We were lucky enough to have some free time during our 2 weeks, and many of us took advantage of some of that free time to look around and shop at the local markets. We went to 2 different markets as well as shopped at the New Horizon school, where items made by students are sold.
We’d heard stories ahead of time about how mobbed the markets can be – lots of people and vendors who follow you around, trying to sell their goods, even after you’ve politely declined. We lucked out at the first market we went to, which was out by Grace Life school and up a mountain that provided us with gorgeous views. We pulled into the parking lot and saw the market was practically deserted, except for the vendors. We hopped out and headed to the nearest seller. It wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as I’d expected, and made for a pleasant first Ghanaian shopping experience. Some of the sellers were working on their crafts, and we met some children who were sanding handcarved giraffes. Everything was beautiful and you could tell the crafters took pride in their work. This market also provided a quiet, low stress environment to practice my haggling skills. In Ghana, when you find something you want to buy, the seller states a price, and then you come back with what you want to pay. The back and forth continues until both buyer and seller agrees on a price. At first I was nervous about the process, but it was actually pretty fun.
A few days later we headed to the Accra market. Talk about overstimulation from the moment you step out of the tro-tro! A crowd met us, all wanting to talk to us and show us their wares. I had to be polite but firm in telling them no, and that we’d reach their shop as we walked around. The vendors at this market were noticeably more aggressive, often following us around from shop to shop, putting items in our hands and trying to get us to return to their goods. The haggling continued at the Accra market, although I was more tired on this day and at times didn’t negotiate as much as I would have otherwise. You definitely need energy to shop at the bustling markets!
One afternoon we also made a stop at the store located at the New Horizon school. Going in, I knew I wanted to buy something to support the school, but I was shocked when I saw what items were offered for sale. There were some beautiful woven baskets, intricate dolls, pretty jewelry, and gorgeous batik fabric. You could tell they were all carefully crafted and high quality items. I fell in love with all of the fabrics, but settled on a pretty red with white pattern that I can’t wait to turn into throw pillow covers. This store, and the fact that the students are taught the skills to make such products, was just one more reason why I loved New Horizon school.
Our second day at New Horizon was just as amazing as our first, if not more so. We wanted to check on the positioning changes we’d made the day before to see how they held up and check on some of the other kids we hadn’t been able to see. We started out by making new seat cushions for some students. The school has a woodworking shop, so we started there looking for pieces of wood we could use as the base for the cushions. Without something hard like wood to place the cushion on, it won’t provide even support for the user.
We were in luck! The shop had a large piece of wood that was a little more than an inch thick that worked perfectly. They also had a jigsaw we could use to cut it. After assuring the school staff multiple times that she knew how to use it, Carole cut the first piece of wood. Another student and myself also got the chance to cut out pieces with Carole supervising. We then handed the wood off to another group to find foam to fit the boards and duct tape everything together. If I learned nothing else on this trip, its that duct tape is an OT’s best friend and you can never have too much. The cushions came together perfectly and the kids were super excited to have them.
After we gave one boy his new cushion, we noticed his leg rests were too long. We tried to shorten them but even at the shortest setting his feet still dangled. So back to the wood shop we went to fashion footrests out of wooden blocks. We found a piece of wood that had the right thickness, cut 2 squares from it, and went back inside. In addition to black and gray duct tape, someone had brought some sparkly, brightly colored duct tape rolls as well, so we let the boy choose what color he wanted, and I (with his help) attached the squares to his chair. With the new cushion and foot rests, not only was he was sitting much straighter in his chair, which will allow him to perform better while at his desk, but he had some fun colorful flair to show off. So glad we could help out such a cool, sweet boy!
The second school we visited in Accra was New Horizon Special School. From the moment I stepped inside I was impressed. Pictures and posters lined the hallways. As we walked down the hall we even passed a computer lab! And inside the PT room where we spent the majority of our time our first day there, stood a stationary bike, treadmill, and weight machine. We then toured the school and visited each classroom. There were visual schedules hanging on the wall, artwork and colorful pictures around the room, and lots of toys and learning aides. This was not at all what I had expected to see at a school for individuals with disabilities in Ghana. We had talked so much before the trip about how disability was largely stigmatized in Ghana, so seeing this school was refreshing.
We split up into 2 groups to start working with the kids. My group went into a class to observe a boy as he ate lunch. His mother fed him with a spoon using hand over hand because he was unable to grasp the spoon handle. In response, we adapted his spoon to make the handle larger by duct taping pipe insulation foam around it so he could more easily hold it. His mom was so appreciative that she hugged us and repeatedly thanked us for what we did.
The rest of the afternoon we spent working with a student to improve her positioning in her wheelchair. She had severe kyphosis on one side of her body, was slumped to the left, and had difficulty holding up her head. We had brought large pieces of foam on the trip, which we then used as seat cushioning and supports. For this particular girl, we played around with the different sizes and shapes of the foam to see what combination would provide the best support. Laura measured the seat and cut a large piece of foam to use as a thick seat cushion. This both provided support and raised the student up in her chair a few inches because she was sitting too low in it. We also fashioned a small piece of foam into a pillow in an effort to support her head.
