My face hurt from laughing so much and my armpits were sore from the launching process.
One of the mothers in the headquarters had a little baby who was 11 months old named Kwame. I spent a lot fo time taking care of and playing with him to give his hard working mama a break. He was an adorable baby who babbled in the beginning forms of Twi constantly and was into everything. He just started walking and was teething badly so he was cranky frequently and needed many distractions. He had nothing to chew on like babies have in the U.S. so I emptied a few of my toiletry bottles and gave them to him to sooth his painful gums. He was usually half naked or with out clothes at all and I carried him on my back with a wrap of colorful African print cloth. I fulfilled one of my African dreams!! He would just talk to him self and to me holding on to my arms since he could sense I didn't really have this cloth wrap thing down very well. African women carry their babies on their backs looking like its nothing and so simple, but it's actually really straining on your lower back and you need huge boobs, hips, and a big butt to hold the baby and the cloth up. Since I lack most of those key elements he was constantly slipping. I would have taken Kwame home to the U.S. in a heart beat. I took an outrageous number of pictures of him, so you all can see him soon!
The jungle like bush surrounding the village was absolutely beautiful! I don't think I saw the same plant twice. Its nearing the end of the rainy season, but almost every day there would be a tropical rain deluge for a few hours and then the sun would come right back out with steamy heat. My village was at the base of a large hill so it was very muddy from the rains. I had some incredible spills in the mud that thoroughly entertained my village friends. The water and mud stays the whole rainy season so it has turned green with algae in many places. From afar it looks like a nicely groomed golf course, but in reality it was stinky, slippery, green muck mixed with all sorts of animal poop. Walking in the dark at night was a great challenge. And finding water to wash your feet in an attempt to avoid hook and ring worm was also fun! No, I didn't get any worms, thank god!
I have a ten page research paper to write today which is due tomorrow before I take off for the capital. This is proof that while in the village I actually did accomplish something tangible. I conducted research on Traditional Birthing Attendants (TBA's) and the use of herbal medicine in the deliveries of Ashanti Village babies. I had an interpreter and I apprenticed with my village's TBA gathering herbs in the bush and making house check ups on pregnant mothers and new babies. I also interviewed many women in the village who used both a TBA and a western clinic to give birth to their 10 + babies. I chose this topic in hopes that I would be able to attend a live birth and assist my village's TBA, Aunti Afia Dakwaa, with a delivery, as she promised, but in my village of 500 people (about 300 of which were under the age of 15) no women went in to labor while I was there. A major bummer, but I still got to see a lot and learn a lot of their beliefs and wild herbal practices. A lot of times during my interviews I would have to bite my tongue when a woman would be telling me something that I knew could not be true. I kept on having to remind my self that I'm was there to learn their beliefs and practices and not to teach them or compare their practices to western medical practices. Who was I to say the western way was right anyway! According to one woman, one of the most important practices of a TBA is to plug up the woman's anus with rags and herbal enemas while in labor to make sure the baby didn't come out her anus. All I could think of to follow up was, "Has this ever happened?" She responded while looking at me like I was a total nimrod, "No, only evil babies come out the mother's anus!" OK - moving on!
Bottom line - I would not have passed up the opportunity of living in a village for anything in the world! Woah has my outlook on many things changed, and I have learned so much about my self and my limits and resilience. I have to get to this paper. Would love to tell you of my first Ghanaian funeral celebration and my homestay sister's wedding, but I may not have enough cedis to pay for this internet time! The wedding in short - no way even close to a Graber wedding! But it was still awesome. I was part of the bridal party and wore a form of the brides maid's dresses made out of the same fabric as the outfits of the whole family. Blue and Gold! You all must see the pictures! Something I for sure did not expect to do before I came here!
I'm off to the capital tomorrow with half my group to start another segment of the trip called the visual arts excursion. We're going to The Eastern Volta Region and Cape Coast which is right on the ocean with beautiful white sand beaches. I'm hoping to link up with an organization that provides art education and art therapy to orphans and street children to volunteer for during my last month of research here. All exciting stuff. After that it's two weeks in Accra (the capital again) to live with a family and take classes at the University of Ghana. After that I begin my 1 month independent research hopefully working for an NGO or a service organization. So excited to be on my own and cook my own food!
Send me mail! The only mail I have received was a card from my Aunt Ellie and a card from my Aunt/Cousin Connie! Thanks so much to both of you!! One girl in my village got 13 letters when the mail was delivered last week. I was insanely jealous and I'm convinced she sent letters to her self! Regardless, it would be great to hear from all of you!
Hope all remains well at home and abroad! Until the next time I can sit in an internet cafe for hours and empty my brain onto the keyboard...
- Adwoa Kate
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