Bright, who we affectionately nicknamed Mr. Sassypants, is a 3 ½ to 8 year old boy who lives at Eugemot Orphanage with his older sister Melody. I went to Ghana knowing better than to “pick favorites” amongst the kids, but Bright’s sassy attitude and goofiness made that nearly impossible. Bright constantly entertained our group with his antics and funny ways of talking. Some of his favorite activities included: napping, making traditional Ghanaian dishes out of mud for us to share with “our people”, swinging, “cutting” Meghan’s hair with his teeth while riding on her shoulders, beating on things with his plastic spoon, and generally getting into trouble (he also loved being tossed up into the air and caught by Nava, but apparently would have liked it more if she never caught him on the way down). For all of the entertainment Bright provided, he gave us equal opportunities to learn about Ghana and how some children grow up there.
When you first see Bright, you would assume that he is between three and four years old. His height, baby belly, and large head for his body all match this age range. After listening to him talk, you’d probably be impressed by his vocabulary, considering his apparent age, which included the appropriate use of the phrase “Jesus Christ” and other sassy sayings. However, if you ask Bright how old he is, he’ll say give you an answer anywhere between seven and nine. This actually became a joke within our group (and still is). Other children and staff at the orphanage also told us that Bright was between six and eight years old. We were well aware that many Ghanaian children, especially those in rural areas and in orphanages, suffered some lasting effects of malnourishment. Malnourishment during infant and toddler years can result in stunted physical and intellectual growth and immune problems. We thought it might be likely that Bright was older than he looked for these reasons, just like many of the kids at Eugemot are, but seven or eight years old seemed like too far of a stretch. Eventually, someone explained to us that when Bright and Melody came to the orphanage, they were so malnourished that Bright needed blood transfusions and almost didn’t live. This helped us make more sense out of the age issue, but it was still hard to be entirely sure.
(Some pictures to give you an idea of his size)
A quick solution to this dilemma, if we weren’t at an orphanage in rural Ghana, would have been to pull Bright and Melody’s file from the office and check their ages. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. From our perspective, it seemed that record keeping in Ghana was less than accurate. If his birthday were listed in his file, it would have been hard to tell how accurate it was. This, along with the fact that less emphasis is placed on the actual birthday and age of children, leads to confusion about ages for many of the children at the orphanage. Bright was not the only one who gave different answers for his age depending on when you asked him.
Not knowing the exact ages of children makes it difficult to determine how they’re developing compared to their age group. We ran into this problem when conducting a few Denver screenings on some of the youngest children at the orphanage. We made our best attempts at estimating their ages before we began the screenings, but the outcome of the entire test is altered if the age is not accurate. This, combined with possibly being some of the few white people the children had ever seen and the language/cultural barriers, made developmental testing at the orphanage very difficult. Although Bright’s screening probably wasn’t very accurate due to the confusion about his age, it was very helpful in pinpointing cultural differences that could be accounted for when creating a Ghanaian version of the screening. For example, when shown a picture of a cat, many of the children identified it as “bush cat”, and when shown a picture of a horse, most children identified it as a goat.
We also saw some issues with Bright in school. He was usually in a classroom for children who looked like they were in second or third grade, but sometimes could be found in the younger classroom, or just roaming around outside. This is where he liked to run around banging on chairs, desks, and people with his plastic spoon while the other children were working. The lack of structure in this particular classroom was evident when Bright was there. It wasn’t clear if the teacher knew which class he should actually be in, but either way, his needs weren’t being met. The class didn’t seem to have many supplies, the desks were too large for almost all of the children, and it wasn’t clear how involved the teacher was (this may have been off because of our visit). This situation was less than ideal for someone like Bright who needs extra supervision and structure.
Bright has already been through his fair share of challenges and still has many more ahead of him. I’m thankful for everything I was able to learn through him, but will remember his sassy and goofy personality more than anything.