This was an exciting day because we all felt like we were doing real OT work! And the changes we made to positioning and feeding were relatively quick and easy to make, but they provided such a difference in how these students could function.
Last Sunday morning we attended church at Shepherd Baptist Church, where Rev Eric Annan preaches. Afterward, we drove out to where Mrs Annan leads a weekly feeding program for street children living in the area. Children who attend this program are told bible stories and learn bible verses. They also sing songs. After the bible lessons, the children are fed lunch. Sunday’s lunch consisted of mainly rice with some sauce along with noodles. We were there to fit the kids with donated shoes, but we also hung out and played with them.
Similar to the kids we met at Grace Life International School, the kids were thrilled to have us there. They ran to hold our hands and fell over themselves to have their picture taken when we took out our cameras. I tended to be drawn often to the quieter, younger kids, because they could so easily be overshadowed by their more outgoing peers and I didn’t want anyone to feel left out. Their smiles melted my heart.
It was tougher than I expected to see the conditions in which the kids on Sunday live. Many of them showed up with broken flip flops and dirty or torn clothes. There was trash everywhere, a big puddle of sludge that I assume is sewer waste that one little boy was urinating into, and a powerful smell that hit you as soon as you pulled into the courtyard.
As cliche as it might sound, throughout this trip I’ve been struck by how little these kids have, and how happy and appreciative they are to have us there. This experience has made me feel very lucky to have everything that I do (food, shelter, resources) and I hope I will remember that when I’m home and complaining about something trivial like Comcast increasing my wireless Internet bill.
On Friday we had a free day, and we visited Kakum National Park and the slave castle at Cape Coast. I’m a history nerd so our visit to the castle was what I was most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. First, the view of the ocean from the castle was gorgeous. And the sea breeze felt amazing after sweating in the park and tro-tro all day. But then the tour of the castle began and right away we went down into the dungeon where hundreds of male slaves were kept before being shipped overseas. One room, which held 2 hundred men, had just 3 tiny windows high on the wall, which provided the only light. Although a trough had been dug for sewer, solid waste had not been accounted for in the design plans, and the troughs quickly became clogged. So much human waste built up and covered the floor inches thick that our guide told us that as we walked along the dungeon floor, we were still walking on human waste.
We also walked through “the door of no return,” which was the door where the slaves exited the castle to board the ship that would carry them overseas and which symbolized their final separation from family, friends, and country. It was hard to believe that door was so ominous during the slave trade because when we walked through, the other side was a beach filled with rows of colorful fishing boats and men hard at work. Turning back to look at the exterior of the door, we saw a new sign hanging over it, “the door of return,” which was placed there in the late 1990s when the human remains of 2 slaves were exhumed. The remains traveled the slave route in reverse and were taken back into the castle through the same doors they had walked out through so long ago.
The most poignant part of the tour for me was when our guide took us into the “room of no return.” This was the room where disobedient slaves were placed to die. It was a smallish-medium sized room (I’m terrible at guessing dimensions) but the 15 or so of us on the tour fit comfortably with some room to move around. The room had no windows and no ventilation and it grew to be uncomfortably stuffy in the 5 minutes or so we were in there, even with the door open. I felt very uneasy going into the space…there was a negative energy as soon as I stepped inside and I felt claustrophobic. Then we were told the room usually held about 70 slaves who were given no food or water, and the guards would just close the door and wait for them all to die. It took less than 24 hours for the slaves to suffocate to death. The guide pointed out the markings in the floor and said they were made by the chains of the slaves as they struggled. Hearing all of this made my stomach turn. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like in there at full capacity with the door closed. As it was, I was more than ready to step out of the room and into the fresh air when he directed us back outside.
The castle also has a small museum that tells about the history of the castle and the slave trade. I would definitely recommend a trip to the castle to anyone visiting Accra. It’s a bit of a drive but so worth it!
I can’t believe we’ve been in Ghana for almost a week already. The time has flown by but it also feels like forever ago that I left Richmond for Dulles Airport. I’m not sure if the weather has gotten progressively cooler or I’ve gotten used to the heat, but it definitely feels more comfortable temperature-wise than it did when we first got here.
When we arrived in Accra we split into 2 groups; one group traveled north to the Volta region while the other half (including me) remained in Accra. My group spent our first 3 days working at the Grace Life International School, which has students ranging in age from 2 years to the 7th grade. We toured the school and met the founders, teachers, and all the students. The children, especially the younger ones, were SO excited to have us there. They all wanted to play with us, touch us, and hold our hands. It definitely made us feel welcomed. We had been told ahead of time that the kids would be fascinated by our pale skin and they really were. I spent the first afternoon in the 5yr olds’ classroom and I felt bad because my presence was more of a distraction than a help while the class worked on copying sentences from the board. They continually giggled, stared, and tried to touch my arm. But they were also super friendly and interested in talking to me, or at least tried to with the language barrier, when I asked them questions about themselves. After school we played games like Duck, Duck, Goose and taught them popular American songs like “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and “The Hokey Pokey.” And ohmygosh did they ever love having their picture taken and then looking at the picture on our phones/camera! They swarmed around any camera they saw so they could get their picture taken.
