I wish I had another few weeks to spend in Ghana. The people were so welcoming and friendly. Everyone wanted to shake our hands and greet us, and they all wanted to put their baby in my backpack for me to take back to America. When they asked us why we came to Takoradi, Ghana (which is not a tourist destination at all), it was embarrassing to try to explain, “oh, we’re on a trip around the world” when they’ve never left their little village. Most times I just said that we are 600 university students coming to Ghana to get to know the people. They seemed to like that answer.
The Ghanaan port was not like any of the others we’ve been to so far. When I stepped off the ship, I was instantly enveloped in a sticky, humid heat, smells that I did not even know existed assaulted my nose, and instantly I was swatting giant mosquitoes away. I was praying that they wouldn’t bite me and infect with Malaria, or worse—Dengue Fever. I actually hopped on a Semester at Sea bus immediately for my city orientation tour of Takoradi and Sekondi, the twin cities of Ghana. To be honest, I didn’t notice the difference between the two. The homes that lined the roads were made of scrap pieces of wood nailed together. Most didn’t have a door or even a fourth wall, but somewhere on each house there was a huge sign that said something like “God is Good” or “Praise God” or “God Gives Blessings To Us.” People were stark naked, bathing on the side of the road. Women carried huge baskets on their heads, full of all sorts of miscellaneous goods, including giant snails. In the tour bus, I felt conspicuous. Since they never have tourists to Takoradi and very few people even have little cars, a huge tour bus was very unusual. Children ran after us yelling, “white men, white men,” and everyone stopped what they were doing and waved at us. I was offended that the bus drove us through all of the poverty in Takoradi and Sekondi and then took us straight to a gourmet restaurant (the only restaurant in the two cities) with air conditioning. I could not eat I was so upset over what we had just seen.
I had been planning on going to the Egyam Orphanage independently, maybe taking a couple friends with me for the three days we were in Ghana. Two days after we left Morocco and numerous emails between myself and the orphanage director, I realized that the children at the orphanage didn’t have shoes, and since they didn’t have shoes, they weren’t allowed to go to school. So, I got up in front of the Global Studies classrooms (the one class that everyone is required to take), and asked for donations of shoes. I was not allowed to ask for money, but between people leaving it under my door and handing it to me on the sly at meal times, there were 52 pairs of shoes donated (the exact number of children living in the orphanage) and about $800. Then, my email inbox was flooded with students, life long learners, and professors asking if they could go with me. I put together a list of about 20-30 people each day. At first I was worried that there were too many people, but there were so many orphans that we needed that many people in order for every child to feel like they got some individualized attention.
The second day I was in Ghana, I got up early with my roommate Mackenzie and a couple other girls, and we went to the market to exchange the $800 USD into Ghanaan cedis. We then went through the market buying shoes of all sizes. We ended up taking over 100 pairs of shoes, new socks and underwear for everyone, toothbrushes and toothpaste for everyone, and lots of school supplies (crayons, colored pencils, books, paper, pencils, pens, etc.) We were also able to pay for all the children’s school fees, buy paint for the building (we couldn’t actually paint it for them because it rained everyday), and give them a donation of over 500 cedis (about $300 USD).
While we were in the market, children followed us. By the time we finished 2 ½ hours later, we had an entourage of more than 20 kids. I made a really bad decision and bought a bag of lollipops from a street vendor. Instantly we were swarmed—but not just by children. Old men and women pushed their way through to us, trying to grab the entire bag of suckers. It was frightening, and the police had to break up the riot that we created. I felt horrible. All I wanted to do was give the kids a sucker.
Getting to Egyam Orphanage the first day took forever. It is only 20 kilometers from the ship, yet it took us more than 3 hours to get there. We started walking from the ship to the port gate at 12:45. It was pouring rain, and a shuttle bus offered us a ride, which we accepted. This driver even offered to take us all the way to the orphanage, which he assured me, he knew where is was. He didn’t. We stopped for directions more than 10 times, and then he took us to the wrong orphanage. He ran inside, and came back out and said, “Don’t worry. They said they’ll take you.” I called the orphanage director who explained to the driver where the orphanage was. He said he was unable to take us that far…even after we paid him 60 cedis between ourselves (about $40—a small fortune in Takoradi). So, we piled into taxis, but not before our bus driver ran into another car as he was driving on the wrong side of the road. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The taxis charged us 20 cedis per every four people each way. Everyone was complaining to me about the price, but really, they paid less than $7 USD to go to an orphanage for the day and play with kids. Is it really that big of a deal?
We had to drive for about 10 kilometers on a dirt road to get to the orphanage. It was pouring rain, and the road was full of pot holes. Our taxis got stuck numerous times in the red African mud…sometimes, the water that we drove through was so deep it would touch our windows. As we drove along this dirt road, I saw poverty like I’ve never seen it before. I don’t even think that the US media would put this up for fear of offending Americans’ delicate minds. Children ran around practically naked. No one had shoes. Most of the homes were just a piece of tarp strung between two trees. Everyone came to us asking not for money, but just for food. All I had was a granola bar, but the taxi driver wouldn’t let us give it to them because we would cause a riot.