We must have made a good impression on the kids that day because they greeted us the next morning as our tro-tro pulled into the school’s courtyard by chanting “Oburoni!” which is Twi for “someone from overseas” and is generally used to refer to white people. We played some games with them in the morning and spent a few hours administering developmental screenings on 25 preschoolers using the Denver II. I found this to be really cool because I felt like I was doing real OT work! We finished the other 30 screenings on Thursday, our last day at the school with the kids.
These first few days were exhausting, overwhelming at times, and I’ve never felt so sweaty, but the people we’ve met- adults and kids alike- made this an unforgettable start to this trip.
I can’t believe that in 48 hours we’ll be on our way to Africa!! I’ve made my packing list and checked it twice (and three, four, and five more times…), bought the essentials and am basically ready to go! I have a nice long book to read on the plane and plenty of snacks to get me through the next two weeks. I’m super excited that the trip is finally here, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little anxious too. I’m not a fan of flying, and I’m even less so when it’s over an ocean. And while I have a general idea of what will happen over the next two weeks, I’m not sure how any of it will actually play out. It will most definitely be an adventure!
The most common question I get when I tell people I’m going to Ghana with my school program is an obvious one: “What will you do there?” And while I can give the generic answer of “providing OT services and education,” it’s a difficult question to answer in detail. We have general ideas for things to do with the kids – games, general adaptations we can make to tools, how to safely make transfers, etc. – but I’ve found it tricky to get too specific with the planning without really knowing what we’re walking into. Basic pieces of information such as knowing what toys and games they have access to, or how many people we can expect to participate in the games we organize (and the age range of the participants) are things we cannot know in advance. And while this isn’t necessarily a problem under normal circumstances, I feel like the stakes are raised a bit when you’re going to an unfamiliar country without all the conveniences of home. This has been challenging for me because I like to have everything neatly laid out and organized ahead of time, especially if I’m in a new environment. So already I’ve been challenged to let go of my control-freak side and force myself to be more flexible than usual, which I know will be a necessary skill to have in my career.
As the trip approaches, I’ve started looking around online for Ghanaian news and current events, so I have some idea of what is going on in the country. Ghana Web and Ghana News Agency are just two sites you can access to keep up with local news. I’ve paid the most attention to health-related headlines, but it has been interesting to read about the Ghanaian economy and current events as well. One article in particular, however, caught my eye today because we talk so much about mental health in class. The article reported that 20% of individuals living in Sunyani (a city in a southern region on Ghana) have a mental illness. The article includes depression, chronic headaches, drug addiction, and epilepsy as forms of mental illnesses, and states that marital problems were found to be a significant cause of illness. Although the article is short, it is interesting to compare Ghanaian views of mental health with those of the U.S. Leading up to this trip, my classmates have talked at length about the stigma that individuals with disabilities face in Ghana, and how they are often hidden from society or end up on the streets. I won’t go into detail about that stigma now, as this entry is becoming long and my other classmates have touched on it already, but I do hope to address it in future entries, especially after we spend some time in the country and can witness attitudes firsthand.
In two weeks I will join 12 of my classmates and 3 professors on a 2 week trip to Ghana where we will provide OT services to the children in some of the local schools and orphanages. I have to be honest – it still doesn’t quite feel real. Maybe it’s because I’ve been preoccupied with finishing the spring semester. Maybe it’s because I always thought that stepping foot in Africa was a pipe dream. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. But regardless, as I sit down to write this, my excitement (and a bit of stress over how logistically unprepared I still am) is returning in full.
Over the course of the semester, our group has been meeting periodically to discuss readings about the Ghanaian culture and some of the common disabilities and conditions we can expect to encounter while we’re there. I’m thankful for these sessions because I have to be honest – I knew embarrassingly little about Ghana when I first signed up for this trip. Did you know it’s considered offensive to cross your legs in public there? Or that you’re expected to only use your right hand in public? And make sure you know on what day of the week you were born because someone is sure to ask!
Once we arrive, I’ll be working at two main locations in Accra, the capital of Ghana. We’ll be at a school called New Horizon, which has both children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities, and Grace International School. I’ll work with a couple of other classmates to come up with ways to modify toys and tools so that all the students can participate in activities as fully as possible. We’ll also organize some fun after school activities for the kids at Grace International. It’s going to be actual OT work!! I’m also hoping to help the OTD student on the trip with her qualitative research on development, which I’m super excited about.
I’m so grateful that we’ll have professors and each other there to bounce ideas off of and work together to come up with appropriate interventions. I feel much more confident in my knowledge of OT than I did a year ago, but I know I still have a ton to learn and this trip will definitely provide some challenges. Even so, I can’t wait to get going. It’s a once in a lifetime experience that will be unforgettable.