The stressful trip to the orphanage was totally worth it though. The children were so excited to see us. Many had never seen a white person before, and so they just wanted to touch our skin (trying to rub the paint off) and play with our hair. They were all obsessed with our cameras, and they loved being able to see their pictures. We unloaded all 105 pairs of shoes, toothbrushes, and toothpaste, and then we just played with the kids until the taxi drivers came back for us around 7 pm. We were able to serve the children their dinner—a scoop of rice with some gravy on top. Pitiful.
One ten-year old girl, Mercy, asked me to come to the girls’ bedroom to speak with her sisters. But when we got there, there actually weren’t any other girls in there. Mercy then told me that she was the one who actually wanted to talk with me. She asked me to teach her how to be smart so that one day she could be a pilot. Then, she offered me her earrings as a thank you gift for coming to visit them. When I said that I couldn’t take those from her, she started crying and asked me what she did wrong. So I took the earrings. Luckily, I had a pair in my purse that I could swap her for. She was so excited about her new pair of earrings. After that, she was my shadow—always following me around.
The children who lived there were so precious. One little boy, Nathaniel, was only 3. He always wanted me to be holding him, and he would cry every time I put him down. The first day, he peed all over me. Cecillia was 7 and was the biggest goofball. She was always dancing and trying to make everyone laugh; she had just lost her first tooth. Florence was 5. For the first two days that I was at the orphanage, she never once spoke. She just sat on my lap and smiled. On the last day, she started talking. It was the first time she had spoke since coming to the orphanage, and she said to me, “I love you.” I cried, and so did everyone else because she had finally spoken. They had actually thought that Florence was mute.
There are so many children there, and every single one of them captured my heart and made me never want to leave.
The second day went a lot smoother. We only had 17 people with us, so Daniel, the orphanage director, was able to take us back to the ship in his van. It was a van meant for 8, but we made it work. We brought so many stickers, coloring books, crayons, colored pencils, books, and paper with us that day. Since it was raining, we spent the majority of the day coloring and drumming and dancing.
We actually had the opportunity to go to the village school, where more than 780 students attend, but they only have 10 full-time teachers and 3 part-time teachers. The children were so excited to see us. We each went into a different classroom and “taught” a lesson. Basically, we were just asked to talk about where we were from in the US and then the students asked us questions. Five children from the ship came with us, and it was neat to see them interacting with the students at the school. When we were leaving the school, all the students followed us as we walked back to the orphanage. We must have been a sight: 17 American students walking down an African dirt road, followed by 800 elementary school kids clamoring to hold our hands and have their picture taken with us. The kids who live at the orphanage were proudly telling their friends that we were their Americans.
The last day in Ghana was an emotional day. First it started out very stressful because people who had never emailed me about wanting to come with me showed up, so instead of the 22 that I was expecting, there were more than 40 students. Then, they were all arguing with the taxi drivers about the price of the trip. I almost flipped out on all of them—if they weren’t willing to pay $7 each for the day, then they shouldn’t have been there. Those taxi drivers had to drive their cars down that horrible road, getting stuck several times, so we definitely should have been paying them more. Besides, they have families to feed, and $7 definitely isn’t a big deal to most, if not all, of the students on the ship. When we finally arrived at the orphanage (all 10 taxis), students just started grabbing kids and taking pictures with them. I got really frustrated because I felt like they were just coming so that they could say that they did their service project for the ship, they’ll take their picture with an African orphan for their facebook profile picture, and then they’ll leave, probably without even getting the name of the child they grabbed to take a picture with in the first place. People were coming to me, complaining because they weren’t going to get lunch, since we were gone from 9AM-3PM. Seriously, they could stand to miss a few meals. The orphans didn’t get lunch either.
Most people left early (some even took taxis back without a full cab, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere Ghana without a taxi—we had to send one taxi to go find a couple more because of all the inconsiderate people who left without letting anyone know). After the majority of the people left, the rest of us actually played and had fun with the kids.
It was definitely an emotional goodbye. One little boy that I got close to, Samuel, wouldn’t let go of my leg as I was getting into the taxi. He was just crying and screaming, “Take me with you. You can be my mother. I promise I’ll obey!” It broke my heart. After that, all the tears I had been holding back came, and I was one big sobbing mess. I got out of the taxi, and all the children rushed to me and we had one very long group hug, which eventually and unfortunately had to end.
On the way back to the ship, some friends and I stopped by the market to say goodbye to some of the street vendors whom we met earlier in the week. Once we were back on the ship, I just slept. I think that I would have slept for a week if I could have. Ghana was emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting, but I can’t wait to get back there, especially to Egyam Orphanage and all the children.